A guide, not a cop: the CAJ’s new ethics “code” (and why it’s not called that)

The Canadian Association of Journalists has released a new Statement of Principles and revised its Ethical Guidelines. So why is the chair of the CAJ ethics committee, Ivor Shapiro, worried?  

Ethics codes make me nervous.

The Canadian Association of Journalists has released a new Statement of Principles and revised its Ethical Guidelines. So why is the chair of the CAJ ethics committee, Ivor Shapiro, worried?  

Ethics codes make me nervous.

I know that's a bit odd, seeing as how I am a teacher of ethics, a researcher of ethics, and yes, the current chair of the ethics advisory committee of the Canadian Association of Journalists. And, yes! – that’s the very committee that sweated for nearly a year over revisions to the “Ethics Guidelines” and a brand-new statement of “Principles for Ethical Journalism", now officially released after months of consultation with CAJ members and others.

As a teacher, I will use the documents frequently and gratefully. But as a scholar, I will remain wary of this and all codes.

In short, I am in conflict.

Well, that's ethics for you.

The case against codes, and why we ignored it

I am not alone in worrying that codes of ethics (and not just those for journalists) may sometimes do more harm than good. Certainly, these codes can be counterproductive when put to uses unintended by their authors. The case against codes includes such points for the prosecution as:

•    They’re too long and/or detailed to absorb.
•    They’re too short and/or fuzzy to be meaningful.
•    They’re too specific to a particular time and place, so they go out of date.
•    They’re too reactive to changing times and conditions, so enduring values get diluted.
•    They distract journalists from their primary duty, which is to seek and report truth.
•    They offer tempting bites at simple solutions to unpalatably complex problems.

Ouch. This array of criticisms may help explain why the word "code" was avoided by those who, under the wise and passionate leadership of Stephen J.A. Ward, produced the CAJ's first statement in 2002. As it was by the current committee, led by a revisions panel chaired by Shauna Snow-Capparelli, whose draft was released for public consultation in May.

The CAJ board of directors has now approved the revised guidelines. Among other amendments in both content and presentation, the new document provides suggestions on new and emerging challenges to integrity such as journalists' social-media activity, accuracy in retweeting and handling requests to digitally “unpublish” content. Of course, many other guidelines endure – such as those about going undercover, reporting the work of pollsters and scientists, conflicts of interest, dealing with young people and crime victims, and any more.

And the detailed document is now accompanied by a one-page statement of "Principles for Ethical Journalism", which provides a concise summary of the guidelines' key themes.

But neither the additions nor any amount of wordsmithing quite answers the central question: what is a code (by any other name) for?

We continue to work with these documents not to get around the case against them, but because despite the force of the prosecution’s arguments, they seem, to us, outweighed by the sheer usefulness of a careful and accessible description of how we believe most Canadian journalists think about some key practices.

It’s all about the difference between a rule and a norm – and how norms can be helpful in making choices.

A guide, not a cop

When News of the World editors agreed to hack into people’s voicemail boxes, they broke a clear rule of social conduct. When a New York Times reporter fabricated interviews, he broke several of his own paper's rules. When a Toronto Star intern relied on Wikipedia for a quote, he broke the professional rule of going to the source. Plagiarism breaks the rules; so does theft.

News-gatherers and publishers who are tempted to break rules don't need to refer to a code to know they are taking a moral risk and maybe risking their careers; they just choose to do so.

But while rules may (or may not) reflect social or professional norms, norms are more complicated than rules. Norms express, in a general way, what seems to be a general agreement on rights and wrongs. They don’t tell anyone what to do; in fact, in some situations, the right thing to do can be unprecedented and unpopular – which is to say, abnormal!

Our guidelines are intended to indicate norms, not establish rules. They won’t and can’t prevent abuses. They can’t and won’t impose standards; nor should anyone use them to do so. They have no force of law; they have no force at all.

They provide a reference point for what its authors perceive to be a broad consensus. And no more.

