Codes of Ethics and Beyond
By Bob Steele and Jay Black
It's no surprise that the 33 codes of ethics offered by ASNE member newspapers include a wide range of approaches for handling moral dilemmas. Some are heavy on time-honored tradition and others venture into the impact of the new technologies at the turn of the new century.
Most of the codes are litanies of do's and don'ts, salted with an occasional element on the decision-making process. Some take a decidedly "user friendly" stance, reading like conversations among colleagues who respect one another's quests for excellence.
Others are much more negative in tone, loaded with a litany of "thou shalt not's" and infused with a paternalistic tone implying that staffers are inclined to get away with anything not specifically forbidden by the codes.
The most popular subject in these codes is conflicts of interest to include a wide range of issues from gifts and junkets to political involvement and community activity. About half of the codes we examined dealt with the subjects of sources and matters of manipulation of photographs. Fewer still dealt with corrections and plagiarism.
Missing from many codes were standards or discussion of privacy, deception, identification of juvenile suspects and racial stereotyping. Fewer than one in five codes addressed the subject of editorial and advertising department tensions. Many codes ignored the subject of enforcement.
These 33 codes also greatly vary in length. The Daily Press of Newport News, Va., weighs in with some 8,000 words, while The Arizona Republic, Phoenix, among others, is a comparatively pithy 500 words.
This was not a random sample, since these were volunteer submissions to a general call. However, these codes reflect the various ways American newspapers address matters of ethics.
In looking at 33 codes, we found that newspaper codes of ethics, like those of most professional institutions, try to serve at least two important functions: public relations and education. A good newspaper code promotes ethical thought and behavior within the newspaper, showing newcomers where the landmines are and reminding veterans of the newsroom's values and norms.
It also justifies journalists' activities to the public at large, especially during times of diminished credibility and intensified public scrutiny. These functions are often reflected in the codes' preambles.
Good examples of codes sensitive to public relations are the following:
Wisconsin State Journal, Madison
We are guests in our readers' homes, and as such, we hold to high standards of decency, courtesy, responsibility and community....
The News & Observer, Raleigh, N.C.
For The News & Observer to be the Triangle's primary source for news and information, we must have the trust and confidence of our readers. Readers must know that the newspaper that arrives on their doorstep every morning is there to serve them-not politicians of a certain stripe, not special interest groups. That puts the burden on us-editors, reporters, copy editors, news researchers, photographers, designers, graphic artists and support personnel-to avoid conflicts of interest or even the appearance of such conflicts."
Daily Press, Newport News, Va.
Our readers judge us by what we do, not by what we believe. Our daily exercise of journalism-the way we report and write, what we put in the paper and how we put it there-serves as a billboard for our beliefs.... Beneath these guidelines rests the Golden Rule: "Treat others as you would have them treat YOU."
Statesman Journal, Salem, Ore.
We at the Statesman Journal hold ourselves to the highest ethical standards. Our first responsibility is to our readers and our community.
Our biggest asset is our credibility, which stems from the decisions we make and the way that we make them.
As the capital city's newspaper, we have a special obligation to hold those in power accountable and promote the democratic process.
We recognize that we ourselves are a powerful community institution and will hold ourselves accountable and open to the scrutiny of others.
This ethics code is a statement of our principles and is not intended to cover every situation. Ethical decision-making should be carried out with as wide of discussion as possible.
For a good example of a newspaper code that eloquently seeks to remind its staffers of ethical decision-making, with an eye on public image, consider The Orlando (Fla.) Sentinel's statements:
The Orlando Sentinel sets high standards for all employees.
We stand for the journalistic values of truth, honesty, courage, fairness, compassion, balance, independence, credibility and diversity.
We seek the truth and report it as fully as possible under deadline pressures, striving for clean, concise, complete reporting.
We seek out and disseminate competing perspectives without being unduly influenced by those who would use their power or position.
We seek to give a voice to the voiceless.
We seek to treat sources, subjects and colleagues as people deserving our respect, not merely as a means to our journalistic ends.
We seek to inform our readers and to reflect fairly the breadth of our community.
Our first obligation is to our credibility-that is, to the public at large and not to any other person, business or special interest. Employees should avoid any activity that would impair their integrity or jeopardize readers' trust in us.
