Codes of journalism ethics

by Stephen J.A. Ward

By the mid-1800s, the main principles and standards for journalism began to be codified into formal statements for newsrooms and professional associations, especially in North America.

At first, the “codes” were hardly more than a set of instructions by a newspaper publisher to staff to follow certain rules. The rules were a combination of ethical principle and practical advice. By the late 1800s, journalism associations in North America had systematic, public-service codes of ethics for journalists as professionals.

Today, codes exist around the world for many types of entities: professional and industry associations (national and regional), news organizations and press councils.

Code writing was a sign of the growing size, impact and professionalism of journalism. Codes were written for many reasons: to meet public criticism of the press, to avoid legal restrictions, to protect standards against business values, to make journalism more professional, and to articulate what journalism stood for.

Codes in North America are voluntary, and often written in positive, inspirational language. Many journalists, fearful of restrictions to press freedom, oppose making these codes a law enforced by licensed bodies of professional journalists. In Europe and elsewhere, it is more likely that codes have been passed into law, enforced by high-level media tribunals.

History of codes

1860s-1880s Primitive rules by U.S. and Canadian editors for specific newspapers

1870s-1900s Codes for press associations in various states in the U.S.

1920s-1930s Codes for national and regional press associations in North America

1940s-1950s Codes for broadcast media and film industry in North America

1970s-1980s Codes expand to Europe (and elsewhere)

1970s- Efforts to construct international codes of ethics for media

For a major Canadian code, see the Canadian Association of Journalists’ statement of principles.
For a major American code, see the Society of Professional Journalists.

In defence of codes
Journalism codes have many critics. Codes are criticized for being too formal and general — no principle can anticipate the complexities of concrete situations. Only case-by-case judgments are possible. Codes are said to be the creations of academics and are irrelevant to the difficult, deadline decisions of the newsroom. Codes are criticized as “legally dangerous” — documents that can be cited in lawsuits against journalists. Codes are dismissed as an inflexible, negative set of “don’ts” that attempt to force all journalists to follow the same rules. Finally, codes don’t ensure good journalism, since many newsrooms that have codes ignore them.

So what can be said in defence of codes?

1. Codes are helpful in ethical reasoning:
• They remind us of the issues, the questions to ask, the relevant standards.
• Codes encourage consistency in ethical thinking.

2. Codes increase public and professional accountability
• They articulates what journalists and newsrooms stand for.
• They allow the public to hold journalists accountable.

Principles as crucial component
Even if principles cannot anticipate all situations, principles can still play a useful role in ethical thinking. No ethical philosopher has suggested that a list of principles constitutes “ethics,” or that principles alone are sufficient for making good decisions. Principles are a cornerstone of ethical conduct, even if good conduct also requires practical wisdom and virtuous character.

The fact that principles are not “enough” only means that journalists need to develop their practical reasoning skills of adjusting principles to circumstances and circumstances to principles. The other option is to rely on inconsistent “gut feelings” or “case-by-case” judgments, where non-ethical imperatives and bias can overwhelm ethics. “Gut feelings” presume background values that need to be made explicit.

In addition, a “case-by-case” approach can be used by unethical media to avoid ethical restrictions. How can the public hold journalists accountable if journalists don’t state what general ethical rules they follow? Principles are invaluable guides amid confusing circumstances.

Codes as part of newsroom decisions
It is true that a code is neither a necessary nor a sufficient condition for ethical journalism. Codes may be ignored, or out-dated. In addition to a code, ethical decision-making requires the application of the code in daily editorial meetings, specific guidelines for recurring problems, methods to check on whether values are being adhered to, and a continuing dialogue with the public on how the newsroom is adhering to these values. If codes are not incorporated into the decision-making process, they will exist as irrelevant, abstract entities. But that is not the fault of codes. It is the fault of the journalists who ignore codes, or it is the fault of an incomplete decision-making process in the newsroom.