Someone should compile detailed ethical guidance for journalists in the difficult decisions we face in doing our jobs today.
The journalism conversation about ethics has been more robust this year than at any time I remember in my career, and I’ve been fortunate to be involved in much of it. But I think we need still more.
Two notable collaborations have re-examined the most important statements of journalism ethics:
- The Society of Professional Journalists is considering an update to its Code of Ethics. I was part of a group making recommendations relating to digital journalism (more on that later).
- Kelly McBride of Poynter and Tom Rosenstiel of the American Press Institute edited a book, The New Ethics of Journalism, featuring Poynter’s new Guiding Principles for the Journalist and 14 chapters by other writers on various topics. I didn’t write anything for the book but I participated in a 2012 discussion that was part of the process of writing the book. I already blogged about the new Guiding Principles, and will comment later here on the other chapters.
Two other collaborations provide detailed guidance in two important areas:
- The American Copy Editors Society and SPJ convened a Summit to Fight Plagiarism and Fabrication, which included the release of an ebook, Telling the Truth and Nothing But, that was a collaboration of representatives of at least nine different journalism organizations. As I’ve noted earlier on the blog, I represented Digital First Media and the Online News Association in that project, writing the section on linking and contributing to discussions about other topics. Poynter’s Ellyn Angelotti continued the discussion of plagiarism and fabrication in a two-part series on attribution last week for Poynter.
- The European Journalism Centre is producing the Verification Handbook (for which I wrote a chapter), edited by Craig Silverman, who has addressed these issues extensively in his Regret the Error blog and book. Josh Stearns’ Verification Junkie blog provides still more helpful information on this topic.
I’d like to see similar extensive guidance in other areas where new tools and new challenges are presenting new ethical decisions for journalists.
The SPJ Code and Guiding Principles have always been overlapping, if not redundant. Each seeks to lay out broad ethical principles. The versions published in the 1990s share three identical core principles: Seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently. SPJ added “be accountable” as a fourth core principle, while Poynter’s Guiding Principles dealt with accountability in its discussion of the other three core principles, rather than breaking it out separately.
I expect SPJ’s ethics code will (and should) resemble the Guiding Principles again. But I think SPJ could make a bigger contribution to upholding ethical standards by taking a different approach from the McBride/Rosenstiel book by providing practical guidance on how journalists should apply the code in their work.
The New Ethics approach
That’s what I was expecting when I bought The New Ethics of Journalism. The opening chapter presented the new Guiding Principles. I hoped and expected the following chapters would address the many issues journalists face in their daily work, providing advice in how to make decisions and how to apply the principles.
I shouldn’t have been surprised. No one ever let me to expect that. I heard some previews of those chapters at the Poynter-led discussion in New York last year that was part of the process of writing the book. But a symposium is a different process from reading a book. And maybe working on the plagiarism and verification books started me thinking about the value of detailed advice in other areas of journalism ethics.
I can’t say I was disappointed with the approach taken in New Ethics because the chapters were excellent. They addressed a need I hadn’t recognized: A philosophical or explanatory examination of ethical issues and some issues we might not normally consider as matters of ethics.
For instance, fact-checking – especially on statements by politicians – is an important development in journalism the last few years. It relates directly to ethics, since our first core value in both the new and old Guiding Principles and the Code of Ethics is truthfulness. Too often journalists have let attribution be enough: It’s true that someone said what we’re reporting, so we let the truth of “he said” stand, even if he was lying or honestly mistaken, so the heart of what we’re reporting is wrong. But “seek truth” is an active and strong value that demands fact-checking of the statements we report, and an examination of fact-checking is absolutely essential in a book updating journalism ethics.
Steve Myers wrote a detailed chapter for New Ethics about the development of fact-checking in recent years. It addressed the response to fact-checking and the approach that fact-checkers take and some of the issues they have dealt with. But it didn’t provide practical advice on how to fact-check, how to resolve apparent disagreements over the facts, how to draw a line between reporting and commentary in fact-checking (if that’s important to you), etc. I can’t fault Myers for taking that approach (or McBride and Rosenstiel, if they asked him to take that approach). The chapter provides an insightful overview of an important aspect of modern journalism. But journalism still could benefit from similarly detailed how-to advice on fact-checking. (Maybe PolitiFact founder Bill Adair or someone else has written such a how-to?)
