As far as essential and honorable careers go, journalism ranks high on the list. Many who enter the field aren’t driven by fame and fortune – life as a reporter isn’t as glamorous as the Oscar-winning Spotlight would have you believe. Instead, journalists tend to have a passion for promoting truth, awareness, accountability, and engagement within their communities and the world at large. That said, the field of journalism is only as noble as its individual outlets and practitioners. For that reason, establishing and maintaining a personal and professional code of ethics is essential for journalists. Without one, it will be harder to identify and respond to both the red lines and grey areas you might face in your career. As you work toward your journalism degree, think about these five important ethical considerations and how you would approach them as a reporter, editor, or producer.
1. Protecting Sources
To a journalist, sources are sacred. Ethical reporters will go to great lengths to cultivate and protect sources for the sake of preserving their access and integrity. Some journalists have even risked jail time rather than identify a source such as a government whistleblower or corporate leak. There may be times as a journalist that you have to weigh the promise of anonymity against other factors, including the newsworthiness and credibility of your story or even questions about the source’s own motives and reliability.
2. Protecting Victims
Another basic rule you’ll encounter in newsrooms is that certain victims of crimes are not identified by name – particularly when the victim is a child who may have been sexually abused. There are cases, however, when these rules are bent or broken. What if the accuser is a public figure? What if the abuse is incidental to a larger story such as the recovery of a kidnapping victim? You may face these kinds of dilemmas when a victim’s right to privacy confronts the news value in play.
3. Privacy vs. News Value
This kind of dilemma isn’t limited to situations like those above. In general, public figures like government officials and celebrities enjoy a lesser degree of privacy than average citizens. How do you know when a matter is too private to report on? What if an ordinary citizen is involved in a genuinely newsworthy story, but reporting on it may require the disclosure of compromising information? Journalists and editors often work together to balance an obligation to accurately report the news while also doing no harm.
4. Conflicts of Interest
One of the pillars of journalism ethics is impartiality. News stories should be reported fairly, objectively, and without undisclosed conflicts of interest that could influence the reporter’s coverage. What if you’re assigned to a story about someone you have an existing personal relationship with, whether it’s positive or negative? How should a newsroom cover alleged misconduct by a major advertiser? What if the publisher’s ownership structure encompasses other newsworthy individuals or companies that you ought to report on? Should a reporter participate directly in an event that he or she is going to write about later? These are all questions you are likely to face if you pursue a career as a journalist.
5. Audience as Customer
With some exceptions, journalism today is a business first and a profession second. Like any other business, the rules of demand apply. A news outlet’s audience is usually its customer base too, so how much of an obligation does an outlet have to produce the kind of stories people want as opposed to news the public needs? At what point does running popular stories undermine a news organization’s commitment to meaningful reporting? A publication or broadcast outlet is only as strong as its audience, but reporters also have to remember that journalism plays a unique role in society that most other businesses do not – and act accordingly. These are just a few of the ethical dilemmas you could encounter in your career in the field of journalism. What’s key is understanding where the ethical boundaries lie and how to stay on the right side of them, even when it might be easier not to. Doing otherwise ultimately can harm not only your career, but also the profession itself.
Written by University Staff
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