I called yesterday for detailed practical advice on making ethical decisions in today’s journalism. After I posted, I emailed the people I mentioned in the post, inviting them to respond. This is the response from Associated Press Standards Editor Tom Kent, who is leading an ethics initiative of the Online News Association:
Steve, you raise some excellent points about where we stand in the ethics conversation. Sometimes, as you suggest, we’re a little too philosophique, thinking big thoughts without the concrete examples that would make them immediately useful. Meanwhile, we’re trying to write ethical codes for a profession that’s in the process of splitting into some distinctly different philosophies.
However much we agree on certain unifying concepts (tell the truth, don’t plagiarize, don’t take money to skew your stories), after that we start to differ widely. You referred to the contrast between those who think it’s fine to write from a certain political point of view (as long as you’re transparent about it) and those who favor an updated version of objectivity and neutrality (find my defense of that here). There are disparate points on view on many other questions.
The most common responses to this situation have been to 1) take a stand on what journalism should be and put out a code defining it (the SPJ’s current travails; I’m helping with that effort, too), or 2) to say, hey, anyone who “commits an act of journalism” is welcome in the tent and let’s not get too hung up on defining who’s a journalist or what that really means.
In the ONA ethics initiative, which I’m heading up, we’re trying to steer a middle course between these choices. We’re talking about creating a set of “building blocks” that would let any journalistic organization (or individual blogger) create an ethics code that is thorough and transparent, while reflecting how that organization or blogger sees journalism.
For instance: Are you going to allow, in news stories and social media posting by your staff, the expression of personal political opinion? Will you allow the editing of quotes for clarity and grammar, or are quotes inviolable? Are your online archives there forever, or will you remove items if, years after publication, they’re causing unintended problems for people who allowed you to interview them? Will you allow the removal of extraneous objects from news photos? Will you allow the use of Instagram filters?
In our fast-changing journalistic world, different news organizations may feel different ways about these issues. Our building blocks would let them make their own choices, while constructing a clear, complete ethics code that will guide their staffs and be published for all to read. (AP’s Statement of News Values and Principles explains where our company stands on many issues.)
You noted, Steve, that what 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.” We hope these building blocks will define some of the questions a news organization needs to ask. And if we can attract enough interest, we hope to offer “factors to consider”: short essays, with examples, on the various sides of each question to help people decide what values feel right to them.
I’d value your and others’ thoughts about this project.
I appreciate Tom’s response and I like how he explains the ONA approach.
For instance, journalists need more guidance in effective and ethical expression of opinions than provided in either the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics or the Poynter Guiding Principles for the Journalist. Here’s all that the SPJ Code says about opinions (it never mentions objectivity):
Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.
Here’s what the new Guiding Principles say:
Clearly articulate your journalistic approach, whether you strive for independence or approach information from a political or philosophical point of view. Describe how your point of view impacts the information you report, including how you select the topics you cover and the sources that inform your work.
Some Digital First colleagues and I took a stab about a year ago at providing more detailed guidance for journalists on expressing personal opinions.
I look forward to seeing the ONA building blocks. Kent is right that journalism has no consensus on opinion/objectivity and some other matters. Whichever approach you take, different ethical decisions will be presented. The building blocks could provide a helpful ethical framework for making decisions for either approach.
As I told Kent by email last night, I’d be glad to help in the ONA effort.