Journalism is an honorable profession. The contemporary journalist is entrusted by his or her employer with gathering, reporting, editing and publishing relevant information about current events, trends, issues, and people, in an impartial manner.
Journalists are the record keepers of history. Those in the field today follow such giants as Walter Cronkite, Dorothy Kilgallen, Mark Twain, Katharine Graham and those earlier archetypes: Matthew, Mark, Luke and John of Biblical fame.
The public, from elected officials to the family next door, relies on journalists for timely, accurate information and opinions on matters which touch their daily lives, either now or possibly in the future. Presently, most people are checking media reports several times daily to stay informed on the progress of threatened swine flu pandemic.
Because they are in a position of public trust, it is crucial that journalists strive to be trustworthy, knowledgeable, reliable and ethical. What principles guide their decision-making? How do they decide on the most appropriate presentation of a news or opinion item, or if, in fact, it should be reported at all?
Here are a number of ethical guidelines to which most principled journalists would subscribe:
(a) It is the duty of a journalist to consistently uphold and defend the First Amendment of the United States Constitution, guaranteeing freedom of speech and of the press. The media has the right and duty to report, and the public has a right to know about the significant news and issues of the day.
(b) A journalist must report honestly, fairly and accurately. All essential facts must be fully disclosed without bias or distortion. His own political, social or religious views must not influence his news reports. Opinion pieces must be clearly stated as such.
(c) He will treat all citizens equally and with respect. He will not place unnecessary emphasis on personal characteristics, such as age, race, gender, sexual orientation, religious belief or mental or physical disability.
(d) He will obtain his information by open and honest means, and identify his sources where possible. If he promises anonymity to a source for a good reason, he will keep that promise.
(e) If traditional methods fail to yield information vital to the public interest, he may employ alternate, creative methods of gathering information. The tactics used should form part of his report.
(f) He will not intrude on anyone’s private life, grief, or distress unless there is an overriding reason, such as a substantial benefit to the public, for doing so. He will respect the privacy of crime victims, children, and juvenile suspects.
(g) He will never plagiarize.
(h) If he makes a mistake, he will accept responsibility and correct it as soon as possible.
As historical record keepers, competent journalists display the following qualities: they are reliable and responsible; they love language and have a talent for storytelling. They are not shy and are able to approach and question strangers. When working on an assignment, they are polite but persistent, observant and interested in details and they possess logical and well-ordered minds.
Journalists are a talented and respected group of people. The observations and reflections of Matthew, Mark, Luke, John, Mark Twain, Dorothy Kilgallen and countless others in the profession continue to inform, enlighten, entertain people in our day, just as they did in their own.
Their works are memorable because they followed the ethical principles noted above and we can rely on the veracity of their accounts. It is to be hoped that journalists of the present and the future will continue to be guided by these standards, so that future generations will have accurate accounts of the world in the twenty-first century and beyond.