Part One: Guiding Ethical Principles for Journalists

These four guiding principles are part of the international language that journalists all over the world share. They are from the Society of Professional Journalists in the U.S., but they have the advantage of being simple and all-encompassing at the same time. They are part of the common language we speak. We will refer to these often throughout the module.

The four principles are:
  • Seek truth and report it. Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting, and interpreting information, and they should report all of an issue.
  • Minimize harm. Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects, and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.
  • Act independently. Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.
  • Be accountable. Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.Three decision-making models for doing ethics

Here are three widely accepted decision-making models to help journalists work through ethical problems. They are practical and easy to use. They will help you as you consider the case studies in this course, and will give you a taste of the experience of actually doing ethics.

As you read these, you will see that all three include important basic concepts such as identifying the journalistic mission, seeking alternatives and considering consequences. We will use these decision-making tools throughout the course so please pay close attention to how they work.

(A) Bok’s Model – a framework for analyzing ethical issues.

Philosopher Sissela Bok based her model on two premises: that we must have empathy for the people involved in ethical decisions, and that maintaining social trust is a fundamental goal. Bok suggested that ethical questions should be analyzed in three steps, and they are easily used in journalistic decisions. Here is how she explained them:

First, consult your own conscience about the “rightness” of an action. How do you feel about the action? What concerns do you have?

Second, seek alternatives. Is there another way to reach the same goal without ethical issues? If you have time, seek expert advice. Talk to a trusted mentor, an editor or colleague you respect.

Third, how will others respond to the proposed action? If possible, discuss it with the parties in the dispute. That might include those who are directly involved, such as the reporter or the source, and those indirectly involved, such as a reader or viewer. If there is no time for that, conduct the conversation hypothetically. The goal is to discover: How will my actions affect others?

Bok’s system of reasoning is a good way for journalists to work through ethical decision-making.

(B) Ten questions to help journalists work through ethical dilemmas.

The questions, from the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, are in user-friendly, commonsense language, but they reflect much deeper philosophical concerns over moral rule and duties, consequences, loyalties and knowledge. When facing an ethical dilemma, Poynter says journalists should ask themselves:

  1. What do I know? What do I need to know?
  2. What is my journalistic purpose?
  3. What are my ethical concerns?
  4. What organizational policies and professional guidelines should I consider?
  5. How can I include other people, with different perspectives and diverse ideas, in the decision-making process?
  6. Who are the stakeholders – those affected by my decision? What are their motivations?
  7. What if the roles were reversed? How would I feel if I were in the shoes of one of the stakeholders?
  8. What are the possible consequences of my action? Short term? Long term?
  9. What alternatives do I have that maximize my truth-telling responsibility and minimize harm?
  10. Can I clearly and fully justify my thinking and my decision? To my colleagues? To the stakeholders? To the public?

(C) Five-step process for making ethical decisions.

This model can be very effective when deadlines are pressing and time is important. The five steps help journalists reason through an ethical dilemma quickly. Like the 10 questions, they also might be used after a story has run and staff can take a few moments to try to learn from the experience in order to better cope the next time. The steps are:

  • What is our journalistic mission?
  • How would we feel if this was happening to us?
  • What are possible alternatives?
  • What are possible consequences?
  • How would you defend your decision to run the story?

The three methods, while different, all have some similarities. It is routine for us to consider the journalistic mission, alternative action and possible consequences. It also is important for us to consider how we will defend our decisions to the public, our colleagues and ourselves.

Case Studies in this Course

You will be asked to apply the methods above as you analyze case studies of ethical dilemmas in this course. Remember, it is not a matter of being right or wrong in your analysis of these cases. What is most important is demonstrating sound ethical reasoning using tools such as Bok’s Model, Poynter’s 10 questions and the five steps.

As you consider the cases, follow the following four-step process as you try to work through each scenario and come to a decision. We may not always agree on what we would or would not do – the important thing is to work through the steps and come up with a logical response. The more we practice this the easier it will become. Here are the four steps:

  • First, identify the issues. What are the major ethical issues raised by this case? Who are the major stakeholders, the individuals who could be affected by the decision made in this case?

  • Second, outline the options. What are the main alternatives that might be followed as you responding to the ethical issues of eacj case? What could be done differently?

  • Third, construct ethical arguments. How does the Bok Model come into play? How can Poynter’s 10 questions or the five-step model help you reason through the case?

  • Fourth, make a decision. Decide which of the options you judge to be the ethically best way to deal with the issue in the case study. Which option has the strongest ethical reason behind it? Think about how a critic of your position might try to argue against it, using other ethical reasons. Present a rebuttal or counter-argument in defense of your decision.


As you read the cases for this course, remember to keep your eyes open for ethical issues in your own local media. Ethics issues are ongoing and everywhere, they don’t just exist in textbooks. Scan newspapers, including photographs, and watch television and radio news to see if you recognize any ethical issues.

The key is for you to be specific, brief and focused on the ethical issue as you craft your decision. You need to go beyond personal opinion and link your description directly to media ethics.


