Journalism as a profession is different than most others in the fact that it requires individual expression. This expression is the result of our work. The product of a carpenter's labor is a table, the product of a journalist's labor is a story. As it is with any form of expression, this lends the journalist vulnerable to scrutiny and critique. The journalist makes a claim, the critic rejects it. Who's to say whats right and wrong in this war of words? Ethics, that's who.
The Evolution of Ethics
"Moral Reasoning for Journalists" by Bill Reader and Stephen Knowlton highlights the growth of the concept of ethics from its origin to present day. The concept originated in Greece as a means of "thoughtful analysis," or rational reasoning. This definition proved incomplete; however, it demanded answers to questions such as "What is good, and is it the same for everybody?"
The next philosophy -- teleology -- focused on the outcome of decisions. Under this philosophy decisions were based on the amount of good that they would result in for the individual making them. This philosophy was opposed by deontology, a "rule-based ethical theory" which derives its direction from religion.
Utilitarianism emerged as the next key philosophy on ethics. It is similar to teleology in that decisions are based on the amount of good that they will bring; however, it is also concerned with the number of individuals positively affected by that decision. Utilitarianism lost some of its appeal when people surmised what might happen to them as individuals if they were found to be preventing the greater good of everyone else.
So what can all these former models tell us about ethics today? Well, they tell us that ethics are subjective. Like teleology, what's good for you may not be good for me. Like utilitarianism, what's good for the largest number of people may not be good for you. It is important to consider your entire audience and how they may perceive you before letting your voice be heard. Ethics are not concrete; they change as society does. That's why the SPJ continues to revise their codes (four times in the past 40 years to be precise).
If I could boil ethics down to a mathematical equation it would be, rationality + decision = good. Now, who that good is for varies with the different philosophies previously mentioned. Ethics exist to make the world more enjoyable for everyone. By ignoring the system of ethics in place you are violating someone's rights. Said simply, ethics, to me, is being considerate to others.
It is important to remember the distinctions among ethics, law and prudence. Law is the study of what you can and can't do in society, whereas ethics is the study of what is possible in society. Prudence, as defined by Reader and Knowlton, is "to be careful or circumspect, not rash or foolhardy". This definition of prudence does not involve morality. Although ethics and law are frequently intertwined, they are not synonymous nor are they dependent.