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Home > Publications > Quill > Ethics Toolbox


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Monday, April 4, 2011
Ethics Toolbox

Develop your personal code of ethics

By Elizabeth Donald

Once upon a time, I covered two funerals. One was a funeral for two girls killed in a crash with a state trooper who was speeding. The other was for a pastor gunned down in mid-service by an apparent schizophrenic.

What was the ethical difference between covering these two funerals? At one, I felt like a cockroach on a white rug, observing a family’s agonizing grief for the lurid interest of the public. At the other, I watched a community that witnessed a horribly public murder come back together, healing itself in the midst of utter chaos. Sharing that story helped our readers understand more about their neighbors, beyond simply observing someone else’s tragedy.

Ethics is the balancing act every journalist must face on a daily basis, the bargain you make with yourself for how much of your soul you will give up in order to perform our vital public service. It is never a matter of absolutes, nearly always shades of gray, and always on deadline.

We write about human death and misery. We call the parents of a 12-year-old girl who touched a shorted-out lamp and died in their arms, or the father who accidentally backed over his toddler son in the driveway.

But a human being’s life should be more than two dates separated by a long dash on a tombstone, and our job is to fill in that dash. How do we keep our empathy and still provide an objective accounting of the facts, when it all moves so much faster than it did only 10 years ago?

It’s a different world now, and we face different issues and challenges. The world changes faster than ethics codes or employers ever could, and so it becomes more important than ever for working journalists to develop a personal ethics code, something they write down on paper and revise throughout their careers according to their experience and growing understanding of the job and themselves.

Regardless of what your employer finds acceptable, you must decide for yourself what you will do, what you’ll hold your nose and do, and what’s worth saying, “No, I won’t do it,” and losing your job. Or your freedom. The ethical act is not always the legal act, and defying the law can mean handcuffs. These are not decisions you want to make on deadline.

The SPJ Code of Ethics is the most useful code I know, except for the one I wrote for myself. And that’s the way it is for each of us. You must write down your personal, honest answers to questions like, “Am I willing to promise anonymity if it means going to jail?” That answer cannot be the same for every journalist, and we must make these decisions in advance before it becomes necessary to react on deadline.

Stereotypes, language choice, balance, structure, overcoming our own cynicism in news judgment, giving a fair hearing to those we find repugnant: These are important decisions, and they deserve more than the long stare in the bathroom mirror after deadline has passed.

Sometimes your choices are taken from you, of course. We all serve higher masters. But that makes it even more important to have your own personal code that keeps you from stepping too far off the path you chose when you first picked up a notebook.

Today journalists rank somewhere below used-car salesmen in the public trust, and television portrays us as venal, opportunistic vultures for whom the facts are a mere inconvenience. We each have an obligation to fight that impression, by word and example, to present the most balanced story to our readers.

In the end, you are the one who puts pen to paper, whose name sits atop the story and who must answer for the impact of the words you write. We have a calling to provide the facts without distortion, to give voice to the voiceless and act independently of those who would try to influence us away from those facts.

Your name is what they have come to trust. So protect your name, your integrity, your honor, and put it down on paper. Let that personal code serve as your guide, and you may find that those tough decisions become a little easier — or at least you’ll be able to look at yourself in the bathroom mirror.

Elizabeth Donald is a reporter for the Belleville (Ill.) News-Democrat. She is vice president of the St. Louis Pro chapter and a member of the SPJ Ethics Committee. Reach her at edonald@bnd.com.

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