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Journalistic Ethics Code: How to Use it to Defend Yourself

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In any profession, there are unethical people and unethical organizations. But in the 31 years since I was last a reporter, there appears to have been a steady deterioration of adherence to the principles at the core of ethical journalism. I believe certain factors have exacerbated this decline in the past 5-10 years in particular, to include:

  • Globalization of news demand via the Internet, driving the need to compete for news audiences 24/7.
  • Fewer reporters (largely as a result of falling ad revenue), so they are spread thin in terms of copy length and ability to carefully research stories.
  • The growing popularity of sensationalism in the United States in particular, to the point where even the most staid media outlets look to entertain as much as they do to inform.

What I want to do here is to give anyone dealing with unethical journalists an invaluable tool that can be used, now, for mitigating damage -- the Society of Professional Journalists' (SPJ) Code of Ethics.

How to Use the SPJ's Code of Ethics

This is the Preamble to SPJ's Code of Ethics:

Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist's credibility. Members of the Society share a dedication to ethical behavior and adopt this code to declare the Society's principles and standards of practice.

Can you imagine any mainstream journalist daring to say that he or she does not support those principles, even if not a member of the SPJ? Other than Jon Stewart of The Daily Show, of course, who's been quoted as saying that he and his team "travel in fake ethics." Ironically, Stewart has pulled the covers on innumerable journalistic faux pas and is perceived as one of the most credible on-air figures in America.

But, if you understand the Code, you can go back to a reporter, an editor, a news director or an editorial board, and say, "Hey, this practice of yours is a violation of the SPJ's Code of Ethics. We sure you don't mean to do that -- do you?" All non-journalists involved with news development must become assertive endorsers and users of the Code to which journalists allegedly subscribe. If we don't do that, we're saying, "Go ahead, do me harm, I'll just whine about it." Or as Stewart might put it, "How far do you want me to bend over?"

Here, are some examples of how to use the code and, if you'd like a much longer, more detailed analysis, you can download the PDF.

The code says that journalists should:

➢ Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.

Commentary: the guidance I was given by my first mentor in journalism, columnist Jack Anderson, was to use "multiple independent sources in a position to know" to test accuracy. That latter phrase can mean, literally, a source was a witness. But it can also mean the source is an expert (whose credentials have been verified, an easy thing for a reporter to mess up when in a hurry) or a document that in and of itself needs to be established as authentic (it's way too easy to forge documents with a computer!). Challenge journalists on this, ask them how they tested the accuracy of their information.

➢ Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.

Commentary: The following are just a few examples of how this often isn't done:

  • Calling the main switchboard of an organization after hours and making no further attempt (e.g., going to the organization's website) to identify a media contact (if you don't put your media contact on your website, then it's your problem.
  • Contacting a source 30 minutes or less before deadline.
  • Intentionally avoiding an organization's or individual's known PR contact and then claiming that the desired spokesperson was unavailable for comment.

➢ Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.

Commentary: You can really hoist a news organization on this petard. Headlines and news teases, in particular, are seldom written by the people who reported the story and are designed to draw your attention to the story, often at the damaging expense of one or more subjects of the article. I have seen articles that, when read in depth, seemed fairly innocuous, yet to read the headline you would believe that horrendous crimes have been committed - by you or your organization. Guess what the public remembers?

➢ Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.

Commentary: To truly correct a mistake, the correction must have the same prominence as the mistake. If someone is damaged by mistaken information in a page 1 newspaper story, but the mistake is published on page 34, that is clearly not a true correction. It is merely technical compliance with this tenet and I'm sure is not what the SPJ had in mind.

If you perceive what you believe to be an ethical violation by a journalist reporting on you:

  1. Write it down, noting what sections of the code were violated.
  2. Appeal to the media outlet. To the reporter, his editor and or editorial board (use a PR pro for this).
  3. Evaluate feedback. After your media appeal, do you still think there were violations? Did the media agree to make things right in a satisfactory manner? If so, congratulations, that's a "win." If not, see step 4.
  4. Fight back in the court of public opinion. The traditional media no longer have the monopoly on communication with broad audiences. The Internet provides each of us with many ways to become our own publisher. Press releases are inexpensive or even free to distribute, depending on the service used. How many media outlets would like to see a news headline, prominent blog headline or Tweet with the message "The (name of city) Times refuses to comply with journalistic ethics code"? I'm sure your own PR consultants, working closely with legal counsel to keep them on the safe side of defamation laws, can come up with many effective tactics. Hint: One such tactic is to put all allegations into a civil lawsuit, if there's any basis for filing one. Then you (and other media outlets) can quote directly from the complaint and face little risk of defaming anyone.

Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc. and author of Keeping the Wolves at Bay - Media Training