Bob told me in an email exchange this week (see our Q&A at the end of this post) that he wrote the Guiding Principles for the Journalist in the early 1990s. I used them extensively in the ethics seminars I presented for the American Press Institute.
I have noted the need to update the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics (I’m not aware of any plans to do so). And I was pleased to be part of last week’s discussion about updating Bob’s guiding principles, which have considerable overlap with the SPJ Code. I blogged some suggestions for what the new principles should say. But I also want to salute Bob for how well these principles have served journalism.
Bob’s principles follow with my comments:
Seek Truth And Report It As Fully As Possible
This is also the first primary principle of the SPJ Code and it remains a journalist’s most important job.
- Inform yourself continuously so you in turn can inform, engage, and educate the public in a clear and compelling way on significant issues.
This is an important point that we may not stress often enough. Ignorance is ne excuse for journalists. As new issues develop, we have a professional obligation to inform ourselves about them.
- Be honest, fair, and courageous in gathering, reporting, and interpreting accurate information.
- Give voice to the voiceless.
- Hold the powerful accountable.
All of these principles hold up well. They should be part of the next set of guiding principles. We certainly need to do a better job of the last two points, both of which have taken a hit as newsrooms cut staffs.
- Guard vigorously the essential stewardship role a free press plays in an open society.
- Seek out and disseminate competing perspectives without being unduly influenced by those who would use their power or position counter to the public interest.
- Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise your integrity or damage your credibility.
This point needs updating. I think it’s clear that a significant contribution to journalism for the foreseeable future will come from people with connections to the topics they cover. Entrepreneurial bloggers building a business on their passions, commentators moving from politics or sports to covering those topics or journalists working for news organizations affiliated with interest groups need guidance for building and maintaining credibility and integrity.
In addition, too many old-school journalists respond to this ethical principle by rationalizing or denying connections that deserve noting. Or they deprive their audience of their insight in search of what Jay Rosen calls the “view from nowhere.” We need to address standards of transparency that will help us maintain our integrity and be more honest about factors that influence us.
I addressed these points extensively in yesterday’s post.
- Recognize that good ethical decisions require individual responsibility enriched by collaborative efforts.
That’s a beautifully crafted point and an excellent one. I suggested in yesterday’s post that we address collaboration in a preamble. Bob’s wording is probably better than mine to make that point, but I do think it should precede all these principles.
- Be compassionate for those affected by your actions.
- Treat sources, subjects, and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect, not merely as means to your journalistic ends.
Craig Silverman echoed this point, appropriately, in his recent Poynter post, Journalism ethics are rooted in humanity, not technology.
- Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort, but balance those negatives by choosing alternatives that maximize your goal of truthtelling.
Again, Bob’s principles hold up well. The principles he articulated are mostly timeless. We need to address transparency and linking and some other matters that are either new since Bob wrote these principles or have changed in importance. But Bob served journalism well with these guiding principles. The update we need is mostly some similarly wise guidance for new challenges.
Almost as important as the guiding principles were Bob’s 10 questions to help make ethical decisions. I think that the process of making ethical decisions is at least as important as the principles that you apply. Too many people look for simple thou-shalt-not rules to guide ethical decision-making. Ethics are not that simple, and Bob gave journalists excellent guidance that has served us well.
Here are Bob’s answers in an email this week to my questions (in italics) about his Guiding Principles and 10 Questions:
Keep in mind that this was 20 years or so ago that I wrote the Guiding Principles, so my memory on details could be foggy.
When were they written?
They were written in the early 1990s, probably 1991.
Did you write them yourself? Or was your writing the result of a collaborative process (if so, with whom?)?
I was the principal writer of the Guiding Principles though I had the input of others. I had recently finished my Ph.D. dissertation on Journalism Ethics (University of Iowa) where I explored the issues of ethical decision-making and the value of using principles and questions as a framework for addressing ethical issues. In the early 1990s, Carolyn Carlson, then president of SPJ, wanted SPJ to produce and publish a book on journalism ethics. She (and I believe Dan Bolton of SPJ) asked me along with Jay Black and Ralph Barney to write such a book. We met at Poynter and brought together a small group of journalists and journalism educators to brainstorm ideas and develop a plan. We wrote and published Doing Ethics in Journalism: A Handbook with Case Studies. If I remember correctly, I was the primary writer on the Guiding Principles and on the Ten Good Questions that we used as the core of the book. Ralph and Jay also wrote significant portions of the book, and we collaborated on the case studies.
