Ethics in journalism

Journalistic ethics define the moral rights and responsibilities that apply to the challenges that journalists face in their work.  They refer to these principles of good practice as  a “professional code of ethics” or “canons of good journalism”.

These ground rules spell out the journalistic practice for responsible and reliable journalism which can be applied to news production.

This ethical framework aims to improve the integrity of the journalist as well as the quality of news reporting. These rules are freely available so that the public can know what to expect of journalists in their work.

Law or ethics

Some of these principles are enshrined in and controlled by national and international law.  These are based on universal values, such as respecting humanity, truthfulness, freedom from violence and solidarity between people.

However, everything that is legal is not necessarily good practice.  So, more detailed ethical codes of conduct and other guidelines have evolved in Western journalism.

The basic codes and canons usually appear in statements drafted by:

  • professional journalism associations, such as trade unions
  • individual print, broadcast and online news organisations

Journalism ethics, therefore, have a range of aspects, for instance, instructions or directives, professional standards, as well as basic guidelines on good manners and politeness.

Some journalistic codes of ethics, notably the European ones, are concerned to avoid discrimination.  They refer to issues, such as race, religion, sexual orientation, and physical or mental disabilities.

A code of ethics provides journalists with a framework from which they can monitor and correct their behaviour.

The rise of digital and social media and the increase in citizen journalism is eroding some of these principles.  This is making it necessary to reconsider how media law and good ethics can be preserved and responsible journalism maintained.

Five important journalistic values

Journalists should be:

  1. Honest – not make up or share news that gives a wrong impression of events.
  2. Independent – avoid topics in which they have a conflict of interest.
  3. Fair – avoid publishing information if it is undertaken with a bad intention.
  4. Productive – work hard to try to gather all the relevant facts.
  5. Proud of their work – be able to accept all credit for their work, good or bad.

News values as ethical standards

Some news organisations use the term News Values to describe ethics in journalism.  However, this term is more widely used to describe the ingredients that make up an interesting and eye-catching news story.

News organisations as guardians of media ethics

Many news organisations adopt a code of journalistic ethics they expect from their employees.  Here are two examples.

Associated Press

Associated Press emphasise their commitment to five so-called news values.  In effect, this is a list of “do’s” and “don’ts”:

  • no plagiarising,
  • not misidentifying or misrepresenting themselves to get a story
  • avoiding conflicts of interest that may compromise accuracy
  • no paying newsmakers for interviews
  • maintaining their commitment to fairness.

British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC)

The BBC lists the following values:

  • Truth and accuracy
  • Impartiality and diversity of opinion
  • Editorial integrity and independence
  • Serving the public interest
  • Fairness
  • Balancing the right to report with respect for privacy
  • Balancing the right to report with protection of the vulnerable
  • Safeguarding children
  • Being accountable to the audience

This list appears on the BBC website – Editorial Values.

I update this article regularly and welcome your feedback. I am always interested to know if it answers your questions about news values. Have you found it easy to understand?  If you are a writer, I have some useful tips on how to mind your language and communicate a story clearly.