Journalism ethics: How a hierarchical code would apply to a real-life decision

Most common words in the SPJ ethics code (image via

Most common words in the SPJ ethics code (image via

Jimmy Olsen rushes into the newsroom waving a CD-ROM. “Got it,” he says, almost out of breath.

Lois Lane snatches the disk and slides it into the side of her MacBook, firing up its Audacity sound-editing program. She opens the first file on the CD. After a second or two of quiet static, a woman’s voice comes through. Her panicked torrent of words is occasionally interrupted by the calm, flat voice of a police dispatcher. Lois gives the thumbs-up to Jimmy and moves her cursor to the File menu to save the recording. She’s about to click when …

“Perry,” she says a minute later in the editor’s office, “we’ve got a problem.”

No, she says to his first outburst, it’s not technical. The 9-1-1 recording is clear, the file is uncorrupted, and the paper’s website hasn’t crashed (yet). “But the caller gives her phone number and street address. Lex Luthor’s friends are still out there, Perry. Should I beep out that info?”

“Great Caesar’s Ghost, we can’t do that!” Perry White’s coffee cup bounces as his fist hits the desk. “We’ve got a rule. We don’t alter official documents!”

“But, Perry, the caller –”

“We run it as is, or not at all! And we have to run it!”

The story above is based on a real incident — more than one, actually. It’s an ethical question that came up with 9-1-1 recordings, police reports, search warrants and more. We ran into it not only with phone numbers and addresses, but also Social Security numbers and credit card information. What’s also real is that the discussion most often stalled right where the one in the story does: We’ve got a rule, and that leaves us only two choices.

Maybe your newsroom doesn’t have this particular rule, or maybe its version already includes certain exceptions. But there’s probably something else like it — some rule that gets applied with zero tolerance, because It’s a Rule. Maybe it’s a rule that says reporters must always identify themselves as reporters, that undercover operations are not allowed. The Society of Professional Journalists’ code includes this: “Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story.” That version includes an exception, but in practice American newsrooms have been trending toward ignoring it, as the Chicago Sun-Times learned to its dismay (PDF via after the judging of the 1979 Pulitzers.

Without a multi-level approach to ethics starting with broad first principles, rules can become divorced from context. They harden. When two zero-tolerance rules conflict, which one wins ends up depending mostly on things like who’s making the call or which rule was made most recently.

In my first post about ethics, I proposed five levels, from basic values down to everyday decisions. Yesterday, I presented my version of those basic values: We owe our audience accuracy, to the best of our ability; we owe the people we cover equal footing in regards to privacy and protection from harm; we owe the people who contribute to our reporting protection from harm, to the best of our ability. In this post, I’ll look at how starting with basic values like those could improve real ethical choices.

Each basic principle is based on what I consider the most broadly accepted values that would fence journalism off from other fields. At the next two levels down, those values would be translated into increasingly specific rules. At each level, one organization’s code would diverge more from others, and be more susceptible to changes as society and technology change. But those levels are subservient to the top level, designed to be unchanging.

A rule like “we don’t alter official documents” could well be derived from the principle about owing our audience accuracy. At the same time, a rule about not publishing identifying information about 9-1-1 callers could be derived from our obligation to safeguard the privacy and safety of those we cover. (My original post on this explains that what I’m trying to say, awkwardly, is that our obligation to do that rises as the individual’s resources and ability to protect themselves falls. Hence, a 9-1-1 caller, dragged into a story without notice, deserves especially high protection.)

So we’d have the same two rules. How would having a hierarchical ethical code avoid Perry White’s dilemma?

When rules collided, you would look back to the original principles from which they were derived. We don’t alter documents because we owe our audience accuracy, the highest value of all. We don’t publish info about 9-1-1 callers because we owe them protection. Not as high a value, but just behind. So: Can we come up with a solution that keeps both of those core values intact? One way is to not post the 9-1-1 call at all. We’re protecting the caller as much as possible. And maybe that’s the right decision, if the 9-1-1 call doesn’t add anything to our reporting. Chicago Tribune columnist Eric Zorn wondered about the value of the recently released Sandy Hook Elementary calls and thinks we need limits on when such calls are made public.

But what if Perry thinks there are solid journalistic reasons for running the call? Well, we owe our audience accuracy, but “completeness” is not one of our core values. We can do what Lois suggested — bleeping out the identifying info. But to uphold our highest value, we have to tell the audience what we’ve done — preferably, with a recorded announcement at the start of the recording.

I suspect a lot of you are saying you could got to the same point without worrying about levels of ethics. Good for you. But it didn’t work that way, most of the time, for me. And as I said above, if your newsroom isn’t stymied by this particular hard-and-fast rule, there are probably some others. Rules that are quite specific, but exist only because “it’s a rule” (at least, no one in the decision-making process can explain why the rule exists).

A hierarchical ethics code won’t solve every dilemma. And any code is only as good as the people who use it. But our newsroom discussions will be more productive, and our decisions less random, if we have a solid foundation in place.

This is the third of a series of posts about journalism ethics. In the first, I explained the five levels needed, including at least annual newsroom seminars. In the second, I gave my first, rough draft of a top level. Still to come: How the final pillar of my triad would affect newsroom operations, and the distinction between morals, ethics and taste.


  1. By JB Kroll