Since the rise of digital journalism, being a journalist with strong ethics has never been more important. This is because of the abundance of fake news and misinformation that is constantly being spread online.

During the height of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, consumers were in need of reliable and trustworthy news sources. This demand, however, resulted in the spread of misinformation and hysteria in the digital space. 

This, coupled with the growling polarity in politics, lead to the credibility and integrity of the media being brought into question. 

Feeling a bit anxious after reading this? Don’t worry! Like in all good things, there is hope; the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) came to save the day!

The members of the SPJ put a code of journalistic ethics together in an attempt to guarantee “the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough.”

So, what are the four ethical principles? media update’s Taylor Goodman unpacks it all here: 

Let’s dig in: 

1. Ethical journalists should seek truth and report it

I’m sure you’ve heard the saying ‘honesty is the best policy’, and this stands particularly true in journalism. 

The SPJ explains that “ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.” 

A consistent theme throughout this principle is that journalists can practice ethical journalism by ensuring that the information they are reporting is accurate and truthful

They can do this by using original sources when available and verifying information as they go. Furthermore, journalists should never plagiarise but always credit their sources.

The SPJ highlights that journalists should clearly identify their sources — ensuring that they are reliable and have no hidden motives. 

Moreover, journalists should take a source’s motives into account before promising anonymity. Sources should only remain anonymous if they face danger, retribution or harm as a result of coming forward with information. 

Under the principle ‘seek truth and report it’, journalists should also
  • remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy
  • be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable — giving a voice to the voiceless
  • support the open and civil exchange of views (even views they find repugnant)
  • recognise a special obligation to serve as watchdogs over public affairs and government. Seek to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open and that public records are open to all
  • boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience — seek sources from marginalised groups as these are voices we seldom hear, and
  • avoid stereotyping — journalists should examine the ways that their values and experiences may shape their reporting
As the spread of fake news continues to be rife online, journalists need to ensure what they’re reporting is 100% accurate to avoid damaging their reputation and that of anyone involved.

2. Ethical journalism minimises harm 

This pillar of ethical journalism highlights the importance of respect. The SPJ explains that “ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.”

Exercising compassion is one of the key themes under this principle. The SPJ emphasises how journalists should strike a balance between the public’s need for information, while remaining aware of any possible discomfort or harm this information may cause them. 

This compassion should be extended to the groups that may be affected by your reporting, such as minors or victims of sexual abuse. Additionally, awareness and sensitivity towards different cultures when covering a story is key.

Sensitivity in this regard is important because you never know how a story may affect the person reading it; you want to avoid triggering your audience. 

Another theme in this pillar is consent. Journalists need to be aware that civilians may not be as inclined to share personal information like public figures would.

Journalists should exercise caution regarding the details they share with the public, as content that is published is permanent and will accumulate a significant reach with time. 

Under the principle ‘minimise harm’, journalists should also:
  • recognise that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast 
  • avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others don’t, and
  • balance a suspect’s right to a fair trial with the public’s right to know. Consider the implications of identifying criminal suspects before they face legal charges. When in doubt, journalists should always check legal implications of what they report on.

3. Ethical journalists act independently

This pillar is centred on journalists avoiding special treatments or gifts given in an effort to sway reporting. This helps to avoid biased reporting. 

The SPJ explains that it is important that journalists act independently because “the highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.”

To remain ethical, journalists should decline gifts, favours and any special treatment that they may be offered as this will “compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility.” 

In the same breath, they should also avoid giving information in exchange for money or favours. 

Under the principle ‘act independently’, journalists should also:
  • avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived 
  • disclose unavoidable conflicts
  • deny favored treatment to advertisers, donors or any other special interests, and resist internal and external pressure to influence coverage
  • distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two — this is known as sponsored content, and
  • be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; do not pay for access to news. Identify content provided by outside sources, whether paid or not.
It is crucial that journalists uphold these standards to prove to the public that they are trustworthy and credible. 

4. Be accountable and transparent

Lastly, the fourth pillar of ethical journalism is all about being accountable for yourself and your work, as well as remaining transparent in your reporting. The SPJ elaborates on this, explaining that it is crucial to “take responsibility for one’s work and explain one’s decisions to the public.” 

This pillar could be considered the core of ethical journalism because if you are being accountable and transparent, you are unlikely to act unethically in other aspects of your career. Under the principle ‘be accountable and transparent’, journalists should:
  • respond quickly to questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness
  • acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently 
  • expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organisations, and
  • encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content.
Yes, everybody makes mistakes; but being honest about your faults and working to improve will make you a better journalist in the long run. 

Do you have any tips for remaining ethical as a journalist? Let us know in the comments below.

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Do you want to know more about the ethics of journalism? Then be sure to check out The importance of ethics in journalism.
*Image courtesy of Unsplash