Wednesday, September 2, 2015

My Top Three Rules for a Code of Ethics

Jordan Horrobin

It’s important for everyone in the field of journalism to have his or her own personal code of ethics. What is equally important, though, is reviewing and understanding the codes of ethics used by major journalism organizations around the world (i.e. organizations that produce the content we consume and are influenced by).

With that in mind, I’ve reviewed some ethics codes of major journalism organizations and put together a top-three list (not in order) of rules I found most important. My list pulls from the ethics codes of the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) and Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ). Just note that the rules I’ve selected aren’t written out verbatim.

Seek subjects of news coverage and allow them to respond to criticism/allegations of wrongdoing (SPJ).

A lot of news stories have clear-cut good guys and bad guys. That makes it easy for journalists to attack subjects who are already being cast in a negative light. The problem, particularly in stories that discuss allegations rather than convictions, is that it creates bias and frames the facts in a certain way for readers.

Patrick Kane, a superstar hockey player for the Chicago Blackhawks, is being investigated for an alleged rape that occurred inside his home this summer. Sports and news media outlets have covered at length what a conviction would mean for Kane and how his previous run-ins with the law may suggest he’s guilty.
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But NBC Chicago provided coverage from Kane’s perspective — indirectly, through Kane’s attorney, because I’m sure he was heavily advised to keep his mouth shut — and it shows how important it is to get both sides of the story.

Kane’s attorney criticizes the common public opinion — that Kane is likely guilty. He said he’s astounded that people can jump to conclusions “without having one single fact.” What Kane’s attorney said isn’t surprising, given that he represents Kane. It still shows, however, that both sides of the story should be represented and given a chance to speak.

Even if Kane isn’t charged, he’s come under enough fire from the media that it has already affected his professional life. Shortly after the news of the rape allegations was released, EA Sports removed him from the cover of an upcoming video game.

Identify sources clearly when possible. An anonymous source is a tough sell to readers (SPJ).

Let me start by clarifying: not all anonymous sources are bad. If you are obtaining critical and valid information from a trusted source, and that source demands anonymity, there’s not much you can do except honor that person’s request.

But if it’s possible to use a person’s identity when reporting, that identity should be included every time. The public deserves to know who’s providing the information if a source can be identified.

That’s why Bill Keller, a former executive editor of the New York Times told the Washington Examiner that anonymous sourcing “contributes to the already substantial public mistrust of the news media. And it’s a problem because sometimes anonymity gives sources cover to take cheap shots.”

It makes sense that readers could read a statement from an anonymous source and not trust that source’s information. If you don’t know where information is coming from, how do you know you can trust it? Seems reasonable.

Fight for the ability to use your source’s name. If there’s no way around anonymity, you might have to grit your teeth and keep your source anonymous. That’s just another judgment call to make.

Going viral or exploding on social media may increase urgency, but these phenomena only heighten the need for accuracy (RTDNA).

For any digital news, journalists must find the right mixture of speed and accuracy. Accuracy is more important, but the desire for speed is sometimes enough to cloud a journalist’s better judgment.

ESPN NBA analyst Chris Broussard learned this lesson the hard way. Amid the NBA free agency sweepstakes this offseason, highlighted by DeAndre Jordan, Broussard tweeted that Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban was driving aimlessly through Houston to find Jordan.

The situation became messy when Cuban tweeted back to Broussard and blasted him for the accusation.

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Broussard held firm his position, saying he had multiple sources (anonymous sources, mind you) who fed him that information. Though he eventually apologized to Cuban via Twitter the next morning, Broussard did irreparable damage to his reputation. His desire to be the one to break news about a hot sports topic backfired into him sending out false information and harming his professional reputation.

These three rules are a very small part of what journalists need to consider every day they're on the job. Nonetheless, I think they serve as a strong platform for journalists to build upon when developing their own personal ethics codes.

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