Ethics codes are being called into question. So are the journalists using them.
By Lindsey Ward
The Chronicle Herald’s ethics code. (also below)
A journalist struggles with a tight deadline and plagiarizes an entire story from an obscure website. Another journalist writes a feature on his fiancé without disclosing that relationship to the public. These situations happened to real journalists writing for real audiences.
What happens when the public has reason to question journalism ethics? People are enraged, and perhaps committees are formed. Often, ethics codes are put into place.
Stephanie Johns is arts editor of the Coast, an alternative weekly in Halifax. She recently created a conflict of interest policy for her staff. “Ethics codes are the newsroom’s due-diligence,” Johns says. “If you don’t talk about these things, people start to assume things.”
The Coast office near the Halifax Common looks like someone’s apartment. The bright, art-covered walls look temporary and the boardroom could be a game of Tetris. It has one red couch and three chairs that don’t quite fit around the table.
“The idea of having a policy has always been in the works,” Johns says. “We didn’t have a formal code that you could refer to before. It was just always done on a case by case basis.”
An ethics code can be a great resource for a journalist. Ethics codes allow journalists, as well as the public, to understand what a well-written and researched story should look like. It provides everyone with a template to talk about tough editorial decisions.
Johns read the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation’s code of ethics prior to writing a code for the Coast, although she believes many of the CBC’s guidelines don’t apply to her publication.
“I’ve looked at the CBC and I know they have a very detailed code. Obviously ours is not as detailed. We don’t have the staff that they have. Mostly we deal with freelance and as you can see we have a very small office.”
The Coast’s ethics code focuses on conflict of interest, and the opening paragraph of the code states this clearly. “The Coast’s mission is to cover Halifax better than any other media organization on the planet in an entertaining, provocative and truthful manner. With well-connected staff and freelancers that are involved with the community, there, at times, comes conflict of interest.”
The code provides an opportunity for Coast staff to be transparent, through disclosing a writer’s relationship with sources and contacts. It also states that no writer should accept any gift that influences coverage in the paper.
Johns has emailed it to every editor and freelancer.
Dave Tait, a professor at the School of Journalism and Communication at Carleton University in Ottawa, teaches a seminar on journalism ethics. Tait agreed to review and comment on the ethics codes of the Chronicle Herald, Canadian Association of Journalists and the Coast.
He has this to say about the Coast. “The bit about gifts says this: ‘Gifts, money or other benefits offered to Coast employees intended to influence their editorial decisions must not be accepted.’ I’m not sure if it’s useful to base this on the intention of the gift-giver. We can’t read minds very well, and so I would say it’s much wiser to rule out gifts from people we cover or those connected to them, whatever the motive of the gift.”
Tait also believes the Coast code leaves too much up for interpretation.
“I like the idea of putting the clear onus to disclose on the reporters, but it says they should do this when they “think something may be a conflict of interest”. I’d lean more toward requiring they discuss any involvements they have relevant to a project, regardless of whether they think they may be conflicts. I expect that’s the intent, but this wording leaves it open for someone to say, ‘But I didn’t think it was a conflict, so I didn’t raise it’.”
The CBC’s ethics code was written and published in January, 2003 and updated in the fall of 2010. On the CBC website the code is only a few clicks away. The Coast’s code has yet to reach the public eye, but Johns says she is open to the possibility of making the code available online.
Some codes, like the Chronicle Herald’s, have never been accessible to the public. The Chronicle Herald code, written in March 2006, is only available to staff.
Tait, of Carleton, believes that the Chronicle Herald code could use some restructuring.“I think that it helps to put it up. Maybe the average reader doesn’t know that it exists.
“It may be a good accountability step for a media outlet to post its code, but I can see why the Herald has kept this one as an in-house document. Its wording is more that of an internal memo than a public document, and it would need a lot of polishing and reorganizing to make it the latter.”
How does the public know what standards a journalist is being held to, or whether every journalist is using an ethics code? They don’t.
