The Responsibilities of Journalists
This essay is excerpted from Media Law Handbook , published by the Bureau of International Information Programs.
Objectivity in the News
Journalists in the United States strive to achieve objectivity. This model has been criticized in recent years. Some question whether objectivity is desirable. They suggest that true objectivity essentially has no moral compass and treats all facts and all viewpoints as equally deserving of respect.
Professor Michael Bugeja, director of the School of Journalism at Iowa State University, disagrees. "Objectivity is not a synonym for truth," he writes, "but the process through which we seek to attain it." No one approaches any story with complete objectivity. As a reporter begins researching, it is likely that she will have a definite bias toward at least some aspects of the story. But the goal is to set aside those presumptions and prejudices and to move forward with a healthy skepticism.
Suppose a suspect has been arrested and charged with a crime. In many countries, an accused person enjoys a presumption of innocence until tried and convicted. Yet law enforcement personnel often want to convince the public that the person in custody really is the perpetrator of a crime and will encourage news media reporting of information that strengthens their case. The objective journalist will, of course, report what the authorities say. But, to the extent the law permits, she also should seek independently to verify the accuracy of the information and to search for credible conflicting information from other reliable sources. She should resist simply parroting the theories of the authorities as if they are proven fact.
Encouraging Diversity of Views
In many countries, a partisan press is the norm. Readers and viewers in these nations may expect that a news organization will approach topics from its own particular point of view and select the subjects that it covers accordingly. They also know that competing news organizations may advocate different perspectives. This can be consistent with journalism ethics but only if the news organization distinguishes between advocacy and reporting. Opinion columns and editorial commentary should be clearly labeled and should neither distort nor falsify the facts that underlie the opinion.
Journalists should seek out diverse voices and afford competing and, even unpopular, views an opportunity to be heard. They should support freedom of speech for all. News organizations should provide a forum for robust debate on issues vital to their community. Letters to the editor and online readers' comments are two ways to encourage public participation. But news organizations also should make every effort to keep the discussion civil and to discourage the dissemination of falsehoods or pejorative attacks on others.
Respect for the Individual
The second tenet of the SPJ Code of Ethics is to "Minimize harm ... treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect." This principle recognizes that a responsible journalist sometimes unavoidably will harm someone but requires her to make every effort to minimize that damage. The SPJ code, like many similar codes, exhorts the journalist to show compassion for those who will be affected by news coverage, especially when they become the subject of attention through no fault of their own.
Crime victims, the relatives of public figures and celebrities, children, and other vulnerable individuals should be treated with sensitivity. Journalists should consider carefully whether there is a genuinely newsworthy reason to report on them at all.
Intrusive news-gathering techniques can cause harm. Persistence is appropriate, but aggressive tactics will not be justified in every case. Although they may be legal, making repeated telephone calls, following a person on the street, taking multiple photographs, or remaining on private property after having been asked to leave may cause distress. Even the most public person is entitled to some zone of privacy, and only an overriding public interest justifies intrusion into individuals' private lives.
On the other hand, there can be good and valid reasons to report information that a news subject would prefer to keep secret. A public official may wish to keep secret details of an extramarital affair. But if public funds or other resources are used to support the affair, they become a matter of legitimate public interest. Similarly, crime victims often prefer that their identity remain confidential, and a news organization may agree, at least in the case of children or sexual assault victims. But in many countries, a crime victim plays the role of accuser in a criminal prosecution. Although an alleged victim's credibility might be a legitimate issue to explore-and one of some importance to the criminal defendant-journalists should not pander to prurient tastes by publicizing sensational facts that are not a matter of public interest. The news media should balance the rights and interests of both victims and criminal defendants with the right of the public to be informed.
Journalists should not reinforce stereotypes. The practice is intellectually lazy and can lead to misperceptions and inaccuracy. They should consider carefully whether it is necessary to identify an individual by race, religion, sexual orientation, or similar characteristic. Gender-neutral language is often appropriate.
Reporters should remember and be sensitive to different cultural traditions. For example, adherents of some religions forbid or strongly discourage photographing individuals. Journalists should respect their preferences, unless there is a compelling reason to do otherwise.
On the other hand, "cultural values" sometimes is a cloak for censorship. Repressive regimes may cite social values when their real intent is to restrict freedom of expression and to silence dissenting views. The ethical journalist should challenge attempts to suppress the truth, whatever justification is offered.
(This is a product of the Bureau of International Information Programs, U.S. Department of State.)