In late 2013 I called for detailed guidance for journalists on various ethics issues. I’m pleased to have had a role in answering that call through the Online News Association’s Build Your Own Ethics Code project.
The BYO code gives journalists and journalism organizations thoughtful guidance on 40 different topics relating to journalism ethics. Though it’s formally labeled ONAethics, the editing committee focused on Build Your Own and shortened it to BYO (hey, we’re journalists), which is how I’ll refer to it here.
The BYO project was released Thursday at the #ONA15 conference in Los Angeles (which, unfortunately, I am missing this year).
Disclaimer up front acknowledging my obvious bias in writing about this: I was a leading contributor in the writing of the project and participated with four others in editing. I will applaud all of them and others personally later, but first want to address the final product.
Disclaimer #2: Though we’ve been working on this project for two years, it’s still a work in progress. We welcome your feedback and will improve it as we receive suggestions and people point out flaws that we missed. And we’re still working on some design issues. The link I provide above is a beta. We welcome beta testers.
As I’ve said many times, good ethical decisions don’t come from good rules but from good conversations about ethics. What I like most about the BYO project is that it’s designed to prompt newsroom conversations about ethics, or at least to prompt individual journalists to think about the issues. As you use the tool to develop a code for your organization (or yourself), you have to think about what your values are and how to apply them in your journalism.
The code also recognizes that journalists aren’t unanimous in our views on ethics, and helps you write a code that reflects your values. This is not a one-size-fits-all code.
Neither is it an anything-goes code. We start with some core values that we think all journalists should agree to. Anyone using the code first accepts some fundamental principles such as telling the truth, correcting errors and avoiding plagiarism. If you can’t agree to those basic principles, we believe, you probably aren’t practicing journalism (even as varied as journalism has become) and should look elsewhere for ethical guidance.
But beyond those basic principles, journalists have wide disagreements in principle and practice on many matters. The rest of the BYO project is designed to help journalists and newsrooms work through those issues, decide where they stand and practice their principles more consistently.
In crafting BYO, we recognized two significant differences in journalism today that really go to the nature of your organization and your journalism:
- Do you favor neutrality (sometimes called “objectivity”)? Or does a point of view guide your journalism?
- Do you favor independence? Or are you involved with the issues you cover?
The BYO sections linked above discuss the differing approaches and help organizations consider ethical choices related to each.
Once you’ve agreed to the fundamentals and made the ethical choices relating to the nature of your organization, BYO guides you through 43 issues journalists face in doing our work day to day. Some of your decisions will relate to the nature of your organization, but others might relate to your views on this particular issue.
These are those discussions that I think lead to good ethical choices. I hope your newsroom uses the BYO tool to write a good ethics code (we give you actual passages for an ethics code, which you can edit if we didn’t word them exactly as you would). But more important, to me, is the thought and discussion that I hope our essays and choices will prompt in newsrooms.
Most newsrooms have pretty good rules about using confidential sources. But lots of those very newsrooms and the journalists working in them actually do a lousy jobs of using confidential sources. (Exhibit A: the New York Times, which I’ve faulted three times this year for violating its own standards on this issue.)
Many journalists and newsrooms are kind of promiscuous about using confidentiality, publishing stories that lack credibility because sources are shadowy and allowing government (or business) officials to spin them and avoid accountability. Other journalists don’t do enough of the kind of investigative journalism that sometimes requires dealing with whistleblowers who don’t dare let you identify them. Some journalists grant confidentiality without taking steps to protect the identity of sources from electronic snooping by authorities.
The BYO essay on confidential sources (which I wrote, adapting it from this blog post) discusses factors journalists and news organizations should consider in granting and protecting confidentiality. I care more about having those discussions, and applying your principles consistently (or with careful exceptions) than about which rules you adopt about sources for your code.
In the coming weeks, I will blog more about the BYO project and how you might use it (with some thoughts on choices you should make). But mostly I want you to use it to start discussions about ethics.
Comparing BYO to other ethical guidance
BYO is the sixth project I’ve been involved in over the past five years or so to provide more and better ethical advice for journalists. And it may be the best. Some thoughts here about the other projects and how they all fit together to improve journalism ethics.
The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, updated last year, is important, but it is, by design, a statement of principles that isn’t very helpful in making ethical decisions in the nuanced situations journalists face in their day-to-day work. I am pleased that, in addition to providing ethical choices, the BYO project provides “best practices,” practical advice for applying the ethical principles in your work.
