By the Books
By Zach Garner, SPJ student member and freelance journalist
If you are reading this you are probably aware that the Society of Professional Journalists has its own Code of Ethics for professional journalists. Other organizations have developed their own, but many start with ours as their foundation. It is a guide to look at our actions when gathering and reporting the news.
SPJ has been around since 1909, more than 108 years before Donald Trump became President of the United States. And it will endure long after he’s gone. The SPJ Code of Ethics has seen a multitude of changes in that time span, but its core principles act as a guideline for all journalists when navigating the professional world.
There are four basic principles in the SPJ Code of Ethics:
- Seek the Truth and Report it
- Act Independently
- Minimize Harm
- Be Accountable and Transparent
As a young, budding journalist, I’d like to walk you through my interpretation of the basics and more nuanced concepts that come along with these principles. I would like to share how I see decisions that journalists make every day, and hopefully, put some of these offensive claims against the media to rest.
The people need to know what’s going on. It’s about as simple as that.
The people trust us to give them information that is accurate, fair and thorough so they can make educated decisions and our democracy can flourish. No big deal.
The editor of SizingUpTheSouth.com and SPJ Assistant Region Director – Region 3 Sharon Dunten said, “an uninformed public is a crippled public. How do they make decisions about anything, whether that be voting for someone or anything else happening in their community if they are not informed?”
As with any decision, both sides should be considered evenly before moving forward. In this line of work it is our job to do just that.
Journalists are paid to find the truth
Sometimes, the truth can be uncomfortable.
- Seek the truth and report it.
In church, we are taught to comfort the afflicted.
In journalism, we are taught to afflict the comfortable.
Journalists believe that the people’s right to the truth outweighs their desire to be comfortable. Ignorance is bliss, but that doesn’t make for much progress. At some point, we all have to face the music. So what exactly does that mean?
If we are ever hope to move forward as a nation, the people need to understand that journalists value the truth that lies within the facts; Margaret Sullivan, the media columnist at the Washington Post said, in an ideal world, we wouldn’t need anonymous sources.
“We would have very transparent government officials who told us everything we needed to know,” said Sullivan. “However, that’s not the case, and it hasn’t been the case for many years.”
“The government doesn’t tell us everything. This is something we’ve known for eons. This is why we have journalists and the press. To keep the powerful in check.”
A professional journalist seeks the truth. If they aren’t true professionals, they’re counting clicks.
The market today is saturated with articles written blatantly to persuade or promote — public relations messages stirred with opinions and marketing punches. The line between propaganda and professionalism is blurring and the distinction between the two need to be made clear. It starts with understanding the process.
Journalists are taught to use a minimum of three sources when writing any story. It’s our way of seeing the same situation from different angles; to make sure multiple perspectives are included or purely to double check and confirm information. You miss something when you sit in the same spot every time. When that criteria isn’t met, there are consequences for the journalists involved.
Three reporters resign from CNN
CNN recently retracted a story because it didn’t meet the network’s editorial standards. The report connecting Anthony Scaramucci (former White House’s Communications Director – only held it for 10 days) to the Russian Direct Investment Fund was supported by a single, unnamed source.
CNN removed all the links to the story and apologized to Scaramucci the following Friday. The three employees involved in the publication were out of a job by Monday.
Imagine what would happen if they had blatantly lied or knowingly twisted the facts?
Again, these three professionals lost their jobs for not meeting professional editorial standards. Imagine what would happen if they had blatantly lied or knowingly twisted the facts? They wouldn’t just get fired from their current job; they would be lucky to have a job in the journalism field ever again.
As journalists, our first responsibility is to the truth. There are pressures to be first or to have an exciting story that will keep readers, viewers or listeners interested. But to be honest, in any facet, limiting the truth and its sources can have severe consequences.
I’d like to see the man with access to the nuclear codes held to those standards.
Call me old fashioned.
Watch for Zach Garner’s next article as he dives into why young (and veteran) journalists might want to go back to the basics by taking another look at the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. Contact Zach Garner at firstname.lastname@example.org