In 2003, after four years with The New York Times, Jayson Blair resigned from his post as staff reporter. On May 11, 2003, The NY Times published “Correcting The Record; Times Reporter Who Resigned Leaves Long Trail of Deception,” outlining his betrayal of several fundamental journalism ethics. The Times front page story outlined misdeeds of plagiarism and fabrication: “He fabricated comments. He concocted scenes. He lifted material from other newspapers and wire services. He selected details from photographs to create the impression he had been somewhere or seen someone, when he had not,” wrote Times’ Dan Barry et al.
Ethics in journalism are based on professional conduct, morality and the truth. Not adhering to these fundamental principles leads to misrepresenting or misleading members of the public, and in some cases jeopardizing their lives. Professionally, betraying media ethics could result in a journalism career being destroyed.
While specific elements of journalism ethics vary among media sources and professional societies/organizations, there are some basic professional standards that are universal across the board. (Sources: Society of Professional Journalists, International Federation of Journalists and USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism’s Knight Digital Media Centre).
Be Truthful and Give Credit Credit Where Credit is Due
- The International Federation of Journalists states that the first duty of a journalist is to have “respect for truth and for the right of the public to truth”.
- Never, ever plagiarize! Give credit to the sources of information you have employed, whether you are paraphrasing or using a direct quote. If you are just beginning your journalism degree and are still unclear about what plagiarism exactly entails – do not be embarrassed – consult professors or veteran journalists for guidance.
- Do not fabricate sources (or quotes from actual sources), events, information, statistics, experiences or scenes.
- Do not distort photographs or videos (this could lead to a misrepresentation of the truth). The Society of Professional Journalists states, “Image enhancement for technical clarity is always permissible”. Credit photographers/videographers and make sure you are not infringing on any copyright rules (i.e. ask for permission before using photos/videos).
- Strive to uncover the truth to the best of your abilities in order to avoid misrepresentation and oversimplification for subjective means. Seek to cover all angles and thoroughly research multiple, reputable sources. That being said, unofficial sources can also be credible.
Journalists Respect Human Rights
- In some cases, the identity of your sources may need to be anonymous for their own personal and professional safety. Respect this and acknowledge them as a source chosen to be unnamed. The Society of Professional Journalists adds that you should question why a person wishes to be anonymous and to establish clear conditions with your source from the beginning.
- When a source asks for sections of an interview to be “off the record,” respect this request.
- Respect the privacy of those dealing with tragedy and avoid providing potentially harmful information (such as the name of a minor, a victim of a sex crime or the address of a lottery winner).
- Do not engage in slanderous or stereotypical/discriminatory communication. For example, be wary of naming suspects before they have been formally charged.
- You’re encouraged to illustrate the diversity of human experiences and views, no matter how unpopular they may be.
- As a photojournalist, be conscious of your behavior. There is a fine line between taking photos to accurately represent a breaking news story/opinion piece and infringing on privacy or even risking the safety of your subjects.
- Distinguish between writing factual-news stories and opinion/advocacy pieces and label them accordingly. The former should be written as objectively as possible.
- You should not purposefully hide or omit information in order to further support your own personal agenda.
- Stay clear of any potential conflicts of interest.
- Avoid showing preferential treatment to corporate, political or public groups. Every entity should be reported on equally. Do not accept gifts/bribes in exchange for covering stories in a certain way.
- If you’ve realized you’ve made mistakes accurately presenting to the truth, accept responsibility and supply the corrections to the public via your media source.
- Invite the public to ask questions/seek clarification on the stories you’ve covered and with the media at large.
- Hold yourself and others accountable to journalism ethics.
Journalism Ethics in New Media
Media ethics are not limited to traditional print publications. Ethics in journalism also extend to all forms of new media, including social media, online magazines and newspapers, blogs, newswire websites and other forms of digital media. Although some online writers seem to get away with writing falsehoods or plagiarizing (through “cutting and pasting”), as a journalist, you never want to sink to that level. The same journalism ethics apply. In fact, in an online environment, you can further credit sources through providing links to their webpages, if applicable, in addition to naming the author and/or publication.
Journalism Ethics are not always cut and dry. If you ever have any doubts talk to your journalism school professors, media employer/editor or consult the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Hotline.