Mónica Guzmán’s chapter, Community as an End, was an essential part of a book that presents community as a core value of journalism (combining and expanding the core principles of accountability and minimizing harm). She made an excellent case for viewing community as a core value. I’m sure I’ll cite it as I train and coach journalists in community engagement. But, as with the fact-checking chapter, we still could use more practical advice: how we gauge credibility and transparency in content we curate from the community, how we seek diversity in content from the community, our obligations in engaging the community and so forth.
Perhaps the most practical essay from the New Ethics contributors was Craig Silverman’s chapter on corrections, which started with a philosophical essay similar to the others, then presented some detailed, useful advice in “five keys to quality corrections.”
I was glad to see Dan Gillmor’s chapter “Do Private Platforms Threaten Public Journalism?” included in the book. At a practical level, there’s little journalists can do in our day-to-day work about the issues Dan addressed, raising our awareness about the implications of the concentrated power of companies such as Facebook, Twitter, Google and Apple. Journalists should understand those issues as we use those tools. While I was aware of the issues, I didn’t think of them as particularly an ethical matter. But Gillmor educated me about the ethical context of those issues.
McBride, Rosenstiel and the contributing authors recognized the value of pulling together this thoughtful series of chapters and presenting a thorough examination of the new issues of journalism ethics (and some new twists to old issues). Case studies by Caitlin Johnston accompanying each chapter lean more to guiding classroom discussions of the issues than to helping journalists apply the issues in the practice of journalism. The book was a valuable contribution to this conversation among journalists about new and enduring ethical values.
I’d have liked to see some more issues addressed in the book: linking, as I’ve mentioned before; a Jay Rosen chapter on the “view from nowhere,” perhaps paired with an essay on practicing more traditional neutrality in today’s environment; mixing personal and professional conversation on social media.
While I agreed with McBride and Rosenstiel’s decision to replace independence with transparency in the core principles, I think their book needed a deeper discussion of the continuing value of independence in journalism (Tim McGuire addressed this in a thoughtful blog post).
SPJ could provide situational advice
Since McBride and Rosenstiel took the approach they did, they left an opportunity for SPJ to distinguish its Code of Ethics more from the Guiding Principles. I hope SPJ produces another fairly brief Code of Ethics (the 1996 code is less than 800 words) but accompanies the code with detailed advice on applying the principles in various situations.
For instance, the question of granting confidentiality to sources is a timeless issue on which we need updated advice relating both to technology and to bad practices that have become too common in the industry.
The Code of Ethics needs a general statement of principle. The current code says:
Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.
That needs updating and editing, not just because of technology issues but because of issues in journalism practice. It should recognize the difference between anonymity (reporter doesn’t know the source, who may be a phone caller who won’t give a name or someone using an anonymous email or digital dropbox to pass information to a journalist) and confidentiality (a Deep Throat situation where the journalist knows the source and can gauge his or her reliability but promises not to identify the source). The code needs to address some journalists’ and news organizations’ shameful practice of granting confidentiality of people for stating opinions. And it needs to recognize that technology has made protecting confidentiality more complex than simply keeping promises.
So I suggest changing that passage of the code to say something like:
Journalists, not sources, are responsible for the information they report. Always learn how sources know the information they give you. Verify information independently, especially if you don’t know the source’s identity or motives. If you do know the source’s identity, you need to learn both motives and how the source knows the information.
Grant confidentiality only for important information in cases where a source’s job or safety might be in jeopardy if identified, or in intensely personal stories such as victims of sexual abuse or other serious crimes. Whenever you promise confidentiality, clarify the conditions of the agreement. Don’t grant confidentiality to powerful people seeking to avoid accountability.
When you grant confidentiality, keep your promise and take steps to avoid creating digital tracks that could help employers or authorities identify the source.
That’s longer than the statement of principle in the current code, and it should be. But it doesn’t provide detailed advice. The accompanying book (or ebook or blog posts or Quill essays) should address how to apply the principles.
For instance, a whole chapter or blog post, or perhaps a section of a chapter, should explain how to protect a source from being discovered through digital surveillance: Use of encryption and “burner” cellphones in national-security stories and perhaps in some types of law-enforcement reporting, and perhaps less-severe methods such as using private cell phones or email accounts if you’re dealing with a source who’s not divulging national secrets but still could be in trouble if an employer knows what the sources is disclosing.
