Home > Ethics > SPJ Ethics Committee Position Papers > Accountability

SPJ Ethics Committee Position Papers

The SPJ Ethics Committee gets a significant number of questions about whether journalists should engage in political activity. The simplest answer is “No.” Don’t do it. Don’t get involved. Don’t contribute money, don’t work in a campaign, don’t lobby, and especially, don’t run for office yourself.

Credibility is at the heart of journalism. The audience must believe the information it is receiving is accurate, the editorial judgments based on principles of fairness and balance. Sometimes, when faced with ethical choices for which there is no “right” answer, journalists can only follow a process that takes into account the interests of various “stakeholders,” balances the public right to know against the privacy rights of individuals, the confidentiality needs of business and government, and reaches a considered judgment that the journalist believes is defensible. Or, one might say, a judgment they are willing to be held accountable for.

Journalism organizations generally recognize this principle of accountability by admitting mistakes and correcting them promptly, as called for in SPJ’s Code of Ethics. Most also publish criticism of their news efforts contained in letters to the editor. They will sometimes incorporate in their stories information about the ethical dilemmas faced and how the journalism organization resolved them.

A few go further, appointing an “ombudsman” or “reader representative” or "public editor" to investigate complaints about their journalism and publishing the results of that investigation. In Washington State, a “news council,” made up of citizens and journalists, hears public complaints and that state’s media are urged cover the council’s hearings and findings (a similar news council in Minnesota disbanded after 41 years). Organizations in Hawaii and New England don’t deal as directly with complaints against individual media, but advocate for, and hold public forums on best journalistic practices. In some instances, the law becomes involved in holding news media accountable, as when journalism organizations are formally accused of libel, for instance.

But there are times and circumstances when journalists are freed from the accountability required of ordinary citizens. Perhaps best known is the result of a 1964 libel case, New York Times Co. v. Sullivan that increased the burden of proof for public officials who wish to win a claim of libel against a journalism organization. But that case, rooted in the First Amendment principle that “Congress” make no law abridging freedom of the press, doesn’t mean journalists aren’t accountable to others and, especially, their audience, the public. SPJ also believes journalists should hold each other accountable, though the organization stops short of saying they should do this in a formal way. Certainly writing about, or commenting on ethical lapses of other journalism organizations can both educate the public and bolster the credibility of those news organizations who are making better ethical choices.

I once talked with editors of a daily newspaper about their sense that the public’s belief in the credibility of journalism was flagging. I suggested that might change if news organizations were more willing to reveal the steps they take to prepare a particular news story: How many people were called, how many interviews yielded little information, how many times one source had to be called before he or she could be tracked down for a crucial interview, how many people were involved in parsing individual words, or making judgments about a headline, or a photo. One editor was concerned. He said if they did that more often, their readers might expect that level of work to go into all stories. Which, of course, is exactly the point. After we’ve followed the other ethical guidelines in our code, seeking truth and reporting it, minimizing harm, and remaining independent, our willingness to be accountable is what cements our credibility in people’s minds. Or ought to.

This statement expresses the views of the SPJ Ethics Committee. It was written on behalf of the Committee by Irwin Gratz, producer/host of "Morning Edition" at Maine Public Broadcast Network. A longtime member of the SPJ Ethics Committee, he was the 2004-05 SPJ national president.

Join SPJ
Join SPJWhy join?