Journalistic Ethics: The four principles and the impact they can have.

In today’s society, journalism and the use of journalistic ethics are more important than ever.

“With the current assault on the news media from government officials and an uneducated public, ethics in journalism are more important than ever. Media needs to do it right and not give the skeptics any fodder. That way we can all sleep better at night.”- Paola Boivin, Arizona Sports Hall of Fame 2017

The number of ways journalism can impact society and the lives of people around the word is infinite. However, the impact can quickly be turned from a positive to a negative, thus losing public trust in the media. In a gallup poll presented by Fox News earlier this year, American’s expressed they had more trust in the White House than they do in the media.

Although the White House is not particularly fond of the content produced by the media, news outlets have been know to put themselves in a tough bind based on unethical decisions that were made in certain instances.

The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) is the journalistic leader in journalistic ethics. Its preamble states: Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity. SPJ has created its own code of journalistic ethics which was last revised in 2014. There are four ethical standards which are outlined in the SPJ code:

  1. Seek Truth and Report It: Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.
  2. Minimize Harm:Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.
  3. Act Independently: The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.
  4. Be Accountable and Transparent: Ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public.

Journalists have been called “the fourth branch of government,” meaning they are the watchdogs of society and have a duty to inform the public on situations they did not have in-depth or prior knowledge of. Without ethical journalistic practices, we are doing an injustice to society and could potentially damage or own reputation and the reputation of journalism as a whole.

Seek Truth and Report it

LIBEL…maybe you’ve heard of it. The definition of libel is to publish in print (including pictures), writing or broadcast through radio, television or film, an untruth about another which will do harm to that person or his/her reputation, by tending to bring the target into ridicule, hatred, scorn or contempt of others.

While libel is not extremely common, it is still a serious offense and can ruin the reputation of a subject or news media outlet. There’s a strong possibility you’ve heard President Trump talk about “fake news”.

Video courtesy of Just Here for the Comments

As funny as a video compilation of the president saying ”fake news” is, fake news, or libel, is no laughing matter and has destroyed peoples lives. In May of this year, the New York Times reported that health and fitness icon, Richard Simons, filed a libel lawsuit against The National Enquirer and Radar Online for claiming he may have had a sex change.

Headline photo: New York Times

The fact of the matter is Simmons did not in fact have a sex change and the lies against him tarnished his name and made him subject to increased public scrutiny.

After the lawsuit was filed, the two media outlets made a joint response that showed little remorse for the false accusations that they created based off of a false statement that Simmons was subject to “witchcraft” and had a sex change. The statement reads:

“For decades, Richard Simmons has used his outrageous behavior to build his brand and his bank account,” the statement said. “For Mr. Simmons to now claim that his privacy has been invaded is hypocritical when his entire livelihood is based upon the public consumption of his image.”

While this may seem like just a sour response, statements like this can a media outlet into a deeper hole. However, news media companies aren’t the only entities that can be sued for libel. In 2012 a jury awarded a Texas couple $13.78 million after a group of people posted over 25,000 comments about them online.

The ethical principle seek truth and report it is extremely important especially today. We are living in an era where lies are spread for political and social gain no matter the situation it puts others in. As journalists it is a duty to inform the public of accurate information in order to not tarnish the good name of a person, organization, or event.

Minimize Harm

The principle of minimizing harm can be a tricky but essential aspect of ethical journalism. The main reason for this is because you never know how someone may react to a story or even a photograph. Often times a journalists best tool is his judgement whether or not to write or photograph something depending on the situation.