The Journal Gazette of Fort Wayne Ind., has captured the dual role-PR and education÷admirably with its statement:
These guidelines have been developed to meet the dual responsibility journalists have to themselves and to the public they serve. They are intended as standards that staff members can use when they face decisions or situations that affect their professional integrity and the integrity of The Journal Gazette. The guidelines also are intended to inform the public of the standards by which The Journal Gazette gathers and publishes information. Under this principle, the public has a right to expect a newspaper to remain free from influences, and the appearance of influences, that might affect what is reported. The guidelines represent a pledge by The Journal Gazette and its staff to maintain and cultivate public confidence.
The Roanoke (Va.) Times "News and Editorial Mission and Vision" is a 19-page, single spaced document, with an introductory essay by Frank Batten, chairman of the executive committee of Landmark Communications, called "The Duty of Landmark Newspapers." The code is a cross between an ethics textbook and a friendly discussion among professional peers, addressing in serious and mature tones most of the current issues of concern to journalists.
Salem's "Newsroom Ethics Policy" is extremely process oriented, framed by the Society of Professional Journalists' four guiding principles (truthtelling, minimizing harm, independence, and accountability). It provides a good mix of prescriptive and descriptive statements, indicating what behaviors might be prohibited, discouraged, or appropriate for staffers. For those who might find it a bit too general, the final section lists "The Nine Deadly Sins":
There are certain accepted standards that are absolute. Violation of any of these rules may result in discipline up to and including dismissal. Thou shalt not: make up sources or quotes....deliberately distort the truth, take bribes, plagiarize...etc. "
Conflict of Interest
Conflicts of interest, including matters of independence and personal behavior, was the most popular element of the codes we examined.
Only one of the 33 newspapers did not address this issue - one fourth of the codes deal exclusively with issues of conflict of interest with no attention paid to any other issue. The San Francisco Chronicle deals with many newsgathering issues in its 2,000-word statement on "Ethical News Gathering," but doesn't address conflict of interest.
The second most common element of the codes we examined
was news sources. Of the 33 codes, 18 deal with matters of source-reporter relationships, confidentiality agreements and the like in some fashion. Some papers handle this issue it in a few sentences and others devote several pages of their policy to this matter.
Interestingly, the issue of manipulation and alteration of photos was included in about half of these 33 codes. One would not have found this matter addressed in most newspaper codes a decade ago.
Perhaps surprisingly, fewer than half of the 33 codes we examined addressed the issue of corrections. Only 13 of the 33 codes included anything on the plagiarism.
Matters of deception and misrepresentation were included even less often. Only 11 of the 33 codes paid any attention to this matter.
While several of the codes dealt extensively with issues of privacy and set forth guidelines for newsgathering, only one-fourth of the codes addressed the issue at all.
About the same percentage of codes addressed matters of handling quotes and issues of fabrication of characters or conversation.
Only four of the codes included any guidelines on one of the tough issues newspapers face these days: identification of suspects and juvenile suspects in particular.
To be sure, these codes include considerable attention to journalism's foundational principles and the timeless values. Here are some of the better examples:
ð The Daily Press gives considerable attention to matters of fairness, focusing on going beyond the "other" side in stories to recognize the multiple points of view in many stories.
ðThe Journal News of White Plains, N.Y., (formerly Gannett Suburban Newspapers) includes this in the section on fairness:
Allegations against an individual often require a response. If the person cannot be reached, say so-but only after a serious effort to get to the person has been made. Consider delaying publication, if possible, to reach the other side; if that is not possible, consider continuing to try to get to the person for an insert for later editions or for a follow-up story. If publication of a story has been delayed, additional efforts to get to persons unavailable at the time of writing should be considered.
ð Raleigh also includes this important element in its section on accuracy and fairness. "In the interest of fairness, we shall seek to report the eventual outcome of any criminal charges that we report. This is particularly important in cases in which an individual is exonerated."
On New Technology
The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne includes a protocol for making decisions on matters of photo alteration, setting thresholds for discussion on different levels of alteration.
It was one of the few papers to even address matters of the Internet in its ethics policy.
Apply our high standards for accuracy and attribution to anything you find using electronic services. Make certain a communication is genuine and information accurate before using it in a story.
