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Ethics and Law in Journalism
May 1, 2015

A free press has the capacity to influence others. In a democracy it has the right to report information without government approval. Many countries provide legal protections to journalists so they can exercise that right. In a free society, the most basic responsibility of a free press is to report the news accurately and fairly — that is, to practice ethical journalism.

Ethics is a system of principles that guides action. While the law establishes what you can and cannot do in given situations, ethics tells you what you should do based on personal, professional, social and moral values.

Ethics and Law is the fourth in a series on media development.

Ethical Principles

Journalists face ethical dilemmas every day under pressure from owners, competitors, advertisers and the public. They need to resolve these dilemmas, so the journalism they produce is ethical.

These are the basic principles of the U.S. Society of Professional Journalists:

• Seek truth and report it. Be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.

• Minimize harm. Treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.

• Act independently. Be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.

• Be accountable to readers, listeners, viewers and each other.

Making an ethical decision means choosing not between right and wrong, but between right and right.

Ethical Decisionmaking

First, define the dilemma. What values could be compromised? Then, collect more information to help you make a good decision. Consult newsroom policies and guidelines and talk to colleagues, supervisors and even people not directly involved in a story but who know the circumstances.

Some newsrooms deal with ethical quandaries from the top down. When an issue arises, a senior manager decides what to do. This approach is quick, but can be arbitrary. For that reason, many newsrooms have an inclusive ethical decisionmaking process.

By explaining what was done and why, journalists bolster their credibility and justify the public’s trust in them.

Ethics Codes

Journalism associations around the world have codes of ethics to guide the work of members. Codes cover everything from plagiarism to privacy, corrections and confidentiality.

Most also cover these things:

• Fundamental values, including respect for life and human solidarity.

• Fundamental prohibitions, including not lying, causing needless harm or appropriating someone else’s property.

• Principles of accuracy, fairness and independence.

Where journalists are required to belong to a union or association, ethics codes might have an enforcement provision.

Codes of Conduct

Codes of conduct spell out activities that are encouraged or prohibited or require the approval of a manager. The main reason for these limitations is to protect the credibility of news organizations.

Community Standards

News organizations often face conflicts between newsworthiness and community standards. Editors choose different solutions to situations, depending on what they feel readers can tolerate.

Some choose to explain why they made the decision they did in the text of the story or in an “editor’s note.”

Other parts in this series include What is News?, Getting the StoryTelling the Story, and Taking Good Photographs.

(Adapted from an article by Deborah Potter published in the Handbook of Independent Journalism. Potter is executive director of NewsLab, an online resource for journalists in Washington. Download the complete Handbook of Independent Journalism [PDF 834kB].)