By Scott Buhrmaster
We all know that the relationship between law enforcement and the media can be contentious. It’s not uncommon for police officers and departmental leaders to voice the belief that reporters, starved to find or even “create” news in a frenzied competition with other media outlets, act irresponsibly, unfairly and to some, unethically. It’s not hard to envision reporters as an untethered bunch who function without rules, conscience or guiding ethical principles.
It’s not supposed to be that way. More than 100 years ago a group called the Society of Professional Journalists was founded to, in part, “advance the standards of the press by fostering a higher ethical code.”
Over a period of years, the SPJ forged a Code of Ethics you may not be aware of. After several revisions, the most current version is available to the public. We thought we would share it.
At the end, we’ve included a link where you can download a print copy you may want to share with any journalists you feel fail to observe these standards.
Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics
Seek truth and report it.
Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.
Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before releasing it. Use original sources whenever possible.
Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy.
Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.
Gather, update and correct information throughout the life of a news story.
Be cautious when making promises, but keep the promises they make.
Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.
Consider sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere. Explain why anonymity was granted.
Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.
Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public.
Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. Give voice to the voiceless.
Support the open and civil exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.
Recognize a special obligation to serve as watchdogs over public affairs and government. Seek to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open, and that public records are open to all.
Provide access to source material when it is relevant and appropriate.
Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience. Seek sources whose voices we seldom hear.
Avoid stereotyping. Journalists should examine the ways their values and experiences may shape their reporting.
Label advocacy and commentary.
Never deliberately distort facts or context, including visual information. Clearly label illustrations and re-enactments.
Never plagiarize. Always attribute.
Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.
Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.
Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage. Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes, and sources or subjects who are
inexperienced or unable to give consent. Consider cultural differences in approach and treatment.
Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.
Realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention. Weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information.
Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.
Balance a suspect’s right to a fair trial with the public’s right to know. Consider the implications of identifying criminal suspects before they face legal charges.
Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication. Provide updated and more complete information as appropriate.
The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.
Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility.
Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; do not pay for access to news. Identify content provided by outside sources, whether paid or not.
Deny favored treatment to advertisers, donors or any other special interests, and resist internal and external pressure to influence coverage.
Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two. Prominently label sponsored content.
Be accountable and transparent.
Ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public.
Explain ethical choices and processes to audiences. Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content.
Respond quickly to questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness.
Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently. Explain corrections and clarifications carefully and clearly.
Expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organizations.
Abide by the same high standards they expect of others.
WHAT DO YOU THINK? Do most of the journalists you or your agency representatives encounter abide by these tenets? We’d love to know your thoughts and hear about your experiences. E-mail us at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Download a copy of the SPJ Code of Ethics