Advertorial Print advertising that is designed – using headlines, news stories, photographs, and captions – to resemble news (“editorial”) content apparent conflict of interest

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Glossary for The Ethical Journalist

accountability The obligation of journalists to treat their audience with respect and to respond constructively to criticism. Essential to accountability is a willingness to correct errors and to explain news decisions.
advertorial Print advertising that is designed – using headlines, news stories, photographs, and captions – to resemble news (“editorial”) content.
apparent conflict of interest Something that a journalist does – or says publicly – that causes the audience to perceive a conflict of interest or a bias, even though the journalist’s reporting is appropriate. For example, if a journalist contributes to a political candidate or cause, the audience can be expected to perceive bias in that journalist’s reporting – and to attribute the same bias to the journalist’s entire news organization. See conflict of interest for a discussion of an actual, rather than an apparent, conflict.
applied ethics The branch of moral philosophy that deals with making decisions about concrete cases in a business or profession. Its purpose is to put ethical theory into action.

Aristotle’s Golden Mean A moderate but ethically defensible solution in a situation in which the extreme choices are unacceptable. This concept is based on the ancient Greek philosopher’s belief in moderation as a virtue – for example, courage as the mean between recklessness and cowardice. Aristotle’s Golden Mean is at work in the US government’s policy on the sales of tobacco. At the extremes, the government might have banned tobacco because its health dangers have been clinically proved, or it might have permitted unregulated sales because citizens should have the civil liberty of deciding for themselves whether to buy it. Instead, the government chose a Golden Mean: to tax tobacco heavily, regulate advertising, require warning labels, and bar sales to children.

audience The readers, viewers, listeners, and online users who consume the news that journalists produce. It is to the audience that journalists owe their first allegiance.
checkbook journalism Paying news sources for their information.
citizen journalism See user-generated content.
confidential source Someone who provides information to a journalist on the condition that he or she not be identified.
conflict of interest A journalist’s self-interest or loyalty to another person or organization that the journalist permits to alter, influence, or take precedence over his or her duty to the audience. For example, if a film critic has a side job to promote the work of a movie producer, the critic would be unlikely to write unfavorable reviews of that producer’s films. The critic’s tainted reviews would cheat the audience, which expects and is entitled to an honest appraisal of the films. Likewise, a news company is in a conflict of interest if it produces puff pieces about an advertiser or suppresses legitimate news that is unfavorable to the advertiser. These are actual conflicts of interest, in which the journalism is subverted; for comparison, see apparent conflict of interest. See also disclosure.
consequentialism See ends-based thinking.
critical thinking The systematic process of analyzing ethical problems – a process that involves applying logic to the available information. It is crucial to sound decision-making. Critical thinking is the opposite of an emotional response.

deception Communicating “messages meant to mislead others, meant to make them believe what we ourselves do not believe. We can do that through gesture, through disguise, by means of action or inaction, even through silence.” (Sisela Bok’s classic definition.)

deontology See rule-based thinking.
disclosure Informing the audience of something that might be perceived as a conflict of interest. A disclosure may be warranted if the conflict is unavoidable or insignificant. Disclosing the possible appearance of conflict allows the audience to decide whether the content is biased. For example, when the online magazine Slate reports or comments on actions of The Washington Post, it is appropriate to acknowledge that Slate is owned by the Post Company. A disclosure is not an antidote to a significant conflict that is avoidable. A disclosure that a travel writer has received free travel, lodging, and meals does not allay the audience’s skepticism about the writer’s review of the trip; instead, the writer’s employer should pay the expenses of the trip.
duty-based thinking See rule-based thinking.
ends-based thinking An ethical theory that allows the decision-maker to weigh competing values according to the consequences that may occur. It directs a choice in favor of the course of action that brings the most good to the most people. This theory is also called teleology, consequentialism, and utilitarianism.
ethics A set of moral principles, a code – often unwritten – that guides a person’s moral conduct. Ethics is more than just discerning the difference between right and wrong; it requires acting on what is right.
ethical dilemma A situation in which a person’s ethical values are in conflict, forcing the person to choose one ethical value over another. For example, in Lawrence Kohlberg’s hypothetical Heinz Dilemma, Heinz must choose between honesty and compassion – stealing the drug to save his wife’s life, or allowing her to die. However, not every difficult decision is an ethical dilemma. See false ethical dilemma.

ethical values Values that directly relate to beliefs about what is right and proper: honesty, promise-keeping, fairness, compassion, respect for the privacy of others. See nonethical values.

