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October 22, 2020

Introduction Event Replays
The latest in ethics What is ethical journalism? Who are journalists? Examples of ethical journalism

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’m a journalist because my dad read the paper every day, and I wanted to demand attention like that, to seek truth, to share real stories that matter with communities that care. They’ve never mattered more.”

Matthew T. Hall

Editorial and Opinion Director, The San Diego Union-Tribune and President, Society of Professional Journalists

“I’m a journalist because I enjoy helping people understand their community, country and world. Journalism is a public service and I’m proud to be part of it.”

Rebecca Baker

Deputy Team Leader, Bloomberg Law

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

Marisa Kwiatkowski

Investigative Reporter, USA TODAY

“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

Night Editor, The 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 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 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 Emerita, University of Idaho

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

Andy Schotz

Managing Editor, Bethesda Beat


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.

Not sure what ethical journalism looks like? Browse a gallery of stories that won the 2020 Pulitzer Prize, and visit SPJ's own 2019 Sigma Delta Chi Award Honorees gallery, where you can read, listen to and watch all of 2019's winning entries.

Winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service Reporting: The South Florida Sun Sentinel’s coverage of the Feb. 14, 2018, Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School shootings, in Parkland, Florida, and the attack’s aftermath.

This unflinching collection of stories, including a nearly minute-by-minute overview of the attack by suspected gunman Nikolas Cruz, who shot 34 people in the school, killing 17, is an excellent example of how even ethical journalism can harm people — survivors of the attack who read about, the families of the victims and others.

The telling of the story, particularly when backed up with video from the school where Cruz allegedly went on his rampage with a rifle, shows how fulfilling the ethics of informing the public of how the general unpreparedness and bungles of police likely let the carnage reach the toll it did. The stories are also a roadmap for police and other first responders toward improving response to school shootings.


Winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News: Coverage of the Tree of Life Synagogue shooting on Saturday, Oct. 27, 2018, in the heavily Jewish Squirrel Hill section of Pittsburgh, by the staff of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Eleven people died, and six were wounded. An unprecedented act of violence in this multiethnic, diversely religious city.

These stories demonstrate, as do the Sun Sentinel stories about the Parkland, Florida, high school shootings, the necessary hurt that excellent journalism may cause, such as in stories focused on the survivors of the attack, and on people who were not in the attack but who were or are closed to people who were.

But they also illustrate the ethical practice of journalism that informs an audience about a major life-changing occurrence in a major U.S. city. In this case, a tragedy ensued despite good police preparedness and response.

The story is not as matter-of-fact as the Sun Sentinel’s overview story. It is neither a better nor a worse treatment — the difference is a matter of style more than of anything else — but the Pittsburgh stories carry more of a sense of community violation. They also show an expression of a community set against savagery.


Myanmar Burning

By Wa Lone, Kyaw Soe Oo, Simon Lewis And Antoni Slodkowski

INN DIN, Myanmar — Bound together, the 10 Rohingya Muslim captives watched their Buddhist neighbors dig a shallow grave. Soon afterwards, on the morning of Sept. 2, all 10 lay dead. At least two were hacked to death by Buddhist villagers. The rest were shot by Myanmar troops, two of the gravediggers said.

“One grave for 10 people,” said Soe Chay, 55, a retired soldier from Inn Din’s Rakhine Buddhist community who said he helped dig the pit and saw the killings. The soldiers shot each man two or three times, he said. “When they were being buried, some were still making noises. Others were already dead.”

The killings in the coastal village of Inn Din marked another bloody episode in the ethnic violence sweeping northern Rakhine state, on Myanmar’s western fringe. Nearly 690,000 Rohingya Muslims have fled their villages and crossed the border into Bangladesh since August. None of Inn Din’s 6,000 Rohingya remained in the village as of October.

The Rohingya accuse the army of arson, rapes and killings aimed at rubbing them out of existence in this mainly Buddhist nation of 53 million. The United Nations has said the army may have committed genocide; the United States has called the action ethnic cleansing. Myanmar says its “clearance operation” is a legitimate response to attacks by Rohingya insurgents.


Alabama’s Dinosaur Adventure Land teaches that evolution is ‘dumbest religion in the history of the world’

By Anna Claire Vollers
Alabama Media Group

Thunder rumbled overhead, immediately drowned out by the growl of a four-wheeler crashing through the Alabama backwoods. Kent Hovind roared into view atop an ATV, taking the rutted dirt path down the hill and cruising to a stop in front of the welcome center.

He grinned and hopped off.

"We have constant chaos here," he announced. "I'll tell you the whole story."

His yellow safari shirt bore a Dinosaur Adventure Land patch (motto: "Where God gets glory for His creation") similar to the logo on the welcome center behind him. His life's work is to prove the Bible is true and scientifically accurate, and that evolution is "the dumbest religion in the history of the world."


