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From the Editor’s Desk: Revisiting journalistic code of ethics

The business of journalism revolves around the creation of news. But, recently, journalism has become news itself with the phone-hacking scandal that took place at the British tabloid, News of the World. In the May/June 2011 issue of the Columbia Journalism Review, Archie Bland, the foreign editor of The Independent, wrote an article, “Anybody There?,” [1] describing the sequence of events that led to the News of the World permanently closing its doors after 168 years. The article is an astounding account of human greed and secrecy in a profession that typically upholds the highest moral standards. 

In light of the events that unfolded at News of the World, one must wonder what happened to the ethics of some journalists. In a world that creates and is driven by non-stop news, a code of ethics has never been more important than it is today. Whether you’re a seasoned journalist or a J-school student, here are a few guidelines to help keep you on the straight and narrow:

  1. Tell the truth.
    These days, the truth can be a gray area. However, the pursuit of truth is one of the main tenets that inspire and guide journalists to provide the public with as complete a picture as possible.
  2. Be honest.
    Truth and honesty go hand in hand. But, based on the News of the World scandal, they were “interpreted” differently – or just blatantly ignored. Honesty covers a wide range of practices and should be prevalent throughout the journalistic process so that your credibility will never be questioned.
  3. Be upfront.
    Readers are extremely savvy. They want to know that your articles are as transparent as possible – without jeopardizing the privacy of others. They want to understand your process so that they can determine whether to trust you – or trash you. The Online Journalism Review [2]says:“Tell your readers how you got your information, and what factors influenced your decision to publish it…Don’t hide whom you work for, or where the money to support your site comes from.”
  4. Maintain objectivity.
    In other words, tell both sides of the story and avoid conflicts of interest (i.e., no gifts, money or any form of payment).
  5. Distinguish between news and opinion.
    Objectivity can be thrown out if your article is an op-ed piece. However, in the spirit of “being upfront,” it should be clearly stated that you’re voicing your personal opinion rather than providing factual content.

There are other codes, but the ones above provide a general journalistic standard that speaks to the nature of what journalists do, what is expected from them and how they should conduct themselves, no matter what company they end up working for.

There is a silver lining as we put the News of the World situation behind us. Hopefully, journalistic standards and codes of ethics are being re-examined and reinforced throughout the world’s media organizations.

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