Chapter 7: Using a Code of Ethics as a Decision Tool Codes of Ethics in Journalism


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Chapter 7: Using a Code of Ethics as a Decision Tool

Codes of Ethics in Journalism
Will Irwin, The American Newspaper: A Series First Appearing in Colliers January – July, 1911 (Ames, Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 1969).
The New York Times, Ethical Journalism: A Handbook of Values and Practices for the News and Editorial Departments, September 2004.
Jay Black, Bob Steele and Ralph Barney, Doing Ethics in Journalism: A Handbook With Case Studies, 3rd Ed. (Boston: Allyn & Bacon, 1999). The authors discuss the SPJ’s debate over enforcement provisions in its code, 27.
Project for Excellence in Journalism. Texts of ethics codes adopted by various news organizations worldwide.
The Associated Press, “Statement of news values and principles.”
Radio Television Digital News Association, “RTNDA Code of Ethics.”
Ethics Guide for Public Radio Journalism:

  • Mallary Jean Tenore, “NPR introduces new Ethics Handbook, appoints new Standards and Practices editor,” poynteronline, Feb. 4, 2012. NPR began working on the 72-page book after the controversy over the dismissal of Juan Williams.
  • Bill Knowles, “The new NPR Ethics Handbook,” Media Ethics Magazine, Spring 2012. A former broadcast journalist reviews the publication.

Online Journalism Review, “What are the ethics of online journalism?”
The Debate Over the Value of Codes
Edmund B. Lambeth, Committed Journalism: An Ethic for the Profession (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1986), 76.
Carol Reuss, “Media codes of ethics are impotent, and too often they are facades that imply ethical behavior,” Controversies in Media Ethics, 2nd
Ed. (Gordon and Kittross, Eds.), 58.
Jay Black and Ralph D. Barney, “The case against mass media codes of ethics,” Journal of Mass Media Ethics, Vol. 1, No. 1 (Fall/Winter 1985-86), 27-36. The two professors write that codes “are probably of some limited value to the neophyte … [but] probably should be relegated to a framed wall hanging for any journalists who have advanced beyond their internships.” (Academic databases)
Bob Steele, “Inside The New York Times’ revised code,” poynteronline, Jan. 16, 2003. The Poynter Institute ethicist examines the Times code and also offers reasons why written ethics policies are a good idea.
Bob Steele, “Ethics codes: The lawyers’ take,” poynteronline, Jan. 30, 2003.

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code

Seek Truth and Report It
John Herbers, “McCarthyism, 1950-1954,” in Tom Rosenstiel and Amy S. Mitchell (Eds.), Thinking Clearly: Cases in Journalistic Decision-Making (New York: Columbia University Press, 2003), 6-22.
Dick Polman, an essay written for the author’s journalism ethics course at Pennsylvania State University, 2001. [See separate file in this folder.]
Naomi Oreskes, “The scientific consensus on climate change,” Science, Vol. 306, Dec. 3, 2004, 1686. Reviews ten years of scientific studies of climate change and discusses the implications of journalistic presentation of scientific uncertainty.
Handling rumors:

  • Mallary Jean Tenore and Steve Myers, “Not dead yet: Reporting Castro rumor,” poynteronline, Aug. 31, 2007. When does a news organization report on rumors? Bloggers were saying the Cuban leader was dead, but he wasn’t.

  • Katherine K. Lee, “Taking on the rumor mill,” Nieman Reports, Summer 2012. When a tornado struck Tuscaloosa, Ala., on April 27, 2011, killing 53 people, rumors spread on social media and were picked up by some news media outlets. Lee, city editor of the Tuscaloosa News, tells how the paper used social media to distribute verified information and created a blog to probe the most persistent rumors.

The debate over objectivity intensifies:

In the second decade of the 21st century, there is increasing disagreement over the question of objectivity in news reporting. Indeed, the role of journalists is coming under question: Are they taking sides if they point out misstatements of fact by news sources they are quoting? The author of this textbook takes the position that, far from expressing bias, journalists are fulfilling their ethical responsibility by telling readers what the facts truly are. In seeking the viewpoints of all the major players in a controversy, “objective” journalists are not obliged to act as stenographers; they have a duty to expose falsehoods. See a case study in this debate, below: “Anderson Cooper Calls Hosni Mubarak a Liar.”

  • Cary Spivak, “The fact-checking explosion,” American Journalism Review, December 2010/January 2011. “Not only does it appear that fact-checking operations are here to stay, but they are growing rapidly. Just this year [2010], at least two dozen media organizations or universities launched or joined fact-checking operations.”

