Journalism ethics in an understandable nutshell

The world of journalism ethics can be a complicated, scary place. The New York Times’ code of ethics [PDF] is almost thick enough at 57 pages to qualify as a textbook. Even some of the shorter ones, such as that of The Washington Post, serve more as references as opposed to simple guidelines one can follow in a heartbeat.

That’s why I liked the list presented at a workshop yesterday by Orlando Sentinel public editor Manning Pynn. Manning, in an act that might make George Carlin proud, has drilled down on ethics codes in an attempt to capture the essence of them into something more understandable — especially for folks new to journalism who haven’t sat through semester-long ethics classes in college. So here’s Manning’s list, which any cub reporter can easily keep in his pocket and use to stay out of trouble:

* Don’t accept free stuff.
* Don’t cover family, friends — or enemies.
* Don’t use your position for personal benefit.
* Don’t make stuff up.
* Don’t steal other people’s work.
* Don’t alter photographs.

Now clearly, journalism ethics can become more complex than this small list. The Poynter Institute has a Geek Squad of experts ready at a moment’s notice to help you solve tough ethical conundrums, and they produce plenty of excellent, valuable content to hammer out these issues.

But when I’m spotted at a venue by a friendly press agent who wants to slip me some tempting tickets for a hot concert next week, the first thing I’m going to fall back on is simply “don’t accept free stuff.”


More Ethical Links:

Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics

American Society of Newspaper Editors list of newspapers’ codes of ethics

Poynter Institute Ethics section

Author: Danny Sanchez

Danny Sanchez is the Audience Development Manager at Tribune's and Danny has been with Tribune since 2005 in a variety of editorial, digital and product development roles in Hartford, Orlando and Fort Lauderdale. He has also previously worked in the newsrooms of the Tampa Bay Times and The Miami Herald.

8 thoughts on “Journalism ethics in an understandable nutshell”

  1. I think at least one of these — “Don’t alter photographs” — can’t stand on its own. Because cropping, sharpening, and dodging/burning are all acceptable, but erasing and adding are NOT. Excessive adjustments (your call) can distort the truth (remember the O.J. Simpson photo on the Time and newsweek covers), but it’s always okay to adjust the contrast a wee bit, or tweak the levels.

  2. Boy, opening up the “alter photos” can of worms is a big one. Perhaps: “Don’t alter the integrity of the image.” I’m sure NPPA probably has books worth of discussion on this issue in their listserv archives. Adjusting contrast, slight dodging and burning, cropping, etc. are all considered acceptable by most, but removing “real things” are considered not so – at least IMHO.

    The O.J. photo is another matter, as well: when does a “tweaked” photo become a photo illustration or a graphic? That’s trickier. Maybe we could get NPPA to work with Adobe Photoshop to put little “ethical” points on all the filters and adjustments, so we’d all know when we were approaching the danger zone. 🙂

  3. Ha! Kinda like the Out of Gamut warning. Good one Bryan. We can call it the No Longer Ethical warning.

    Personally, I’m loathe to use even dodging and burning because of the potential for going too far — exactly like the O.J. photo situation. I like the integrity of the image suggestion.

  4. As spot-on as is your six-pointed ethical star, I’m still glad to be in my graduate level media ethics class.

    I do think the media — at least the print media — are more concerned about ethics than at any time in many decades.

    If only the news makers we cover were as ethical as we strive to be.

  5. How about the nitty-gritty of content/copy – the product that reaches customer?
    All the talk about peripheral matter isn’t anywhere the issue that these elements are:
    1.Filtering/selectivity – copy topics; how presented, emphasized.
    2. Inserting opinion; mixing opinion with fact.
    3. Using anonymous sources.
    4. Misleading heads.
    5. Not quoting – rewording, changing meaning.

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