Ethics play an important part in being a journalist. As the Fourth Estate, Journalists are supposed to watch government and big business and report if they act contrary to the best interests of the citizens. That said, codes of conduct are very important, and as a potential journalist and definite consumer of news I feel the need to have a code of conduct for myself and for the reporters I learn news from. News is only as valuable as the reputation of the reporter who tells it, so the reporters I learn news from must have good reputations as ethical, honest civic servants. Likewise, if I someday become a journalist, I must act ethically to be taken seriously and also to be an honest human being. To do this I must act with independence, verify my facts, and always remember my first loyalty is to the citizen.
The Elements of Journalism by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel states the first element of journalism as, “The primary purpose of journalism is to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing” (12). This, I think, is the first part of the definition of excellence in journalism. Journalists exist to maintain free communication between citizens and leaders, so a good journalist must be capable of carrying messages to the public so that people can govern themselves. Thus, journalism is the Fourth Estate, an unofficial branch of government that must do its job well if democracy can succeed. When tyrants want to control a populace, the first thing they do is control the press. I consider providing citizens with the information they need to self-govern as part of being a good journalist because it’s simply competence at the job – no one wants to listen to a journalist who cannot bring important and relevant news to the attention of the public. Part of my code of conduct for journalists is a kind of professionalism that seeks to find the truth and report it so citizens can hear it and understand it. Also, with the growth of electronic communication, journalists should learn how to use new methods of communication to get their message out to the public. In short, be good at what you do and keep learning so you’ll be even better in the future.
Competence is one important part of the code of conduct, but the other part, ethical behavior, is even more essential. A journalist may be very adept at telling a story so it is clear and engaging, but if the public cannot trust her to tell the truth then all the well-written words are worthless. As a writer, I cringe to think any words I might write would be completely without credit. To me honesty is a time to use Kant’s Categorical Imperative – never, ever deceive. When a journalist reveals something, it had better be the truth as far as that journalist can determine. Likewise, journalists should be independent not only of government and business organizations but also of each other. They should find their own facts, and double-check all facts told to them by sources. It’s all too easy for a lie to spread because journalists assumed it was true because it was told to them by another journalist. Independence and verifying facts are twin components of honest journalism, built upon the foundation of capable reporting. A journalist who along with being good at her job is also honest in her writing and fact-checking will have a steady reputation with the citizen as an ethical journalist. Therefore, she will be in a better position to serve citizens because citizens will be willing to listen to what she has to say.
Ethical behavior boosts everything a journalist may say. Of course, ethics can be a tricky subject on some points. While I agree wholeheartedly that a journalist must never deceive the public, there are times when it seems some facts should be withheld. I believe that this is okay, beneficial even, as long as those facts held back are not relevant to the story or would cause more harm than good to report. For example, if someone is murdered it may cause pain to the families of both the victim and the murderer to have their names and information posted in the paper. Journalists should weigh their options when writing about sensitive subjects and here, I think the ethical theory of utilitarianism is best to use, along with the Golden Rule. A journalist’s first job, as stated above, is “to provide citizens with the information they need to be free and self-governing.” If including details in a story will cause discomfort to a few but will greatly benefit the rest of the public, then perhaps the journalist should include them. The Golden Rule also applies because journalists have to remember that the people they are writing about are not imagined characters – this is how journalists differ from novelists. The people affected by an event will have real reactions to it just as the journalist would if she were in the same situation. In some cases leaving out details minimizes harm, and the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics requires minimizing harm.
In my personal code of ethics I would consider religion quite a bit. As a member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints my religion shapes my thoughts so much that I do not think I could divorce it from my ethical code of conduct. It has formed by beliefs on how to treat other people and what kinds of actions are right and worthy. I believe all religions should be treated fairly by journalists, and if I decide to become a journalist and am asked to cover religious stories I will gather all the relevant facts, be they secular and religious. That means both sides of controversy and I would do my best to display the religion in my story as objectively and respectfully as I can.
The main belief that would form my code of ethics would be: place the citizen first. If I do that, then I should have no reason to doubt if a moral dilemma came my way. By putting the citizen first I would be sure to tell the truth accurately and objectively; there is no place for opinions in straight reporting. If I covered political, ethical or religious stories I would be safe from ethical problems if I put the citizens first and made sure I paid attention to the human emotions the citizens who happened to be part of the story. “Journalism’s first loyalty is to citizens” (52), Kovach and Rosenstiel write as one of the elements of journalism. By treating citizens as they want to be treated – without deceiving or causing undue harm by hounding a suffering person – I would show my loyalty to them and stay away from ethical problems. My credibility as a journalist would remain untarnished.
If this is the kind of reporter I plan to be, then this is the kind of reporter I want to see. When I read the newspaper I expect that the journalists are telling the truth. I expect them to provide the facts that are relevant to a story without hyping it or omitting key facts, both of which I consider forms of deception. The journalists who write the stories I read should be considerate servants of society in how they treat the people they write about. The truth always comes out and if a journalist behaves unethically, I will someday learn about it in an ethical reporter’s story. An example of this is Rupert Murdoch’s News International hacking a missing girl’s cell phone. The scandal is well-known now and unethical behavior did not pay off. Some reporters may argue that deception and trickery are necessary to tell the truth, but I think there are better, ethical ways to get at the truth. Each situation is different, yes, but journalists who are not independent, honest and ethical are punished if they are caught no matter how “necessary” the deed was.