Media ethics is a very hot topic of discussion right now. Traditional format such as newspapers and network TV newscasts are struggling as their traditional source of revenue, advertising, disappears. But that’s not the whole story. Their decline hasn’t been helped by high levels of public mistrust and skepticism about existing institutions of all kinds, which has driven many citizens to other sources of information.
We can’t solve this problem. All we can do is take steps to address it, and hope that over time we will earn your trust and your loyalty as readers.
First of all, we have built The Hard Knox Wire in such a way as to make us completely independent of anything and anyone except you, our readers. We charge money for subscriptions so that we don’t have to accept advertising of any kind, which frees us from having to worry about upsetting businesses, political parties, government agencies, or any other entity that has spent money on advertising in the past.
We only have to worry about making one group of people happy: you, our readers.
The second thing we have done is adopt a Code of Ethics that we plan to live by.
This is hardly anything new or special, by the way — we don’t know of a single newspaper, magazine, or TV news program that doesn’t have a list of ethical guidelines. Most of those guidelines will even sound mostly identical to ours, as the vast majority of them are based on the same source. The Society of Professional Journalists has published an ethical code for many years now, and most of the mainstream news organizations in the United States draw at least some inspiration from its tenets.
(As an aside, no organization or government agency can force a media outlet to adopt any kind of ethical code, as that would be a violation of the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution; all codes are strictly voluntary and it’s largely up news organizations to police themselves.)
What we have done is take the SPJ’s code and make a (very) few tweaks in areas that we feel needed some revision in light of recent social changes, such as the section that addresses conflicts of interest.
CODE OF ETHICS OF THE HARD KNOX WIRE
BE ACCOUNTABLE AND TRANSPARENT
Ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public.
– Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently. Explain corrections and clarifications carefully and clearly.
– Explain ethical choices and processes to audiences and encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content.
– Respond quickly to questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness.
– Expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within our own organization should it arise.
– Abide by the same high standards we expect of others.
SEEK TRUTH AND REPORT IT
Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.
– Take responsibility for the accuracy of our work, verify information before releasing it, and use original sources whenever possible.
– Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy.
– Provide context. We will take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.
– Gather, update and correct information throughout the life of a news story.
– Be cautious when making promises to sources, but keep the promises we make.
– Identify sources clearly whenever possible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources. Also, we will provide access to source material when it is relevant and appropriate.
– Consider sources’ motives before promising anonymity. We will reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere. Explain why anonymity was granted.
– Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.
– Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. Give voice to the voiceless.
– Support the open and civil exchange of views, even views we find repugnant.
– Recognize a special obligation to serve as watchdogs over public affairs and government. Seek to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open, and that public records are open to all.
– Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience. This means seeking out sources whose voices we seldom hear.
– Avoid stereotyping. Journalists should examine the ways their values and experiences may shape their reporting.
– Label advocacy and commentary.
– Never deliberately distort facts or context, including visual information. Clearly label illustrations and re-enactments.
– Never plagiarize. Always attribute.
Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.
– Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.
– Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage. Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes, and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent. Consider cultural differences in approach and treatment.
– Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast information.
– Realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention. Weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information.
– Balance a suspect’s right to a fair trial with the public’s right to know. Consider the implications of identifying criminal suspects before they face legal charges.
– Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication. Provide updated and more complete information as appropriate.
The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.
– Strive to avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived, and promptly disclose unavoidable conflicts or associations. Conflicts of interest may arise in many different ways, and in an era of heightened scrutiny of journalists’ potential biases it may well be impossible for journalists to avoid such conflicts, real or perceived. Journalists today could conceivably find their integrity questioned due to their membership in a church or other religious body; having friends or relatives active in political causes, or sharing a meme on social media. It is no longer enough to “avoid political and other outside activities that may ….. damage credibility” (as the SPJ code states) because there may no longer be outside activities of any sort that are immune to the perception of politicization. We believe instead that promptly disclosing potential conflicts when they are or may become relevant is the best cure for this dilemma.
– Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment.
– Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money.
– Deny favored treatment to donors or any other special interests, and resist internal and external pressure to inappropriately influence coverage.
– Prominently label sponsored content, if we ever publish any