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SPJ Ethics Week

April 23-27, 2018

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

Who are journalists?

In the simplest terms, a journalist is someone who collects information, compiles it and distributes it. A journalist can be a reporter, editor, page designer, photographer, videographer, opinion page writer, television or radio reporter, assignment editor, web editor, blogger ... you get the idea.

Journalists present facts and truth. They abide by a Code of Ethics. They give a voice to the voiceless. They dig for information when others may not have the time, resources or strength to do the digging themselves. They are the people in your community who cover school board meetings and high school baseball games. They are the ones who ask those in power the tough questions and explain the complicated issues that face our world today. They are the faces on your television screen and the voices on your radio that explain what’s happening in your city, state, nation and world 24/7.

A journalist can be a 9-year-old covering her neighborhood, a Pulitzer Prize-winning war correspondent, and everything in between. In fact, the Society of Professional Journalists believes that while, perhaps not everyone can be a journalist, ANYONE can commit an act of journalism. Today, nearly everyone has broadcasting and writing capabilities literally in the palms of their hands. It is easier than ever before to share or “report” information and images of everything from the scene of an accident, to a political rally, to a sporting event.

Whether a “citizen journalist,” a writer for a student newspaper or a reporter at the New York Times, doing journalism ethically is of utmost importance. The SPJ Code of Ethics says journalists should seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable and transparent.

We believe that anyone who follows those four tenets as they report whatever story is happening around them, can say he or she is producing journalism. But for the most part, journalists are your friends, neighbors and community members who have made it their life’s work to ensure you are informed and armed with the truth.

How Journalists Minimize Bias

“I am a journalist because my community needs someone to tell its stories.”

Dana Neuts

Freelance Writer, Editor and Publisher

“I’m a journalist because there’s no substitute for a well-informed public.”

Irwin Gratz

Morning Edition Host / Producer, Maine Public Radio

“I am a journalist because helping people learn more about their community — the good, the bad, the flawed, the inspiring, etc. — helps us all to make better decisions and hold each other accountable.”

April Bethea

Homepage producer, Washington Post

“I am a journalist because my job gives me the opportunity to share stories that inform, educate and sometimes even inspire.”

Paul Fletcher

Group Editor-in-Chief, Virginia, NC and SC Lawyers Weekly

“I am a journalist because I want to make a difference.”

Marisa Kwiatkowski

Investigative Reporter, Indianapolis Star

“I am a journalist because I am compelled to be; because I am a storyteller and an educator; because we must be an informed people in order to preserve our country, our ideals and our way of life; because truth in story matters; and because no other career could ever be as satisfying.”

Rachel Wedding McClelland

Director of Student Media at University of Tennessee Knoxville, Publisher Daily Beacon student newspaper

“I am a journalist because I want my country and its people to be healthy, educated and just.”

Lori Henson

Assistant Professor of Journalism at Indiana State University

“I was a journalism professor because nothing is more important to a democracy than a free press and reporters who pursue truth.”

James Brown, Ph.D.

Professor Emeritus, Executive Associate Dean Emeritus, Indiana University School of Journalism

“I am a journalist because truth matters. It informs citizens to make decisions and protects our democracy. Truth is what I teach my children and so it is what I owe them.”

Hagit Limor

Broadcasting Professor, University of Cincinnati

“I am a journalist because I love seeking the truth almost as much as I love telling stories.”

Ethan Chung

Senior Editor, SagaCity Media

“I became a journalist because I believe in being a truth-teller, which is very important to my family's Cherokee heritage. Combine that with my very strong sense of fairness and a deep love of writing, and I was just born to be a journalist.”

Rebecca J. Tallent, Ed.D.

Associate Professor, School of Journalism and Mass Media, University of Idaho

“I'm a journalist because the public depends on truthful accounts about decisions by those in power.”

Andy Schotz

SPJ Region 2 Director

“I am a journalist because I believe greater connectivity and information leads to a better world.”

Maggie Gottlieb

Senior, Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland College Park

“I am a journalist because I wanted to write about rock'n'roll and ended up rocking the First Amendment.”

Sonny Albarado

Projects Editor, Arkansas Democrat-Gazette


Ethical journalism looks like this

Ethical journalism makes a difference in peoples’ lives. It uncovers the truth. It explains complex issues in a way that anyone can understand. It helps people make decisions about their lives, their values, their beliefs.

