A journalist code of ethics provides a set of guidelines to make it easier for a professional freelance writer to fairly and accurately report the news. Because of the nature of their work, journalists are often called upon to make tough ethical decisions.
The Journalist Code of Ethics
A journalist must make every reasonable effort to make sure the story he is reporting contains all of the relevant facts. Information should be verified using two or more independent sources whenever possible, in order to minimize the risk of inadvertent errors. To avoid accusations of plagiarism, reference materials should be cited as appropriate. If a mistake is made when reporting a story, the journalist should make every effort to print a correction as soon as possible.While interviews with anonymous sources may be required in some circumstances, the journalist code of ethics states that sources should be named whenever possible. A named source automatically has more credibility in the public eye. If a source is anonymous, many people will question his or her motives for providing the information.
When images or video accompany a written story, care should be taken to make sure these items accurately represent what has happened. Using software to edit for clarity and general composition is acceptable. Using filters and special effects to distort the content of the image is not. If a photo is a collage or illustration, it should be labeled as such in order to avoid confusion on the part of the reader.
The public depends on journalists, whether they're freelance writers or staff reporters, to report the news in a fair and unbiased manner. A journalist should avoid obvious conflicts of interest, such as reporting about a story that involves a friend or family member or writing about a group that he is an active member of. Accepting gifts, services, or special favors in return for providing positive media coverage is never acceptable.
If a conflict of interest is unavoidable, the journalist code of ethics requires that this information should be disclosed someplace in the story. One example of a circumstance requiring this type of disclosure would be if a story being published in a national magazine is about actors in a new TV show produced by the same company that owns the magazine.
At most media outlets, it's normal to use press releases as a basis for generating article ideas. A press release should never be printed as an actual news story, however. Advertorials, advertising designed to look like regular articles, are often confusing to the average reader.
Journalists must show good taste when writing their stories, especially when reporting on crimes, tragic accidents, and natural disasters. They should avoid content that has no purpose other than to appeal to lurid curiosity. Sensationalism may sell papers, but it's not ethical journalism.
Compassion must be shown when dealing with people who have the potential to be negatively affected by a news story. Particular care should be taken with identifying the victims of sex crimes, juveniles charged with criminal offenses, and people who are suspects who have yet to be formally charged with a criminal offense.
A journalist should remember that while public officials realize a certain amount of openness is a required part of their jobs, private individuals do not expect their personal lives to be made public. Only a legitimate overriding need to serve the public good can justify intruding in the personal affairs of a private citizen.
Additional Information about the Journalist Code of Ethics
You can learn more about the ethical expectations for journalists by reviewing the ethics codes on the following organization Web sites:
- Society of Professional Journalists
- Society of American Business Writers and Editors
- Society for News Design
Most major media outlets also have their own code of ethics that contributors are asked to follow. If you are a freelance writer, your editor will probably address this issue when making your first assignment.