What journalism ethics can learn from plumber ethics

Intercept Editor-in-Chief and former Gawker Editor John Cook made a case against journalism ethics at the recent International Symposium on Online Journalism. "I think of journalism ethics the same way I think of plumber ethics,” Angela Washeck reports in PBS MediaShift.

He drew on reporting examples like Watergate to illustrate how unconventional means of retrieving information, made much simpler with the Internet, have proven invaluable in producing exemplary journalism.

“Some fantastic journalism has been produced using unethical and possibly criminal means,” he said, adding that at Gawker, the newsroom’s chief goal was honesty, not accuracy.

Cook spoke about ethics in 2013 with Toronto’s Globe and Mail, and he made a similar point.

I think of media ethics the same way I think of plumber ethics: I think that, as a human being, I’m bound by certain ethical precepts I try to live my life by, but I do not think as a profession that reporters and editors need to think of themselves as bound by an additional, secondary set of ethical restrictions – the way that, say, lawyers or doctors think of themselves as bound by an additional set of conditions. I think it’s more instructive to think of reporters the way people think of tradesman and women. I think it’s a trade rather than a profession – it’s certainly starting to pay more like a trade than a profession. And I think the idea of building up a superstructure of journalism ethics is part of a process of trying to exclude the hoi polloi from the process of reporting and commenting on the news.

For what it's worth, plumbers do have a code of ethics. There are six points, from the American Society of Plumbing Engineers, which could apply to journalism, just in case anyone's looking for a little inspiration. (You can also find some instructive plumber ethics codes from Pat's Plumbing, Bruno Plumbing & Heating and Pronto Plumbing.)

"As protectors of the environment and the public’s health, safety, welfare and property, the plumbing engineer upholds the precepts of honesty, integrity, impartiality, fairness and equity and provides services in adherence to the highest principles of ethical conduct and standards of professional behavior."

1. Plumbing Engineers and Designers shall endeavor to protect the environment and the safety, health, welfare and property of the public.

2. Plumbing Engineers and Designers shall perform services only in the areas of their competence.

3. Plumbing Engineers and Designers shall act as a trustworthy and fiduciary agent for each employer or client, shall seek no favors and shall not profit or misuse confidential client or employer information.

4. Plumbing Engineers and Designers shall avoid misrepresentation and shall issue public professional statements only in an objective and truthful manner.

5. Plumbing Engineers and Designers shall seek no favors or issue public professional statements for personal aggrandizement or personal profit.

6. Plumbing Engineers and Designers shall be responsible to continually improve their professional ability and to maintain professional competency through education and professional development activities.

Related: A New Code: SPJ Struggles to Define Rules of Online Journalism (AJR) | SPJ’s ethics code ‘update’ proposal: just a few tweaks (Steve Buttry) | Get ready for ONA’s DIY Ethics Code, because one size does not fit all (ONA)


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