Let’s look at the positive and negative obligations that apply to those crafting news messages. These are drawn from the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists, a long-standing professional association for news professionals.
POSITIVE OBLIGATIONS (goals you try always to achieve)
1) Seek truth and report it. This requires that you:
a. test the accuracy of information from all sources.
b. fairly represent multiple perspectives and viewpoints.
c. identify sources whenever feasible so the public may judge the reliability of the information.
d. safeguard the public’s need for information.
Despite the rhetoric of First Amendment attorneys, the public does not have a “right to know” per se. The First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States says that citizens have a right to assemble, speak, practice their chosen religion, petition the government for redress of grievances, and that the Congress shall make no law limiting the freedom of the press. It does not address the public’s “right to know” anything. But most communication scholars acknowledge the crucial role that the media play in nurturing an informed electorate and citizenry.
2) Minimize harm. This requires that you:
a. avoid privacy violations. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy and such intrusion may invoke legal sanctions if a source can demonstrate harm. In the context of information seeking, information that can be found should not necessarily be used.
b. be cautious about naming criminals before the formal filing of charges, identifying juvenile suspects or victims, or seeking interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.
3) Act independently. This requires that you:
a. be wary of sources offering information for favors or money.
b. disclose potential conflicts of interest. IE: failing to label the content from a video news release in a TV broadcast story is a breach of ethics.
c. hold those with power accountable.
4) Be accountable. This requires that you:
a. admit mistakes and correct them promptly. Libel law may be invoked if the mistake injures a news subject.
b. stand up for what is right in the media organization.
c. abide by the same high standards to which you hold others.
NEGATIVE OBLIGATIONS: (actions that must be avoided)
1) Plagiarism. Never, ever, ever represent someone else’s work as your own. Never. Ever.
2) Concealing conflicts of interest, real or perceived, in seeking or using information. If you have a stake in the outcome of what you are reporting on, you must acknowledge it and perhaps suggest that someone else cover the story.
3) Distorting the content of news photos or video. Image enhancement for technical clarity is permissible, but any other type of manipulation must not happen.
4) Eavesdropping. Listening in on others’ conversations, electronically or otherwise, is a form of information stealing and may invoke wiretapping laws or other legal sanctions.
5) Breaking the “contract” with a source. Publicly identifying a source who provided information confidentially, for instance, is both an ethical and a legal violation. We will discuss the details of the source contract in the Lesson 9 on Interviewing.
These are a sample of the negative and positive obligations that help you weigh your decisions when a situation arises in your information gathering for a news message.
Ethical thinking requires that you establish for yourself, ahead of time, how you value these various obligations and which take precedence in your own scheme of decision-making. You also must be fully aware of how your media organization has ordered these priorities for their own publications, and comply with the standards that your organization has established.