  • Rem Rieder, “Reporting to conclusions: Journalists shouldn’t shrink from making judgments about factual disputes,” American Journalism Review, June-July 2011. Rieder issues a caveat: “The conclusions have to be shaped by hard-edged reporting, by facts, not by political point of view.”

  • Craig Silverman, “The truth about public untruths: Are journalists and others equipped to beat back the lies?”, Columbia Journalism Review, Dec. 2, 2011. Silverman writes that there is a lot of misinformation out there, and journalists need to be equipped to challenge the falsehoods. Includes a slideshow on “the history and current state of fact checking.”

  • Arthur S. Brisbane, “Should The Times be a truth vigilante?”, The New York Times, Jan. 12, 2012. The public editor invited “reader input on whether and when New York Times reporters should challenge ‘facts’ that are asserted by newsmakers they write about.” Brisbane’s question prompted responses from the journalism community, including:

o Robert Niles, “Should journalists be truth vigilantes? Hell, yeah!”, Online Journalism Review, Jan. 12, 2012.

o Rem Rieder, “Truth-squadding mission,” American Journalism Review, August/September 2012.

o Mathew Ingram, “Journalism and the truth: more complicated than it has ever been,” gigaom, Oct. 23, 2012. “Checking specific facts may have gotten easier, now that anyone can do it, but is reaching any kind of consensus about capital t truth even possible any more?”

  • Linda Greenhouse, “Challenging ‘he said, she said’ journalism,” Nieman Reports, Summer 2012. The writer, who covered the Supreme Court for The New York Times, asks, “Why is it just so difficult to make search for truth the highest journalistic value?”

  • Robert Niles, “Lies, liars, lying – just three of the delightfully negative words journalists shouldn’t be afraid to use,” Online Journalism Review, June 19, 2012. “The gravest problem facing journalism today is its continued adherence to a stenographic model of reporting, one that accepts accurate recitation of quotes and data as truthful reporting, overlooking the very inconvenient fact that people very often lie to reporters.”

  • Columbia Journalism Review, “Hard truths: What is the future of political factchecking?”, November/December 2012. The editorial urges newsrooms to “free factchecking from its specialized ghetto – the sidebars and boxes and special factchecking columns – and let its spirit infect every beat. … [J]ournalism must be more than just a presenter of the facts; it must be truth’s dogged – and vocal – advocate.”

A more questionable strategy of abandoning impartiality in the mass media for reporting with a point of view:

  • James Poniewozik, “The end of ‘objectivity’,” Time, Nov. 29, 2010. “In 2010 new-media openness upended old media’s poker-faced stoicism. And it’s about time.”,9171,2032138,00.html

  • Greg Masters, “Verve and attitude: The new editor of the Philadelphia Daily News wants his reporters to write with a point of view,” American Journalism Review, Feb. 9, 2011.

  • Robert Niles, “It’s okay to be partisan, and a few new principles of journalism ethics,” Online Journalism Review, April 10, 2012. “There should be no sin in taking sides in a news story – so long as the facts support that side. … If the facts point to a definitive, partisan conclusion, we actually cheat our readers when we stop short of taking them there.”

  • Deborah Potter, “With an edge: Local TV newscasts are adding attitude-laden commentary in an effort to stand out in a crowded media landscape,” American Journalism Review, April 20, 2011.

David Folkenflik of NPR produced a two-part series examining ideology in the media. Both segments below include audio clips.

  • “In London: A case study in opinionated press,” Jan. 4, 2011.

  • “American media’s true ideology: Avoiding one,” Jan. 5, 2011.
How should news accounts be written?

  • Jena Heath, “The voice of God is dead,” American Journalism Review, April 4, 2012. “It’s past time for news outlets to lose the rigid, formulaic approach to newswriting. But figuring out the boundaries can be tricky.”

Minimize Harm

The news blackout on Prince Harry’s combat assignment:

Kevin Sullivan, “Prince Harry’s seeing combat and British media kept quiet,” The Washington Post, Feb. 29, 2008.

Bob Satchwell, “Why we agreed to a media blackout on Harry,” The Guardian, Feb. 29, 2008.
CNN, “Prince Harry: My withdrawal is a shame,” March 1, 2008.
A news blackout on the kidnapping of a New York Times journalist:
  • National Public Radio, “Reporter’s escape from Taliban spurs ethics debate,” June 22, 2009. When New York Times reporter David Rohde escaped from his Taliban captors, few knew he had even been kidnapped, because for the seven months he and two Afghan colleagues were in the Taliban's hands, The Times kept that information under wraps. Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute is interviewed.

  • Clark Hoyt, “Journalistic ideals, human values,” The New York Times, July 5, 2009. The Times’ public editor agrees with the blackout in the Rohde case, quoting executive editor Bill Keller as saying that the kidnappers had demanded silence.

