Responsible Journalism

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Responsible Journalism

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Every staff should have a code of ethics to follow so that all members will understand what it means to be a responsible journalist. This can be a part of your policy manual. The code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists is a good model to follow.

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The staff’s code of ethics should address some of the “danger zones” that journalists much watch out for: unsubstantial or fluffy writing, sensationalism, off-the-record information, investigative reporting, photomanipulation, personal ads, etc.

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The SPJ Code of Ethics is organized around four main principles: Seek truth and report it. Minimize harm. Act independently. Be accountable.

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Seek truth and report it. Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information. Your staff’s code of ethics should specify guidelines for ensuring accuracy, objectivity, balance and fairness.

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Act independently. Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know. The code should state that journalists will not receive favors or gifts from anyone associated with newspaper business. The public may perceive this as a way these businesses are influencing the newspaper.

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Be accountable. Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other. The code of ethics should stress the importance of serving your readers. It should include a commitment to correct mistakes promptly and to expose unethical practices by other journalists.

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Minimize harm. Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect. Encourage sensitivity, especially when covering controversial or emotional topics. Your code of ethics should include warnings against obscenity, invasion of privacy, libel, disruption, copyright violation, hate speech, false advertising, “fighting words”, and other forms of expression not protected by the First Amendment.

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Being a responsible journalist Make sure the sources of your information are reliable and trustworthy. Avoid using anonymous sources. Don’t ever make up anything or fake anything, even if it seems like a tiny, unimportant detail. Fabrication of anything is unethical. Be sensitive to politically correct language. Follow current nonoffensive usage in reference to race, religion, age, sex, nationality and physical or mental disability. Include a list of PC terms in your stylebook or policy manual.

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Being a responsible journalist Avoid asking personal questions of your sources. Do not cross the line into invasion of privacy. Make sure quotes are not taken out of context. Include enough of the entire quote to represent fairly what was actually said. If you criticize someone, give him/her a chance to respond in the same story. Always consider community standards about obscenity.

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Being a responsible journalist When you review a performance , remember the fair comment rule. This is the rule that gives you freedom to express unfavorable opinion about matters of public opinion. These comments must be clearly opinions and must be based on stated facts. This rule protects reviews from libel. If you have any ethical or legal questions about your work, check with your editor, adviser or the Student Press Law Center (splc@splc.org)