Ethics refer to the moral principles or values held or shown by an individual person.
The term comes from the Greek “ethos,” which in turn refers to a person’s character. Ethics are intended to help resolve questions dealing with what is right and what is wrong. Ethics ultimately reside at the individual level — that is, they reflect what an individual considers to be acceptable behavior. However, such moral principles are shaped by one’s societal and cultural norms, religion, and even familial environments. In the case of journalism, there are also specific professional codes of ethics that journalists must abide by.
Ethics are very different from laws. Philosophically, the law is typically concerned with what is legal or illegal, while ethics are concerned with what is right and what is wrong. These differ substantially, as something may be legal yet arguably unethical (e.g., enacting a death penalty) and illegal yet arguably ethical (e.g., stealing a loaf of bread to feed a hungry child). Additionally, laws are usually determined by institutions (e.g., a state government) and enforced through institutions (e.g., the police), whereas ethics are typically self-legislated (e.g., within groups or individuals) and self-enforced (e.g., through social pressure or exclusion). Finally, legality is based on statutory boundaries that are supposed to apply equally to all members of a jurisdiction. In contrast, ethics are more ambiguous and may vary considerably according to members of a group.
A simpler way to think about this, however, is that laws set a minimal standard, whereas ethics set a benchmark or ideal behavior to strive toward. Put another way, laws are about what you can do, and ethics are about what you should do.
Journalistic ethics are especially important in the United States because there is no licensing system for U.S. journalists. Anyone can claim to be a journalist, which is very different from professions like doctors and lawyers that require formal credentialing. This is not the case everywhere, either. Some countries require journalists (or the organizations that employ them) to be licensed by the government in order to officially publish journalism.
In lieu of licensing, self-regulation becomes important for promoting good journalism — both in terms of products and behaviors. The perception that journalism is both good and intends to do good is important for its recognition as a pillar of democratic society. Put another way, a strong sense of professional ethics is important for gaining the public’s trust.
There are several philosophical approaches for determining what is ethical and what is not. Placed on a spectrum, we’d likely find deontological approaches on one end and teleological approaches on the other.
Deontological approaches focus on the principles that drive the action. Put another way, even if the consequence of an action is bad, it would be moral if it was driven by good motives and followed best practices. An example of this approach is Immanuel Kant’s Categorical Imperative approach, wherein the ethical duty is the same all of the time, in every circumstance, and with little regard for the consequences. Under a deontological approach, a reporter would be expected to refuse to go undercover and lie about their profession because lying is unethical, even if it means missing out on an important story about water contamination.
Teleological approaches focus on the result of the action. Put another way, if the outcome (or goal) is “good,” then the action is moral, with little weight placed on how one reached that goal. An example of this approach would be Utilitarianism, which asserts that the most ethical act is the one that brings the greatest good to the greatest number of people. Under a teleological approach, a reporter would be expected to agree to go undercover and lie about their profession because a larger group of people — presumably, most members of a city — would benefit from the story about water contamination than would be harmed by the lying.
There is a vast middle ground between these approaches, but deontology and teleology are illustrative of the distinct approaches to processes for determining the most ethical choice in a given context. Other approaches include situational ethics, multiple duties, and virtue ethics.
In a 2013 survey of U.S. journalists, researchers found that 93% of them reported at least some agreement with the statement, “journalists should always adhere to codes of professional ethics, regardless of situation and context.” Put another way, although ethics are ultimately determined by the individual, journalists in the United States strongly believe in adhering to shared professional codes of ethics.
There isn’t a single code of ethics for journalists in the United States. For example, photojournalists have their own professional code of ethics through the National Press Photographers Association, and even individual news organizations like The New York Times have their own codes of ethics.
However, the most influential code of ethics in the U.S. is the Society of Professional Journalists’ (SPJ) Code of Ethics, from which other professional and organizational journalistic codes often borrow. The SPJ code is divided into four main ethical principles: seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable and transparent. These principles sometimes clash with one another, requiring journalists to balance which principles are most important under their personal ethical philosophies. SPJ’s Code of Ethics includes a series of detailed statements for each principle, which is intended to guide action for specific kinds of dilemmas.
SPJ’s Code of Ethics stresses that ethical journalism should be accurate and fair, and that journalists should therefore be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting, and interpreting information.
