Next year we’ll celebrate the 10th anniversary of the adoption of SPJ’s current Code of Ethics. And celebrate we should. The code represents both a comprehensive and concise manifesto of good journalistic practice. It lays down precepts that apply across the wide expanse of media, from print to broadcast to online. The code’s structure (thanks again Bob Steele) provides a short-hand guide to ethical decision-making.
A look at the ethical lapses that have bedeviled journalism during these past few years show the value of reading and following our code.
It’s in the code, right near the top: “Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error.” Something CBS News had to learn anew the hard way last year when producers for “60 Minutes/Wednesday” tried to nail down new details about President George W. Bush’s National Guard Service. The New York Times, too, second-guessed itself on its coverage leading up to the Iraq war, writing that it failed to scrutinize enough the Bush Administration claims about the presence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.
I count myself among those journalists worried that reporters are too quick to grant anonymity to sources. It’s in the code; a reminder to, “identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.” I defend the right of journalists such as Judith Miller and Matthew Cooper to keep their confidential sources confidential because, as the code says about promising anonymity, “Keep promises.” But I wonder how often we would grant that anonymity if we followed the code’s admonition to closely question the motives of a source requesting anonymity and to clarify “conditions attached to any promise made in exchange of information.”
Good journalists often are prying open closed doors, mining for hidden information, and dealing with the dishonest and the corrupt. As a result, our Code of Ethics deliberately avoids speaking in absolutes. It recognizes there are times when journalists go undercover, times when they must intrude on someone’s privacy to convey crucial information to a large number of people, times when showing graphic photos may be appropriate. So it is noteworthy that the code opts for rigidity in declaring “never plagiarize.” As we’ve seen in the past few years, the impact of stealing another’s words can deal a staggering blow to journalism organizations, not to mention the journalists who find their careers left in tatters.
What about privacy, a major concern of the public these days? It’s in the code: “Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials.”
That section of the code sends an important message to the public, in bold type: “Minimize harm.” While this section of the code lists the ways journalists can and should protect the subjects of their stories, implicit in the word “minimize” is the fact that we usually can’t eliminate the harm that can be done while covering news. One of the messages we must emphasize to our readers, listeners and viewers is that even responsible journalists sometimes must – and do – trample on individual rights in pursuit of the news that makes society, as a whole, safer and more honest. It is easy to focus on the little details; harder to get people to see the big picture.
The code urges us toward an even higher ethical plateau than many of us now operate on. Try having a conversation in your newsroom about this: “Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.” Debate what to do the next time police or prosecutors name someone, but insist they’re “not a suspect,” or that they’re a “person of interest.” Those are not hypothetical situations as biologist Steven Hatfill and nuclear scientist Wen Ho Lee have learned. Hatfill was the man named by authorities as a “person of interest” in the 2001 Anthrax attacks, and Lee settled charges he mishandled secret information.
As this ethics edition of Quill arrives, our chapters again will be engaging in programs for SPJ’s annual “Ethics Week.” If your chapter isn’t already doing so, it’s not too late to get together with journalism colleagues and go over our Code of Ethics. You may just find important reminders that will help you and your news organization avoid major and embarrassing gaffes and raise the quality of your journalism.