Ethical Media Professionals


Every day in every career or job, decisions have to be made. However, it is really hard to differentiate ethical and unethical decisions. At times, decisions even have to be made in the heat of the moment. So how does one ensure that the ethical choice is made?

Media professionals do not differ much from other professionals in this regard. Professions such as lawyers and possibly doctors are also faced with ethical and unethical decisions to be made. Therefore, codes of conduct for these professions have to be made in order for the people involved to be able to make the right decision at the right time.

However, unlike media professionals, violating these codes will often get the other professionals barred from practice or even have their licenses revoked. Media professionals on the other hand, have no professional review boards to revoke or to even grant these licenses.

Although the performance codes for media are not as strict as other industries, they still exist. And here we are today to discuss, or rather to present, these ethical principles.

The Print Media

The first set of ethics was set by the American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) in 1923, one year after founding the organization. They adopted the Canons of Journalism without any pressure from the government or the public. There were seven canons, namely; responsibility, freedom of the press, independence, accuracy, impartiality, fair play and decency. The canons are mostly prescriptive rather than proscriptive, in the sense that it tells the media what to do, rather than to tell them what to avoid.

A brief description of each cannon:

(1) Responsibility - The right of a newspaper to attract and hold readers is restricted by nothing but considerations of public welfare. The newspaper makes use of the share of public attention it gains which serves to determine its sense of responsibility, which it shares with every member of its staff. A journalist who uses his power for any selfish or otherwise unworthy purpose is faithless to a high trust.

(2) Freedom of the Press - Freedom of the press is to be guarded as a vital right of mankind. It is the unquestionable right by law, including the wisdom of any restrictive statute. To its privileges under the freedom of American institutions are inseparably joined its responsibilities for an intelligent fidelity to the Constitution of the United States.

(3) Independence - Freedom from all obligations except that of fidelity to the public interest is vital. A. Promotion of any private interest contrary to the general welfare, for whatever reason, is not compatible with honest journalism. So-called news communications from private sources should not be published without public notice of their source or else substantiation of the claims to value as news, both in form and substance. B. Partisanship in editorial comment which knowingly departs from the truth does violence to the best spirit of American journalism; in the news columns it is subversive of a fundamental principle of the profession.

(4) Sincerity, Truthfulness, Accuracy - Good faith with the reader is the foundation of all journalism worthy of the name. A. By every consideration of good faith, a newspaper is constrained to be truthful. It is not to be excused for lack of thoroughness, or accuracy within its control, or failure to obtain command of these essential qualities. B. Headlines should be fully warranted by the contents of the articles which they surmount.

(5) Impartiality - Sound practice makes clear distinction between news reports and expressions of opinion. News reports should be free from opinion or bias of any kind. This rule does not apply to so-called special articles unmistakably devoted to advocacy or characterized by a signature authorizing the writer's own conclusions and interpretations.

(6) Fair Play - A newspaper should not publish unofficial charges affecting reputation or moral character, without opportunity given to the accused to be heard; right practice demands the giving of such opportunity in all cases of serious accusation outside judicial proceedings. A. A newspaper should no invade rights of private feelings without sure warren of public right as distinguished from public curiosity. B. It is the privilege, as it is the duty, of a newspaper to make prompt and complete correction of its own serious mistakes of fact or opinion, whatever their origin.

(7) Decency - A newspaper cannot escape conviction of insincerity if, while professing high moral purpose, it supplies incentives to base conduct, such as are to be found in details of crime and vice, publication of which is not demonstrably for the general good. Lacking authority to enforce its canons, the journalism here represented can but express the hope that deliberate pandering to vicious instincts will encounter effective public disapproval or yield to the influence of a preponderant professional condemnation."*

*: Cited from

When the Canons of Journalism was first released, an article in the Times magazine stated that "The American Society of Newspaper Editors aim to be to journalism what the American Bar Association is to the legal fraternity". However there was a major difference both of the organizations. ASCE has never removed anyone from its membership even with ample reasons for it. However, the American Bar Association had the power to revoke license of practice.

