Creating Ethics Policies
Bob Steele of the Poynter Institute in Florida is a recognized leader in promoting ethics in journalism. As part of aiding news organizations that want to develop a Code of Ethics, the Poynter Web site offers Steele’s article called “Guiding Principles for the Journalist.” In it, he offers three things that journalists must do: (1) seek truth and report it as fully as possible; (2) act independently; and (3) minimize harm.5 (The Society for Professional Journalists adopted those three guidelines and added “be accountable.”6 )
It is, of course, the third edict about minimizing harm that speaks directly to victim concerns. It is first worth noting that the goal is not to eliminate harm completely. Steele recognizes that even the best reporting can cause people problems. Asking victims to share their stories, especially if it is soon after their victimization, will almost always take a toll. However, Steele argues that the benefits to the victim and the public may outweigh the damage. John Stuart Mill’s principle of utility asks whether the reporting promotes the greatest good for the greatest number. With that test in mind, Poynter’s guidelines place the burden on the journalist to do all he or she can to avoid causing crime victims undue pain.
Some news organizations that choose not to create a Code of Ethics can still do well by crime victims. In some cases, the concern is that a written code invites litigation. For others, the issue is that few people remember the codes and each case requires its own consideration from all sides. The ultimate test is whether the news organization carefully considers the impact its practices and products have on crime victims.
5. Bob Steele, “Guiding Principles for the Journalist,” The Poynter Institute, http://www.poynter.org/content/content_view.asp?id=5609, accessed March 30, 2007.
6. The Society for Professional Journalists, Code of Ethics, http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp, accessed March 30, 2007.