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A doctor who prescribes an illegal medicine could lose his license. A lawyer who misleads a client, or an accountant who knowingly misrepresents a company's financial statement, may be guilty of violating a code of ethics. But a reporter who poses as a policeman to get private phone records may win a Pulitzer Prize. The doctor, lawyer and accountant must pass exams to be licensed, and they have regulatory bodies to enforce proper conduct. Journalism does not, for these are seen as contrary to a free press. The power to license or regulate is the power to censor. So it is crucial as you are revising your writing to reflect on how it came to be. Have your behaved ethically?

1. Two of the defining characteristics of a profession are its mandatory code of behavior and the enforcement of that code. Journalism has neither. You become a journalist when you
declare that you are one, and you remain one as long as you
keep declaring it.

2. Reporters may feel responsible to the public, but they are not. Their readers do not elect them and cannot fire them. The government does not license them or set standards for behavior. They are not responsible to other reporters. They are responsible only to themselves and their employers. Reporters are self-regulated.

3. Because of this, newspaper work has been described as a "swampland where eerie mists of judgment hang low over a boggy terrain." It is, but there are standards to light the way. Some of them are:

a. Seek truth and report it fully. Inform yourself continually. Be honest, fair and courageous in gathering and reporting the news. Give voice to the voiceless, and hold the powerful accountable.

b. Seek out and disseminate competing perspectives without being unduly influenced by those who would use their power counter to public interest. Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise your integrity or damage your credibility.

c. Minimize harm. Be compassionate of those affected by your actions. Treat sources, subjects and colleagues with respect, not as means to an end. Do not lie, pose or misrepresent yourself.

d. Don't report on any group or organization to which you belong. Avoid active involvement in partisan causes, politics, community affairs, social actions or demonstrations. Avoid service on governmental, quasi-governmental or community-wide boards, commissions or committees.

e. Don't write about someone related by blood or marriage, or someone with whom you have a personal or financial relationship. Don't use your position to seek benefit or advantage in business, financial or commercial transactions. Don't take freebies.

The ethical reporter:
  • Avoids writing about a friend or relative
  • Avoids writing about a business partner
  • Does not seek benefit in business or financial transactions
  • Refuses freebies
  • Rewriting
    Getting it right—part 1
    Getting it right—part 2

    A Web site created by Jim Hall for beginning reporters, those studying the craft and their teachers.