It is truthful and minimizes harm. It is free of conflicts of interest. It is accurate, clear, fair, thorough and transparent.

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.

These traits of ethical journalism are so important, that SPJ and the SDX Foundation recognize the best of the best journalism written, broadcast and produced each year. Recipients of a Sigma Delta Chi Award or Mark of Excellence Award are perfect examples of journalism that exposes the truth, adheres to the SPJ Code of Ethics and changes lives.

Some of the stories below have won SDX Awards. Some have not. But all are excellent examples of great, ethical journalism that follows the SPJ Code of Ethics.

SPJ Code of Ethics — Seek Truth and Report It

Seafood from Slaves, an Associated Press investigation, discovers fish purchased in grocery stories in the United States may have been caught by slaves.

AP Investigation: Slaves May Have Caught the Fish You Bought

BENJINA, Indonesia — The Burmese slaves sat on the floor and stared through the rusty bars of their locked cage, hidden on a tiny tropical island thousands of miles from home.

Just a few yards away, other workers loaded cargo ships with slave-caught seafood that clouds the supply networks of major supermarkets, restaurants and even pet stores in the United States.

But the eight imprisoned men were considered flight risks — laborers who might dare run away. They lived on a few bites of rice and curry a day in a space barely big enough to lie down, stuck until the next trawler forces them back to sea.

“All I did was tell my captain I couldn’t take it anymore, that I wanted to go home,” said Kyaw Naing, his dark eyes pleading into an Associated Press video camera sneaked in by a sympathetic worker. “The next time we docked,” he said nervously out of earshot of a nearby guard, “I was locked up.”

Read more:

The Brothel Next Door, by student journalists working for the Capital News Service in the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, looks at human trafficking in Maryland. They found that while human trafficking abounds in their state, very few are convicted.

The Brothel Next Door

BALTIMORE — These women’s stories, told in a variety of Maryland courtrooms, are similar. And chilling.

R, an immigrant in her early 20s with no papers, a third-grade education and a baby girl, entrusted her life to a man she met at a restaurant in Prince George’s County who told her he’d take care of them. Instead, he beat her and threatened to harm her daughter to force her into prostitution.

S, 23, took a bus from St. Louis to Baltimore to work for a man who promised he’d give her a job in his “webcam business.” Arriving on the ticket he paid for, she learned the man was actually a pimp — who told her she’d have to work as a prostitute to pay him back, including a stint in a hotel near Baltimore Washington Thurgood Marshall International Airport.

C, a 14-year-old runaway, was walking down the street when a man offered her a ride and a place to stay in Clinton. He pampered her, fed her and took her shopping. Then on the third day, he revealed he ran a prostitution business and expected her to work for him. When she messaged friends on Facebook that she wanted out, he became violent.

Their stories, taken from court records, sketch out a common theme: Traffickers find vulnerable young women, seduce them with promises of security, then force them into the sex trade.

Read more:

SPJ Code of Ethics — Minimize Harm (Be Compassionate)

American Survivors, by The Washington Post, tells three timely and brutally honest stories about the effects of mass shootings, single fatherhood, and racial disharmony in America.

A Father’s Initiative

MILWAUKEE — The last student to arrive for fatherhood class was the only one holding a baby, and a dozen men looked up from their desks to stare. Paul Gayle, 19, had a pink diaper bag hanging off a shoulder decorated with tattoos of marijuana leaves, and a crying 7-month-old in his arms. “Come on, girl, chill out,” Paul said, carrying the baby to a seat in the corner. He offered her a rattle, and she swatted it away. He gave her a bottle, and she only cried louder. Finally, he reached into the diaper bag and took out a pacifier for her and a shot of Goody’s Headache Relief for himself.

“Sorry for the noise, y’all,” he said. “We’re both a little mad at the world today.”

“No problem,” the teacher said. “I’m up here talking about being a dad, and you’re doing it.”

“I’m trying,” Paul said. “But damn.”

Read more:

Sing Me a Story

Sing Me a Story, by NewsChannel 5, the CBS affiliate in Nashville, Tennessee, tells the story of a Mt. Juliet, Tennessee, family struggling with the reality that their 2-year-old daughter is dying or a rare nervous system disorder. A Nashville-based foundation tries to help them cope by combining the imagination of children and music.

