Media Rules of Conduct: A Call to Arms

By Casey Bukro

An 18th-century Pirate Code of Conduct was stern but direct: Anyone found stealing from another crewman would have his ears and nose slit open and be set ashore.

A general history of the pyrates
Honor among thieves: Pirates and their captains agreed on codes of conduct. (Boston Public Library)

The penalty for bringing a woman aboard in disguise was death.

Anyone being lazy or failing to clean his weapons would lose his share of booty.

The punishment for hitting a man was 40 lashes on the bare back.

These are among the rules Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts and his crews are said to have adopted in 1722 to keep the peace among his bloodthirsty men and reward good conduct. There are many variations on buccaneer codes, however.

Even 300 years later, rewarding or defining good conduct is the purpose of codes of journalism ethics that continue to emerge.

A new Radio Television Digital News Association Canada code takes effect July 1, replacing a version adopted in 2011.

“This Code of Ethics is based on more than a century of journalistic experience and represents our membership’s guiding principles,” states a preamble that welcomes adoption by all practicing journalists.

This follows on the heels of the “Ward Code for Global Integrated Ethics,” written by Stephen J.A. Ward, honorary lecturer in ethics at the University of British Columbia and courtesy professor in the University of Oregon journalism school.

Before that came the Online News Association’s “Build Your Own Ethics Code,” launched on a digital platform in September 2015 under a $40,000 grant.

“The project is designed to provide news organizations, startups, individual journalists and bloggers with ownership and flexibility in creating an ethics code that meets needs in our widely varied profession,” ONA announced. “Educators may also find the project valuable in helping students learn about the various ethical choices journalists face in their reporting.”

The code was described as “a perpetual work-in-progress.”

The Society of Professional Journalists revised its code of ethics on Sept. 6, 2014. The society, originally known as Sigma Delta Chi, borrowed a code of ethics in 1926 from the American Society of Newspaper Editors. In 1973, a committee wrote an original ethics code for the society, an effort in which I took part. That code was revised in 1984, 1987, 1996 and 2014.

These are all worthy and laudable efforts. Still, it seems media ethics codes have become bloodless lists of dos and don’ts.

Journalists are wordsmiths. Codes of ethics should reflect their love of words and their skill in using words. When applied to the moral underpinnings of their profession, those words should soar.

Ward comes close to doing that in his code for global integrated ethics. He writes:

“Responsible freedom to publish is no longer a parochial responsibility owed to city, region or nation. It is a global responsibility owed to a global public. The moral aim of media is no longer the parochial promotion of city, province or nation. It is the promotion of humanity.”

Ward goes on to write: “The future of of humanity on this blue planet depends in no small part on the emergence of a globally minded media dedicated to principles of human flourishing and global justice.”

It’s not always clear how best to do that, given the forces at work in the world, but it’s a good statement of purpose and mission.

SPJ’s 1973 code of ethics also began with some high-minded ideals: “We believe in public enlightenment as the forerunner of justice, and in our Constitutional role to seek the truth as part of the public’s right to know the truth.”

Some might consider that corny. But I like words that inspire, as well as instruct. In this digital world, the word volume keeps rising. But it’s not always clear what they’re saying. Codes of ethics should tell us why they’re important and why they make a difference, not only to journalists but to the public they serve. And they should make their case with verve.

Edited by Stephen Rynkiewicz. Comment below in the “Leave a Reply” box. For advice from our ethics advisers,  submit a question.

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