Mirthala Salinas and media coverage:

Shawn Huber, “The mayor and his mistress,” Los Angeles Magazine, May 2008. (Academic databases)

The death of Princess Diana:

Jacqueline Sharkey, “The Diana aftermath,” American Journalism Review, November 1997.

Charlton Heston, “The Second Amendment: America’s first freedom,” speech at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., Sept. 11, 1997; accessed at:

Vince Duffy, “What responsibility do we have NOT to report some information?”, Radio Television Digital News Association, Oct. 11, 2012. Cases in which concern for the public welfare can argue against reporting certain information.

Donna Weaver and Wallace McKelvey, “Three of those killed in Mainland crash tested positive for marijuana, state police report says,” The Press of Atlantic City, Aug. 30, 2012. A story that was painful for the families involved, but an example of information that the public needs to have.

Jim Romenesko, “Woman with genital arousal disorder commits suicide after being featured in Tampa Bay Times,” Dec. 4, 2012. On Nov. 30, The Times posted a story and video about a 39-year-old woman who suffered from persistent genital arousal disorder – a rare syndrome that “seems to violate one of the basic elements of human sexuality: our ability to control our sexual lives. In essence, it makes desire irrelevant, stripping away all psychological pleasure from sex and leaving only the mechanics of arousal.” On Dec. 1, the woman featured in the story was found dead; Gretchen Molannen committed suicide, according to the sheriff’s office. The Times said that while the story was being edited, it was read to Molannen, and the final version included small changes she had requested. She sent an e-mail on Nov. 28 thanking the paper for doing the story.

  • Managing editor Mike Wilson wrote in an e-mail to Romenesko on Dec. 5: “We are all saddened by Gretchen Molannen’s tragic decision to take her own life. Reporter Leonora LaPeter Anton and visual journalist Eve Edelheit are taking it particularly hard because they came to know Gretchen during their reporting and empathized deeply with her, as evidenced by the sensitive story and video they produced. … [W]e are proud of the mature and thoughtful work our journalists did in bringing Gretchen’s story to light. We can’t know all of the complex factors that led Gretchen to the awful choice she made. But we hope and believe that her story will help other men and women who quietly suffer from similar conditions.”

Margaret Sullivan, “The tale of a transgender 6-year-old raises reader concerns,” The New York Times, March 20, 2013. The Times’ public editor explores the paper’s decision to identify the child.

  • Followup: Sullivan, “Anna Quindlen and Andrew Solomon join discussion about media and transgender children,” The Times, March 25, 2013. Should journalists rely on parental approval in disclosing a child’s identity in such a case?

Genevieve Belmaker, “Compassion goes a long way when reporting on tragedies like Boston and Newtown,” poynteronline, April 23, 2013. “[W]hen reporting on a tragedy, there’s always room to act like a human being first and a reporter second.”

Act Independently
Bob Steele, “A pledge of allegiance for journalists,” Sept. 20, 2001. Steele discusses reporters and news outlets’ expressions of patriotism in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.
Two newspapers acknowledged errors in pre-Iraq invasion coverage:

The New York Times, “The Times and Iraq,” May 26, 2004. The editors acknowledged that the newspaper should have been more aggressive in its coverage of the run-up to the Iraq war. The article states in part: “[W]e have found a number of instances of coverage that was not as rigorous as it should have been. In some cases, information that was controversial then, and seems questionable now, was insufficiently qualified or allowed to stand unchallenged. Looking back, we wish we had been more aggressive in re-examining the claims as new evidence emerged or failed to emerge.”
Howard Kurtz, “The Post on WMDs: an inside story; prewar articles questioning threat often didn’t make front page,” The Washington Post, Aug. 11, 2004. The paper’s media reporter analyzes its pre-war coverage: “In retrospect,” said Executive Editor Leonard Downie Jr., “we were so focused on trying to figure out what the administration was doing that we were not giving the same play to people who said it wouldn’t be a good idea to go to war and were questioning the administration's rationale. Not enough of those stories were put on the front page. That was a mistake on my part.”

