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Five ethics for content creators, including journalists

by on 2 Nov, 2013

My focus next week will be on the ethics of journalism.  The prosecution is making its case in the Brooks et al trial at the Old Bailey.  And I have to lecture on journalism ethics on Tuesday.

Ethics, journalism: it’s a joke, isn’t it

It could be a short lecture: can you get ethics and journalism in your head at the same time?   How can journalism say it has ethics?  But yes, it has an ethic: a guiding principle, at least in the UK.

The ethic is “get the story”. As a journalist, I’ve lied to get or defend a story.  I’ve stolen to get documents to get stories.  I’ve impersonated other people to get a story.  All unethical.  But I thought, and still think, that I was serving the readers.  That was my ethic.

A strong ethic

Get the story to them.  Tell the readers what I know is going on.  That way we have a strong ethic of journalism.  But as for ethics, let’s try these 5 ethical tips.  They are for all content creators, including journalists.

  1. Defend your sources.  Make sure you keep your confidential sources confidential to you.
  2. Quote accurately.  So many quotes can be changed to fit the story.  I caught a journalist on a magazine I edited inserting “not” into a quote, quote changing the meaning.   Private Eye has many examples of quotes used in film posters or theatre promotion which have ripped the quotes out of context.
  3. Know that you have a “mind set”, that you see the world in a particular way.  The Economist sees the world through its neo-liberal eyes.  The Spectator through its conservative eyes.  That’s why I read them.   I want to know what they are up to.  But make sure your readers know this as well.
  4. Don’t take bribes.  This seems simple but is complex.  I have been flown round the world and slept in excellent hotels paid for by the host company I was reporting on.  Others, for example in the fashion press, are “gifted” products.  Don’t let that twist your coverage of the event or of the product.
  5. Let all subjects of stories comment.  But if they have a professional PR operation, give them as little time as possible.

The 6th

Interestingly, I could not make it the classical 10 ethical tips.  These are enough to guide any content creator.  And there is a sixth, as the trial shows: get the story and get it right as you see it.

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From → Journalism

  1. Personally, your view of ethics can be seemed as self centered and naive, to place yourself in the the criminal eye, and to risk your own personal well being for a story can bed anger out for the journalist. However, I feel that the reader does need to know the story, and that the reader has the right to know information, yet to place oneself in danger and to become corrupt in a sense is wrong.

  2. AllyJenny permalink

    I would question number three – have a ‘mind set’. I believe it’s important to keep an open mind when embarking on an investigation – arguably, it would be unethical to go in with a biased viewpoint. Furthermore, writing with a strict subjective opinion throughout would hinder the audience/reader in seeing both sides of a story (which is unfair on both parties).

  3. I agree with you Richard. However, we have come to the decision that some of the etchnic points only appeal to certain times of Journalism reporting you plan on reporting. For example, if you do Fashion journalism you won’t necessary do anything ethical.

  4. Daiane, Alina & Rian permalink

    Richard, you have broken almost every rule on this list. Whilst it may be personally and publicly acceptable to adhere to this list of ethical rules, it isn’t possible for a journalist who lives by their own self-created motto of “get the story”.

  5. Debbie and Annie permalink

    We agree to an extent that journalists should try their best to get a story. However ‘getting a story’ should not be their sole ethic.
    In circumstances where the story is in the readers best interest, yes lying to get information could be an option however not all stories are in the readers best interest and are more to create sales.
    Further to this, quotes should be used accurately and also in it’s original context, not a context created by the journalist. This should also apply to statistics.
    Also, readers should not have to bare in mind the motives of the journalist. We feel that and ethical story should be written un-bias.
    Any bribes received by the journalist should be declared as an addition to the story.

  6. Phoebe & Jessie permalink

    It’s arguable some people have found a balance between ethics and Jourbalism without lying or deceiving people, this is one account of journalism but people’s ethics may vary. Some journalists can serve the readers without deceiving people etc.

  7. The two Fred's permalink

    We found this piece very engaging and a pleasant read. It highlights the boundary between getting a story and crossing the line for a story that isn’t there.
    Keep up the good work.

  8. Josh, Josh and Ballard permalink

    Agree with the sentiment of the piece because we have a similar mindset that Journalists should be the informants to their readership

  9. Gerard Gillen permalink

    These are good points, they seem like common sense but they could be quite difficult to put into practice. Such as accepting “gifts” but not letting them influence your writing as they could be potential advertisers/sponsors.

  10. Most of this is what journalists should know anyway. They should know that bribe taking is wrong for example. If you didn’t know these things before you wanted to be a journalist, you are in the wrong ‘profession’ (Am I right Sharpey?)

  11. Working as a journalist does not give you the right to act unethically with only the justification of a possible story.
    Misrepresentation of yourself to gain access to information could lead to a misrepresentation of any response.

  12. Bruno permalink

    I believe that getting a story to a reader is not an ethic but an objective. To reach that objective we have multiple ways and if lying and stealing is necessary then so be it. However, i believe that respecting colleagues stories or work is the only ethic that journalists should follow.

  13. Jake Robinson and Rob Best permalink

    We agree with the five ethical points given. It is important not to twist or lie within a story. The readers deserve the truth. You can only justify lying to get the story if it is in the publics interest to know. For example exposing a corruption or scandal. It is unethical to lie but necessary in some instances.

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