Which came first? The guiding principles or your 10 questions?
To the best of my memory, the 10 Questions came first. When I went to Poynter in the summer of 1989, they were using several different versions of decision-making models including a couple lists of questions. If I remember correctly, Roy Peter Clark had written one list and Don Fry had written a list. I believe there was also a list of questions written by Dave Boardman at The Seattle Times. Based on my work on my doctoral dissertation and my belief in the value of questions, I wrote a new list of 10 questions that borrowed from the Clark/Fry/Boardman lists. Over the years, I’ve tried hard to frequently credit Roy, Don and Dave for the early versions of the list of questions.
Starting in the early 1990s, we began using the 10 Questions and the Guiding Principles for Journalists in all Poynter ethics seminars and ethics workshops in other Poynter seminars. I also used the 10 Questions and the Guiding Principles in many ethics workshops that I conducted at news organizations across the country. And I gave others permission to freely copy these Questions and Principles and use them in their training, classroom teaching and newsroom decision-making. At various points over the past two decades, authors of journalism and journalism ethics books have asked my permission to use the 10 Questions (and sometimes the Guiding Principles) in their publications, and I’ve generally said yes to those requests.
What was the relationship between the Poynter guiding principles and the SPJ Code of Ethics?
We used the Guiding Principles in that “Doing Ethics in Journalism” handbook that SPJ published (three editions). In the mid-90s, SPJ officials decided to update the SPJ Code. I wasn’t directly involved in that process (I think Jay Black was). The task force (my words to describe them, but I’m not sure that’s what they were called) did rewrite the Code using the Guiding Principles as the core element of the new code. They expanded from three to four Guiding Principles (adding “Be Accountable”) and added additional language to each of the principles to further spell out what each meant.
What topics do you think need addressing in an update?
Personally, I think the Guiding Principles that I/we wrote in the early 1990s are as applicable now as they were back then. I’m fine with the addition of the 4th Principle (Be Accountable), but I don’t know if it’s necessary to rewrite these principles just because so much is changing in terms of the technology and the economics of journalism. These are, after all, GUIDING PRINCIPLES, and I intended them to have a sense of permanence, even immutability.
I’ve often referred to them as a “moral compass” that tells us where “True North” is in terms of our journalistic purpose and duty. These Guiding Principles represent “What We Stand For” as journalists. To be sure, these Guiding Principles are not simple answers to a “What Should We Do?” question. The Guiding Principles can (and often do) compete with each other (Truthseeking and Truthtelling often are in tension with Minimize Harm).
The Guiding Principles are NOT a rule book. They require journalists to use reflection and reasoning in making sound decisions that often require alternatives that create a balancing between different principles. So, I believe the original Guiding Principles for Journalists can still work as they are applied to both traditional ethical issues and to new ones that emerge.
Have you been involved at all in the updating process?
Final note from Buttry: I do think we need to add to the principles, as I described in my previous post. But I think Bob’s Guiding Principles stand up and continue to provide excellent guidance for journalists. They provide an excellent starting point for our current discussion and I hope they are heavily reflected in the next edition of the Guiding Principles. I blogged about Bob on my old Training Tracks blog when he moved from Poynter to DePauw. I republished that post today to accompany this.
Update: Bob sent an addition by email:
I share your belief in the value of transparency, Steve. However, I often make the point that “Transparency without Accountability is Hollow.”
I don’t think that merely revealing something (including our methods, our funding, our decision-making process, our competing loyalties and conflicts of interest, etc) is enough. If there are problems, those problems still exist even if disclosed. Thus, it’s essential to be accountable in both the responsibility for our decisions/actions and in the responsibility to address and minimize the problems.
Therefore, I believe “Transparency” best fits in the “Be Accountable” principle. “Be Accountable and Transparent.”