Politics / Wendy Wyatt

Journalism Ethics Codes for the Digital Age

What will make journalism better in the 21st century is having journalists who think and act in morally sophisticated ways. Are ethics codes the way of fostering this?

Journalism Ethics Codes for the Digital AgeI’ve always had a love, not-so-much-love relationship with journalism ethics codes.

As documents that profess to guide journalists’ practice, ethics codes offer both prescriptions and proscriptions for behaviour and are generally organised around guiding principles.

The most well-known codes are often found at the institutional level. In the U.K., a version of the National Union of Journalists Code of Conduct has governed members since 1936. The NUJ code features 12 guidelines that range from the somewhat abstract—defend the principle of media freedom—to the pragmatic—seek consent from an appropriate adult when interviewing or photographing a child. In the U.S., journalists look to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics (SPJ), the first version of which was drafted in 1926. The SPJ code is organised around four guiding principles: seek the truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable. Under each principle are specific dos and don’ts.

Individual news organisations have their own codes as well; these often complement the institutional codes and speak more specifically to the standards of a particular newsroom. The New York Times ethical journalism handbook, updated in 2004, is 44 pages long and includes sections on, among others, pursuing the news, upholding duties to readers, protecting the paper’s neutrality, and sorting out family ties (dealing with conflicts of interest). The Guardian’s editorial code, updated in 2011, covers two main areas: professional practice and personal behaviour. Attached to the Guardian’s own eight-page code is the Press Complaints Commission Editors’ Code of Practice.

On the positive side—the ‘love’ half of my relationship—ethics codes can serve as useful guides for daily operating procedure. In other words, they tell a journalist what to do and what not to do during an ordinary day (if there is such a thing in journalism). On most days, journalists should find it reasonable to comply with all of the pieces of a given code. Another benefit of ethics codes is that they can function as effective public relations tools—as pronouncements that communicate to the public what journalists are all about, or, at least, what they hope to be all about.

On the other hand—here I move to the ‘not-so-much-love’ half of the relationship—behaviours prescribed in ethics codes can look a lot different than behaviours the public witnesses. I’ve heard more than a few people look at a journalism ethics code and then say, ‘This doesn’t look like the journalism I see at all.’ What’s more, ethics codes aren’t that useful when a journalist faces a true ethical dilemma—when, for example, two guidelines in a code conflict. Next, for a whole host of reasons, ethics codes don’t tend to have a lot of teeth. And finally, we can’t ignore the ever-pressing question of who ‘counts’ as a journalist and, therefore, to whom ethics codes apply.

Considering these strengths and weaknesses, I think it’s important for journalists and journalism scholars alike to consider whether they should put time and energy toward further thinking about ethics codes. Can codes evolve to meet the needs of an ever-changing practice and serve a more useful purpose? Or, as some media ethicists have suggested, should we move away from professionally oriented standards like ethics codes and instead turn our attention to the ‘common morality’? Here the emphasis is on journalists as human beings who share the same ethical commitments as all other human beings.

I’m intrigued by the idea of placing ethical expectations in the purely human realm. After all, this would help address a number of issues, including, among others, the global nature of today’s media, ever-expanding notions of who counts as a journalist, difficulties enforcing codes, and the challenge of developing codes that anticipate and provide guidance for the many ethical challenges journalists face.

On the other hand, I think journalists—whether they carry a press pass from a recognisable news organisation or simply self-identify—do have particular role-related responsibilities that are worthy of consideration. In other words, the kind of work journalists do deserves special attention. The nature of the work and its potential impact on others means that it’s not enough to simply say, ‘Be an ethical human being.’ It makes sense to talk about journalism ethics, not just communication ethics, and perhaps ethics codes can be a way of doing that.

If we were to take a fresh look at ethics codes, I think we could—and should—include the fundamental guiding principles that are now a feature of most codes. What I would love to see, however, is a set of principles that spands boundaries and speaks to the increasingly global reach of today’s journalism. While I like the concrete nature of, for example, SPJ’s principles, it seems short sighted to spend time on an ethics code that can’t apply beyond a nation-state’s borders.