A refugee’s journey: The search for a better life leads to Buffalo

By Jerry Zremski
The Buffalo News


Rebel soldiers raced through the village in the mountains of eastern Burma, barking a warning. They saw Burmese troops approaching, bearing rifles and flamethrowers.


Nay Htoo felt his mother’s hand on his shoulder rousing him. Bleary-eyed and confused, the 9-year-old tossed on his one set of clothes, gathered his most prized possessions and rushed out of the bamboo hut he called home.

He dashed into the jungle with a satchel of schoolbooks slung over his shoulder and his puppy — a brown and white mutt no bigger than a football — clutched to his chest. He struggled to keep up with his family and other villagers as they cut a path into the mountains, stumbling in the darkness, afraid to light a torch.

The little boy heard gunfire back in his hometown, the Karen ethnic village of Kwee Ler Shu. At war with the Karen rebel army, the Burmese soldiers shot the livestock and burned the town to the ground.

And so it was, on a sticky summer night in 1981, that Nay Htoo found himself shoved onto the refugee road.


Bias on the Bench: A Herald Tribune investigative report

By Josh Salman, Emily Le Coz and Elizabeth Johnson
Sarasota Herald Tribune

Justice has never been blind when it comes to race in Florida. Blacks were first at the mercy of slave masters. Then came Jim Crow segregation and the Ku Klux Klan.

Now, prejudice wears a black robe.

Half a century after the civil rights movement, trial judges throughout Florida sentence blacks to harsher punishment than whites, a Herald-Tribune investigation found.

They offer blacks fewer chances to avoid jail or scrub away felonies.

They give blacks more time behind bars—sometimes double the sentences of whites accused of the same crimes under identical circumstances.

Read more [PDF]

Whatever became of the children of Jerusalem?

By Naomi Zeveloff

Between 1991 and 1996, seven Israeli and Palestinian children starred in a Canadian documentary series about life in Jerusalem. Though they grew up within miles of one another, they lived worlds apart, never to meet. A quarter-century later, I set out to find them.

I learned about the obscure series, called “Children of Jerusalem,” from my editor. He had learned about it from his 6-year-old daughter, who discovered it while surfing the Internet for shows about children from faraway lands. “I wonder if it would be interesting to do something about where the kids in the film wound up and what happened to the filmmaker,” my editor said in an email. It sounded like a story and possibly an adventure.

The piece was also an opportunity to look at how Jerusalem shapes its children. Israelis often tell me that the only people who can appreciate Jerusalem are those who grew up there, as if a childhood spent in the white stone city unlocks it for a lifetime.

I was mystified by Jerusalem when I visited it for the first time, at 12, roughly the age of the children in the film series. But when I returned there to live as a foreign correspondent in 2014, I found it utterly stifling. Like so many secular people, I decamped to Tel Aviv, returning to Jerusalem only for work. Could these seven people, now my own age, help me understand and appreciate their city?


The DEA Dilemma

By Lenny Bernstein, David S. Fallis and Scott Higham
The Washington Post

A decade ago, the Drug Enforcement Administration launched an aggressive campaign to curb a rising opioid epidemic that was claiming thousands of American lives each year.

The DEA began to target wholesale companies that distributed hundreds of millions of highly addictive pills to the corrupt pharmacies and pill mills that illegally sold the drugs for street use.

Leading the campaign was the agency’s Office of Diversion Control, whose investigators around the country began filing civil cases against the distributors, issuing orders to immediately suspend the flow of drugs and generating large fines.

But the industry fought back. Former DEA and Justice Department officials hired by drug companies began pressing for a softer approach. In early 2012, the deputy attorney general summoned the DEA’s diversion chief to an unusual meeting over a case against two major drug companies.

“That meeting was to chastise me for going after industry, and that’s all that meeting was about,” recalled Joseph T. Rannazzisi, who ran the diversion office for a decade before he was removed from his position and retired in 2015.

Read more [PDF]

2019 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting: The Los Angeles Times follows the story of a University of Southern California health-clinic gynecologist whom patients complained for many years touched them inappropriately and made inappropriate remarks during examinations.

The two-reporter team took great care to shield the identity of former patients who did not want to be identified, and to hide the identity of former employees who did not want their names used. The reporters stated the reasons for not identifying these sources. The reporters also appear to have worked extensively to balance the input of sources. More than ample opportunity was provided for the accused physician to explain himself.


2019 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing: Hannah Dreier details for ProPublica how the Trump administration’s policies, and zealotry among law-enforcement agencies and school administrators, to get rid of gangs on Long Island seriously derailed the innocence of teenagers on New York’s Long Island.

Unless sources offer them, no last names or first names are used in some of the three stories.

In the first story, the primary source discloses his willingness to be identified. A long editor’s note about the ethics of the article, along with some readers’ comments, appears at the end of the piece.


