Key text

Towards an Ethical Environment. A CheckList-Ethics and the Journalist

Allegiance to a code is an important way of defining who is and who is not a journalist. Another is that a journalist is someone who earns their livelihood, or the major part of it, from journalistic work. Another is that the person has accreditation from a recognised journalistic body – a union or association or a bona fide media institution.

These indicators are important in the age of the internet when there is careless talk that “everyone is a journalist and a publisher” by those who confuse an enhanced capacity to communicate with the journalistic duty to produce information of defined quality. The Internet, by its nature, does not have agreed standards of accuracy, balance or ethics – journalism does.

Codes are important as benchmarks for quality and as guides distilled from experience. However, a code is only a start. Detailed guidelines are also needed to define the conditions in which the values of a code are made workable – how to define, for example, conflicts of interest or the internal procedures to follow when ethical dilemmas arise.

Such guidelines should be formally agreed with editorial staff. Managements and unions may frame editorial charters that clearly define rights. In many European countries, for instance, the journalist’s right to act according to conscience is part of the collective agreement. In France journalists in addition may leave and seek appropriate compensation when media ownership changes.

Covering stories that touch on inter-cultural issues – race, asylum, migration, religion – need particular attention and many media have already adopted internal guidelines or “house style” that help avoid incorrect or inappropriate terminology. Training and discussion is needed to ensure that these guidelines become an accepted part of a journalist's working practice.

Clichés and stereotypes are the enemies of good communication and are especially damaging when reporting on sensitive issues or vulnerable people. They often reflect the fact that a journalist has not managed to access good sources or the authentic voices of minorities or vulnerable groups. Journalists and newsrooms need to develop strong contacts with a wide range of different sources to ensure that standards do not suffer.


 Is there a recognised journalists’ Code of Conduct or set of principles of ethical practice through an editorial charter in operation?
 Are there detailed guidelines on the applications of the code and do journalists discuss and revise these guidelines at regular intervals?
 Do journalists have, in practice, the right to act according to conscience?
 Can they elect the editor and do they have rights if the editorial policy changes without consultation?
 Are there guidelines for election reporting?
 Is there periodic review of reporting work and published stories to identify ethical problems and concerns?
 Is special editorial consideration given to coverage of children, people with disabilities, minority communities, marginalised social groups and vulnerable sections of society?
 Are there sufficiently diverse sources available to ensure a variety of opinion?
 Is attention paid to avoiding discrimination and perpetuation of stereotypes, particularly based on gender or on ethnic or religious grounds?

Things to do:

If there is no recognised and operational code or internal charter, then find one and begin a discussion on how it can be applied in your own work. The IFJ code can be useful as a start but there are literally hundreds to choose from. Use the IFJ network to find out about experience elsewhere. Organise a discussion internally. Encourage debate with journalists and colleagues from other media on the principles and how they are operated in practice.

Practical working rules and internal guidelines give working relevance to the aspirations of a code and they can be as long and short as you want (the BBC internal rules and editorial guidelines and those of the New York Times are available on the Internet).

Editorial managers and journalists need to sit together to frame working rules that are to the point and deal with the social and professional realities of national circumstances.

One practical objective might be how to phase out potentially corrupt practices, such as the situation in many countries where journalists are obliged to accept brown envelope cash gifts to cover “transport costs” or other expenses in order to supplement their poverty wages. Another is to introduce concepts of consultation to strengthen democracy in the newsroom.

Covering minorities and groups who are regularly victimised by media stereotypes requires vigilance. A schedule of regular internal editorial meetings to review practice in this area will help as will establishing lists of useful sources. The Belgian journalists union some years ago, for instance, produced a national book of sources for journalists. Similar lists, regularly updated, and available through internal networks or online can strengthen the depth of reporting.

Prepare style guides that provide glossaries of frequently used terms – including international definitions of “asylum-seeker” and “refugee” for instance – asking pointed questions such as when is it relevant to describe someone’s physical appearance? These are all important ways of challenging bias and prejudice.

Some splendid materials are already available. The Diversity Toolkit prepared by the European Broadcasting Union for broadcasting networks is a good example, providing editorial guidelines and tips for management.

Organise special meetings to prepare election coverage and define the rules of coverage. This is the time when political pressure takes on a new meaning and often goes well beyond the daily round of spin and counter spin. It is also a time of potential danger, so specific guidelines to try to ensure fair coverage will help.

(extract from Ethical Journalism Initiative book)