What Are Ethics Codes and Why Are They Important?
Ethics codes outline the mission of organizations as well as provide guidelines for how their members should conduct themselves. These codes are important in the world of journalism, advertising and public relations because there aren't many bodies outside of checks and balances from the consuming public to regulate these professions. Though advertising in particular does have a regulating government entity, the Federal Trade Commission, the laws placed on them still don't deal with ethics.
The ethics codes published by publications and advertisers spell out their common goals; to serve the public and minimize harm. Serving the public means providing information they can trust and minimizing harm means balancing what the people need to know with protecting those citizens who are vulnerable, such as children and those not familiar with American journalism and advertising.
It is important that guidelines are set up and publicized so that the public knows journalists and advertisers do have standards to uphold and in fact can't just do and say whatever they want. An important factor in establishing trust between publications and the public is allowing open communication; if the public feels they aren't being treated fairly, they have these guidelines to look at so they can better voice their concerns.
Why Not Enforce Ethics Codes?
The Society of Professional Journalists, SPJ, answers this question well on their website. What it comes down to is protecting the part of the First Amendment that is at the heart of journalism, freedom of speech and of press. Enforcing ethics codes would lead to government involvement and would require a more detailed list of regulations and neither of these things would foster the environment needed to continue to allow independent press.
Advertisers DO Care About the Public
The Institute for Advertising Ethics created the "Principles and Practices for Advertising Ethics" in order to establish a foundation for appropriate behavior from advertisers. Many people typically don't trust advertising when it is coming straight from advertising firms. The 2011 Nielsen Global Trust In Advertising Survey found that ads not generated by other consumers, like recommendations from people they know or posted online opinions, were trusted much less. Ads in magazines and newspapers, as well as on the radio and online, were not trusted more than they were.
Codes of conduct like the "Principles and Practices for Advertising Ethics" show that advertisers and those involved in the profession do care about the trust of the public. Aside from the fact that if the public doesn't trust advertisers, those in that profession would ultimately lose their jobs, this code of ethics shows that advertisers feel they have a duty to serve the public by being transparent and behaving ethically, just like journalists.
Most ethics codes and conduct guidelines in the world of advertising and journalism have a similar idea; that above all, they exist to serve the public. With this in mind, they emphasize the importance of remaining transparent in order to maintain the trust of the public because without the public's trust, professions centered around journalism would suffer.