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Journalism’s obligation is to the public. Journalism places the public’s interests ahead of commercial, political and personal interests. Journalism empowers viewers, listeners and readers to make more informed decisions for themselves; it does not tell people what to believe or how to feel.
Ethical decision-making should occur at every step of the journalistic process, including story selection, news-gathering, production, presentation and delivery. Practitioners of ethical journalism seek diverse and even opposing opinions in order to reach better conclusions that can be clearly explained and effectively defended or, when appropriate, revisited and revised.
Ethical decision-making – like writing, photography, design or anchoring – requires skills that improve with study, diligence and practice.
The RTDNA Code of Ethics does not dictate what journalists should do in every ethical predicament; rather it offers resources to help journalists make better ethical decisions – on and off the job – for themselves and for the communities they serve.
Journalism is distinguished from other forms of content by these guiding principles:
- The facts should get in the way of a good story. Journalism requires more than merely reporting remarks, claims or comments. Journalism verifies, provides relevant context, tells the rest of the story and acknowledges the absence of important additional information.
- For every story of significance, there are always more than two sides. While they may not all fit into every account, responsible reporting is clear about what it omits, as well as what it includes.
- Scarce resources, deadline pressure and relentless competition do not excuse cutting corners factually or oversimplifying complex issues.
- “Trending,” “going viral” or “exploding on social media” may increase urgency, but these phenomena only heighten the need for strict standards of accuracy.
- Facts change over time. Responsible reporting includes updating stories and amending archival versions to make them more accurate and to avoid misinforming those who, through search, stumble upon outdated material.
- Deception in newsgathering, including surreptitious recording, conflicts with journalism’s commitment to truth. Similarly, anonymity of sources deprives the audience of important, relevant information. Staging, dramatization and other alterations – even when labeled as such – can confuse or fool viewers, listeners and readers. These tactics are justified only when stories of great significance cannot be adequately told without distortion, and when any creative liberties taken are clearly explained.
- Journalism challenges assumptions, rejects stereotypes and illuminates – even where it cannot eliminate – ignorance.
- Ethical journalism resists false dichotomies – either/or, always/never, black/white thinking – and considers a range of alternatives between the extremes.
- Editorial independence may be a more ambitious goal today than ever before. Media companies, even if not-for-profit, have commercial, competitive and other interests – both internal and external -- from which the journalists they employ cannot be entirely shielded. Still, independence from influences that conflict with public interest remains an essential ideal of journalism. Transparency provides the public with the means to assess credibility and to determine who deserves trust.
- Acknowledging sponsor-provided content, commercial concerns or political relationships is essential, but transparency alone is not adequate. It does not entitle journalists to lower their standards of fairness or truth.
- Disclosure, while critical, does not justify the exclusion of perspectives and information that are important to the audience’s understanding of issues.
- Journalism’s proud tradition of holding the powerful accountable provides no exception for powerful journalists or the powerful organizations that employ them. To profit from reporting on the activities of others while operating in secrecy is hypocrisy.
- Effectively explaining editorial decisions and processes does not mean making excuses. Transparency requires reflection, reconsideration and honest openness to the possibility that an action, however well intended, was wrong.
- Ethical journalism requires owning errors, correcting them promptly and giving corrections as much prominence as the error itself had.
- Commercial endorsements are incompatible with journalism because they compromise credibility. In journalism, content is gathered, selected and produced in the best interests of viewers, listeners and readers – not in the interests of somebody who paid to have a product or position promoted and associated with a familiar face, voice or name.
- Similarly, political activity and active advocacy can undercut the real or perceived independence of those who practice journalism. Journalists do not give up the rights of citizenship, but their public exercise of those rights can call into question their impartiality.
- The acceptance of gifts or special treatment of any kind not available to the general public creates conflicts of interest and erodes independence. This does not include the access to events or areas traditionally granted to working journalists in order to facilitate their coverage. It does include “professional courtesy” admission, discounts and “freebies” provided to journalists by those who might someday be the subject of coverage. Such goods and services are often offered as enticements to report favorably on the giver or rewards for doing so; even where that is not the intent, it is the reasonable perception of a justifiably suspicious public.
- Commercial and political activities, as well as the acceptance of gifts or special treatment, cause harm even when the journalists involved are “off duty” or “on their own time.”
- Attribution is essential. It adds important information that helps the audience evaluate content and it acknowledges those who contribute to coverage. Using someone else’s work without attribution or permission is plagiarism.
- Journalism accepts responsibility, articulates its reasons and opens its processes to public scrutiny.
- Journalism provides enormous benefits to self-governing societies. In the process,it can create inconvenience, discomfort and even distress. Minimizing harm, particularly to vulnerable individuals, should be a consideration in every editorial and ethical decision.
- Responsible reporting means considering the consequences of both the newsgathering – even if the information is never made public – and of the material’s potential dissemination. Certain stakeholders deserve special consideration; these include children, victims, vulnerable adults and others inexperienced with American media.
- Preserving privacy and protecting the right to a fair trial are not the primary mission of journalism; still, these critical concerns deserve consideration and to be balanced against the importance or urgency of reporting.
- The right to broadcast, publish or otherwise share information does not mean it is always right to do so. However, journalism’s obligation is to pursue truth and report, not withhold it. Shying away from difficult cases is not necessarily more ethical than taking on the challenge of reporting them. Leaving tough or sensitive stories to non-journalists can be a disservice to the public.
Revised Code of Ethics adopted June 11, 2015