1.3Basic Principles of Journalism
When one of the authors asked a group of journalism students, “What’s the role of the reporter?” some common themes emerged:
To inform and teach
To tell the truth and verify accounts
To be a voice for the voiceless
To represent communities and diverse perspectives
To be a watchdog, to hold the powerful and big business accountable
Ask any journalist and they are likely to tell you their role is a public service, informing the public of a severe weather event, crime, political issue, controversy, announcement, or newsworthy content. While journalists are under tight deadlines (now 24/7 with the rise of social media), pressure from funders, and constant criticism from audiences, their role also carries immense responsibility to report events ethically.
Given this responsibility, it is critical to understand some of the basic principles of journalism that underlie effective and ethical reporting. The Society of Professional Journalists has laid out four guidelines in its code of ethics:1
Seek truth and report it
Be accountable and transparent
We will briefly explain each of these essential principles here and refer back to them throughout the course.
Seek Truth and Report It
Truth is the heart of journalism. Audiences rely on journalists for verified information from official sources. In many newsrooms, there is a rule that journalists must have two credible sources to verify a piece of information before reporting it. When information is not verified by multiple sources, there can be major consequences. Credible news organizations understand that the reward of being the first to report does not outweigh the consequences of reporting inaccurate information.
Another aspect of seeking truth also involves remaining impartial. There are two sides to every story, as the saying goes, and it’s up to the journalist to report opposing perspectives in efforts to seek the truth.
The guideline to minimize harm revolves around a journalist’s humanity and moral compass. While seeking and reporting the truth, a journalist must consider if their reporting is doing more harm than good.
Here is an example: A reporter is sent to a neighborhood block to cover an act of violence that occurred the night prior. While the reporter is there, asking neighbors if they saw, heard, or know anything about the event, a young boy approaches and claims he saw the whole thing. His parents are there and give permission for the minor to speak to the reporter in the interview, describing what he witnessed. Now, the reporter must decide if publishing his interview puts the young boy in danger of potential retaliation. In some cases, news organizations will decide to blur a witness’s face, withhold their name, and/or change their voice. If the news organization makes efforts to protect the witness, it also must determine whether those efforts compromise the report and whether anonymity hurts the credibility of the report. While fallout and backlash may occur from a consequential report, the journalist must always strive to minimize harm.
If truth is the heart of journalism, independence is the head. Both are essential elements, but reporting independently requires thoughtful, intentional allegiance to the audience. Journalists must put aside pressures from news outlet owners, funders, and advertisers, plus dismiss their personal beliefs, biases, and priorities.
The notion of independence in journalism is so important that it is captured in the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution as freedom of the press, the right to report news without censorship from the government. When journalists report independently, they gain credibility and reliability from their audiences. Journalists must keep an open mind, be curious, and consider what voices are missing from the story.
Be Accountable and Transparent
Journalists must also pursue accountability and transparency in their reporting. Investigative journalism centers around the drive to hold leaders, big business, and those in power accountable.
Consider a landlord, for example, who refuses to fix moldy, unhealthy living conditions. Renters may reach out to a journalist for help, after attempts to resolve the issue with the dismissive landlord. Another example could involve residents who have tried to reach out to the city to fix a dangerous pothole on their street.
Journalists serve as a watchdog over those in powerful positions over average citizens. They must be transparent in how they obtain and collect information, including attributing sources. After all of this, you may be wondering, who holds journalists accountable? That answer lies with audiences, and their power is now amplified by social media.