Doctors, lawyers, financial advisers — vastly different professions, but they all follow a code of ethics specific to their profession. Same goes for journalists. But what exactly is their code and how does it impact the work they do?
In this edition of Media 101, a Mindful Observer series that aims to put the power in your hands by sharing media literacy tools and resources, we’ll take a quick dive into media ethics.
In 1998, Stephen Glass was an associate editor at The New Republic and was already dubbed an up-and-coming star at 25 years old. Then it all came crashing down.
Other journalists discovered that he had fabricated 27 of 41 stories written during his 2.5-year stint at The New Republic. Vanity Fair called it “a breathtaking web of deception that emerged as the most sustained fraud in modern journalism.”
When Glass made up details, storylines and people, it damaged the people and institutions he lied about and marred the credibility of The New Republic. He broke his publication’s code of ethics, and his actions ultimately got him fired.
Journalists and publications commit to upholding a code of ethics, and like Glass, they face various consequences if that commitment is broken. For news consumers, understanding journalism ethics can help you assess the trustworthiness of articles, podcasts, videos and publications.
A journalistic code of ethics dictates how reporting, writing and disseminating news is done in order to maintain integrity and build trust with the public. Many publications, including Mindful Observer’s news team, rely on a code created by the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). This national code is “dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior.”
It has four main components:
In day-to-day life, this can mean thinking twice about accepting a meal from a source, as it could be perceived as a favor. Sometimes it means carefully considering word choice or weighing complex issues, like a person’s right to privacy and the public’s right to know. For The New Republic, it meant openly admitting its mistakes and compromised reporting.
Some publications have detailed, easily accessible codes of ethics. Others list a few vague commitments or none at all — which at most is a red flag about the quality of information you’ll get from the outlet. At the very least, it’s a transparency issue.
Seeking out a publication’s code of ethics is one way to assess the reliability of the publication and its work. If you want to dig further, look up ethical policies for different publications and see if they line up with your values as a news consumer. After all, being a good news consumer starts with asking questions.
When you’re trying to find trustworthy news sources, information is often a Google search away. This week, compare the ethical policies for two different publications. How easy is it for you to find their policies? Do they seem adequate and clear to you? Do they line up with your values as a news consumer?
When we did a comparison, we found that The New York Times follows a detailed ethics handbook that includes guidelines for professional and private life — from personal donations and investments to community service and even bumper stickers on the family car. At Breitbart News Network, the company policies included general commitments, but ethical guidelines were hard to find.
It's the middle of the week, and that means it's time to treat yourself. Turn back the clock and check out our past issue on the health wonders of chocolate. When you eat the right kind, you get a sweet treat plus a health boost! — MO
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