July 13, 2009

Codes and Ethics: A Series

What is a code of ethics for?

Over the next couple of weeks I’m going to examine the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. My goal is to come to a reasonable answer to the question above using “for” in the senses of utility and principle.

I use three central questions in my media ethics class as way to jump start critical examination of issues of media ethics. These questions can also guide an examination of codes:

  1. What constitutes an ethical problem or dilemma and from whose point of view?
  2. What are the sources of ethical standards, and whose agendas do/should these standards serve?
  3. How do we solve ethical problems, and whose interests are served by the methods we use to arrive at solutions?

I suppose the best way to start is to assert what a code of ethics is. I think it is useful to think of codes of ethics as a list of normative statements about what involved individuals ought and ought not do in regards to a particular undertaking. So in the case of journalism, the SPJ code is a list of normative statements (a moral framework) that attempt to guide how journalists do their jobs.

The preamble of the SPJ code sets the foundation for understanding how journalists are taught to understand their role:

Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility. Members of the Society share a dedication to ethical behavior and adopt this code to declare the Society’s principles and standards of practice.

You’ll recognize journalism’s theory of democracy in that statement:

1) the journalist’s role is to inform citizens; 2) citizens are assumed to be informed if they regularly attend to the local, national, and international news journalists supply them; 3) the more informed citizens are, the more likely they are to participate politically, especially in the democratic debate that journalists consider central to participation and democracy; 4) the more that informed citizens participate, the more democratic America is likely to be.

This is mythology. But it is very useful mythology. Despite each of those four parts of the theory being unproven (and in some cases dis-proven), it is entirely true that citizens cannot participate intelligently if they don’t know what’s going on. And that provides the foundation for the primary purpose of journalism as stated by Kovach & Rosenstiel: To give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

There’s nothing politically innocent about that purpose. Hence the need for a code of ethics.

We can begin to answer our initial question this way: A code of ethics teaches journalists what is expected of them and what citizens should expect from them.

2 Responses

  1. David Porreca 

    Very impressive site, Andrew — I found it last week via a bookmark in my Delicious network (someone had bookmarked your piece on a field theory of journalism). It will take me a while to work my way through your posts, but I look forward to it.

    Anyway, I teach high school journalism and thought you might be interested in this code of ethics from the National Scholastic Press Association:


  2. acline 

    David… Thanks for the link!