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?
I’ve always maintained a somewhat complicated relationship with journalism ethics codes.
These documents serve as guides for journalists, outlining both what they should and shouldn’t do, usually structured around fundamental principles.
Among the most renowned codes are those established at institutional levels. For instance, in the U.K., there’s a version of the National Union of Journalists Code of Conduct that’s been in place since 1936, featuring 12 guidelines covering a spectrum from abstract principles like defending media freedom to practical advice such as obtaining consent from an appropriate adult when dealing with children. In the U.S., journalists often refer to the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics (SPJ), which was initially formulated in 1926. The SPJ code revolves around four core principles: seeking and reporting the truth, minimizing harm, maintaining independence, and taking responsibility. Each principle is further elaborated with specific dos and don’ts.
Individual news organizations also develop their own codes, which often complement institutional codes and provide more specific guidelines tailored to the standards of a particular newsroom. For instance, The New York Times’ ethical journalism handbook, last updated in 2004, spans 44 pages and covers various topics such as news pursuit, reader duties, maintaining neutrality, and handling conflicts of interest. Similarly, The Guardian’s editorial code, revised in 2011, focuses on professional conduct and personal behavior. Alongside The Guardian’s code is the Press Complaints Commission Editors’ Code of Practice.
On the positive side of the spectrum, which represents the ‘love’ aspect of my relationship with ethics codes, they serve as practical guides for daily journalistic practices, outlining what journalists should and shouldn’t do on a typical day (if such a thing exists in journalism). Most days, journalists should find it reasonable to adhere to all aspects of a given code. Furthermore, ethics codes can also serve as effective public relations tools, conveying to the public the values that journalists uphold or aspire to uphold.