Top Ten Ethics Codes for Journalists

Posted by Matthew Powers.

(1) Society of Professional Journalists, Part 1. Existing codes of ethics for journalists present essentially contested concepts as templates for professional moderation. “Minimize harm” is a primary injunction found in the most famous Code, written by the Society of Professional Journalists. Agreed, but how? Essentially contested concepts involve general agreement on the merit of a concept (e.g. “fairness”) but disagreement and uncertainty on how best to attain it. Journalists use the concept in their existing codes of ethics to present themselves as neutral mediators between actors. (Notion of essentially contest concepts, via Jay Rosen).

(2) Society of Professional Journalists, Part 2. A great deal of the work of existing codes is the creation of distance between a professional class of journalists who produce the “oxygen of democracy” and the public that breathes it in. The SPJ code invokes “the public” eight times, making it the entity with the most mentions, after journalists. Yet never once is “the public” defined. Usually, it is envisioned as a subject with certain rights (e.g. to information); occasionally, it has the right to respond to media coverage (e.g. “grievances against the news media”). But the public is understood primarily as a sedentary subject, endowed with a limited capacity to act only after it has information distributed to it by professionals.

(3) Both visions — journalists as neutral mediators, publics as sedentary subjects — curtail the capacity for journalists to flourish as journalists and publics to meaningfully interact with journalists. To have journalism ethics in a digital age, perhaps we need to look not only at the codes offered by 20th organizations but at the practices of 21st journalists.

(4) Matt Waite, Build Something or STFU. In this angry “memo to journo-bloggers,” the developer of the Pulitizer-Prize winning Politifact sets forth the central value for journalists today: creating value. In Waite’s post, the rubric shifts from a view of journalists as mediators (objective, fair, etc.) to journalists as actors with an obligation to care about creating something useful (and not simply reporting the facts and leaving things as they are).

(5) Jeff Jarvis, New Rule: Cover what you do best. Link to the rest. Jarvis nudges our thinking further in the direction of value creation. If journalists don’t think of themselves as mediators but as actors, then they have to figure out where what the do fits in what what everyone else does. Suddenly the ecology of the news systems matters greatly. How do you figure out what creates value? You find out what everyone else does and locate the productive role you can contribute therein. Hence the injunction: Cover what you do best. Link to the rest.

(6) Dan Hallin, Spheres of Debate. So you’ve mapped the existing ecology for its subject matter. Now do the same for ideology. Hallin’s simple 3-part model (explained here) provides an excellent chart for asking questions about how news gets framed. What is accepted as given? What is permitted to be controversial? What sort of things are simply excluded? The overarching question for journalists: What sort of value can be created by pushing against the accepted ways of framing a story?

(7) Rodney Benson, Good Business vs. Good Journalism. Don’t delude yourself into think that producing journalistic value will inevitably also produce commercial value. Sometimes this is true; sometimes it is not. If you’re going to acknowledge that the existing structure for funding the profession is not working, isn’t reasonable to at least explore alternative methods for ensuring the profession’s existence?

(8) Alexis de Tocqueville, Of the relation between public associations and the newspapers. In his big book on the status of democracy in the United States, Tocqueville provides one of the most pithy and helpful statements for journalists: newspapers make associations and associations make newspapers. Maybe the association you create as a journalist aren’t working so well anymore? Isn’t it partly your task, then, to repair them?

(9) Jay Rosen, What are Journalists for? This deceptively simple question turns out to be difficult to answer precisely because it does not have one single correct answer. Its value resides in the necessity to pose it over and over again.

(10) Charter of the Professional Duties of French Journalists. The last line of the charter reads: “Do not confuse the role of a journalist with that of a policeman.” You’re not, in other words, mediating between the established order and the public; you are creating and interacting with both at the same time.


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