One of the biggest challenges for journalists in recent years has been keeping up with changing technology while maintaining the standards that distinguish our work from other forms of writing.
Much of that standard-bearing boils down to journalism ethics.
The Society of Professional Journalists, of which I’m a member, is updating its ethics code for the first time since 1996. SPJ members will vote on the update in September.
The SPJ ethics code is not a set of regulations. It’s not a legally binding document. The organization says it’s intended as a “resource for ethical decision-making.”
To be considered journalism, however, a story should be crafted in such a way that it follows these ethical tenets.
If you worked on your high school newspaper, you probably learned the basics:
• “Verify information before its release.”
• “Identify sources clearly.”
• “Label advocacy and commentary news reporting.”
• “Acknowledge your mistakes and correct them.”
• “Deny favored treatment to advertisers, and resist pressure to influence news coverage.”
While simple concepts, much of the writing around us that pretends to be journalism violates one or more of those tenets.
Some writing on blogs is clearly commentary, but not labeled as such.
Some stories published online or in print are directly paid for — and thus influenced — by the subject of the story. Certainly that’s allowed, but it isn’t journalism.
Some news organizations don’t correct their mistakes.
Last week, SPJ detailed the proposed changes to its code, which for the first time encourages its use “by all people in all media.” SPJ acknowledges that anyone can produce a piece of journalism, not only a paid professional working for traditional news organization. Journalism also can be published on a website or blog or on social media. None of that matters. But to be considered journalism, it should follow the guidelines.
Other changes address new ways of doing the business of journalism.
Back in 1996, for instance, with essentially one print deadline at the end of the day, we didn’t have to make split-second decisions about what to post online as news was breaking. Likewise, we didn’t have to decide how to handle personal information people post about themselves online.
Here are some of the proposed additions:
• “Gather, update and correct information throughout the life of a news story.” With our new-found tools, we’re obligated to keep stories updated and to go back and correct, if necessary.
• “Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy.” That’s another nod to the increasing pace with which we’re able to break news online. “Get it right” should outrank “get it first.”
• “Weigh the consequences of publishing personal information, including that from social media.” More easily than ever, we can find and share information people publish on platforms like Facebook. The question is, should we?
• “Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication, especially online.” Unlike a story printed in a newspaper that gets thrown away at the end of a day, a story posted online essentially is there forever and easily found by a search engine.
More important than the changes, however, may be the basic journalism ethical guidelines that have been around for decades and will remain even after this update.
Even the SPJ 1926 ethics code, which addressed only newspaper journalists, offered these flowery, 88-year-old versions of the basics:
• “Freedom from all obligations except that of fidelity to the public interest is vital.”
• “Sound practice makes clear distinction between news reports and expressions of opinion.”
SPJ also is proposing for the first time that its ethics code become a living, open document.
Once it’s updated, SPJ will add to its website ( spj.org/ethicscode.asp) more detailed explanations and case studies about various tenets. It also will allow people — journalists and members of the public — to pose questions. The questions and answers will remain on the site as teaching tools.
Does the TNT have a perfect record of following the code? No. Do we strive to meet it? Yes. Does it guide our decision-making? Every day.
At its base, we’re trying to meet one of the tenets offered in that 1926 version of the journalists’ code: “Good faith with the reader is the foundation of all journalism worthy of the name.”