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April 24-29, 2023

Home > Ethics > SPJ Ethics Week > What is ethical journalism and why is it important?

What is ethical journalism and why is it important?

Journalism in the United States was like the Wild West before the early 1900s, when organizations like Sigma Delta Chi — now known as the Society of Professional Journalists — adopted ethical codes and standards. Before too long, the nation’s journalism was largely guided by the best practices set forth by those organizations.

Major newspapers stuck to facts and eschewed exaggerations. Journalists worked to hold the nation’s powerbrokers accountable to the law and the people who put them in those positions. The public also trusted the press to accomplish those missions.

Journalists and the public ultimately realized that responsible and ethical journalism resulted in quality information that people could use in voting booths and in their day-to-day lives.

Yet, ethical journalism is at a disadvantage in today’s world. Financially strapped media companies sometimes chase profits instead of news. The public also grows more and more distrustful each day of all sources of information.

SPJ still believes that ethical journalism is vital to the public and the health of the nation’s democracy. In fact, ethical journalism is more important than ever in a world where there are endless sources of information and people are deliberately misled by entities with hidden agendas.

While people in the United States may disagree on many subjects like politics and which college has the best football team, there should be no debate that ethical journalism is vital to the health of the nation and its democracy.

“Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together." — Joseph Pulitzer

Why a Free
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About the SPJ Code of Ethics

The SPJ Code of Ethics is a statement of abiding principles supported by explanations and position papers that address changing journalistic practices.

It is not a set of rules, rather a guide that encourages all who engage in journalism to take responsibility for the information they provide, regardless of medium.

The code should be read as a whole; individual principles should not be taken out of context.

It is not, nor can it be under the First Amendment, legally enforceable.

In addition to English, the Code is available in eight other languages: Arabic, Chinese, French, German, Persian, Portuguese, Russian and Spanish

It has proved to be an important reference for professionals, students and citizens. It is widely consulted and applied in newsrooms and classrooms as the definitive statement of our profession’s highest values and a helpful way to think about the specific and unique journalism quandaries we confront daily.

The present version of the code was adopted during Excellence in Journalism 2014, following months of study and debate among the Society's members.

Sigma Delta Chi's first Code of Ethics was borrowed from the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1926. In 1973, Sigma Delta Chi wrote its own code, which also was revised in 1984, 1987 and 1996.

More facts about the SPJ Code of Ethics can be found here.

How the SPJ Code of Ethics is Voluntary

The Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists is an open document. The more it’s distributed — and used — the better. The code is not intended to be arcane or cryptic. It is not like a secret handshake intended for use only by the members of some mystic order. If it were, we would put something at the bottom similar to what is run in television ads for zippy cars: “Professional Driver. Closed Course. Do Not Attempt.”

There is nothing in the code that prevents non-journalists from accessing it and using it. It’s readily available online. Members of the public are free to refer to the code when they want to call attention to what they perceive to be a news medium’s questionable ethics.

But this should be made clear: The code is entirely voluntary. It is not a legal document; it has no enforcement provisions or penalties for violations, and SPJ strongly discourages anyone from attempting to use it that way. The code’s only check on ethical misdeeds is expressed in the final of its four main principles: “Be Accountable.” There, journalists are told that they should “expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media.” We believe a free exchange of ideas — not any sort of sanction — is the best way of getting at the truth, at who is right and who is wrong.

The SPJ code is the “gold standard” of aspirational codes of ethics, and it has been used by many news outlets as the basis for more formal and detailed codes. Employers’ codes of ethics are much more specific, and there are penalties for violating them. Reporters have been fired for plagiarizing, for accepting gifts or for other ethical breaches. An employer can do that; an association of volunteers cannot. Many news media make their codes available to all, and they encourage the public to hold them accountable for the standards expressed in those codes. SPJ applauds that embrace of transparency.

At the end of the SPJ Code of Ethics, after the actual working principles, is this important explanatory caution: “The code is intended not as a set of ‘rules’ but as a resource for ethical decision-making. It is not — nor can it be under the First Amendment — legally enforceable.”

The SPJ Code of Ethics, in other words, is available for anyone to see and to refer to. But when it’s quoted, it should be properly attributed — and, we would hope, not taken out of context or misinterpreted. Such questionable uses of the code inevitably will be called out — that’s the nature of free expression, and an extension of the principle of accountability.

Thousands of responsible, ethical journalists follow the SPJ Code of Ethics and adhere to it. The most important thing to remember is that it’s a set of principles that is open to interpretation and discussion, not a statute or a constitution or a set of regulations. There is nothing about it that can be or should be considered a legal or binding requirement.