“If the best journalists in the world lack credibility then they are nothing. All we have is our credibility. We aren’t granted ‘journalist’ status by earning a certain college degree or being issued a government license. We earn it by reporting responsibly.” (Society of Professional Journalists President David Cuillier discussing ethics in writing, April 2014 issue of Quill)
Maybe you consider yourself a journalist – or a blogger or a magazine writer. No matter how you self label, when you write nonfiction, it’s crucial to report responsibly and to navigate ethical tightropes as carefully as possible.
Ethical dilemmas don’t always involve secret payoffs or deep throat sources. Sometimes, it’s just deciding if getting the story is worth the cost. An example from my own experience involved a high school student named Isaac who was about to graduate. My newspaper editor wanted me to accompany Isaac as he got his diploma, asking him how he felt at the moment.
Sound simple? Well, it wasn’t. Isaac was blinded by and dying from leukemia, and it wasn’t even a sure thing that the hospital would release him for the ceremony. I suggested that I ask Isaac if I could accompany him, but my editor said it was an important story and so asking wasn’t an option.
Well, Isaac did make the ceremony – but I ultimately decided that, if Isaac didn’t want me to accompany him or talk to him, I wouldn’t, because he deserved his privacy – and then I’d have to tell my editor that I didn’t get the story. This all became a moot point because Isaac wanted to cooperate, but it could have been an uncomfortable situation for me if he hadn’t.
Journalism Code of Ethics
The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) breaks down ethics into four main components, as follows:
- Seek Truth and Report It: “Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting, and interpreting information.”
- Minimize Harm: “Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.”
- Act Independently: “The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.”
- Be Accountable and Transparent: “Ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public.”
Here’s their code in even more detail and you can find plenty more information in the SPJ Ethics Committee blog – and on this webpage that directs site visitors to numerous other journalistic code of ethics.
Step by Step Decision Making
Many times, the ethics in a situation are clear. For example, don’t tell someone whom you’re interviewing that you promise not to print the response to a question if you intend to – or even if you haven’t yet made up your mind. Other times, though, ethics are murkier.
In those situations, consider the seven-step decision-making process recommended by the University of California San Diego. This includes:
- Stopping to think and clarify goals
- Making sure you have enough information to make an educated decision
- Considering options and potential consequences
- Conferring with respected mentors and peers if the path is still unclear
- Monitoring the effects of your choices and adjusting appropriately
Meanwhile, Santa Clara University provides a framework for working through ethical issues. Some questions to ask yourself include:
- Could my decision damage someone or some group?
- Is my decision a choice between a good and bad alternative – or two goods or two bads?
- Evaluate options and then ask:
- Which option does the most good and the least harm?
- Which option respects the rights of all who have a stake?
- Which option treats people equally or proportionately?
- What option leads me to act as the sort of person I want to be?
Personally, I think the last question is the most crucial, covering all of the bases. What about you?