The case against codes of ethics

Back to: A guide, not a cop: the CAJ's new ethics "code" (and why it's not called that)

Back to: A guide, not a cop: the CAJ's new ethics "code" (and why it's not called that)

Ethics codes for journalists began proliferating in the first half of the 20th century (Ward, 2006, p. 214-260) in an attempt to “rationalize and idealize” editors’ common practices. (Wilkins & Brennen, 2004, p. 298) In turn, the appearance of these codes has been described as a milestone in the “professionalization” of journalism (Merrill, 1986, p. 56), although an alternative view suggests that journalism started becoming a profession long before. (Banning, 1999) Either way, the decades since have seen the publication of ethical guidelines for journalists in many places, and these documents adopted a range of approaches, from high-level to dizzyingly detailed.

In the latter category, the New York Times's 2003-vintage 52-page tome entitled “Ethical Journalism, A Handbook of Values and Practices for the News and Editorial Departments” met some glazed eyes. “Three years in the making, this set of guidelines governing what reporters, columnists, and editors may or may not do, accept, join, advocate, invest in, or appear at is so thorough that even the index, with its six pages of entries such as ‘code of ethics, purpose of,’ ‘news sources, romantic involvement with,’ ‘meals, accepting, guidelines for,’ and ‘information, false,’ is enough to make a man consider a career in public relations,” winked one wit in The New Yorker. “Of a half-dozen Times staff members contacted, none had read the thing yet. They were busy putting out the paper.” (Paumgarten, 2003)

At the other extreme is the admirably concise, comprehensible and easy-to-read “SPJ Code of Ethics” produced in 1996 by the [U.S.] Society of Professional Journalists, which has won wide and sustained use internationally. Not that it’s universally accepted, for how could it be? Universal agreement by journalists on values is neither required nor, in my opinion, even vaguely desirable in a free society — let alone in a planet full of societies with varying degrees of freedom. (Childs, 1998; Laitila, 1995)

Despite this proliferation of codes, many still dispute their usefulness. One reason is that they might impose excessive limitations on journalists’ primary duty to seek and report truth. As one U.S. journalism professor put it after the SPJ code came out in 1996, "I don't think that journalists should be accountable to anything but the truth.” (Noack, 1999) Another is that codes tend to oversimplify tough decisions. An ethical dilemma simply can’t be resolved by a code, since a dilemma is, by definition, a conflict between two or more values. Like all rule-based thinking, codes are no good at balancing acts.

For some, the issue is, in part, the extent to which codes enhance or retard people’s overall readiness to address moral questions. The answer, if based in part on developmental psychological perspectives, is not encouraging. Codes will not substantially help to inculcate ethical values in individual journalists, Utah scholars Jay Black and Ralph D. Barney concluded in 1985 – or at least, not after the "neophyte" phase. "Codes also help assure non-journalists that the industry really is concerned about ethics. However, codes probably should be relegated to a framed wall hanging for any journalists who have advanced beyond their internships." (Black & Barney, 1985, p. 27)

"As a practical matter,” as these authors indisputably (if brutally) put it, “any idiot (literate or illiterate, learned or ignorant, socialized or rebellious) may practice journalism without intervention or regulation by a set of standards." (p. 28) But codes – especially those imposed on practitioners by management rather than created by journalists themselves — may be more geared to ‘moralizing’ (telling people what to do) than to true ethical reflection (thinking critically about moral choices). (p. 30) Drawing on Kohlberg's six developmental phases, in which healthily growing people are seen to base their behavior successively on punishment, rewards, “pre-social” motives (e.g. being seen as "a good team player"), rules, social contract or utility, and finally “universal principles,” the authors suggest that reliance on codes is more likely to be found at the earlier four stages than at the two later, higher levels. (p. 32-25)

A more practical concern is that codes – if seen as comprehensively normative – are doomed to be out-of-date as soon as they are published, although opinions will vary about how much core principles actually do change with time and technology. (Buttry, 2011) One point of view even has it that “rather than the Code having to be modified to fit the new technology-enabled practices, maybe people using the new technology should modify their practices to conform to the Code.” (Gratz, 2011, p. 21)

Most people would probably agree that today’s journalism presents some fresh ethical challenges – concerning retweeting, online corrections, social-media activity and more –  but codes can go too far in attempting to cover every kind of situation and answer every kind of moral question. It is, as SPJ past-president Irwin Gratz argued, “a strength of the Code to speak in generalities, since the specifics of most cases are different, and ultimately individual reporters and editors, in whatever medium they do their journalism, will be held responsible for their decisions.” (Gratz, 2011, p. 22)

— Ivor Shapiro


Back to: A guide, not a cop: the CAJ's new ethics "code" (and why it's not called that)

Banning, S. A. (1999). The professionalization of journalism: A nineteenth-century beginning. Journalism History, 24(4), 157-157-163.

Black, J., & Barney, R. D. (1985-86). The case against mass media codes of ethics. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 1(1), 27-36.

Buttry, S. (2011). 21st century journalism requires 21st-century code. Quill, 99(2), 16-19.

Childs, K. (1998). Debate over world news ethics code. Editor & Publisher , 131(43), 11-5/6p.

Gratz, I. (2011). The current code is inclusive and flexible. The Quill, 99(2), 21-22.

Laitila, T. (1995). Journalistic codes of ethics in Europe. European Journal of Communication, 10(4), 527-544.

Merrill, John C. (1986). Professionalization: danger to press freedom and pluralism. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 1 (2), 56-60.

Miller, D. (2006). The digital reach of a newspaper's code of ethics. Nieman Reports, 60(4), 82-82-83.

Noack, D. (1999). Prof criticizes SPJ ethics code. Editor & Publisher, 132(4), 13,45.

Paumgarten, Nick (2003). The Code. The New Yorker, 78(44) (Jan 27), p. 28-29.

Snow-Capparelli, S. (2011).  CAJ panel proposes ethics guidelines for digital age. Retrieved Sep 9, 2011, from

Ward, Stephen J.A. (2006). The invention of journalism ethics: the path to objectivity and beyond. (McGill-Queen's University Press)

Wilkins, L., & Brennen, B. (2004). Conflicted interests, contested terrain: Journalism ethics codes then and now. Journalism Studies, 5(3), 297-309.

Back to: A guide, not a cop: the CAJ's new ethics "code" (and why it's not called that)