Since the 1920s journalists in the United States have been writing and rewriting codes of ethics. This began because they wanted the public and their own employers to regard them as worthy of respect (and decent pay), with rules, specialized expertise, and lofty purpose—genuine professionals, just like dentists and accountants. They also wanted guidelines that would keep them both honest and out of court.
There are quite a lot of codes around: The broadcast journalists (RTDNA) have one; a good many news organizations, from tiny newspapers to major market TV stations, have their own; the Online News Association is even hosting a participatory hacking party to encourage members to draw up their own codes, “because one size does not fit all.”
Most recently, just after Labor Day the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) released a revision of its 1996 code, probably the most influential among and most widely consulted by U. S. journalists.
Codes typically have many problems because they fill conflicting needs. The ones written by news outlets are often no more than employee manuals, and pronounce on confidential sources alongside overtime and severance. The deft touch of in-house lawyers is apparent, and the codes give management both deniability if reporters mess up and the moral license to nail them even if their misdeeds are more embarrassing than unethical.
But the bigger problem of codes is that they are so clearly overmatched by the swirl of ethical challenge that inundates contemporary journalism.
To be sure, right conduct can be encouraged by admonitions such as “seek the truth,” “don’t plagiarize,” “correct errors,” “don’t shill,” and “treat people with respect.”
But like the Ten Commandments and the Golden Rule, those instructions constantly clash with each other and with real-world pressures. Today’s journalists—and their employers—face challenges that are immensely more perplexing than those that these codes anticipate, let alone address. Take these hot-button issues the SPJ code does almost nothing to clarify:
- Clickbait: News organizations increasingly rely on web analytics that track, in real time, the traffic that particular postings draw, according to research by Angele Christin of the New School in New York. The result, Christin suggests, is the emergence of incentive structures that tilt reporters’ attention toward editorial confections with strong audience appeal but little news value. Isn’t this an ethical problem? Indeed, isn’t the way that editorial resources are used the quintessential ethical problem that journalism faces?
- Herding: Similarly, the ability to discern momentary trends in online chatter lures editorial resources toward offerings that will draw more of the mindshare of the minute and keep the news outlet “in the conversation,” as the trendy usage puts it. At what point does that constitute an abandonment of the discernment that was once called “editorial judgment” in favor of a continual state of market-chasing panic?
- Corporate complicity: News organizations now routinely incorporate social media into their newsgathering and online distribution operations. They crown Twitter users as trendsetters by recognizing tweets as newsworthy, they treat Google as a natural part of the utility landscape, they sell products in partnership with Amazon, and they build outreach strategies on Facebook. Yet those same vast networks are built on bare-knuckle competition, high-stakes lobbying, and problematic appropriation of user data. Isn’t this complicity a problem? Doesn’t it represent a powerful journalistic endorsement of the social media giants that can’t help but bolster their public policy ambitions?
- Data pillage: Journalism is all about acquiring information. What makes it ethical derives in part from the restrictions journalists impose on themselves as to how to acquire information. Increasingly, though, journalists are part of organizations that as part of their business model help themselves to information traditionally regarded as private. Does it make sense to have reporters take great care to make sure sources fully consent to interviews while elsewhere in the same organization personal information is routinely rummaged for corporate gain, without any consent beyond acquiescence?
- Conflict of interest: The traditional straight-up rule that conflicts be avoided is unenforceable—and all but unintelligible—at a time when more and more journalists are working for numerous paymasters and expect to work for still others in the future. What’s needed is a clearer notion of the principle that’s at stake—the public’s entitlement to reporting unsullied by offscreen obligations—and more fully textured guidelines that suggest what a conflict is, when to turn down assignments, and when disclosure is a reasonable remedy.
- Respect for secrecy: Prevailing codes pretend the past decade hasn’t been rocked by continuing ethical turmoil over when, and whether, official secrecy deserves to be heeded and significant information withheld from publication. With more information than ever declared off-limits by government or proprietary by companies, and with the capacity to make that information public more widespread than ever, the principles that might guide journalists in deciding when to publish are more urgently needed than ever.
Journalists will continue to wrangle over what they should do in the face of those problems. The codes I’ve looked at aren’t much help, but they reflect an enduring wish to do the right thing, which remains something that deserves respect.