A tough road, not a short cut

Only the easiest moral choices are simple matters. If I promise a source confidentiality, do I then name her in my news report? Of course not: keeping promises is a duty of mere humanity. But what if my source lied to me? What if, as a result, an innocent person's reputation might be ruined? Things look tougher now: I have a dilemma, meaning a choice between two values (to keep promises; to minimize harm) that are in blatant conflict in my situation.

No code will resolve a dilemma: what I do next will depend on the circumstances and on how I weigh my options. In thinking things through, I will probably want to talk the situation over with several people – a trusted friend, a producer or editor, maybe even the source herself or the wounded subject of my story. In the end, I will decide what to do, and it probably won't be easy.

But along the way, I may want to remind myself of how other journalists have thought about issues like this. If so, the principles and guidelines that others have found helpful might in turn help me to think about the ways in which my case seems to relate to those ideas (or not).

These documents are offered, in short, to start conversations — not to end them.

A teaching tool, not a manager’s cane

Some “ethics codes” are, in fact, thinly disguised (or undisguised) instruments of discipline.

That’s obviously true for regulated professions, whose members may be hauled up and punished for breach of the code. Similarly, a company’s code of “ethics” is, almost by definition, the very opposite of a resource for moral reflection. It is a set of rules governing employees' behaviour, and, as such, provides management with defensible benchmarks for regulating that conduct.  

In those situations, a code of ethics is exactly the opposite of our committee’s work as described above – in those situations, the code becomes a cop, not a guide.

But we dare to hope our guidelines and principles might serve a more positive purpose within both news organizations and educational settings: as a beginner’s guide to best practices, and as a resource for ongoing discussion of vital questions. If we could do more to help make the documents useful in your workplace or school, please tell us and we’ll try.

An accountability aid, not a plaintiff’s prop

One of the most practical dangers of an ethics code for journalists is that lawyers are distressingly likely to read them. Plaintiffs will love them, because if they are seen as “standards” of practice (as judges and juries might well be inclined to see them!), every reporter, being human, will quite likely be found wanting at some time or other. Conversely, the sheer ambiguity of ethics codes might be seen as providing more wiggle-room for defendants than is fair to their subjects and sources.

For fear of encouraging potential plaintiffs, some news organizations choose not to make their internal codes public (although any lawyer, once actively engaged in a case, should be able to obtain them by discovery). The truth is, I don't know a way out of this trap except to phrase principles and guidelines carefully and do what it takes to explain their meaning and purpose.

But audiences do need and deserve to know how journalists think about their jobs, and it can only help our relationship with readers and viewers if “they” have access to more information about what drives “us.” As Dean Miller, executive editor of the Idaho Falls Post Register, wrote after making his paper’s code available online:

“… when the newspaper prints–as ours did–the name of a minor who stole his father's police car or includes the words ‘Stupid sonuvabitch!’ in a story about a football game brawl, having the ethics code in front of both of us is a good place to start [talking] with callers. It's a way to talk about the competing forces of seeking truth and minimizing harm.… Readers learn your ethics, like theirs, are the starting point for searching conversations, the weighing of alternatives, and the honest treatment of what is known and not known.”

A living document, not a stone tablet

As for the problem of the code going out of date, that, at least in principle, should be fairly easy to solve. Let the code, and those entrusted with guarding it, remain alive to developments. Every few years, new practices and challenges may come along that suggest an amendment. It’s unlikely to happen often, because a code should be phrased with enough generality to be helpful in a wide range of situations. But from time to time, the guidelines should certainly be reconsidered and, where appropriate, amended.

So here it is, a living document now in your hands, to use and to respond to. We hope you find it helpful. Either way, please let us know.

Ivor Shapiro is the chair of the ethics advisory committee of the Canadian Association of Journalists, and chair of the School of Journalism, Ryerson University. He is also the ethics editor of J-Source.

The case against codes of ethics.