July 23, 2009

Codes and Ethics: Audience

Codes of ethics such as the SPJ’s are lists of normative values. Do these things. Don’t do these other things. Seek these outcomes. Avoid these other outcomes. Even though a very low percentage of professional journalists (i.e. they get a paycheck for doing it) belong to SPJ, they are all familiar with the code because the values it espouses are ubiquitous in the craft.

A code of ethics, to be of any use at all, must have a well-defined audience and be focused on a specific set of practices. Now there’s nothing surprising about that assertion. But making it is necessary for the following brief discussion. That assertion opens the door to a little deconstruction.

The audience is, obviously, journalists. The specific practice is journalism, i.e. the creation of texts (of all kinds) that, by employing an editorial process, have the primary purpose to  give citizens the information they need to be free and self-governing.

Who is left out?

Who is left out are the people with the power and autonomy to make decisions about what actually ends up offered to the public as journalism. Who is left out are the people with the power to act politically, socially, and economically in the news organization’s name. Who is left out are the people in the news organization who are connected to social, economic, and political power.

In other words, codes of ethics such as SPJ’s are aimed at modifying the behavior of the least powerful people in a typical MSM news business.

That’s not to conclude that such codes are useless or that they have nothing to teach journalists or that they have no relevance to citizens. It is to conclude that the codes are incomplete. The audience for the codes is too small given the (fading) realities of corporate journalism.

So what you get are episodes such as the recent troubles at the Washington Post in which the power structure at that news business acts as if it has been blindsided by unethical behavior that it couldn’t see coming. That, of course, is utter bull-roar. But the code “allows” it because its focus is on the ones in that situation who were victims of  “a certain complacency.”

In this series…

Codes and Ethics: A Series

2 Responses

  1. > “codes of ethics such as SPJ’s are aimed at modifying the behavior of the least powerful people in a typical MSM news business.”

    Amen.
    So the code becomes a CYA figleaf, allowing the journalist to wash his hands of the end product.
    (or rather, his conscience’s hands, if it has them)
    Omerta’ seems to be an important if unwritten part of it, too.

    p.s. fyi, the URL for “Codes and Ethics: A Series” is missing.
    p.p.s. haven’t read the spj code for some time, so memory might not be accurate.

  2. acline 

    Anna… Thanks for the heads-up on the link. I’ll get it fixed.