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Code of Media Ethics

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Crime, war, tragedy and disaster are just some of the words seen splashed across newspaper headlines in bold, black letters. Because news today is full of conflict and controversy, how news is delivered has a major impact on the public. As with any other profession, media professionals have ethics codes to follow and failure to do so often results in career loss or punishment. In short, ethics are moral principles or beliefs. In general, each news organization will have its own set of rules and ethics to enforce. However, in 1996 the Society of Professional Journalists adopted the current code of ethics which journalists voluntarily follow throughout their careers.

Foundations of Media Ethics

Journalism ethics were born from the combination of ethical philosophies and principles. Journalists apply John Stuart Mill's principle of utilitarianism most often. Utilitarianism is rooted in the principle of seeking the greatest good for the greatest number of people. If reporters and editors agree publication of a story will benefit more people than it would harm, the article is published. Journalists use the Judeo-Christian principle of the golden rule as well. The phrase "do unto others as you would have them do unto you" holds many journalists accountable for their actions as reporters. These philosophies, as well as others, build the core of media ethics.

The Society of Professional Journalists

The Society of Professional Journalists, better known as SPJ, is a highly-esteemed media organization. According to SPJ, the organization has been dedicated to practicing free press and encouraging high ethical standards since 1909. The Code of Ethics has four key guidelines. The first is seeking the truth and reporting it. Without truth, stories are not newsworthy, and will not benefit the public. Second, is minimizing harm. SPJ requires journalists to show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage and to show good taste. Third is acting independently. This rule requires journalists to avoid conflicts of interests, bribes, favorable treatment and other situations that damage news integrity. Lastly, is being accountable. SPJ explains being accountable as admitting mistakes and correcting them, abiding by high standards expected of others and encouraging public conversation about journalistic conduct.

Visual Journalism and Photography

Visual storytelling is increasingly popular in the news industry. Journalists must learn to adjust to the new demands for news and acquire the skills to become visual storytellers better known as photojournalists. Just because the direction of news is progressing toward multimedia does not mean ethics behind journalism are forgotten. Because photographs sometimes show graphic or disturbing images, editors consider the consequences involved on a case-by-case basis. Just as the Society for Professional Journalists has a code of ethics, the National Press Photographers Association has its own code of ethics.

National Press Photographers Association Code of Ethics

The National Press Photographers Association Code of Ethics can be applied to most visual news forms. The code states that photojournalists must serve the public and have high ethical standards. They have an obligation to truth and to be honest in their reporting. It requires accuracy and avoiding conflicts of interest. With photography, it is sometimes difficult to minimize harm to the subjects in the photographs. The code does not specifically require reporters to minimize harm, but involves treating subjects with dignity and respect.


There is much debate in the media world over whether bloggers are professional journalists. However bloggers do have a code of ethics. The Bloggers’ Code of Ethics states that bloggers must be honest and fair, to never plagiarize, to minimize harm and be accountable. This is the only code of ethics that does not require truth telling. This is a likely cause for the ongoing debate over whether blogs are credible sources.

For More Information

See the Resources section for details and further information on codes of ethics.


Kaitlen Flynn has been writing for three years. During her senior year, she was photo editor of "El Independiente." Flynn published three articles, several photographs and was in charge of photographs for the newspaper. She graduated from the University of Arizona with a bachelor's degree in journalism and a minor in multimedia.