I should add that I am pleased that the SPJ Code has been annotated and linked to provide helpful essays and related resources for its principles. For instance, I was disappointed that SPJ didn’t encourage linking in its code. But the supplemental link to the “always attribute” passage in the code addresses recommends reading one of my posts on linking.
Poynter’s Guiding Principles for the Journalist is also focused more on lofty principles than specific decision-making advice. The New Ethics of Journalism, a book in which the Poynter principles were published, actually doesn’t offer much ethical guidance. The chapters in the book are mostly philosophical essays on journalism topics, rather than practical advice.
Three publications in the past couple of years have offered incredibly detailed advice in narrow areas:
- Where the SPJ Code says “verify information before releasing it,” the Verification Handbook has full chapters on how to verify different types of information such as user-generated content, images and video. A second book in the project focuses on verification in investigative journalism. (I contributed to first book, but not the second.) I’m pleased to see that the Verification Handbook is one of the supplemental links from the verification passage of the SPJ Code.
- Where the SPJ Code says, “Never plagiarize. Always attribute,” the ebook Telling the Truth and Nothing But defines plagiarism (and fabrication) and talks about helpful practices to prevent and detect plagiarism, how to attribute and how to respond to accusations of plagiarism or fabrication. Again, I was pleased to see the SPJ Code link to Telling the Truth …
- Where the SPJ Code says “deny favored treatment to advertisers,” Rules of the Road offers more detailed advice on maintaining independence and integrity while seeking to develop healthy revenue streams (and other ethical challenges facing small local news organizations).
I’ve been involved in all six of these projects. I should add that the Radio Television Digital News Association also updated its Code of Ethics this year. I wasn’t involved in that project, but plan to review it and blog about it at some point.
I think I like the BYO project the best because of how it’s focused on detailed discussion of ethics and thoughtful ethical decision-making. But I especially like how all these efforts to update and expand ethical guidance have advanced the discussion of journalism ethics.
Applause for the BYO team
— Tom Kent (@tjrkent) September 23, 2015
I need to start here with praise the leadership, writing, editing and promotional contributions of Tom Kent, standards editor for the Associated Press. Tom launched this project and wrote more of the essays than anyone, chaired the editing committee and pushed this project to the finish line. My admiration and appreciation for his contribution here is boundless.
Tom recruited writers (whom I won’t name, but thank them all collectively) for each of the sections of the project and gave us all helpful feedback. Then Tom invited me to join an editing committee that included Katy Culver, Assistant Professor and Associate Director of the Center for Journalism Ethics, University of Wisconsin-Madison; Alan Abbey, Director of Media and Adjunct Professor of Journalism, Shalom Hartman Institute at the National University in Israel; and Wendy Wyatt, Chair of the Communication and Journalism School, University of St. Thomas.
We met by Google Hangout and communicated a lot by email, without ever meeting, but I gained great respect for my colleagues on the editing committee, who all did more work on the editing than I did.
Thanks to our funders
ONA received a grant for BYO from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. I worked on two earlier ethics projects at the American Press Institute funded by the foundation and applaud its continuing support for journalism ethics.
Saluting #ONA15 from afar
As noted above, it pains me to be missing the 2015 ONA conference this week, first time since 2009 I’ve missed.
I helped judge the Online Journalism Awards and was scheduled to be a panelist (discussing new revenue ideas) as well as planning to help my BYO colleagues promote our project. That was when we thought my treatment for lymphoma would conclude with a stem-cell transplant this summer. But when a delay pushed the likely transplant time back to September, I had to cancel. When the transplant was further delayed, I was sorely tempted to try to make ONA work. But I’m not back to full strength yet following surgery in August, so it’s a good thing I stayed home. ONA exhausts me when I’m fully healthy. (I won’t go into all the ups and downs of my treatment, but I’m doing well and you can read more on my CaringBridge journal).
Anyway, I salute my ONA colleagues, especially those who worked on BYO, from afar. Your tweets and Facebook updates fill me with envy, but also with fondness for the journalists gathered in LA this week and for the excellent work ONA and its members do.
This was a really good panel – of the five ethics scenarios we looked at, I found my mind changing on four. #ONAethics
— Rob Pegoraro (@robpegoraro) September 24, 2015
The Build your own ethics code allows for conversation and personalization, allowing news orgs to own their choices #ONAethics
— Elizabeth Jensen (@ejensenNYC) September 24, 2015