Monday, September 5, 2016

Alphabet Soup: The Various Ethical Codes in Mass Media

Lucas Macce-Feiler

Photo courtesy of

In an increasingly digital age of mass media, ethical guidelines are paramount in steering professionals to uphold a high standard.

However, there is an ever-growing number of guidelines to accommodate various media professionals. There are specific rules or guiding principles for journalists, advertisers and public relations personnel. On top of that, within these professions, there are several different, yet equally respected guidelines.

For a journalist, one can refer to the RTDNA Code of Ethics, the SPJ Code of Ethics, or ONA Values statement. These guidelines may seem like a word scramble, but each is reputable and important in its own right.

Honing in further, there are separate regulations for specific journalistic professions, such as the National Press Photographers Association and American Society of Magazine Editors.

These various organizations and their accompanying acronyms are enough to make heads spin. Fear not, though. Many ethical guidelines for journalism overlap in significant ways.


Both the RTDNA (or Radio Television Digital News Association) and the SPJ (or Society of Professional Journalists) Code of Ethics dedicate principles of remaining independent of outside influences as a member of news media.

Independence in news media requires professional journalists to be wary of individuals looking to influence or "spin" news stories. Rejection of gifts and favors, refusing preferential treatment to advertisers, and objectivity are all examples of being independent.


Just as news media holds the public, corporations and the government accountable, media professionals must be held accountable for the published content.

Proper attribution and publishing mistakes are examples of accountability by journalists.

Respect/Damage Mitigation

Another shared ethical principle is respect toward persons involved in a news story--particularly private individuals (think: Richard Jewell). Invasion of privacy can be a serious issue not only from a legal standpoint, but also the moral implications of betraying one's right to privacy.

Along similar lines, news outlets should also look to minimize the amount of damage they cause. Instances of exposing corporate greed are obviously an instance in which public good outweighs any possible fall out.

However, a mother grieving the death of her daughter is not an appropriate time to expose said mother's financial shortcomings or criminal past.

Other Ethical Guidelines in Media

Public relations and advertising agencies also have a set of ethical guidelines.

A notable code of ethics for public relations professionals comes from Public Relations Society of America. Parameters of this code include an open flow of communication with the public, government and media, as well as safeguarding the privacy of clients.

Advertising agencies often get a bad rep for deceitful tactics in pursuit of new customers. Conversely, the American Advertising Federation details a code of ethics including a need for transparency, fair consumer treatment, and adherence to federal law.

Concluding Thoughts

In a time when public trust in all media is low, it is vital for media organizations to behave in an ethical manner.

While these organizations should already strive to be ethical at all times, real world pressures--such as profits and the quest for audience expansion often create points of weakness.

Groups like RTDNA and PRSA provide non-binding guidelines for media professionals.

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