Module JC050

Journalistic Ethics

Module author

Samuel Freedman

Columbia Journalism School
Columbia University

Learning objectives After you have studied this module, you will be able to:
  • Understand the need for ethical standards in a profession that does not require a license or a specific academic degree.
  • Recognize the major tenets of journalistic ethics, such as accuracy, fairness, and accountability to the public.
  • Understand the risks of conflict of interest and as a result avoid any such conflict.
  • Recognize the ethical risks inherent in conducting research only online or through social media.
  • Understand the appropriate use of your own social media accounts.
  • Make productive journalistic use of your own background—national, religious, political, cultural—without falsely favoring people like yourself.
  • Recognize the type of subjects for which the traditional form of 50/50 journalistic fairness is not appropriate and not factually accurate.
  • Recognize and so avoid the risks of omitting complex, complicating details that may not smoothly fit into your narrative thesis.
  • Help formulate ethical standards for whatever news organization you work for.
  • Provide informed and intelligent media criticism based on the standards of journalistic ethics.

Chapter 1: Why be ethical?

Chapter 2: The Ethical Canon
2.1 Who you are
2.2 What you do
2.3 How you do it

Chapter 3: Challenges of the digital era

Chapter 4: Tribes and loyalty oaths

Chapter 5: Fairness and ist limits
Study points 2
Preview Ethics in Journalism


Why Open School of Journalism believes that ethics is important for journalists

Journalistic ethics is a course unit that explores the practice of ethics in contemporary journalism. While it can be assumed that a basic code of ethics prevailed in recent history, it appears that journalistic ethics have shifted to some degree. The type of news being reported, along with sources and media, are rapidly evolving in ways that no one could have imagined a few decades ago. Since journalists and reporters are often criticized for breaching personal boundaries in pursuit of a hot lead, this module examines the ethical standards that have seemingly guided journalistic endeavors along with the claim that rigid standards no longer apply. Do most journalists take an ethical approach to their work? If so, what are the applicable ethical guidelines? If not, why not?


Why study Journalistic Ethics?

More than ever before, this topic is relevant because of the rapid growth of information media within a global framework. It used to be the local newspaper reporter would sit in on a town hall meeting, write the story in an office, and publish it in the next morning's community newspaper. Today a journalist is more likely to follow a breaking story online via social media, Twitter, or news outlets, although international correspondents have grown exponentially. Still, even a local reporter can pull a story off the Associated Press that in generations past would not have been accessible.

Most journalists are trained as communication specialists. They learn how to interview subjects, track sources, and write stories. However, they are not necessarily skilled in dealing with unfamiliar cultures or exploding scenarios. When thrust by their editors into alien territory they may not be adequately prepared to appropriately process the situation. Those that are somewhat experienced may disregard basic boundaries or ethic principles of conduct in favor of capturing a story before the competition does. Accidentally or intentionally, some reporters cross literal national boundaries like hikers in Asia have done and end up in a foreign jail. Others have been killed when edging too close to military action in a war's front lines. Some just get beat up by a celebrity or a bodyguard for getting too close. Other ethical breaches result when a story's sources are not carefully checked, when a report is filed with inaccurate or incomplete data just to meet a deadline or beat the competition, or when sensationalism trumps confidentiality.


Overview of the module

Some wonder if ethics still have a place in today's dog-eat-dog world. Others believe that ethics are relative and personalized; one size does not fit all. This segment explores the role of ethics in society with a focus on journalism. Are reporters required to be ethical, or is the story obtained at any cost worth the loss of integrity?

How the journalist identifies individually and as representative of a particular publication, unless freelance, is an important consideration. In quest of a front page headline, is the journalist justified in doing whatever it takes to make a name for himself or herself? Is there a reputation to be earned or maintained? In working for a publication, does the publisher's demand supersede all other considerations, including ethics? Can a journalist distinguish personal identity with corporate obligation? These are some of the issues to be explored as journalists decide who they are, what they represent, and the type of professional image they wish to cultivate.

The type of journalism practiced by some reporters is at issue. For example, how much of a celebrity's private life is owned by the public? Is it right, or fair, to invade the most intimate aspects of a celebrity's life in order to report them with garish detail to a nosy public? What good will be served in knowing that the President had French toast for breakfast or Angelina Jolie wore pearls when she met Queen Elizabeth? Culinary fans may relish the first story, and fashionmongers the second, but does the general public really care?

Most reporters specialize in their respective fields of journalism. A tabloid reporter is unlikely to be published in the New York Times or Salon, for example. Then again, these days you never know. On the other hand, journalists who write for more literary or upscale publications may find themselves economically depressed enough to stoop to lower fare, especially if they are freelance. Does the journalist's personal need to establish an identity, curry favor with certain editors, or simply make a living allow a lapse of ethics in breaching confidentiality or privacy if it means getting someone to read the news?

Some journalists can't get to the scene of the accident in time. The ambulance has left and the car is being towed. All they can do is rush to the Internet and glean details from prior reports that they then rewrite as their own version. Fabricating details that are otherwise missing to flesh out a story is misleading if not downright deceptive. Some reporters get caught, while others don't. Does it matter? Violating privacy laws, confidentiality agreements, and property boundaries are common practice for some journalists in quest of a major story, a byline, or a paycheck. Is such behavior justified?

Keeping up with tweets, social media, faxes, video recordings, youtube posts, and other media is demanding as well as rewarding. How often has a journalist reported on an allegedly major news break from a Web source only to later amend or retract the story due to the source being unreliable? Speedy information is not always the most accurate information. When technology fails at the scene of breaking news, an unprepared reporter may be ill equipped to summarize events in the traditional way.

Numerous leaks and breaches have shown that signing a confidentiality agreement means little to nothing. Being part of an elite club or special interest group does not mean that certain rules will be universally upheld. TV and radio talk shows demonstrate the lack of solidarity that can occur at any time. Whistleblowers and insiders' revelations are broadcast around the world in a few moments' time. Once released digitally, they can never be recalled or cancelled.

With the rise of terrorism and videos depicting beheadings, grisly acts are readily available to the world. Should professional journalists acknowledge these sources and report them in the media? Or is it more ethical to ignore terrorists and deny the publicity they are obviously seeking? To whom does a journalist owe greater loyalty - to the public for news or to governments for security?

Most will agree that ethics cannot be abandoned altogether. But it is difficult if not impossible to find consensus on a common ethical standard for journalism as a whole. There are too many variables that confuse the notion of ethics and preclude the setting of universal boundaries, whether in a celebrity's back yard or an enemy nation's borders. Is it ethical to favor one position over another in a political conflict? Or should both sides be given an equal voice?