Talking in Code(s): The Foundations of Journalism Ethics
Although the daily discourse of journalism ethics that takes place in newsrooms and in the pages of professional journals is full of contradictions and silences, there is an underlying set of values that shapes journalists' understanding of where the boundaries are drawn. This core set of values is given expression in journalism's codes of ethics. Hardly anyone ever reads codes of journalism ethics, but it would be a mistake to underestimate their importance. Not many people read the U.S. Constitution or the Magna Carta either, and yet those documents continue to exercise a profound impact on our culture.
The fundamental principles expressed in journalism's codes of ethics are supposed to provide the basis for ethical decision-making. Instead, they embody some of the ambiguities and contradictions that lie at the heart of journalism. In times of relative stability, those ambiguities and inconsistencies may in fact have been more a solution than a problem--they provided a tool with which journalists could mediate some of the contradictions between theory and practice. But in times of rapid change, in which journalism is facing both structural changes that threaten its integrity as a social practice and a public that is increasingly dissatisfied with journalism's performance, this traditional institutional ethical discourse becomes not simply irrelevant, but an actual impediment to journalists being able to respond to those structural challenges and external critics.