[pullquote] “Moral codes are not cut and dry. Often the sense of morality is in the sensibility of the individual journalist.”
– Jack MacAndrew [/pullquote]
“How would you know unless you polled every single journalist? You get responses but not from everyone and you can’t assume that because they don’t respond they don’t agree with them.” Paul Schneidereit has been employed at the Chronicle Herald as a senior editor for the last 28 years. He is also is a former president of the Canadian Association of Journalists.
The CAJ was born in 1978 as the CIJ, Canadian Investigative Journalists. In 1990 it was renamed to include a wider variety of journalists. Its ethics code was introduced after a journalist’s ethics were called into question. This is when the CAJ’s National Advisory Board created an Ethics Advisory Committee. Schneidereit was on the board of the CAJ when its first ethics code was published in 2004.
The CAJ’s ethics code is available to the public. It is clearly posted on the homepage of the CAJ website and provides updates, references and origin. It was just recently updated to include social media.
Hugo Rodrigues is a multimedia journalist for the Brantford Expositor, and current president of the CAJ. He describes the CAJ’s guidelines as a set of best practices to follow.
“My favourite part is a simple page that probably should be posted in every newsroom and every journalism class. It basically states that we want to hold ourselves accountable to this standard. That’s something we didn’t have in the 2004 document.”
Accountability is a question in radio, too. The Canadian Broadcast Standards Council in 2010 updated the list of its members. Of 91 radio stations, only 46 follow the CBSC ethics guide.
Walter Williams, of the University of Missouri’s School of Journalism, wrote the first journalism ethics code in 1908. It was aptly called the Journalist’s Creed. Today a bronze copy hangs in the U.S. National Press Club in Washington, D.C.
Many ethics codes list the same general ideals: being accountable, remaining independent, minimizing harm and seeking the truth. But not all journalists follow the same standards. Jack MacAndrew, of Meadow Bank, PEI, has been a journalist for more than 50 years and has never been given, sought out or written any kind of ethics code.
After working for CBC-TV and The Eastern Graphic newspaper MacAndrew now freelances. His ethics rely on personal experience and learned practice. “The essence of journalism,” he says, “is the search for the truth. And to get the truth you’re always treading an ethical line.”
For MacAndrew ethics codes are subjective. “Moral codes are not cut and dry. Often the sense of morality is in the sensibility of the individual journalist.”
Many journalists do not agree. Paul Schneidereit of the CAJ and Chronicle Herald believes codes are vital. “To me, the ethical guidelines are there to help journalists with the lack of public trust. Bottom line is it hurts all of us. If people turn to other sources and turn away from your work because they don’t trust you anymore it’s a bad thing.”
Members of the CAJ do not sign a document stating they will follow the CAJ ethics code, and are not punished for violations. In some organizations, journalists sign that they will hold strictly to an ethics code’s rules. On page 16 in the Chronicle Herald ethics code there is a statement titled Ramifications.
“Employees are expected to comply with these ethics guidelines,” it reads. “Failure to do so could result in disciplinary action up to and including discharge.”
Dave Tait of Carleton University recommends the Chronicle Herald make sure employees understand the code of ethics fully before signing. Employees could skim over valuable information and head into an ethical danger zone.
[pullquote]“To me, the ethical guidelines are there to help journalists with the lack of public trust. Bottom line is it hurts all of us.”
– Paul Schneidereit[/pullquote]
“This likely means the employee is getting this on a very busy first day while also filling in lots of other forms and worrying about the kind of first impression they are making. Too often this sort of thing can end up being box-ticking, and the chance is missed to bring home to the employee the real significance of the values reflected in the code.”
Stephanie Johns of the Coast understands that her publication’s ethics code does not cover every ethical situation. Still, she hopes it will allow her writers to start thinking more about ethical conflicts. The Coast code places responsibility on the writer to maintain the paper’s integrity. In the end, Johns says, both types of ethics codes — the larger, more in-depth code and the smaller code — offer the same advice.
“If you think something isn’t right or ethical for the following reasons tell us.”