Some journalists and scholars have already attempted to define global principles. Stephen Ward, who writes widely on media ethics, has offered three principles for global journalism ethics: provide the public with credible news and analysis, be able to justify the consequences of your actions, and pledge primary allegiance to humanity, not part of humanity. Although I’m drawn to Ward’s principles for their universal appeal and for the way they can accommodate the complexities of practicing journalism, I’m not sure these principles are concrete enough.

Clearly, it would take some work to settle on principles that would be useful in a global, digital age. But in my mind, principles alone aren’t enough. In ethical dilemmas, principles can—and often do—conflict, and unless those principles are strictly ranked, which I don’t envision as a possibility, journalists are often guided to do two or more things that can’t possibly be done at the same time.

Consider this example: A reporter for Grantland, a sports and popular culture website owned by ESPN, spent eight months working on a profile of a woman who invented an innovative putter that some respected golfers said considerably improved their game. During his reporting, Caleb Hannan learned a number of things about his subject, Essay Anne Vanderbilt (aka Dr. V), including fabrications in her professional and academic background. She didn’t have the degrees she claimed to have. She wasn’t related to the Vanderbilt dynasty. She worked not as a physicist, but as a mechanic. And, as Hannan discovered when he couldn’t find any information about Dr. V prior to 2000, she was a transgender woman who had lived until that time under the male name she was given at birth. Tragically, in late-October 2013, Dr. V committed suicide. In January 2014, the 7,700-word story appeared in Grantland. Along with a description of how Dr. V misrepresented her credentials, Hannan also revealed toward the end of the piece that she was transgender and had committed suicide during the course of his reporting on her.

Did Hannan act unethically in the course of gathering information for his story and/or in outing Dr. V in his article? And, for the purposes of this discussion, could an ethics code have given Hannan direction on how to act?

The SPJ code directs journalists to both seek the truth and report it and to minimise harm. More specifically, journalists should ‘tell the story of the diversity and the magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so.’ Journalists are simultaneously told to ‘show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage.’ Here, two of SPJ’s principles conflict, and the code doesn’t give clear guidance about which should prevail.

This example isn’t unique. Most ethical dilemmas deal with a clash of equally compelling principles. That’s what makes them ethical dilemmas. Therefore, because principles alone can’t lead a journalist out of an ethical dilemma, I contend that ethics codes should also focus on process.

Together with providing principles, ethics codes need to foster ethical reflection and dialogue; they need to help journalists sort through dilemmas in which it’s simply not possible to honour all of the principles simultaneously.

Ethics codes should prompt journalists to explicitly deliberate about harms and goods they may create through different courses of action. Codes should encourage journalists to consider the virtues they hold most dear and how those virtues can be enacted, as well as the relationships journalists must work hardest to protect. Codes should urge journalists to think about how they can protect those who are most vulnerable. And codes should push journalists to consider what they can learn from those who have gone before them and faced similar circumstances.

In the case of Dr. V, an ethics code that focuses on process as well as principles could have helped Hannan—and those colleagues to whom he looks as confidantes—deliberate in a way that took into consideration all of the issues raised above.  Whether the end result would have been different is uncertain, but at the very least, Hannan would have gone through a process that could help lead to an ethically justifiable rationale for his actions—a rationale he could share with his many detractors. (According to reports about the case, Hannan and his colleagues did discuss the case and consider alternatives, but this wasn’t prompted by an ethics code per se.)

The understood and sometimes even explicit promise of ethics codes is that they will make ethics easy, or at least easier. But in my mind, codes should complicate ethical dilemmas by helping bring to light all of the issues, competing claims, and nuances that may not appear by looking only at principles.

Ethics codes should also, importantly, encourage humility. Anyone who is too sure about his or her actions in light of an ethical dilemma has likely not thought hard enough about it. Maintaining some uncertainty about decisions helps journalists ensure they’re treading carefully through ethical dilemmas.

This kind of approach to ethics codes—principles and processes—seems to me a better way of dealing with the journalism landscape of the 21st century. What will make journalism better is having journalists (people working anywhere, in any medium) who think and act in morally sophisticated ways. Ethics codes may be one way of fostering this sophistication. ■

The Ethics of JournalismWendy Wyatt is Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Communication and Journalism at the University of St Thomas, Minnesota, and is editor of our new book, The Ethics of Journalism, which is part of our Reuters Challenges series.
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