Raleigh also address matters of ethics in the use of the Internet. Its plagiarism section reads:
Don't present other people's ideas or writing and pass them off as your own. With the explosion of the Internet, we have more access to more information from more sources, but we have to resist the temptation to use it without attribution. This policy is simple, and it's safe: Don't do it.
The Roanoke Times also addresses the ethical implications of the Internet. In a section called "What We Post on the Internet," the paper's guidelines read:
All of our standards for accuracy, sourcing, taste and avoidance of conflict of interest apply to work posted on The Roanoke Times Online....But before we post any document on our web site, it must first be read in its entirety by an appropriate staff member.
Sources and Reporters
Orlando includes in its Editorial Code of Ethics a checklist of four questions to ask for determining when it is legitimate to use anonymous sources in a story. The Sentinel also uses a long checklist of questions to help staff deal with legal issues in reporting.
The San Francisco Chronicle's code offers one of the clearest treatments on the always-thorny matter of dealing with sources who want confidentiality. It reads in part:
A reporter who pledges confidentiality to a source must not violate that pledge. If the reporter is asked by an editor for the identity of a source, the reporter should advise the source of the editor's request. If the sources wishes to withhold his or her identity from the editor, then the reporter and editor must decide whether or not to use the information even though the source's identity remains known only to the reporter.
The Orlando Sentinel, The Journal News, The Kansas City (Mo.) Star, The Daily Press, The Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch, and The York (Pa.) Daily Record use their ethics codes and policies to define and distinguish between terms journalists often loosely use in dealing with sources. These papers offer guidance on information that is "on the record," "on background," "not for attribution" and "off the record."
The Kansas City Star is one of the few papers in our survey to address possible tensions between the roles of the editorial and business sides of the paper. In its conflicts of interest section of the codes of ethics, the policy reads:
Maintain a clear line between advertising and news. We are especially inviting as targets of threats to remove advertising if we don't write positive stories. In cases of special sections produced by the editorial department, editors will exercise sole judgment over content.
The newsroom ethics policy of the Salem newspaper has something to say about journalistic independence in an era of new approaches to reporting and community connections:
Take care when cooperating with government and other institutions on public journalism projects. Often, these efforts are worthwhile and in the readers' interest. But they can also compromise our independence.
The Washington Post's standards and ethics statement also tackles this matter of independence:
The Washington Post is vitally concerned with the national interest and with the community interest. We believe these interests are best served by the widest possible dissemination of information. The claim of national interest by a federal official does not automatically equate with the national interest. The claim of community interest by a local official does not automatically equate with the community interest.
Diversity Issues and Racial Identifications
One of the most challenging issues faced by newspapers is dealing with matters of diversity, including the use of race as an identifier in stories and matters of racial stereotyping. Only five of the 33 papers addressed this issue in their codes. The Dallas Morning News deals with this as one of 44 areas addressed in a tightly written "News Department Guidelines," which says:
Racial identifications are used only when necessary to the story. Racial identification of suspects is used when the description provides enough information to exclude all but a narrow group of people using specific identifiers (such as but not limited to age, weight, height, clothing, hats, scars, hair color, getaway cars, etc.) Questions should be directed to the ranking editors on duty.
White Plains takes a more detailed approach in its "Standards of Professional Conduct" for news employees.
Do not describe a person by race, religion or ethnic background unless it is pertinent to the story. Do not quote racial, ethnic or religious jokes or slurs unless essential to the story (they rarely will be).
In descriptions of crime suspects, do not use racial or ethnic characterizations unless they are part of a fairly complete description of a fugitive suspect that could reasonably assist the public in helping police.
Be especially sensitive to nuances of using any references that may be offensive to a minority group. If there are inoffensive alternatives, use them.
Stories, illustrations and photographs should be mainstreamed; that is, an effort should be made to include minority representation in routine ways so that our news coverage more accurately reflects the makeup of the communities we cover.
Be wary of racial stereotyping in photographs.
The San Francisco Chronicle handles the issue in one sentence, as part of its section on Privacy.
In general, we do not publish someone's race or ethnic background unless that information is pertinent to the story.
Newport News, on the other hand, devotes some 700 words to the issue, including:
Identify a person or group by race only when such identification is relevant or is an essential element of the story; introduce race to a story only when it is an issue of relevance to the story....