Five dead in 'targeted attack' at Capital Gazette newspaper in Annapolis, police say; Laurel man charged with murder

By Kevin Rector and Nicholas Bogel-Burroughs
The Baltimore Sun

A gunman blasted his way into the Capital Gazette newsroom in Annapolis with a shotgun Thursday afternoon, killing five people, authorities said.

Journalists dived under their desks and pleaded for help on social media. One reporter described the scene as a “war zone.” A photographer said he jumped over a dead colleague and fled for his life.

The victims were identified as Rob Hiaasen, 59, a former feature writer for The Baltimore Sun who joined the Capital Gazette in 2010 as an assistant editor and columnist; Wendi Winters, 65, a community correspondent who headed special publications; Gerald Fischman, 61, the editorial page editor; John McNamara, 56, a staff writer who had covered high school, college and professional sports for decades; and Rebecca Smith, 34, a sales assistant hired in November.

Two others were injured in the attack that began about 2:40 p.m. at the Capital Gazette offices at 888 Bestgate Road in Annapolis.

Police took a suspect into custody soon after the shootings. He was identified as Jarrod W. Ramos, a 38-year-old Laurel man with a long-standing grudge against the paper.


Federal climate report should be a call to action for Florida to meet sea-level rise threat

By Palm Beach Post Editorial Board

The federal government’s devastating report on climate change holds three especially dramatic messages:

Extremely hot weather is getting more common, and the average annual temperature in the U.S. is expected to rise by 2.3 degrees Fahrenheit in about 30 years. The continental U.S. is already 1.8 degrees warmer than it was 100 years ago.

Climate change has doubled the devastation from wildfires — as witness the deadly fires in Northern California.

And rising sea levels will force mass migrations — a nightmare with obvious, massive impact for South Florida. “Sea-level rise might reshape the U.S. population redistribution, with 13.1 million people potentially at risk needing to migrate due to a [rise] of 6 feet... by the year 2100,” the report states.

“This is the most comprehensive assessment of climate science currently available in the world,” Robert Kopp, of Rutgers University, one of the report’s lead authors, told The Atlantic, “and it reaffirms what we’ve already known.”


Neglecting Wisconsin's Vets

By Katelyn Ferral
The Capital Times

KING, Wisconsin — Walter Sundling wanted to live at the Wisconsin Veterans Home at King.

Held captive by the Nazis during World War II after his plane was shot down over Germany, the 90-year-old Air Force veteran was healthy when he asked to move to the community surrounded by southern pines he visited as a child. He had his own apartment at an assisted living facility in Madison, but wanted to be near others who had served their country, at the home between Stevens Point and Oshkosh.

“He said, ‘I’d love to be with veterans. I’d really like to be with my own kind and I’ve heard so many good things about King,’” said Sundling’s daughter, Sharon Blando, who lives in Milwaukee. “He was just so happy to be with the vets.”

Two years later, Blando said, the Purple Heart recipient developed gastrointestinal bleeding from untreated constipation. Two heart attacks followed and Sundling later died, the result, Blando claims, of widespread neglect at Wisconsin’s largest state-run, skilled nursing facility. Despite her father’s advanced age, Blando believes abysmal care at King expedited his death last year.


A Portrait of Donald Trump

David A. Fahrenthold
The Washington Post

In the fall of 1996, a charity called the Association to Benefit Children held a ribbon-cutting in Manhattan for a new nursery school serving children with AIDS. The boldface names took seats up front.

There was then-Mayor Rudolph W. Giuliani (R) and former mayor David Dinkins (D). TV stars Frank and Kathie Lee Giford, who were major donors. And there was a seat saved for Steven Fisher, a developer who had given generously to build the nursery.

Then, all of a sudden, there was Donald Trump.

“Nobody knew he was coming,” said Abigail Disney, another donor sitting on the dais. “There’s this kind of ruckus at the door, and I don’t know what was going on, and in comes Donald Trump. [He] just gets up on the podium and sits down.”

Trump was not a major donor. He was not a donor, period. He’d never given a dollar to the nursery or the Association to Benefit Children, according to Gretchen Buchenholz, the charity’s executive director then and now.

But now he was sitting in Fisher’s seat, next to Giuliani.

Read more [PDF]

48 Hours: Live to Tell: The Long Road Home

By Vladimir Duthiers, Judy Tygard, Chris Young Ritzen, Michelle Fanucci, Nancy Kramer, Ruth Chenetz and Susan Zirinsky
CBS News

Watch []

Bringing Back Bruce

By Lara Greenberg and Kyle Cooper

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Weathering the Storm of Autism

By Blake Essig and Albert Lutan

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Kayla Mueller: The Girl Left Behind

By Brian Ross, James Gordon Meek, Brian Epstein, Megan Christie and Rhonda Schwartz
20/20, ABC News

Watch []