Chapter 25
Ethical Practices

Chapter 25 - Ethical Practices

As professionals, journalists are expected to live up to certain standards of behavior. Basic honesty -- both to oneself and to others -- lies at the heart of ethical behavior. A journalist who is not honest violates the trust that a news organization, the audience and the journalist's colleagues place in him or her.

Even with this basic honesty and a determination to "do right," journalists encounter situations that are ambiguous and challenge their ability to apply moral certainties. One means of resolving these situations is for journalists to develop an understanding of the loyalties they are expected to have. Those loyalties include the ones they have to their news organizations, their colleagues, the news consumers who depend on them for information and themselves and their own moral principles.

Certain practices are not tolerated by the profession. One is falsification -- making things up. Another is plagiarism -- copying the work of others without giving proper credit. Journalists are also expected to work for one news organization, and before they do work for another (while still being compensated by the first), they need to get the approval of the editors of that organization. They are also expected to reveal any connections they have with people or organizations in the news that might call into question their fairness and objectivity.

Study questions

  • What are the basic ethical considerations of the profession of journalism?

  • What is the job of the journalist?

  • What are the major ethical violations that journalists are likely to commit?

  • Who was Billy Sipple, and what does his case tell us about journalistic ethics?

  • The chapter suggests approaching ethical dilemmas, and their solutions, in terms of loyalties. What does that mean?

Chapter notes

Naming rape victims.
One of the stickiest dilemmas news organizations have is how to handle rape cases. Rape is a crime that involves extreme invasion of privacy, and many victims of rape do not want their names published. But what happens when the person accused of rape is famous and the case draws a lot of publicity? That happened in 2003 when Los Angeles Lakers star Kobe Bryant was accused of rape by a woman in Colorado. Bryant was a highly popular basketball star, and his supporters quickly found out who the woman was and posted her name (and later picture) on a number of web sites. That posed a difficulty for mainstream news organizations that, for the most part, refused to publish her name. If you would like to read more about how the news media handled this situation, the Poynter Institute has a section on the whole topic ( on its web site.

Pictures. How photographers, photo editors and editors deal with pictures is a continuing ethical problem. Most journalists will tell you that the substance of pictures should not be changed. (See the AP guidelines.) One of the mistakes that many beginning students make is electronically distorting a photograph so that it fits into a certain space. Such distortions (such as the one on the right) are easy to detect and constitute an ethical lapse on the part of those who do it. Remember when you are resizing a picture, it must be done proportionally. That is, the width and the depth should be changed by the same percentage.

An equally bad violation (if not worse) is changing the content of a picture. An example of such changes is the photo to the left and below. Digital technology makes such changes relatively easy and difficulty to detect. Even professionals occasionally fall victim to the thinking that changing the content (taking elements out of the picture or moving them around) is acceptable in certain situations. It is not.

SPJ Code of Ethics. The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics is one of the standard ethical references for the field of journalism. Take a careful look at the code. Are there provisions that are unclear or open to question? Are there provisions that discuss situations that would rarely occur? Has anything been left out of the code that you think should be included? Another ethics statement worth reading is that of the Associated Press Managing Editors organization. It does not substanitally differ from the SPJ code, but there are differences in emphasis.

Case studies of journalistic practice. One of the situations with which the chapter begins is that of the St. Paul Pioneer Press. The newspaper developed solid evidence of NCAA violations by the hometown University of Minnesota basketball team in 1999. The newspaper had this story just before the team was set to play its first game in that year's NCAA tournament. An extensive description ( of this case -- how the newspaper got the information, how it made the decision to run the story, and what the fallout was -- can be found at the web site. Another case that makes for good reading and good class discussion is that of Richard Jewell, the man originally accused of planting a bomb in a crowd in Atlanta during the 1996 Olympic games. That case is also described in full ( on the web site.

Key concepts and terms

• As in most other professions, journalists find that there are few, if any, moral absolutes; even "tell the truth" is not something that can be strictly observed when telling the truth would do more harm than good.

• Honesty is at the heart of the journalistic process; journalists should be honest not only about the information they present but also about their motivations.

• Journalists should treat their audiences with respect.

• The basic job of the journalist is to gather important and interesting information, put that information in a form acceptable to the medium for which the journalist works, and disseminate that information to an audience.

• One approach to journalistic ethics is to examine the loyalties that journalists have – to their news organizations, their audiences, their professional colleagues and themselves.

Plagiarism – using the work of another person and presenting it as your own without giving any credit.

Conflict of interest – a situation in which a journalist may have divided loyalties, a loyalty to the profession and a loyalty outside the profession; this conflict might prevent the journalist from presenting information honestly.

Related web
sites for
Chapter 25

ASNE Ethics Codes Collection

APME National Credibility Roundtables Project

Journalism Ethics Cases Online

Payne Awards for Ethics in Journalism

Poynter's Online Ethics Journal

RTNDF Ethics Project

Section I | 1: News and Society  |  2: Culture of Journalism  |  3: Becoming a Journalist
Section II  |  4: Newspapers  |  5: Magazines  |  6: Television and Radio  |  7: News Web Sites
Section III  |  8: Reporters  |  9: Reporting  |  10: Writing news and features  |  11: Style  | 
12: Editors13: Editing and headline writing  |  14: Visual Journalists  |
  15: Graphics Journalism  |  16: Photojournalism  |  17: Publication Design  |
  18: Broadcasters  |  19: Writing for Broadcast
Section IV  |  20: Beginnings of Journalism  |  21: Journalism Comes of Age  | 
22: New Realities, New Journalism  |   23: 20th Century and Beyond
Section V  |  24: Law and the Journalist  |  25: Ethical Practices  |   26: Present and Future
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