In police stories-where the issue of racial identification typically arises most often-the race of either a criminal suspect or a victim generally is immaterial and should not be included. A possible exception is when there is substantial reason to believe that a crime is racially motivated. When race is a central issue of the story, racial identifications should be used only when they are important to readers' understanding of what has happened and why it has happened. In all cases, you should avoid reporting that needlessly stigmatizes any group or that could needlessly increase racial tension.
That newspaper's guidelines on identification of suspects also sets a high threshold for use of race.
Descriptions should not be used when they are so lacking in detail that large segments of the population could meet them. Saying that a robbery was committed by a tall black male with a handgun doesn't cut it.....Be especially careful when a suspect is described as Hispanic. There are white Hispanics and black Hispanics. How informed is that description, and how relevant? On what is based? Language? Complexion? Could the suspect be of Mediterranean origin instead of Hispanic?
The Roanoke Times also deals with the racial identification issue in its section on "Editing, Good Taste and Other Policies."
We do not mention a person's race in describing criminal suspects or fugitives unless the rest of the description is detailed enough to be meaningful. Sketchy descriptions are often meaningless and may apply to large numbers of innocent people.
Of the 33 codes we examined, many do not address enforcement. Of those that do, the treatment is usually brief and general. Many of the codes contain some reference to the fact that no code can anticipate all problems, suggesting the need for consultation with supervisors whenever a potential problem arises. However, few spell out a systematic process for airing a grievance or resolving a conflict.
The Dallas Morning News merely says that "violating some guidelines could result in disciplinary action or termination."
The Deseret News, in its section on corrections, says:
If there is a mistake or an injustice, do not cover it up or ignore the situation. Failure to correct it or report it promptly to the next higher supervisory level may result in disciplinary action, including termination.
The Houston Chronicle, in the shortest of all codes, about 400 words in its "Human Resources Guide," includes this passage:
Management reserves the right....to determine when an employee's activities represent a conflict with the company's interests and to take whatever action is necessary to resolve the situation-including terminating the employee.
The News & Observer says the following about enforcement in the preamble to its lengthy ethics policy:
Staffers violating this policy may be subject to disciplinary action that, in severe cases, could include dismissal.
The News Journal in Wilmington, Del., is the most expansive in its treatment of enforcement of its code, including seven specific points including one that speaks to an honor code concept.
It is the obligation of staff members to bring any violation of this code to the attention of the supervisor or the editor.
Codes and Credibility
While all 33 codes we examined address specific standards of individual behavior-generally in negative, "thou shalt not," terms-only about half of them use positive terms to clearly enunciate journalists' roles, moral obligations and professional responsibilities.
That red light tone emphasizing restrictions, as opposed to a green light tone emphasizing duties and "thou shalt" responsibilities, may protect the paper in some ways only to leave it vulnerable in others.
We can only infer, from reading the codes, how many newsrooms have a well-oiled process for decision-making. But if our reading is correct, it seems that in most of these newsrooms and at least on the issues addressed in these codes, the solution to ethical dilemmas lies much more in deference to a rule book and the official voice of supervisors and less in critical thinking, discussion with peers, and effective protocols for decision-making.
Ethicists are fond of saying that reliance upon codes is the halfway point between visceral devotion to gut instincts and the application of ethical reflection and reasoning. (Indeed, blind obedience to codified rules is about on a par with blind obedience to authority or to unquestioned tradition.) At best, codes move us away from dogmatic behaviors and toward reasoned behaviors based on wisdom of the ages.
Codes are not the panacea for all the ethical dilemmas in the news÷or any other÷business, nor are they the solution to the credibility crisis.
As the authors wrote in Quill after SPJ revised its code in 1996:
"Carefully written codes highlight and anticipate ethical dilemmas so we don't all have to reinvent a decision-making process each time we face a new dilemma; they inspire us about our unique roles and responsibilities; they make each of us custodians of our profession's values and behaviors, and inspire us to emulate the best of our profession; they promote front-end, proactive decision-making, before our decisions 'go public.'"
The recent flurry of code writing suggests that editors and news staffs are taking issues of ethics seriously. The process of drafting and redrafting and debating and implementing the codes has good therapeutic value in and of itself. Even better, newspapers with clearly enunciated principles and stated values combined with strong ethical decision-making skills are able to serve their readers and the public interest. Therein lies an essential connection to credibility.