Another chapter relating to confidential sources could run through various scenarios: the difference between a whistleblower and a powerful source such as Scooter Libby who’s trying to play the media and avoid accountability; the difference between an eager source coming to you with information and a reluctant source you approach asking for information; situations that present different confidentiality issues, such as immigration, sexual abuse, other crime victims or juveniles.
The Code of Ethics shouldn’t detail lots of do’s and don’ts for social media use. Journalists’ jobs and their bosses’ expectations vary too widely for that to work. The Code of Ethics should include a simple statement of principle, such as:
Journalists should behave professionally and personably in using social media.
An accompanying chapter(s) could provide advice on related issues: foul language, when and whether opinions are acceptable, name-calling, operating personal accounts that you don’t use professionally.
I wouldn’t be surprised if SPJ retains independence as a core principle, rather than replacing it with transparency. If so, I hope transparency gets strong mentions in both the truthfulness and independence sections. However SPJ states principles relating to independence and transparency, I hope that related chapters/essays address some of the challenges of independence and transparency: Covering your community and being an active community member; Rosen’s “view from nowhere” argument; disclosing those unavoidable life connections (such as my situation where my son worked for Chuck Hagel when I was a reporter in Nebraska and Hagel was a senator from Nebraska).
Updating the SPJ Code of Ethics
Speaking of disclosures, I’m involved in the SPJ’s reconsideration of the Code of Ethics, but I’m not sure how much impact, if any, I will have on the eventual code, if a new code is even proposed.
I called for an update of the SPJ Code in 2010 and in a 2011 Quill cover story and an SPJ Twitter chat. The SPJ Ethics Committee is considering an update, but at the Excellence in Journalism conference in Anaheim in August some committee members downplayed the need for changes, saying at most it needed a few tweaks.
After that conference, Guzmán approached me, telling me that Ethics Committee Chair Kevin Smith had asked her to convene a subcommittee to make some recommendations specifically relating to digital journalism. She asked me if I would join the effort. I expressed some concern about the lack of interest in an update from committee members in Anaheim and wondered whether they should be inviting more digitally focused voices into the full committee. But I agreed to participate.
Guzmán assembled an outstanding group: Laura Amico, Becky Bowers, David Cohn, Tracy Record and Silverman, as well as Guzmán and me. We had a robust discussion on some Google documents and made what I consider to be excellent recommendations to the Ethics Committee.
I presume and hope that the Ethics Committee will share those recommendations at some point, but I won’t publish them here. My colleagues in the group consented, though, to my blogging about some of the themes we encouraged.
We proposed stronger statements about transparency, including consideration of it as a core ethical principle. We encouraged stronger statements about attribution, including specific mention of linking to sources as an ethical obligation. We recommended addressing such digital issues as the inability to provide full context in each social media post, the ability to provide greater context by providing access to the databases on which stories are based and the longer lives that stories have online.
My colleagues in that discussion were thoughtful, with a strong understanding both of ethical values and digital tools. I was honored to discuss these issues with them and I hope SPJ will adopt our recommendations.
Other orgs could contribute
But I hope it doesn’t stop there. If it’s not SPJ, I hope someone fleshes out these new principles with a series of essays on applying these principles. I think we need resources similar to the Verification Handbook and Telling the Truth and Nothing But for other large areas of journalism ethics.
Maybe this work should be shared: Investigative Reporters and Editors could provide detailed advice on applying the principle of confidentiality; Local Independent Online News Publishers or J-Lab could address the independence/transparency issues; the Online News Association could provide detailed advice on ethical issues relating to social media.
Poynter, API, SPJ, , ACES, the American Society of News Editors, Associated Press Managing Editors, Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication and other journalism organizations as well as individual journalists and journalism professors could provide detailed guidance in specific slices where they have interest and expertise.
New ONA board member Eric Carvin campaigned “to put a spotlight on ethics,” so I wouldn’t be surprised if ONA makes a significant contribution to this ethics conversation. The October ONA conference included discussion of an ethics initiative, to be led by AP’s Tom Kent. Update: Kent has responded with an explanation of the ONA ethics initiative.
