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Delving into the Code of Ethics

by on September 30, 2015

The SPJ Code of Ethics reads as a very straightforward and cohesive document, presenting the obligations of journalists today in a clear and organized fashion. But in the wake of the past two class discussions on deontology and theology, simple statements within the document begin to take on new meaning. For example, take the sentence: “Explain ethical choices and processes to audience.” Seems pretty straightforward at first glance. But after having delved into the tangled web of the actual process of distinguishing how you are to reach your ethical decisions, all before you even begin to formulate a way to express them to your audience, the statement takes on a deeper and more complicated meaning.

Another convoluted statement within the EPJ is: “Expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organizations.” When considering decisions that are blatantly unethical, for example bribing a source, it would be easy to expose the wrongdoing of whoever it was that did that bribing. They did something explicitly unethical and wrong. But not all ethical decisions are that black and white, in fact it seems that most are not. What happens when a fellow journalist makes a decision that you deem unethical but is not explicitly wrong? What if you work in an organization with this person? For example, your editor wants to run a story on a family whose son just died of a heroin overdose. The family does not want to talk, at least not yet. The pain they’re suffering is too immense. Ethically, you back off and decide to wait until they’re ready to give you their story. Your colleague, on the other hand, goes to their home everyday, knocking on their door and urging them to share their heartbreak. What action would you take to expose this conduct that you deem “unethical?” Would you tell your editor? Would you explain how you feel about the ethical conundrum standing in the way of this sensitive story being covered? Or, would you feel pressured to push your ethical boundaries and work a little harder to crack the shell of the family, too? It seems to me that when the lines become a little blurred like this, it becomes much harder to follow EPJ’s advice to expose unethical conduct. Its a bit harder to sort through right and wrong when the boundaries differ from person to person.

On the other hand, some concepts in the Code of Ethics come across as less complicated to me. One statement in particular is, “Provide context. Take special care not to misinterpret or oversimplify.” I think context is the crux of what journalists write. Our audiences turn to us for clarification on events going on in our world. Our job is to sort through information and present it in context, in a way that accurately verbalizes what the given news means, without too much or too little explaining and cushioning. In comparison to other parts of the Code of Ethics that can be interpreted in a variety of ways, I find this one to be relatively straightforward. It is simple to understand that when a story is presented out of context, it is misleading to readers. An article that comes to mind to explain lack of context is Heather MacDonald’s opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal on what she considered to be “the Ferguson effect.” MacDonald presented her audience with the statistic that violent crime in major US cities had risen in 2015, since the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson in 2014, calling it an effect of the civil direst in the city. That statistic was true for a handful of cities. But when put in proper context, the audience would learn that in years prior to 2014, crime rates were as higher or higher as they were in 2015. When compared to one year, the rates looked bad, but the big picture reveals otherwise. This is just one example of using context to best inform your audience, which I believe is much more of a black and white concept in the Code of Ethics in comparison to others.


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