Friday, November 11, 2011

What makes a professional journalist? Ethics

With all types of people publishing news and information on the web, how do you distinguish who is a professional journalist?

After all, bloggers have broken some big stories before mainstream news organizations, for example. Many of them bring value to their work. In other words, how do journalists justify calling themselves professionals, and how do they differentiate themselves from amateurs and drivelers?

One important way is by their adherence to ethical standards of the profession. Another is by knowledge of how to investigate and verify information. Professionals with the highest standards should be dedicated to more than being first and generating page views.

Be a good human being

Some of the leaders in journalism ethics say that to be a good journalists you have to be a good human being. If you are a good person, you can understand other people, their difficulties, their tragedies, their interests.

It is a commitment, an attitude, a vocation. It is a dedication to serve one's community. This has long been the view of Javier Dario Restrepo, a Colombian journalist and leader in journalism ethics. He believes journalists can humanize the news even in this digital age.

"This is perhaps the most fundamental ethical attitude, and it can free the journalist from being overwhelmed by technology and society from becoming a slave to a new form of power." he told a recent conference in Spain, sponsored by the New Journalism Foundation of Gabriel Garcia Marquez.

Poynter, codes of ethics

The boilerplate codes adopted by many news organizations mean nothing unless they are part of the daily conversation about the news. A good place to start is with the Poynter Institute's Bob Steele's guiding principles of the journalist.

  • Seek the truth and report it as fully as possible.
  • Act independently, meaning free of influence of interested parties.
  • Minimize harm.
No matter what you think about the Poynter Institute's recent ethical controversy that led to the resignation of popular blogger Jim Romenesko, Poynter defined its standard and discussed its decision openly. Ethical questions need to be debated internally and externally as Poynter did. 

The code of ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists follows Poynter's fairly closely.  

The Korean news site, OhMyNews, which depends heavily on contributions from volunteers all over the world, has a model code of ethics for citizen journalists:

  1. The citizen reporter must work in the spirit that "all citizens are reporters," and plainly identify himself as a citizen reporter while covering stories. 
  2. The citizen reporter does not spread false information. He does not write articles based on groundless assumptions or predictions. 
  3. The citizen reporter does not use abusive, vulgar, or otherwise offensive language constituting a personal attack. 
  4. The citizen reporter does not damage the reputation of others by composing articles that infringe on personal privacy. 
  5. The citizen reporter uses legitimate methods to gather information, and clearly informs his sources of the intention to cover a story. 
  6. The citizen reporter does not use his position for unjust gain, or otherwise seek personal profit. 
  7. The citizen reporter does not exaggerate or distort facts on behalf of himself or any organization to which he belongs. 
  8. The citizen reporter apologizes fully and promptly for coverage that is wrong or otherwise inappropriate.

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