Responsible media organizations claim to abide by professional guidelines calling for accuracy, impartiality, accountability, independence, and more. These longstanding tenets of journalism are cataloged in various codes of ethics, developed by journalists, which serve both as reminders to reporters and assurances to news consumers.
Some ethics codes, for example the Chicago Tribune‘s Editorial Ethics Policy, apply to employees of a particular organization. Others, like that of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), are meant for a broader audience. Neither are not legally binding.
Employers certainly do have the option of disciplining journalists who transgress ethics codes. For example the Tribune‘s Editorial Ethics Policy ends with the warning that “Any editorial staff member who violates any provision of this policy statement will be subject to disciplinary action, including reprimand, suspension and/or termination.” But no outside body can enforce these guidelines. As the SPJ puts it, “The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics is voluntary. We do not have a mechanism for investigating complaints or enforcing discipline on SPJ members, much less other journalists.”
In other words, unlike lawyers who can be disbarred or doctors whose licenses can be revoked, journalists can legally practice their craft after even the most egregious violations of journalistic ethics. This means that we, the public, have a great responsibility to inform ourselves of these tenets of journalistic ethics, and to inform editors and publishers that we expect they will be followed.
Below are key excerpts from several codes of ethics. Use the tabs on the left to switch through the codes:
American Association of Newspaper Editors
Canons of Journalism (1923)
Sincerity, Truthfulness, Accuracy
Good faith with the reader is the foundation of all journalism worthy of the name.
(1) By every consideration of good faith a newspaper is constrained to be truthful. It is not to be excused for lack of thoroughness or accuracy within its control or failure to obtain command of these essential qualities.
(2) Headlines should be fully warranted by the contents of the articles which they surmount.
Sound practice makes clear distinciton between news reports and expressions of opinion. News reports should be free from opinion or bias of any kind.
American Association of Newspaper Editors
Statement of Principles (2006)
Truth and Accuracy. Good faith with the reader is the foundation of good journalism. Every effort must be made to assure that the news content is accurate, free from bias and in context, and that all sides are presented fairly. Editorials, analytical articles and commentary should be held to the same standards of accuracy with respect to facts as news reports. Significant errors of fact, as well as errors of omission, should be corrected promptly and prominently.
Impartiality. To be impartial does not require the press to be unquestioning or to refrain from editorial expression. Sound practice, however, demands a clear distinction for the reader between news reports and opinion. Articles that contain opinion or personal interpretation should be clearly identified.
Fair Play. Journalists should respect the rights of people involved in the news, observe the common standards of decency and stand accountable to the public for the fairness and accuracy of their news reports. Persons publicly accused should be given the earliest opportunity to respond. …
The Society of Professional Journalists
Code of Ethics
– 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. …
– Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing. …
– Label advocacy and commentary.
– 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. …
When we’re wrong, we must say so as soon as possible. When we make a correction in the current cycle, we point out the error and its fix in the editor’s note. A correction must always be labeled a correction in the editor’s note. We do not use euphemisms such as “recasts,” “fixes,” “clarifies” or “changes” when correcting a factual error.
A corrective corrects a mistake from a previous cycle. The AP asks papers or broadcasters that used the erroneous information to use the corrective, too.
The Associate Press
Statement of News Values and Principles
When mistakes are made, they must be corrected – fully, quickly and ungrudgingly. …
Any time a question is raised about any aspect of our work, it should be taken seriously.
The New York Times
Guidelines on Integrity
Corrections. Because our voice is loud and far-reaching, The Times recognizes an ethical responsibility to correct all its factual errors, large and small. The paper regrets every error, but it applauds the integrity of a writer who volunteers a correction of his or her own published story. Whatever the origin, though, any complaint should be relayed to a responsible supervising editor and investigated quickly. If a correction is warranted, fairness demands that it be published immediately. In case of reasonable doubt or disagreement about the facts, we can acknowledge that a statement was “imprecise” or “incomplete” even if we are not sure it was wrong.
Because its voice is loud and far-reaching, The Times recognizes an ethical responsibility to correct all its factual errors, large and small (even misspellings of names), promptly and in a prominent reserved space in the paper. A correction serves all readers, not just those who were injured or who complained, so it must be self-explanatory, tersely recalling the context and the background while repairing the error.