Be Accountable
Lisa Newton, Louis Hodges, and Susan Keith. “Accountability in journalism,” Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 19(3&4), 173-180. (Academic databases) Accountability is viewed as a civilizing element in society, with professional accountability formalized in most cases as duties dating to the Greeks and Socrates; journalists must find their own way, without formal professional or government regulation or licensing. Three scholars look at the process in a line from the formal professional discipline to suggesting problems the journalism fraternity faces without regulation to suggesting serious internal ethics conferences as 1 solution to the problem.
The New York Times, “The Times Answers Spitzer Scandal Questions,” March 13, 2008. An example of how a news organization uses a blog to respond to the audience’s news-coverage questions as the story is being reported.
Louise Williams Hermanson, “The Minnesota News Council: The story behind the creation,” Oral History Review 21/1 (Spring, 1993), © Oral History Association, 23-47.
Jake Mooney, “From simple story to major mess,” Columbia Journalism Review, September/October 2003. After a Virginia television station made errors in reporting on a drug case, it did not respond promptly to complaints about accuracy and fairness. Find this article through a Google search of: “Jake Mooney, From simple story to major mess, Columbia Journalism Review”
Jennifer Dorroh, “Knocking down the stonewall,” American Journalism Review, December/January 2005. Discusses what a news organization should do when its reporting comes under fire.
Rachel Smolkin, “Too transparent?”, American Journalism Review, April/May 2006. It’s healthy for news organizations to be much more open about their decision making than they have been in the past. But in response to relentless pounding from bloggers and other critics, is the transparency movement getting out of hand?
Mallary Jean Tenore, “Rebuilding trust: What newsrooms are doing,” poynteronline, Feb. 20, 2008. Some news organizations are seeking feedback from critical consumers of news to help build credibility and trust.

David McCay Wilson, “Watching the watchdogs,” Columbia College Today, May/June 2010. In an interview, Clark Hoyt, the third of The New York Times’ public editors, describes his job on the front lines of journalism ethics, assessing the work of the newspaper’s writers, editors, and photographers.

Greg Masters, “Fading away,” American Journalism Review, March 2, 2011. “Despite flurries of interest in the concept over the years, the roster of U.S. news councils hearing complaints against the media has dwindled to one.” A response by John Hamer, president and executive director of the Washington News Council,
Jack Shafer, “Does anyone care about newspaper ombudsmen?”, Reuters, March 4, 2013. The media critic comments on the decision of The Washington Post to replace its ombudsman position with a “reader representative” who will respond to readers’ “concerns and questions.”

  • Rem Rieder, “A disappointing move by The Washington Post,” American Journalism Review, March 4, 2013. “Having an independent figure to hear readers’ complaints, and then investigate and write about them, says eloquently that a news organization takes its responsibilities and its customers seriously.”

John Faherty and Jennifer Edwards Baker, “La Salle student’s gun came from home, police say,” Cincinnati Enquirer, April 30, 2013. In front of a teacher and 22 other students, a 17-year-old boy attempted suicide by shooting himself in the head; he survived. The Enquirer named the student in its reporting.

  • Followup: Carolyn Washburn, “Here’s why we named the student,” Enquirer, April 30, 2013. The editor explains the decision.

Additional Case Studies
Truth can be elusive: The first cornerstone principle of the SPJ code is to seek truth and report it. This account of the Sago Mine disaster in West Virginia in January 2006 shows how elusive the truth can be. [See separate file in this folder.]

  • Frank Langfitt, “Covering the Sago Mine disaster: How a game of ‘whisper down the coal mine’ ricocheted around the world,” Nieman Reports, Summer 2006.

Anderson Cooper calls Hosni Mubarak a liar: In February 2011, Anderson Cooper said repeatedly on CNN that Egyptian government leaders were lying, prompting some journalists to say he was taking sides in the event he was covering. Was Cooper expressing a bias or was he doing his professional duty? (This case study is not about Cooper’s personal style of journalism, but over whether it was appropriate for him to challenge the accuracy of what the Egyptian leaders, notably Hosni Mubarak, were saying.)

  • “Anderson Cooper on Mubarak speech,” video clip, Feb. 10, 2011:
  • James Rainey, “Egypt: CNN’s Anderson Cooper on lies and lying liars who tell them,” Los Angeles Times blogs, Feb. 12, 2011.

  • Howard Kurtz, host, “Reliable Sources,” CNN, Feb. 13, 2011, transcript:

  • Huffington Post, “Fox News’ Liza Trotta slams Anderson Cooper’s Egypt coverage,” video clip, Feb. 14, 2011.

  • Glenn Greenwald, “Journalists angry over the commission of journalism,”, Feb. 14, 2011.

  • Leonard Pitts Jr.: “Commentary: In calling out Mubarak's lies, CNN's Anderson Cooper reported the truth,” The Miami Herald, Feb. 16, 2011.

Illustrating cornerstone principles: When Jacqui Banaszynski of the St. Paul Pioneer Press wrote her series on “AIDS in the Heartland” in 1987, she had tough ethical decisions to make at every step in the reporting process. She followed three of what would become cornerstone principles of the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics: seek truth and report it, minimize harm, and act independently. Ethicist Bob Steele comments on the series:

Text of the series:


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