In depth: SPJ’s Code of Ethics


With help from Trusting News Assistant Director Lynn Walsh, we’re digging a little deeper. This guide features practical applications of every bullet point in the Code for rebuilding the public’s dwindling trust in the press.

To read and download the Code all by itself, follow this link to SPJ’s website.

Seek Truth and Report It

Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.

Journalists should:

Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before releasing it. Use original sources whenever possible.

Write about where you get information for your stories. This includes documents, research, people and other organizations/companies. Then explain how you work to verify this information. These explanations can be stand-alone articles that can be linked to on social or within stories, and they can also go within stories or in boxes alongside stories. More timeless explanations can also be added to an “about” or ethics page. Consider making a video where journalists talk through the verification process. Link to original sources of information when referenced whenever possible.

Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy.

If a story is breaking, explain the limitations and processes unique to a breaking news story within the story itself. This can be added as an editor’s note at the top or in the intro or tag of a story. Explain to users that information may change, you’re reporting only information you can confirm, you may not have all the answers, etc. Also, explain how and where the story will be updated. If you make a mistake and get something wrong, correct it and admit the mistake. Explain how it happened and what you are doing to prevent it from happening in the future. Also, make sure people know how to contact you about a correction request. This process should be easy to find and navigate. It’s also a good idea to make your corrections policy public.

Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.

Connect and link to previous and related coverage within stories and on social to help add context. Consider creating landing pages on your website to group coverage of a big story or topic together. This can help show the variety of perspectives and voices included in the coverage overall (beyond one specific story, which might be all users otherwise see). When sharing stories in newsletters, on social media or other areas where summaries are necessary, consider linking to stories highlighting opposite views or opinions in the summary or promotion text.

Gather, update and correct information throughout the life of a news story.

Make sure to clearly label stories with the most accurate publication date, time and location. If a story is updated, that should be reflected within the story and easy for users to find. If something has been corrected, clearly note that within the story. Updates and corrections should also be reflected wherever else the story was shared or used. Make it easy for users to submit a correction to you and make your corrections policy public.

Be cautious when making promises, but keep the promises they make.

Remember that most people aren’t accustomed to talking to journalists, and take time to earn sources’ trust. Explain what talking to a journalist means, including the difference between on-the-record, off-the-record, etc. Make sure the differences are clear when working with sources. If you made promises to sources in the reporting process, explain that within the story. Be sure to include why it was necessary to make those promises.

Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.

Be sure to explain who the source is and how you got in touch with them. Simple details like “said in an email” or “said on a phone call” provide details to the user to help them better understand and trust how the story was put together. Consider adding shaded boxes or longer bios for your sources throughout the story or at the bottom of a story.

Consider sources’ motives before promising anonymity. 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.

Always explain why a source is anonymous and what being anonymous means. Explaining why anonymynity was granted let’s the user better understand the circumstances which can lead to trust. When explaining why, also be sure to link or explain what being anonymous means in your newsroom. People don’t always understand the term “anonymous source,” and may have a different definition than you use in your reporting.

Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.

If someone doesn’t respond to your request for an interview, clearly explain how you tried to reach them. If you emailed and called multiple times, include that in the story. Consider linking to the emails you sent or showing the text messages. If it was a breaking story and a person had a very limited amount of time to respond, explain that. Use language like, “didn’t immediately respond” or “WAAA reached out to xxx but hasn’t received a response. Since this is a breaking news story, we will be updating it with their response if and when we receive one.”

Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public.

Explain how information was gathered for the story. If you went undercover, explain why that was necessary, how it worked and link to any policies or ethics related to the practice. These explanations should be included within the story or at least linked to a longer explanation from the top of a story. These explanations can also be great content to share on social platforms or within newsletters.

Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. Give voice to the voiceless.

If holding government accountable is a primary focus or goal of your coverage, make that publicly known. Write about it and include it in a mission statement or on an “Anout Us” or “Ethics” page. The same is true about other stories you tell that focus on helping people who may not be heard. Explain how these goals and values impact your story selection, which sometimes includes explaining what you don’t cover.

Support the open and civil exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.

