Monday, April 4, 2011

Ethics codes: For the ethical, by the ethical, so what for?

Kent Clements

In this week's readings, we perused the official code of ethics for various journalistic organizations, from The Society of Professional Journalists to The Public Relations Society of America. These codes all share a few common themes. They are essentially accuracy, accountability, integrity, honesty and fairness. And what a beautiful spread of ethical guidelines they are.

My question, however, is whether or not these codes of ethics and values, written by societies of journalists, for journalists who willingly join their ranks, aren't a tad insular in practical application. Are ethics codes really preventing unethical behavior? Or, are they instead simply instruction manuals for all ready ethical people? I suspect it to be the latter. And if that is the case, then are official ethics codes really that important? Or are we sitting around the newsroom patting each others' ethical backs and shaking each others' morally upstanding hands?

I don't mean to say that ethics codes serve no purpose or should not be developed. It's important for people in all fields to work together in order to create an ideal way to perform a job. And clearly, people are thinking about ethics. But are the heady philosophical debates like that really ever going to trickle down enough to prevent things like this? (Or, in an ideal world, to close the New York Post entirely).

The answer, I'm afraid, is most likely no. So the question becomes, "How do we, as journalists reform the lowest common denominator in our field? As explored briefly in our reading for the week, there exists a school that says ethical missteps by journalists should be punished. But the questions arise: By whom? And on what legal grounds? And at what cost to freedom of the press? And what does that mean for citizen journalism (which, despite undermining the huge investment we've all made to be "real" journalists, has a growing importance in the free dissemination of information)?

I don't believe punishment for wrongdoing is the answer. Unfortunately, as you might have already guessed based on this being a class blog and not a text book, I do not know what the answer is either. But I believe finding a better way starts with a healthy questioning of ethics codes' true value and a reevaluation of what they are truly meant to achieve.

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