This involves ensuring that all information is verified before it is released, and that original sources — people, publications, historical documents, or other records that document events first-hand — should be used whenever possible. Journalists must also take care not to misrepresent or oversimplify things when promoting, previewing or summarizing a story. The deliberate distortion of information must be avoided, and such distortions are patently unethical. Opinion and commentary should be clearly labeled as such, so that audiences do not confuse them with news.
Sources must be clearly identified when possible, with the public given as much information as is appropriate for ascertaining the source’s position, reliability, and potential motivations. Journalists should therefore be judicious with their offers of anonymity, and should explain transparently in their work why a source was granted anonymity. Journalists also have a moral responsibility to seek sources whose voices the public seldom hears, and to avoid stereotyping.
Journalists should diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing. Journalists should avoid undercover or surreptitious methods of gathering information unless more traditional, open methods will not yield information that is of substantial public interest. Put another way, the SPJ Code recognizes that there are instances where journalists have good reason to mask their identity and purpose — but such tactics should be used sparingly and only as a last resort. Plagiarism and fabrication are strictly forbidden.
SPJ’s code also stresses that ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues, and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.
This involves balancing the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. The pursuit of the news is not a license for undue intrusiveness or needless invasion of privacy. Journalists must therefore show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage, and must be especially sensitive when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes, and sources who are inexperienced or unable to give consent. For example, a journalist may opt to omit an undocumented immigrant’s full name and place of work from a story because it might put them in danger. It is important for journalists to recognize and respect cultural differences.
Crucially, journalists should avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do. Put another way, individuals’ privacy must be weighed against the public’s need for information — and some details are simply not needed for a story to make the necessary impact. Journalists should recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence, or attention. In conjunction with this, journalists must consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication.
According to the SPJ code, the highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.
As such, journalists must avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Often, a journalist may feel that they can disassociate their interests from their journalistic work. For example, they may believe that they can compartmentalize their romantic relationship with a City Council member and continue to effectively report on the City Council. This is rarely possible, and even if it were, the public would still likely have concerns about that arrangement — and thus become less trusting of the journalist, their journalism, and their journalistic outlet. Conflicts like these should be avoided altogether by having journalists excuse themselves from reporting on stories about topics or subjects that introduce a potential conflict of interest. When a conflict of interest is unavoidable (e.g., the reporter happened to be around when news broke involving their partner), the unavoidable conflict must be disclosed to the audience. This disclosure is a form of journalistic transparency.
Acting independently also means rejecting gifts, favors, money, or any special treatment from sources or the subjects of reporting. For example, journalists should not keep a phone that was given to them for the purpose of a product review. Similarly, it is unethical to pay sources for access or directly for information. Although there are examples of journalists paying sources for exclusive interviews, it is an uncommon and highly problematic practice in the U.S.
The SPJ code also stresses avoiding political and other outside activities that could jeopardize a reporter’s impartiality or credibility. This point has become more contentious in recent years, but most journalists in the U.S. currently believe that public advocacy or visible support for causes is problematic, and should therefore be avoided.
Finally, the SPJ also emphasizes that ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining journalistic decisions to the public.
This involves explaining ethical choices and processes to audiences. This might include publishing a companion piece that describes the decision-making process through which an organization felt it was necessary to engage in undercover reporting for a feature story. It also means acknowledging mistakes and correcting them promptly. When corrections are necessary, they should appear in prominent areas so that people who were exposed to the misinformation can become aware of the correct information. These actions, too, make the journalistic process more transparent to news audiences.
Being accountable also involves exposing unethical conduct in journalism, including within one’s own organization. Put another way, even if a journalist does not engage in unethical behavior themselves, it is important for the profession of journalism for all journalists to call out bad behavior by their peers. Protecting one’s peers is often a selfish and unethical act, and it does not lead to better journalism.
Ethics refer to the moral principles or values held or shown by an individual. They represent a higher standard than what the law encompasses.
There are different philosophies for ethical decision-making. They typically range from a sole focus on actions to a sole focus on outcomes, with many philosophies existing in between those two extremes.
The SPJ Code of Ethics is the most prominent and influential code of ethics in U.S. journalism. It is guided by four main principles: seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable and transparent.