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Standards make the medium in journalism

TV reporter interviews FEMA expert. Image: Walter Jennings/FEMA Photo Library via Wikimedia

Last weekend, the Toronto Star announced an update to the Torstar Journalistic Standards Guide, the first major overhaul since the original appeared in 1984. Comprehensive and presented in plain language, the Guide starts by stating that "the operation of a news organization is, above all, a public trust, no less binding because it is not formally conferred. The overriding responsibility of our daily and community news organizations is to the democratic society."

Most news organizations would stake the same claim, that they exist to serve the public purpose. However, reviewing journalism society standards shows a wide variation in priorities and emphasis. Although most (not all) ethical codes start with an emphasis on accuracy, grounded in verification, other key points vary widely. rabble.ca emphasizes accuracy, integrity, fairness and balance, along with sensitivity, awareness and amplification of marginalized groups.

The Globe and Mail's Editorial Code of Conduct states first principles are "solid research, clear, intelligent writing and maintaining a reputation for honesty, accuracy, objectivity and balance." Rather than repeat "accuracy," the Code specifies, "It is unacceptable to invent or falsify a quote, source, anecdote, detail or anything else pertaining to the news." 

The U.S. Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) says the first duty of journalists is to "Seek the truth and report it. Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information."

In the U.K., the National Union of Journalists' Code of Conduct says that:

"A journalist:

"At all times upholds and defends the principle of media freedom, the right of freedom of expression and the right of the public to be informed," first, and then, "Strives to ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair...."

The Canadian Association of Journalists' (CAJ) Ethics Guidelines includes a section on Independence that starts:

"We serve democracy and the public interest by reporting the truth. This sometimes conflicts with various public and private interests, including those of sources, governments, advertisers and, on occasion, with our duty and obligation to an employer." 

The NUJ's Code of Conduct is the shortest of the codes surveyed, 12 short punchy points prescribing how "A journalist" behaves, such as "Number 12. Avoids plagiarism." The Torstar Guide is by far the longest and most detailed, with instructions for different contingencies. Journalists are urged to report promptly when charges are dropped in notorious cases, for example.

In extreme cases, "Senior editors and Torstar lawyers should be notified immediately if police try to execute a search warrant in the newsroom or at a staff member's home, or if a staff member is served with a subpoena." Though that may sound like a fantasy, in fact my friend Juliet O'Neill of the Ottawa Citizen woke up in 2004 to RCMP officers in her home looking for the source of her report on Maher Arar.

CBC breaks out ideals into a Mission Statement, with Principles such as Accuracy and Integrity to follow. CBC's Mission includes:

  • To serve the public interest
  • To reflect diversity
  • To protect our independence
  • To act responsibly and to be accountable

CBC's principles are:

  • Accuracy
  • Fairness
  • Balance
  • Impartiality
  • Integrity

Canadian Press' famous CP Style Book starts with a two-page discussion about ethics, good editorial practices, and impartiality, explaining that, "Because we deliver the bad news about politicians who turn dirty, caregivers who abuse their trust and business people who discard ethics for gain, we must observe stringent ethical practices, and be seen to do so."

Despite Fox News' slogan of "Fair and balanced reporting," searching the Fox News website for a Code of Ethics or Code of Conduct is futile. A web search turns up only satirical articles, like this piece.

Similarly, Postmedia has a Code of Business Conduct posted, but anything similar for journalism is elusive on the website or web search. On the contrary, Postmedia papers have faced scandals, like Edmonton Journal editorial writer Lorne Gunter's free cruise, courtesy of Ezra Levant, whom he then defended in the Journal.

The variety of journalism codes may seem puzzling and somewhat frustrating. Most of them have come into being since, oh, say, 1980. CAJ, for one, struggled for years with the idea that anyone could codify our work. And we won't even address how well different outlets fulfill their promises.

On the other hand, a Conduct Code might have prevented the kind of drive-by editing that triggered the bitter seven-month Calgary Herald strike that started in November 1999. And these days, a news outlet with no Ethics or Conduct Code looks suspect. In an era of fake news, reckless propaganda and clickbait websites, video faceswapping and deepfakes, knowing where your news comes from is more important than ever.  

"Journalism's main job is to keep watch over the powerful precincts of society," wrote former Globe and Mail editor Edward Greenspon, "to challenge, cajole, educate, pester -- and furnish an ongoing, trustworthy account of events that informs democratic choice and strengthens common purpose." Yet in an age of social media, eight out of 10 posts simply repeated a professionally created news report, without compensation. He concluded The Shattered Mirror  report (2017) on news and democracy in the digital age, with a warning that professional journalism itself is in danger for lack of payment and, "That's not to be treated lightly."

Award-winning author and journalist Penney Kome has published six non-fiction books and hundreds of periodical articles, as well as writing a national column for 12 years and a local Calgary column for four years. She was Editor of Straightgoods.com from 2004 to 2013.

Image: Walter Jennings/FEMA Photo Library via Wikimedia

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