Jeff Jarvis wonders if we have too many codes of ethics.
"Methinks the volume of codes of ethics is, itself, a symptom of a problem. Doth we protest too much? Are we overcomplicating it? Are we overcompensating? Doesn't it pretty much add up to this: Don't lie. Don't sell out."
Nice idea but it's a little more complicated than that. (If I were going for a one-liner I'd borrow from Hillel -- "do not do to others what you would not do to yourself, the rest is commentary.") I offered the SPJ Code of Ethics guiding principles during the "Committing Journalism" session at BlogNashville this weekend, for a couple of reasons: 1) I was one of the hundreds or more journalists involved in the creation of this version, which was approved in 1996 after much debate and a year's postponement. The ethics listserv I've operated for the past decade began as a place to discuss the proposed changes. 2) I still believe that the four principles -- especially when combined with the preamble but even on their own -- form one of the simplest, best guides for ethical decisionmaking. You can go through all the steps and still come out with a decision others might question -- see the Spokesman-Review for an example -- but it's a good, solid foundation.
- Seek Truth and Report It: Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.
- Minimize Harm: Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.
- Act Independently: Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know.
- Be Accountable: Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.
It wouldn't hurt to read the full version, linked to above, every now and then. You don't have to agree with everything in it but thinking about ethics won't hurt. It also doesn't hurt to talk to colleagues or others when you're not sure about the decision you're making. I was called by a student reporter a few weeks ago, who wasn't sure his publication was going in the right direction. I tried not to answer it for him, instead asking the kind of questions I hoped he would be able to ask himself next time. Then I gave him the url for the SPJ code.
Usually, the problem isn't too many. It's the lack of one.