Ethics in Journalism Today? An Update

While I have left day to day journalism, instead practicing part time adjuncting, as well as artisanal filmmaking, I now get interviewed by students on assignment from time to time about big picture questions facing the newsgathering industry. The latest was a simple query about my view on ethics in journalism. Ethics are often everything and at the same time so vague, but here is what I came up with.

1. The Ethics of pursuing the truth and fleeing its opposites. There aren't just opinions out there, there are always some undeniable truths. And I'm not talking about bogus scientific studies, peddled by scientists having sold their integrity to their own methods of financing. Within this category, you must obviously avoid reporting falsehoods and libel.

2. The Ethics of always staying away from pr motives, and getting spun by information salespeople or impressed by powerful people. Far too often I have seen journalists salivate at the prospect of getting access to the powerful, and getting tied around their fingers, rendered into storytelling puppets, for whatever cachet they must feel, probably their own self-interest. Doing a pr story is just lazy.

3. The Ethics of protecting vulnerable sources so that the broadcast of their testimony does not put them in more danger. Basically, don't interview someone out in public during a protest and see them carted away seconds later. Also if someone wants to out themselves, make sure it won't burn them unnecessarily. And never, ever denigrate a group or participate in perpetuating cliches with journalism (the worst being vague photo captions) from a faraway distance. Always be respectful especially to those who get so little respect in their daily lives.

4. The Ethics of transparency. State clearly where you as a journalist are coming from and also where your sources are coming from. I believe it's fine to quote and to rely on interesting sources for reporting if the journalist feels moved in that direction. This may seem to conflict with rule #2, but not if intentions are made clear, rather than hiding it under the veneer of "objectivity". Too often, objectivity has meant two middle of the road established opinions, or the views of ad nauseam "newsmakers" which aren't necessarily enlightening.

5. The ethics of courage. As a journalist, it is my duty not to be afraid, or else I'll be irrelevant. In the Charlie Hebdo case, I applaud those who combat extremism with their work. They are not attacking a religion, they are attacking those who abuse it. Journalists must chase down, investigate and report on those who abuse power, who are corrupt, who make the lives of others miserable, that is our duty. We must also have the courage to find those who deserve to be elevated.

6. The Ethics of always refraining from plagiarism and always doing work that is original.

What would you add or subtract?

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