Most of us don’t think much about ethics codes, even if we think about ethics. Of course, when we’re faced with a monstrous ethical dilemma, we pull out all the ethics codes, precedents and analysis tools we can find. And last quarter I took a course in media ethics, another place ethics codes are frequently cited. But an ethics code isn’t supposed to be just for major conflicts or for academic theorizing. It’s supposed to be a guide for everyday practice — and to help us to recognize conflicts in the first place.
It’s impossible to make a uniform code of ethics that will fit every outlet. That’s always been the case — the ethical standards of People are very different from The New York Times. And in the context of history, a code of ethics is a pretty newfangled thing.
But t’s pretty obvious that just like the rest of the industry, journalism ethics have changed with changing technology. Most of the principles in codes like the SPJ Code of Ethics still apply, but some revisions are useful or necessary. That’s another perhaps-obvious point, and I’m far, far, far from the first to suggest it (in fact, my ethics instructor pointed us to this code as an example of one for the new-world journo).
But the point is this: The final assignment for my ethics class included writing a personal code of ethics. It was both easier and harder than I had expected. What I came up with is pretty informal and woefully incomplete, but it could be a starting point for some interesting conversation here, so I’m going to share it. For the sake of fidelity, I haven’t revised it — this is exactly what I turned in.
CODE OF ETHICS
A publication — be it a newspaper, a television show or a blog — cannot keep credibility if its only consistency is that its facts are consistently wrong. Accuracy is not the same thing as truth, and although “truth” in some esoteric sense is something we would all like to achieve, “accuracy” is a more practical and measurable goal. Any fact that can be checked should be, and any errors should be promptly and transparently amended. If something cannot be checked, it should be noted as such (and where the fact originally came from should also be noted). Rumors and unverified information should be clearly labeled as such and should be published only in the pursuit of more information, not simply to gain attention or to “stir the pot.” E.g. If there is a statistic, is the number correct? Is the label that describes what the number refers to correct? Is the other information about the study correct? If there is information about the study or those who conducted or funded it that we don’t know, have we raised those questions in a manner that doesn’t mislead as to how much is known?
The days of the faceless reporter are over. The days of the perfectly “objective” reporter might well be over, too. But this does not mean that we abandon fairness; it only means that we disclose as much as possible. Journalists should not only declare their political and religious affiliations, they should write with personality and point of view — without themselves becoming the focus of the story. All potential conflicts of interest should be disclosed, but do not necessarily preclude a journalist from writing about a subject, particularly in an explicitly point-of-view piece. In additions, all changes and corrections to published content should be done in the public eye. While print leaves little choice, online media often allow changes to be made behind the scenes (though caches will often still catch them). The urge to hide behind this should be resisted.
In addition, readers can’t be expected to know everything about the process. This is especially true of online media, in which people will often visit a site once that they don’t visit on a regular basis — driven by a link from a social networking site or another blog. Where information is from and how it was obtained should be prominently noted, with a link if possible. E.g. Link to the original study. If it is not available ungated, provide information on obtaining it. Link to the sites of the researchers and the group or people who funded the study. Disclose any relationships the author has with those groups.
This section might be poorly named. “Completeness” is a completely unreachable goal, as everything is connected, and true completeness would take up quite a bit of space. Perhaps “Context” or, uh, “Big-Pictureness” would have been more appropriate. But the idea is that one should try to approach a subject from as many angles as possible and acknowledge angles that one touches on but doesn’t explore fully. It is acceptable to publish a story with “holes” — but those holes should be noted and there should be a request for anyone with more information to share it. In some cases, linking to related material to allow readers to get more background (or more in-depth) information than is provided on-site or on-paper can be very helpful. The goal is not to drown readers in information, but to provide as much context as they might want (within reason). E.g. If one is commenting on the study, note and link to what others have said. Link to (or in print, note) previous posts or articles about studies from the same people. Link to previous posts that are related to the subject matter. If there is a good primer article on the subject, point that out.
Yes, smart alecks, I got an A for that. But I’d like your honest opinions. (And any former classmates reading this should feel free to post their ethics codes and put a link in the comments — I’d love to see what ideas you all had.)