A Boston police officer wheels in injured boy down Boylston Street as medical workers carry an injured runner following an explosion during the 2013 Boston Marathon in Boston, Monday, April 15, 2013. Two explosions shattered the euphoria at the marathon’s finish line on Monday, sending authorities out on the course to carry off the injured while the stragglers were rerouted away from the smoking site of the blasts. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)

This photograph was taken in 2013 right after the explosion at the Boston Marathon. At first thought, everything about this picture may seem fine. Many pictures taken on this day showed injured people, some severely, with their faces completely visible. While the picture of this little boy being pushed by a police officer is very different than the injured runners and spectators, there are some similarities. Think of it likes this:

  1. The young boys face is 100% visible in the photograph
  2. There is no indication that his parents or guardian are with the boy or know where he is
  3. This image was posted online the day of the blast. There is a possibility at the time of the posting the young child was still alone
  4. If a parent or guardian of the child saw the image it could cause infliction of emotional distress especially if there is no indication where the child is

While I don’t believe this situation was handled the correct way, others may disagree. This is another reason why minimizing harm is a tough principle to work with.

In some instances, ethical principles will cross over each other. In 2014 Rolling Stones magazine published a story based on the word of a young woman who claimed to have been raped by members of a social fraternity at the University of Virginia. The story was discovered to be false and members of the fraternity sued the publication. Not only was harm done to the members of the fraternity who lived with the title of “rapists” for months and possibly to this day, but Rolling Stone did not report the truth.

An attorney of Nicole Eramo, former UVA associate dean of students, was quoted saying although the magazine admitted its error, it did not act with actual malice. In the story, the author deemed the former dean as a villain. Not only did the story harm the members of the fraternity, but also other figures that had a connection to the university.

The attorney said his client was “collateral damage in a quest for sensational journalism.” …not so sensational.

Act independently

One of the main concepts of acting independently is not accepting any special treatment. It is not uncommon for journalists to be offered gifts from organizations or sports teams in an effort to persuade their reporting. While this is can be intriguing, it is important for a journalist to remain unbiased and fight temptations. However, some journalists give in to special treatments which can resulted in faulty statements or reporting. Brian Williams, who spent ten years as an anchor for NBC Nightly News, stated in a broadcast that he was in a helicopter that was shot at by an RPG. Williams’ misinterpretation of this event led to a suspension.

Brian Williams interviewed by Matt Lauer

This was not his first offense of acting without independence. Williams also made a statement in 2014 that he witnessed a man commit suicide after Hurricane Katrina. In reality, this was just a story he had heard from someone else, a statement he made in 2005.

The former anchor also claimed to have been flown into Baghdad by Seal Team 6. Williams was caught in this lie as well. A command spokesman stated that the SEALs “do not embed journalist”. This would have been considered a special treatment which by the SPJ code of ethics is a big NO.

New York Daily News

By breaking this principle, a journalist will in turn break the trust of viewers or readers. These violations can tarnish a journalists reputation for being a reliable source for news and can lose the trust of the public. In Williams’ case, he let his ego get the best of him. Despite his circumstance, all it takes is accepting small gifts to alter the mindset of a journalist to have skewed biased reporting.

Be Accountable and Transparent

Dom Consentino | Deadspin

Read the title. Read the name of the athlete the title is referring to. Think about why this may be an issue.

In a certain context, the title of this article wouldn’t be viewed as an ethical problem. However, the article was about Jeremy Lin, an Asian NBA player who struggled in a game against the New Orleans Hornets (now Pelicans).

Being accountable and transparent in journalistic work is possibly the most important principle to follow to ensure a journalist will not break any other principles. If someone does not understand the context of something said, it can ruin the mentality or meaning for the rest of the work. In this case, not only did Anthony Federico(the author), offend a number of individuals by his lapse in judgement, he also lost his job.

However, what Federico did find success in was being accountable for his actions. After his termination from ESPN, Federico released a statement of apology… or at least he tried to:

I wrote the headline in reference to the tone of the column and not to Jeremy Lin’s race. It was a lapse in judgment and not a racist pun. It was an awful editorial omission and it cost me my job.
I owe an apology to Jeremy Lin and all people offended. I am truly sorry.
Actions speak louder than words. My words may have hurt people in that moment but my actions have always helped people. If those who vilify me would take a deeper look at my life they would see that I am the exact opposite of how some are portraying me.

No one is perfect and everyone is going to make a mistake or two. HOWEVER, it is your what a journalist does after making a mistake that defines who they are and can help regain trust from the public.

Frédéric Marque

Doesn’t much more transparent than that!

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