fabrication Making things up and passing them off as genuine.
false ethical dilemma A situation requiring a person to choose between an ethical value and a nonethical value. The false ethical value can be expressed as a clash between what you should do and what you would like to do – for example, the choice between respecting a news subject’s privacy (ethical value) and getting a news story before the competition does (nonethical value). The ethical person rejects the nonethical value and acts on the ethical value, choosing ethics over expediency. Thus, doing the right thing may exact a cost in the short term.
framing The context or narrative theme through which a news story is told. Framing represents the journalist’s effort to interpret and give meaning to the news. Conflict is a common – and commonly abused – story frame. Journalists should recognize that choosing a frame is a subjective decision in which they must guard against injecting their biases.
gatekeeping Once, editors decided what information was worthy of passing along to the public, and what was not. The Internet changed this so-called gatekeeping function. Today, society depends on journalists to be its surrogates in sifting the huge volume of information available, testing it for accuracy, and helping citizens understand it.
Golden Rule Doing unto others as you would have them do unto you. The Golden Rule appears in various forms in all the world’s major religions. Also known as the rule of reversibility, it is a powerful decision-making tool because it allows you to imagine yourself in the place of the person affected by your decision and, from that perspective, to assess the fairness of the decision.

independence Journalists’ freedom of “obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know” (Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics code). Journalists are detached observers of the people and events they cover. See conflict of interest.

infomercial Broadcast advertising content that is designed to resemble news or informational content.
infotainment The blending of news and entertainment as a marketing strategy aimed at attracting an audience with sensationalism. This phenomenon is illustrated by cable television’s fixation on a single story, such as the death in 2007 of Anna Nicole Smith, the Playboy centerfold model who had become a rich widow and then a star on reality TV.
intervention A decision by a journalist to become involved in a news situation that the journalist is covering. The journalist’s traditional role is as an observer rather than a participant, for two reasons: intervention changes the nature of the event, and the intervention could persuade the audience of bias on the journalist’s part. However, in certain rare situations, a journalist might intervene for humanitarian reasons. In general, a journalist should act to save a life or prevent injury if he or she is the best person or only person in a position to intervene.
journalism The (1) independent act of gathering and disseminating information, in which the practitioner is dedicated to (2) seeking the truth and (3) owes first loyalty to the consumers of the information. For any communication to be a work of journalism, all three of these conditions must be met.
lifted quotes Using quotations from sources that the reporter did not hear. An ethical journalist credits the reporter and news organization that originally reported such quotations.
manipulation of photography Distorting what purports to be documentary news photography either by stage-managing the scene or by altering the content of otherwise authentic images.

media convergence Producing journalism simultaneously on the platforms of print, broadcast, and the web. The platforms could be owned by the same company, or they could be owned by partnering companies that exchange reporting. In either form, this cross-platform journalism requires its practitioners to possess multimedia skills in some degree.

moral agent The person who makes the decision in a given situation. A moral agent’s goal is to make a decision that can be defended as having been rationally chosen by a caring individual.
nonethical values Values that relate not to moral duty but to desire: wealth, status, happiness. Note that these are not unethical values; instead, they are morally neutral. For a journalist, nonethical values could be getting an important news story before the competition does, or increasing website traffic, newspaper circulation, or broadcast ratings. Seeking these goals is not morally wrong unless an ethical value is violated in the process. See ethical values.
plagiarism Taking credit for phrases, sentences, paragraphs, or even an entire story that someone else created.
rationalization A temptation in the decision process. In choosing a course of action that is self-serving, the decision-maker deludes himself or herself into thinking that the choice is an ethical one. For example, an employee who cheats on an expense account may conclude that the stealing is justified because he or she was denied a raise.
rule-based thinking An ethical theory holding that a person always has an absolute duty to follow a universal rule of conduct, such as telling the truth. Ends-based thinking permits no exceptions, no excuses, and no concern for the consequences. This theory also is called deontology or duty-based thinking.

social responsibility A business concern’s moral duty to strive to make its community better. This obligation to the public requires more than merely complying with the law. For companies that report the news, a critical social responsibility is to provide the fair, accurate, reliable information that a community needs to be self-governing.

socialization The process by which a new generation absorbs the values of the community. These values are most commonly transmitted by family, peer groups, role models, and societal institutions.
source Someone who gives a journalist information about a news matter.
teleology See ends-based thinking.
transparency Being open about any reasonable question that members of the audience could raise: why a certain story was done; how the story was produced; who the sources were; any conflict of interest that might be perceived about the news organization or the reporter; gaps in the story’s content that the reporter has not been able to fill.
truth To report what actually happened in a given news situation. This process begins with getting the facts right through a process of verification. Truth-seeking also involves an ability to find sources with firsthand knowledge, to filter out the biases of those sources, and to use subjective judgment to provide context to the facts.
user-generated content Information and images provided to news organizations by members of the audience and then presented to the audience as a whole. Although this kind of content is called citizen journalism by some, it does not meet the definition of journalism unless the provider acts independently, is dedicated to seeking truth, and renders first loyalty to the audience. Members of the audience can be helpful in generating news-coverage ideas and providing information that is subsequently verified by professional journalists. See journalism and citizen journalism.
utilitarianism See ends-based thinking.

values Deeply held convictions and beliefs about what is effective, desirable, or morally right. These values may or may not be ethical values. Our character is defined by the values – ethical or not – that we consistently rank higher than the others. See ethical values and nonethical values.


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