Watch here:

SPJ Code of Ethics — Act Independently

The staff of the Las Vegas Review-Journal was told by a representative of their mysterious new owner that the Review-Journal had been purchased by a hidden entity. The journalists were told: “Don’t worry about who they are. Just do your jobs.”

Upon hearing the news, the team of journalists uncovered and reported the truth: Billionaire casino owner Sheldon Adelson, known for his fortune and powerful connections to political and business interests, particularly gaming, had bought the paper, under the cover of a shell company.

Unidentified buyer paid $140 million for Las Vegas Review-Journal

LAS VEGAS — Thursday’s sale of the Las Vegas Review-Journal left staffers, and readers, with a lot of questions.

Perhaps foremost among them: Who now owns Nevada’s largest newspaper.

Answers remain unclear.

What is known: News + Media Capital Group LLC — a newly formed Delaware-domiciled company backed by “undisclosed financial backers with expertise in the media industry” — paid $140 million for the Review-Journal and its sister publications.

That’s around $38 million more than New Media Investment Group paid for the all of Stephens Media LLC, a national chain of newspapers that included the Review-Journal, eight other dailies and 65 weekly newspapers. The amount points to investors with deep pockets and a perhaps even deeper desire to own Nevada’s biggest newspaper even though the paper’s revenues, like those of all print publications, have been in decline.

Read more:

Want to run drugs, smuggle migrants and get away with it? The Texas Observer and The Investigative Fund discover that joining America’s biggest law enforcement agency might be the best way to do so.

Homeland Insecurity: What if the biggest threat comes from within?

Special Agent Gus Gonzalez leaned back in the front seat of his truck to get a better angle with his camera. It was December 5, 2011, a chilly day for a stakeout in subtropical South Texas. He’d been waiting for hours in the parking lot of an Academy sporting goods store in Brownsville. A few miles away, across the river in Mexico, a war over drugs and money raged. U.S. residents, paid by the cartels, were supplying most of the guns and ammunition.

Gonzalez and his partner, both agents with a federal law enforcement division called Homeland Security Investigations, had gotten a tip that two men they had been investigating would be buying bulk ammunition that day at the store, so they had staked out the parking lot to take photos and gather evidence. The day dragged on and the suspects still hadn’t shown. But now, Gonzalez couldn’t believe what he was seeing through the viewfinder of his camera. It was Manny Peña, a career U.S. Customs inspector. Back in Gonzalez’s days at U.S. Customs, he had worked side by side with Peña at one of Brownsville’s international bridges. He watched as the stocky 38-year-old with close-cropped hair rolled a shopping cart over to a white Chevy truck, then dropped a new Remington rifle into the bed and walked away. It didn’t look right.

Read more:

SPJ Code of Ethics — Be Accountable and Transparent

An IndyStar investigation found that at least 368 athletes alleged some form of sexual abuse in gymnastics in the last two decades.

IndyStar’s investigation on sexual abuse in gymnastics: What we know

IndyStar has undertaken the first-ever attempt to quantify the scope of sexual abuse in the sport of gymnastics. Reporters also looked into what is behind the abuse — and what can be done to combat it.

IndyStar's investigation — titled Out of Balance — began with a story in August that examined USA Gymnastics' failures to report many allegations of sexual abuse to law enforcement or child welfare agencies. In the second installment published in September, IndyStar uncovered allegations of sexual assault against longtime USA Gymnastics team doctor Larry Nassar, who was charged in November with three counts of criminal sexual assault of a person under 13 years old.

Read more:

The Counted is a project by the Guardian that counts the number of people killed by police and other law enforcement agencies in the United States throughout 2015 and 2016, to monitor their demographics and tell the stories of how they died.

Killings by US police logged at twice the previous rate under new federal program

A new US government program to count killings by police, which draws on data collected by the Guardian, has recorded a sharply higher number of deaths than previous official efforts.

Homicides by police were logged by the Department of Justice’s new system at more than twice the rate previously reported by the FBI, according to new data that was published by the department on Thursday.

Officials said their new method for counting “arrest-related deaths” should improve the “reliability, validity and comprehensiveness” of information on killings by police, after the weakness of previous efforts was exposed.

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