Public Relations Expert by Day, Reporter By Night (Conflict of interest)
In Tehran, the TV reporter had become a familiar face on camera, covering everything from earthquakes to politics and crime. But, he had another job, too, writing press releases for Iran’s Ministry of National Education. Sometimes he promoted education stories to other reporters during the day, then covered that same story as a reporter that night.

By all accounts, he was good at both jobs.

No one denied that the reporter had a conflict of interest, but both the government agency and the TV station he worked for were willing to ignore the situation. The reporter was not comfortable with some of the compromises he had to make, but sees it as a fact of life: He earns the equivalent of $600 a month as a reporter, not enough on its own for him to pay the bills and take care of his wife and two children.

The reporter says a lot of journalists in Iran have two jobs out of necessity. He is honest about the situation: “I think a journalist should have only one job, but unfortunately in this country, the vast majority of journalists, including me, cannot survive without finding another way to make money.”

Questions to consider:

  • Is it ever acceptable for journalists to hold second jobs?
  • What potential problems are created when a journalist takes a second job?
  • Are there jobs a journalist can take that do not create a conflict of interest?
  • Should the salary level of journalists affect their commitment to ethics?
  • What responsibilities are shared by the employer who not only pays a low salary but also turns a blind eye to a reporter’s activities that conflict with basic ethics?
  • Does your news organization have policies or guidelines on working a second job? What about accepting money from people you cover or might cover some day?
  • Should news organizations have such policies, and if so, what should they say?


Room for Compromise? (Acting Independently)
According to a Bulgarian saying, “It is much more difficult for the poor person to be honest.” The same could be said for media organizations in developing countries where the economy is evolving. This case came from Bulgaria, but the lessons are universal.

For journalists in wealthy countries, there often is a clear division between the news offices and the business or advertising departments. Decisions about what goes into the newspaper or on the air, they say, are never determined by who pays the advertising fees. But in some countries, the “wall” between business and news may not be very strong if it is there at all.

In the Bulgarian example, a woman called the paper to complain that a local supermarket was selling spoiled meat. The store was one of the paper’s largest advertisers; publishing a story would surely cause it to pull its advertisements.

“We have to be loyal to both the firm and the reader. Often ethical values are in competition,” the editor explained. “I didn’t publish the information about the spoiled meat, because we needed the money. But I also called the director of the store and told him about the reader’s complaint. An hour later, no spoiled meat was on sale.”

“Advertorials” pose another ethical problem for editors. These are positive stories that are paid for by advertisers and designed to look like regular articles in the newspaper. The advertiser hopes readers will assume the ads are legitimate newspaper articles rather than paid ads. Some newspapers clearly mark them as advertisements, but others do not.

Questions to consider:

  • Is the potential loss of a big contract a valid reason to withhold a negative story about an advertiser?
  • Are ethical standards different for news media in strong economies than those in struggling or evolving economies?
  • The Bulgarian editor felt he served both his advertiser and his readers by notifying the shop of the reader’s complaint so that it could remove spoiled meat. Did this decision really serve the public? Did the public have a right to know that the shop was selling spoiled meat?
  • In your newsroom, is there a division between the news and the business side? Can the business side demand a story be killed if it will anger an advertiser? Should they be able to do that?
  • What about “advertorials?” If information that is paid for by an advertiser but designed like a news story, must it be labeled as advertisement? What is the harm if it is not?

Case Study 3

Reporting Child Abuse in Turkey (Minimizing Harm)
It is important to minimize harm when reporting on child abuse. Great care must be taken, in the reporting and writing, to protect the victims. At the same time, there should be no “taboo” on covering cases of child abuse. Stories, presented in the right manner, help educate the public about these incidents and what can be done to prevent them. The public needs to be informed.

That’s what three Turkish newspapers thought they were doing when they published a front-page story on sexual abuse of girls, most of them 11 to 12 years old, by male staffers at a boarding school. Two directors were fired after the stories ran.

Students at the school had complained of the abuse previously, but no one believed them, so they set up a surveillance camera to record the abuse and prove it was taking place. The newspapers obtained the video, which showed explicit details of one of the incidents in which a male staff member made sexual advances to one of the students. The papers used a still picture from the video, but with the faces of both the student and the staffer blurred so that they could not be identified.

But many in the public and in the media took offense. A local TV station editor attacked the three newspapers for running the photos and posted a declaration on journalism websites, calling the action a crime. “This picture encourages child abuse. Nowhere in the world could you publish these photographs. All the editors should be punished,” the editor wrote.

She asked Turkish journalists to join her campaign against the newspapers, but very few responded to her appeal. The newspapers never apologized for the story or the photos.

Questions to consider:

  • The newspaper editors defended themselves, saying they published the pictures to bring attention to the problem of child abuse. Did that justify their decision? What options did they have?
  • The photos were published on the front pages of the three newspapers. Would you run the photo on the front page, or run it inside the paper where it would not be so prominent? Or would you run the photo at all?
  • One critic said that these sensational pictures would likely lead to new abuses. Should the newspapers have thought about the consequences of running the photos? What would you have done?
  • The editors who decided to publish these pictures were not sanctioned. What sanctions, if any, should be imposed in a country that is sensitive on this issue?