Thursday, March 31, 2011

Ethics Codes—do they work?

Nadine Ajakana

Jay Black cites the difference between ethics and law as simply: ethics implies making difficult choices about voluntary behavior, while law is concerned with the obvious choices between right and wrong. For example, a choice concerned with ethics was the The Washington Post and New York Times’ decision about publishing the Unabomber’s manifesto. He mentions that organizations write codes to address these—these codes fall into two categories: minimal standards and aspirational. It was certainly interesting reading codes of ethics that spanned across all journalistic professions, and seeing that most codes fell into the latter category. I find myself agreeing with Black—that aspirational codes reflect faith in our fellow man and woman, and that they tend to offer suggestions on how to make the world a better place. Indeed, in our profession, there seems to be no shortage of these codes—SPJ, ASNE, RTDNA, NPPA, and some other acronyms for groups of journalism professionals that I, quite frankly, did not even know existed, all have codes of ethics that uphold a very optimistic view of journalism. These codes began to crop up in the 1920s, to combat the lowlife and scummy reputation journalists had back then.

As I read the codes for the different professions, there were many similarities and themes that recurred in all of them. Truth and accuracy are mentioned in every single code, and some idea of impartiality is stressed in all the codes except PRSA and AAF. However, there are differences tailored to the specific mediums—for example, the National Press Photographers Association’s code stresses not altering any photo, and the PRSA code mentions loyalty to those that the professionals may represent. Additionally, I couldn’t help noticing that ONA, the Online News Association, had the smallest code of ethics. Perhaps this is because online journalism is still so new relative to the other professions. At any rate, there seems to be no dearth of advice on online ethics out there—for example, the Reuter’s Global Editor for Ethics talking about their approach to online journalism ethics:

If all these codes exist postulating that journalists should strive to be ethical above all other things, I wonder, then, why the public seems to think the opposite? If there are certain values that appear to be inherent in journalism fields, why does the public perceive journalism as unethical and biased? My best answer would be that certain, very publicized instances of a lack of integrity by journalists stand out in many people’s minds, and they are quick to make assumptions about all journalists as a result of this. Truthfully, I do not know the answer. I am looking forward to uncovering more of why this is the case as we continue reading, and perhaps to learn what the best steps are to combat this unfortunate generalization.