postheadericon Ethics in mass communication

Ethics in mass communication and journalism is a vital part of its purpose. Speaking specifically to journalism, reporting, critiquing, and opining on news is only as good as the trust the journalist and publication/production has with its consumers. If the integrity of the journalist/publication/production, or source of information, is in question, its consumers will likely not trust it, rendering it valueless and therefore useless. Questionable agendas, questionable journalistic practices, such as fabricating information, lying about something the journalist did or did not witness, pushing an agenda based on financial or political backing, all are examples of poor integrity and a lack of adherence to a code of ethics.

While ethical codes vary from training institution to institution, newspaper to newspaper, television network to network, or even website to website, there are central tenets on which all journalistic ethical codes are built.

They include, but are in no way limited to:

Honesty – reporting what was witnessed, or sans personal witness, reporting what was ascertained through interviews with primary sources.

Integrity – never altering a fact or piece of information or element of a story to make the report or story shinier, sexier, seemingly more relevant to its readers.

Responsibility – take responsibility for, and stand by, your work. And always be ready to defend your work against critics.

Accuracy – Never misrepresent facts or context to help promote a story.

Plagiarism – much like the academic world, never, never, never, steal someone else’s work and pass it off as your own. Always attribute or properly cite any work not personally or collaboratively generated.

These are just a small few, but you get the point. In this post, I will copy and briefly discuss a code of ethics or ethical mission statement from the Society of Professional Journalists, a well-known journalism organization, then briefly discuss the recent string of ethical and integrity violations committed and exposed by a handful of prominent news and infotainment talking heads.

First, the SPJ Code of Ethics:

Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity.

The Society declares these four principles as the foundation of ethical journalism and encourages their use in its practice by all people in all media.


Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.
Journalists should:

– Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before releasing it. Use original sources whenever possible.
– Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy.
– Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.
– Gather, update and correct information throughout the life of a news story.
– Be cautious when making promises, but keep the promises they make.
– Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.
– Consider sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere. Explain why anonymity was granted.
– Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.
– Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public.
– Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. Give voice to the voiceless.
– Support the open and civil exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.
– Recognize a special obligation to serve as watchdogs over public affairs and government. Seek to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open, and that public records are open to all.
– Provide access to source material when it is relevant and appropriate.
– Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience. Seek sources whose voices we seldom hear.
– Avoid stereotyping. Journalists should examine the ways their values and experiences may shape their reporting.
– Label advocacy and commentary.
– Never deliberately distort facts or context, including visual information. Clearly label illustrations and re-enactments.
– Never plagiarize. Always attribute.


Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.
Journalists should:

– Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.
– Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage. Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes, and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent. Consider cultural differences in approach and treatment.
– Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.
– Realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention. Weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information.
– Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.
– Balance a suspect’s right to a fair trial with the public’s right to know. Consider the implications of identifying criminal suspects before they face legal charges.
– Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication. Provide updated and more complete information as appropriate.

The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.
Journalists should:

– Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
– Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility.
– Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; do not pay for access to news. Identify content provided by outside sources, whether paid or not.
– Deny favored treatment to advertisers, donors or any other special interests, and resist internal and external pressure to influence coverage.
– Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two. Prominently label sponsored content.


Ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public.
Journalists should:

– Explain ethical choices and processes to audiences. Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content.
– Respond quickly to questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness.
– Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently. Explain corrections and clarifications carefully and clearly.
– Expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organizations.
– Abide by the same high standards they expect of others.

Now this code is pretty lengthy, and some of its points overlap, but it’s pretty inclusive and many of its points of emphasis are shared by both journalism schools and professional publications/productions. Essentially it boils down to don’t lie, report the truth even in the face of public backlash or pressure to keep quiet on an issue or event, be open and transparent in your dealings, and don’t spin stories to suit your own, or the publication’s, purposes.

NBC News’ Brian Williams. Fox News’ Bill O’Reilly.

Both last month had stories they had been telling for years (and in O’Reilly’s case, decades), called into question, and when the details of the stories the two had publicly told on numerous occasions were put under scrutiny they did not hold up. In Williams’ case, stories he told about his time covering Iraq War II were misrepresenations, and at times, fabrications, which he admitted to before being taken off the air. He had told a story about an incident in a military helicopter, describing the aircraft as being forced down after being hit by an RPG. He had also lied about being embedded with Seal Team 6, and again about being present and witnessing the opening of the Brandenburg Gate when the Berlin Wall came down. These stories, which Williams repeatedly told, embellishments to make personal stories more interesting to viewers, forever damaged Williams’ credibility as a journalist. He will never report for NBC News again, and I’ll be surprised if his on-camera career continues, at NBC or otherwise.

Bill O’Reilly – to be clear here, I have an extreme distaste for this man and what he represents, and abhor the cult-like worship offered up to him from his fans and viewers – several stories from his past, when he was working as a reporter and journalist before his time as a talk show host, came under scrutiny after a report from David Corn was published in Mother Jones magazine. The report stated O’Reilly lied about what he did or did not witness during the Falklands War in the early 1980s and rehashed in his ‘No Spin Zone’ book. And again during several accounts O’Reilly gave outlining a riot in Buenos Aires around the same time. And again an account in his Kennedy book about being on the Florida doorstep of one of Kennedy’s assassin’s friends as he shot himself inside the home, stating that he heard the shot from outside the front door – reports from witnesses put O’Reilly in Texas at the time. Since, several accounts of O’Reilly’s reports on other conflicts have been called into question, and numerous colleagues of his who were with him during these events taking place have called O’Reilly’s accounts completely fabricated. Unfortunately, and unfairly, O’Reilly will likely not be taken off the air – he works for a network that is not concerned with ethical reporting or information integrity.

Both of these are examples of journalists, or former journalists, violating professional ethical standards for image bolstering and personal gain. This behavior, in a climate that grows more and more compartmentalized in terms of belief, only fosters more mistrust of journalists and news agencies and serves to further separate and compartmentalize society.

Not good.

5 Responses to “Ethics in mass communication”

  • Heather:

    I really enjoyed this post. This example of ethics is very practical and is something that affects all of our daily lives. As someone you is not familiar with this area of study, many of the topics that you discuss are things that I have wondered about and I find your case examples to be very relevant and timely. I also think that it is really important to be able to tie the ethics of a research area to the impacts that they have on society in general instead of just the academic community. This post also emphasizes the importance of professional societies in defining codes of ethics in a field where they otherwise vary greatly.

  • Great article! Thank you for sharing this informative post, and looking forward to the latest one.

  • Excellent article! Thank you for sharing this informative post, and looking forward to the latest one.

  • Very much helpful article! Thank you for sharing this informative post, and looking forward to the latest one.

  • Iboro Chrysanctus Bassey:

    Thank you so much now I know how to follow up and discharge my duties as a
    Mass communication student or as a journalist. I rest my case.

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