The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics identifies four broad principles: Seek Truth and Report It; Minimize Harm; Act Independently; and Be Accountable. Each of them is fleshed out in some detail. You will note that the slippery concept of objectivity is not mentioned. These days most journalists believe, as I do, that truth-seeking, independence and fairness are the standards to which we should aspire, and that holding up objectivity as a goal only leads to endless debates over what that actually means.
On Wednesday evening, I asked students in my graduate ethics seminar to come up with a fifth principle. There are only eight students in the class, so I had them work in teams of two. I also asked the gremlins of artificial intelligence to weigh in. But first, here’s what my students came up with; I’ve edited them very lightly.
Listen to Others
- Be open to feedback
- Promote cooperative relationships between journalists and the public
- Be receptive to events in the world
- Be open to a community that is not your own
Admit Limitations, Accept Your Own Bias
- Don’t hide your own humanity
- Accept that you can’t be objective
- Accept you may not be able to follow all ethics codes all the time
- Welcome criticism
Respect Relationships with Sources
- Don’t get so close with sources that personal feelings might get in the way of reporting
- Protect them if they will be harmed for their sharing of the truth
- Provide full disclosure to the sources of what the article is about and where it is being published
Create Spaces for Untold Stories
One of the main priorities of a journalist should be to be prepared to fight for those who struggle. Journalists should:
- Be righteous
- Be brave
- Create a sense of justice
- Not be afraid to correct mistakes within their stories
- Report on marginalized communities and use their personal resources to continue sharing information
I think these are terrific. The SPJ Code provides a pretty wide umbrella, so it’s not easy to come up with a fifth principle that isn’t already covered. But these proposals represent some fresh thinking. The “full disclosure” idea is important because when we’re interviewing people who aren’t accustomed to dealing with reporters, they may not understand the full implications of having their name, their quotes and in some cases their photos put before the public. And I love “Be brave.” That’s obviously true for, say, war correspondents. But journalists also have to deal with a rising wave of harassment and threats, both online and in real life. If they find that they’re unable to stand up to that, then they are not going to be able to serve their community. (They also shouldn’t be expected to put up with harassment, and newsrooms need to develop anti-harassment training and policies.)
Now … what about AI? While my students were working, I took the lazy way out and asked a couple of AI programs to come up with a fifth principle. Here’s the question I asked: “The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics has four principles: Seek Truth and Report It; Minimize Harm; Act Independently; Be Accountable. What would be a worthwhile fifth principle?” Once I finished playing, I deleted the answers and then asked them again so my students could watch everything unfold in real time. And here’s the answer from ChatGPT:
The addition of a fifth principle to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics could focus on promoting transparency. Here’s a suggestion:
“Foster Transparency: Journalists should strive to maintain transparency in their reporting processes, disclosing sources, conflicts of interest, and methodologies to enhance the credibility and trustworthiness of their work. By being transparent, journalists contribute to a more informed public and uphold the integrity of journalism.”
Not bad. Now, this is ChatGPT 3.5. You have to pay for the latest version, 4.0, and I’m obviously not going to do that. But I also asked the same question of Google Bard. As I understand it, the version that’s available to the public represents Google’s best tech. So here’s the answer:
There have been many suggestions for a fifth principle to the SPJ Code of Ethics, each reflecting evolving priorities and challenges in the journalism landscape. Here are some intriguing options to consider:
1. Foster Inclusivity and Diversity: This principle could emphasize the importance of representing marginalized voices, amplifying underrepresented perspectives, and ensuring newsrooms and reporting reflect the rich tapestry of society. It could challenge journalists to actively seek out diverse sources, challenge their own biases, and avoid harmful stereotypes.
2. Uphold Digital Responsibility: This principle would address the unique ethical challenges of the digital age, such as misinformation, disinformation, and privacy concerns. It could encourage journalists to verify information meticulously, source responsibly, and be transparent about online tools and methods.
3. Champion Civic Engagement: This principle could encourage journalists to go beyond informing the public and actively engage citizens in civic discourse. It could promote collaborative reporting, fact-checking initiatives, and platforms for audience participation, empowering the public to be informed participants in democracy.
4. Protect the Vulnerable: This principle could emphasize the need to protect vulnerable individuals and communities from exploitation or harm through reporting. It could call for sensitivity in covering sensitive topics, ensuring informed consent, and avoiding sensationalism that could endanger individuals.
5. Champion Transparency and Openness: This principle could focus on promoting transparency within the media itself, advocating for open access to information, and holding powerful institutions accountable. It could encourage self-reflection within journalism, critical examination of industry practices, and fostering a culture of ethical news consumption.
Ultimately, the “best” fifth principle is subjective and depends on the priorities and concerns of the journalism community at any given time. Each suggestion above addresses a critical aspect of ethical journalism in the 21st century, and ultimately, the decision lies with the SPJ and its members to determine which principle would best serve the mission of responsible and ethical journalism.
I hope this provides a helpful starting point for your exploration of this important topic!
This is pretty good. My students were meh about the ChatGPT answer but were impressed with Bard. If you’ve played with either of these programs, you know that the answer comes up almost instantaneously, which in itself is an impressive feat. I also think that though “Uphold Digital Responsibility” is fine as far as it goes, it should state explicitly whether or not AI is being used to help with reporting and writing.