Thursday, April 7, 2011

Media Ethics Codes

Courtney Astolfi

A year ago, I looked at my journalism education as a mechanics-focused course of study. The art of the interview, gathering hard facts and stringing together a competent sentence were my main concerns. Then along came my lesson in communication law. Suddenly I viewed my future profession through a new legal lens. Questions I had not pondered now became huge, vital considerations.

This spring, studying journalism ethics, I can feel my perspective beginning to shift once more. What journalists can do is one thing. What journalists are legally allowed is another. But what journalists should do? Well that question seems to be of a whole different importance than the ones preceding it.

Since the era of the muckrakers in the early 20th century, journalists have taken it upon themselves to function as the Fourth Estate. Journalism must serve the public first and foremost.

We find this theme over and over again throughout professional journalists’ codes of ethics. The Society of Professional Journalists published a comprehensive list of ethical standards journalists should abide. ASNE, ONU, PRSA, NPPA and RTDNA have each put forth their own versions of a code of ethics. However, SPJ’s four broad categories summarize journalistic ethics well: seek truth and report it; minimize harm; act independently; be accountable.

The New York Times recently won an award for the first principle of seeking truth and reporting it. When confronted with the Wikileaks documents of 2010, the Times covered the documents honestly and openly while many mainstream news organizations were reporting on the Julian Assange character.

This, of course, is only one example of recent ethical issues in the field of journalism. Fox News blurs the lines between commentary and news, in direct contradiction of RTDNA’s ethical guidelines. Several cable news programs go above and beyond reporting by sensationalizing stories that should be inconsequential in the grand scheme of ideas. The Poynter Institute compiles a list of these types of stories. They should serve to guide us as journalists and lead us to making ethical decisions.

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