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Our ethics codes get an overhaul

“How candid should journalists be with the people we quote, photograph, and record, knowing that a single picture or paraphrase can, thanks to Google, irrevocably change their lives?”

There are plenty of ethics codes out there for journalists. The best known in the U.S. is from the Society of Professional Journalists and is filled with useful and largely uncontroversial advice, ranging from “Seek truth and report it” to “Be accountable and transparent.” Many individual news organizations, from the Sioux Falls Argus Leader to The New York Times, have their own policies.

But 2020 ought to be the year that our ethics codes get an overhaul, as journalists face relentless business pressures, relinquish even more control over how our content is distributed and framed, and deal with the consequences of anonymity, doxing, and transparency. It’s more urgent than ever, as our country becomes increasingly polarized and as trust in the news media remains tepid.

So the next great ethics code ought to deal with the sort of situations that are arising (or becoming more urgent) in the digital age. They include:

  • How candid should journalists be with the people we quote, photograph, and record, knowing that a single picture or paraphrase can, thanks to Google, irrevocably change their lives?
  • What’s the responsibility of journalists to address the way others mischaracterize or mislabel their reporting, and how can that be done most effectively?
  • When aggregating or linking to others’ stories, what’s a journalist’s responsibility to fact-check those pieces, to examine their provenance, to evaluate the credibility of the author?
  • How much transparency do nonprofit news organizations owe their readers, revealing not just donors’ names and amounts but the nature of any discussions or promises (implicit or explicit) that preceded a gift?
  • How much anonymity do we owe our commenters, whose remarks shape the way our stories are evaluated? How do we choose which stories are open to comments and which are closed?
  • How much daylight should there be between reporters’ social media feeds and their professional profiles? Should journalists’ Twitter feeds ever reflect angles or opinions that they wouldn’t feel comfortable including in a news story?
  • What measures should we take as some journalists simultaneously produce both independent news stories and sponsored content (or other pieces that are driven largely by advertisers’ interests)?
  • As news organizations move to subscription-driven models, how much of an obligation do we retain to serve communities who can’t afford, or aren’t interested in, the journalism that we publish?

Constructing this code won’t be easy. It’ll require contributions from people who don’t usually feel empowered to take part in this discussion. It’ll need to be updated constantly, as media economics and technologies change.

And there’s a limit to the effectiveness of any ethics code. Journalism isn’t a typical profession, with a state bar or medical board that can investigate complaints and impose sanctions. A new code won’t affect some behavior any more than the old ones do, because many journalists will lack the interest or integrity to abide.

It’s possible that the most significant signal of an ethics code would be for some of our readers, viewers, and listeners. It could help guide their expectations about the journalism they consume. And it could empower them to demand more from the journalists who cover their communities.

Bill Grueskin is a professor of professional practice at Columbia Journalism School.

There are plenty of ethics codes out there for journalists. The best known in the U.S. is from the Society of Professional Journalists and is filled with useful and largely uncontroversial advice, ranging from “Seek truth and report it” to “Be accountable and transparent.” Many individual news organizations, from the Sioux Falls Argus Leader to The New York Times, have their own policies.

But 2020 ought to be the year that our ethics codes get an overhaul, as journalists face relentless business pressures, relinquish even more control over how our content is distributed and framed, and deal with the consequences of anonymity, doxing, and transparency. It’s more urgent than ever, as our country becomes increasingly polarized and as trust in the news media remains tepid.

So the next great ethics code ought to deal with the sort of situations that are arising (or becoming more urgent) in the digital age. They include:

  • How candid should journalists be with the people we quote, photograph, and record, knowing that a single picture or paraphrase can, thanks to Google, irrevocably change their lives?
  • What’s the responsibility of journalists to address the way others mischaracterize or mislabel their reporting, and how can that be done most effectively?
  • When aggregating or linking to others’ stories, what’s a journalist’s responsibility to fact-check those pieces, to examine their provenance, to evaluate the credibility of the author?
  • How much transparency do nonprofit news organizations owe their readers, revealing not just donors’ names and amounts but the nature of any discussions or promises (implicit or explicit) that preceded a gift?
  • How much anonymity do we owe our commenters, whose remarks shape the way our stories are evaluated? How do we choose which stories are open to comments and which are closed?
  • How much daylight should there be between reporters’ social media feeds and their professional profiles? Should journalists’ Twitter feeds ever reflect angles or opinions that they wouldn’t feel comfortable including in a news story?
  • What measures should we take as some journalists simultaneously produce both independent news stories and sponsored content (or other pieces that are driven largely by advertisers’ interests)?
  • As news organizations move to subscription-driven models, how much of an obligation do we retain to serve communities who can’t afford, or aren’t interested in, the journalism that we publish?

Constructing this code won’t be easy. It’ll require contributions from people who don’t usually feel empowered to take part in this discussion. It’ll need to be updated constantly, as media economics and technologies change.

And there’s a limit to the effectiveness of any ethics code. Journalism isn’t a typical profession, with a state bar or medical board that can investigate complaints and impose sanctions. A new code won’t affect some behavior any more than the old ones do, because many journalists will lack the interest or integrity to abide.

It’s possible that the most significant signal of an ethics code would be for some of our readers, viewers, and listeners. It could help guide their expectations about the journalism they consume. And it could empower them to demand more from the journalists who cover their communities.

Bill Grueskin is a professor of professional practice at Columbia Journalism School.

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