Journalism ethics: Duties to our audience, our subjects, and ourselves

Most common words in the SPJ ethics code (image via

Most common words in the SPJ ethics code (image via

When one of my reporters was leaving to become a manager at another paper, I gave him this advice: Make the readers your first priority, your staff second, and everything else a distant third. Putting aside the clues that may offer to why I’m no longer a working journalist, the key thing is that I had decided the best way to cope with conflicting demands is to establish a hierarchy. Thinking about journalism ethics, I take the same approach.

Also, I believe a journalism ethics code should focus on our obligations to real people, not on abstract notions of what’s right. If we talk about rules without basing it on their effect on real people, it’s too easy to produce a code that fails in practice.

The highest priority for a newsroom should be the audience. There are practical reasons for that. For one thing, most newsrooms exist within a for-profit structure. Even if the audience doesn’t pay for the news, its existence is crucial to the organization’s existence.On a more philosophical level, if a story exists but no one sees or hears it, it doesn’t make an impact. Our audience is what gives journalism meaning. And making the audience the top priority establishes boundaries — the kind of boundaries that I think American journalists, at least, would instinctively recognize: If a newsroom makes advertisers its top priority, or sponsors such as governments or corporations, it’s outside the sphere of journalism.

What do we owe the audience? The truth, pure and simple.

Do we owe them fairness? I want to say yes, but then I look around me and that doesn’t look like a universal concept. Do editors really expect their columnists to be fair? If so, I see a lot of violations. Does the audience expect us to be fair? From what I know of the British media, generally not. While Americans of many political stripes complain bitterly about how the mainstream media are unfair, a look at reading and viewing habits suggests what they really mean is they want the media to be fair to their side and unfair to the other. That suggests using fairness as one of our basic principles will only lead to battles over what the term means. Let’s skip it for now.

Do we owe them completeness? How could we ever fulfill that promise? Every story is necessarily a condensing and simplification of reality.

The first sentence of my basic principles for journalistic organizations:

We owe our audience accuracy, to the best of our ability.

I slipped that final clause in because a code should be pragmatic.

Next, we have duties to the people we cover. The Society of Professional Journalists includes this in its code: “Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.”

Lovely sentiment. Too lovely for me. And it lumps sources, subjects and colleagues together; I think that warps and confuses the priorities. I would strip “colleagues” out, and avoid distinguishing between sources and subjects. Anyone who is mentioned in our reporting — whether specifically named or otherwise identifiable — is owed the same protections. The important distinction is the extent to which that person can be expected to be aware of the consequences. Journalism organizations have a greater duty to caution the ordinary woman on the street who’s caught up in a news story than they do a career politician.

Similarly, newsrooms should be more willing to extend anonymity to an assembly line worker than to a CEO. The assembly line worker might be easily fired, and probably doesn’t have a safety cushion. Even if the CEO is fired, she probably has a lot of golden eggs to fall back on.

I struggle with a way to condense that into a simple statement. Here’s my working version:

We owe the people we cover equal footing in regards to privacy and protection from harm.

I’m using “equal footing” to get at the idea that our burden rises as the resources, power and media awareness of the individual falls. It might also cover the distinction between those who voluntarily take part in a story and those — say, a murder victim — who are subjects without being in any sense sources. But I admit the wording’s inelegant and I’d welcome alternative versions.

Most of the ethics codes I’m familiar with stop here. Even though the SPJ code mentions colleagues, none of the rules it lists underneath the statement address that.

As news becomes increasingly a conversation and the ways in which people may contribute to the output of news organizations grows, it’s more important than ever to acknowledge our duty of care to those who provide content. This is a concept I first encountered in 2008 when Emily Bell — then boss of the Guardian’s digital operations — addressed a debacle on the Guardian’s website. In brief, the Guardian hosted a travel blog by a young writer, not someone on its staff. The blog was the target of a tide of criticism on various fronts and with a range of civility lowering to purely personal insults. Some of that occurred on other sites, but a lot exploded in the comments underneath the blog post on the Guardian site. “As publisher,” Bell wrote, “we have a duty of care” to the blogger.

Now, “duty of care” is a legal term, and even as I type this I can hear lawyers across the country starting their meters. But if we are to distinguish that which we call journalism from that which is other, we have to talk about our responsibilities. In the age before the internet, newsrooms could pretend that there was no consequence to having a byline. We all knew reporters got nasty phone calls or letters, but since most of those only went to the reporters themselves, they didn’t count. And we kept a tight rein on what was permissible in our letters to the editor.

Today, all that’s changed. Whether through comment sections on our own sites or in other social media, anyone who contributes content — paid staff, unpaid bloggers, commenters themselves — can be the subject of harsh attacks. And they aren’t just words. As a comment moderator for years, I sometimes removed comments that I felt revealed too much about the user and might subject him or her to real-life harassment.

We must address this, and it should be a part of our most basic principles. To invite people to contribute without accepting a responsibility to them is the very essence of unethical behavior. So, my third pillar:

We owe the people who contribute to our reporting protection from harm, to the best of our ability.

This is only a first run at a set of principles. As I noted in my previous post, others — whole teams of other people — are tackling the problem of an ethics code for journalists. The team approach is far more likely to lead to the best solution than any one person’s contribution.

But the essential approach I took is one I’d argue for strongly:

Start with very broad principles. The details of how journalism works will continually change. By establishing the broadest possible core principles, we’ll be best equipped to maintain a steady course. The specifics can be filled in at the lower levels.

Present them as a hierarchy. The most difficult ethical issues never involve just one principle. Establishing priorities provides a more likely way to resolve most of those problems than suggesting every rule is equal.

Focus the principles on our duties to real people. The decisions we make as journalists affect real people. Our ethics code should acknowledge that.

Include our duty to our contributors, including ourselves. As we broaden the base of those who provide the content that we depend upon, we need to elevate the recognition of our duty of care to them.

If you want to read more about this issue, Steve Buttry recently covered the latest developments in the profession and linked to a lot of his previous posts about specific ethics problems.

This is one of a series of posts on journalism ethics. Already up: The five steps to an effective ethics code. Coming soon: Applying my basic principles to real newsroom issues; details of how the final pillar of my triad affects newsroom operations; and the distinction between ethics, morals and taste.

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