Scott Rosenberg and J-Lab addressed ethical issues of local journalism two years ago in Rules of the Road. Some news organizations such as NPR and the Washington Post have their own guidelines that may have wider value in this ethics discussion. I’m sure other similar resources exist that I’m either forgetting or don’t know about. (Please remind me or fill me in.)
Poynter’s new ethics site, Truth & Trust in Media, could be a good place to provide or curate this kind of advice. So far, it seems like mostly commentary on the ethical aspects of current studies, another useful part of this conversation on ethics. SPJ’s Ethics Committee Blog could also be a place to compile the guidance on ethical issues.
Maybe all or most of the guidance we need has already been published and the remaining job for SPJ (or Poynter or ONA or someone) is to curate it all, providing effective tagging and searching to help you find quick answers to the questions you’re seeking.
By the way, in most cases, I’m thinking the answers we need aren’t simple do’s and don’ts that oversimplify ethics, but instead questions and suggestions of factors to consider as you make complex decisions.
Bob Steele’s 10 Questions
Bob Steele’s 10 Questions to Make Good Ethical Decisions remain an excellent aid for journalists. On a quick read, those questions (What do I know? What do I need to know? etc.) appear to be helpful and applicable for today’s journalism. I suspect a few new questions would increase that document’s value today. I might dig in someday and suggest an update, but I don’t think in needs an overhaul.
In fact, Steele’s questions might make a good framework for some of the detailed guidance I’m suggesting. For instance, I’d like to see an essay applying the 10 questions to confidential sources or social media use or transparency. I could be wrong. But you might find such a post on this blog sometime.
One final point in a post that’s already too long (I considered breaking this up into a series, but decided I preferred keeping it together, especially in a holiday week, where people might be likely to miss parts as they travel): I am willing and eager to contribute to any of these efforts as my time permits. Some of my blog posts attempt to offer some of the advice I’m encouraging the compilation of:
In addition, I’ve written a few posts that are more along the lines of the overview/examination chapters in the McBride/Rosenstiel book:
When I started a series of ethics seminars for API back in 2005 (we eventually won two grants that funded about 30 seminars across the country), I was trying to respond to what I perceived as a need for more ethics training (this was in the wake of the Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley plagiarism/fabrication scandals in 2003 and 2004).
I developed handouts for all of the workshops I presented in those seminars from 2005 to 2009. They were all posted online at No Train, No Gain, API’s website or both, but are no longer available either place. These handouts have been updated and reposted on this blog:
Journalism ethics in social networks (I wrote this in 2009; I presume it needs updating)
In the next few weeks, I will try to update and repost the other handouts I developed for those ethics seminars.
I encourage other journalists and journalism professors to share your advice on how to apply journalism ethics in today’s journalism situations — whether following timeless or emerging principles or both. If you do, share the links here or email them to me and I’ll post them.
Disclosures: I know nearly all of the people mentioned here, as pretty good friends or friendly colleagues I’ve had multiple dealings with. I don’t think the details are important here, but I should note those relationships. Whether you consider this post to be praise, criticism, suggestion or some combination, you should know it’s a conversation about and among friends.
Other ethics links
Josh Stearns’ Ethics for Anyone Who Commits Acts of Journalism
Stearns also suggests Dan Gillmor’s Mediactive blog, which isn’t ethics-focused but frequently addresses ethical issues.
Social media responses
I apologize that these all display the full preview of my post. Twitter offers you a chance to uncheck “includes media” in embed codes, but it doesn’t work.
— Josh Stearns (@jcstearns) November 25, 2013
@stevebuttry It’s a great provocation and I want to write more soon.
— Josh Stearns (@jcstearns) November 25, 2013
— Society of Pro Journ (@spj_tweets) November 25, 2013
— Dean Wright (@deanpwright) November 25, 2013
— Scott Leadingham (@scottleadingham) November 25, 2013
@stevebuttry Thanks – your post is making me think not only how to deeply include community, but how to make those conversations concrete
— Josh Stearns (@jcstearns) November 25, 2013
— timmcguire (@timmcguire) November 25, 2013
— Dan Gillmor (@dangillmor) November 25, 2013
@stevebuttry Great post. I’m co-editing book w/writers from 6 countries that will offer some of practical ethics guidance you suggest.
— David Craig (@dcraigok) November 25, 2013
— Monica Guzman (@moniguzman) November 25, 2013
— Greg Stobbe (@gstobbe) November 25, 2013