Even though these canons exist, it is still really difficult to differ between ethical and unethical actions. For example, using the canon responsibility, if a reporter were to do a write up on a celebrity, namely Britney Spears, on her career, will that reporter just report the good parts of her life? Or will that reporter include her scandals as well?

These 7 canons were later revised by the ASNE in the year 1975. They were renamed as "Statement of Principles".

Those were the code of conduct by the ASNE. Somewhere around that time, another organization called The Society of Professional Journalist (SPJ) adopted their own code. SPJ was formerly known as Sigma Delta Chi. The SPJ code did not change for over 45 years, but was however revised in years 1973, 1984, 1987 and one more time in 1996 due to ethics within the journalistic society being more problematic. SPJ designed their code to guide journalist involved in every media and are based on these four principles:

  • Seek the truth and report it. Journalist should be honest, fair and courageous in reporting the news.

  • Minimize harm. Journalist should treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.

  • Act independently. Journalist should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know

  • Be accountable. Journalists should be accountable to their audience and each other." ∆

∆: Cited from page 395 Joseph R. Dominick's "The Dynamics of Mass Communication" tenth edition

In 1975, another code was again adopted by yet another organization named the Associated Press Managing Editors (APME). This time around, the codes are about responsibility, accuracy, integrity and independence. In 1995, the code was then revised to cover issues such as plagiarism and diversity.

In late 1999, another organization came into the picture. A newspaper chain called the Gannett Company, was the first to use ethical principles for the content of its papers. They've took upon this decision mainly because of the growing distrust that the public has on the media. They wish to regain the trust of the public and to reassure them that their contents are not inaccurate or unfair. "The new guidelines forbid, among other things, lying to get a story, fabricating news, and publishing misleading alterations of photographs." ∩

∩ : Cited from page 395 Joseph R. Dominick's "The Dynamics of Mass Communication" tenth edition


Since 1929, radio and television broadcasters have followed the Code of Good Practice by the National Association of Broadcasters (NAB). The code was revised over certain periods throughout the years. The code itself is divided into two parts. The first part of the code covers advertising in the radio and television. The second part covers general program practices.

However, in 1982, due to certain limitations on advertising, and after being ruled by court, the advertising part of the code was dissolved. The following year, due to more legal pressure, the NAB officially abolished the code entirely.

In 1990, a programming principle was issued by the NAB. This time around, it addressed four key areas: children TV, violence and drug, substance abuse, and indecency. These new guidelines were stated obviously, for example "Glamorization of drug use and substance abuse should be avoided"^

^: Cited from page 396 Joseph R. Dominick's "The Dynamics of Mass Communication" tenth edition

In 1997, a bill was introduced by four senators. That bill enables all broadcasting and cable industries to be immune from antitrust laws. Antitrust would mean "Opposing or intended to regulate business monopolies, such as trusts or cartels, especially in the interest of promoting competition" as cited from The American Heritage® Dictionary of the English Language, Fourth Edition. Houghton Mifflin Company. This allowed them to develop a new code. Other bills were introduced in Congress 1998 and 1999. These bills were similar in the sense that they all encourage broadcasters to develop a voluntary code of conduct.

The Radio and Television News Directors Association, in the broadcast journalist area, came up with a more extensive code. The 11-part code covers everything from camera in the courtroom to invasion of privacy.

The new philosophy concerning ethics in broadcasting reveals that:

They are advisory rather than prohibitive; they should be centred in individual stations or corporations, rather than a national organization like NAB; since there is no provision for monitoring and enforcement on the national level, any concerns about ethics should come from individual stations and listeners/viewers; the decentralization of ethics may be indicative of a pluralistic society, where values and mores reflect distinct group perspectives, rather than a national standard.