Create and publish community guidelines for your social platforms, comment sections and any other events or spaces where you host conversations. Allowing and providing a space for debate and conversations within a community should be a goal for all journalists. But, there are limitations to what can be tolerated otherwise the conversation space isn’t productive. Having community guidelines allows you to moderate the space and help ensure a respectful and productive environment for the community.

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.

If public records were used in your reporting, explain how that process worked. Use opportunities to educate your community about their rights to public information and public meetings. Make your commitment to serving as a watchdog known in your mission statement or other public-facing pages where you discuss who you are and what your priorities are.

Provide access to source material when it is relevant and appropriate.

Provide links to email exchanges, copies of lawsuits, budget, etc. whenever possible. Explain how they were obtained in your reporting process. Providing people access to these materials can help them trust your reporting by allowing them to verify the information themselves or by allowing them to dive deeper into the content.

Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience. Seek sources whose voices we seldom hear.

Explain how you worked to gather diverse perspectives in your newsroom. If you are working to include more diverse source in your coverage, tell your users that and invite them to offer ideas and solutions. If you feel your coverage may be lacking a certain perspective, or you want to know if you did miss a perspective, ask your audience for feedback and suggestions on how the reporting could be better or what voices may be missing.

Avoid stereotyping. Journalists should examine the ways their values and experiences may shape their reporting.

Journalists think carefully about word choice, talk about that publicly. If you decided on a specific word or label to avoid stereotypes, say that. If you are choosing to not include easy labels and instead add more context to who someone is or what they believe, explain that too. Also, be willing to challenge story narratives you find problematic as they are being discussed in pitch meetings in your newsroom.

Label advocacy and commentary.

Add labels to all opinion, advocacy or other content where personal opinions or thoughts exist. The best word to use is “opinion” as users don’t always have a clear understanding of other labels. If you use other words, include a description of what they mean and how that impacts the information found in the story. Make sure all labels travel with the story when shared on social media, online, in newsletters, etc. Make sure the labels are easy to find and see.

Never deliberately distort facts or context, including visual information. Clearly label illustrations and re-enactments.

Include explanations about where images and video came from. This includes explaining if they were edited, if they were taken by someone else outside the newsroom or if something was dramatized or from the past. Make sure those explanations can be easily found wherever the images or video are shared.

Never plagiarize. Always attribute.

If other people or sources, other than those named in a byline, were involved or used in publishing a story clearly list who they are or link to the original source. Consider including explanations describing the role each person played in producing the story at the bottom or within the story.

Minimize Harm

Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.

Journalists should:

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.

Explain how you decide what information to publish. Be willing to discuss why you don’t publish certain information. Consider explaining a journalist’s role in a democracy by sharing something like this: The public has a right to information. Journalists work to fill the right by gathering information and publishing stories. We don’t, however, blindly publish everything and anything. We understand harm may be caused by making information public so we are continually balancing the public’s right to know with potential harm publishing may cause.

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.

If your newsroom has a policy or guidelines related to how you cover crime victims or juveniles, share those with your community. Be sure to tie that explanation back to your ethics and values as a journalist. Whenever you are protecting a victim or a child’s privacy, explain that within the story and link to the guidelines.

Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.

We know what’s legal is not always ethical. There are things we can legally do as journalists, but may choose not to because it is unethical. When those situations arise, talk publicly and openly about the decisions you are making. If you received video or photos but have decided not to publish them, explain that in the story and make sure it’s clear your actions are due to a commitment of journalism ethics and values.

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.

Explain how your approach to covering a politician or others in the public eye is different than when covering a private citizen. People may assume you are “out to get someone” because of all the details you share. Explain your goals of coverage when working on stories involving people in the public eye so people don’t make that assumption. If you are providing details about a private person, explain why you made that decision for that particular story. If appropriate, tie it to your values around accountability and transparency.

Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.

Talk openly about what news consumers won’t see covered by your news organization (even if it appears on another station or website). Tie these explanations to your values and commitment to what’s best for the community. Acknowledge your humanity by acknowledging that these decisions are judgment calls.

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.

Write about your approach to crime and how you work to be consistent. What stories do you cover? When will you use suspect descriptions, mugshots or other images? Explain how you choose what details to include and what language to use when it comes to crime coverage.

Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication. Provide updated and more complete information as appropriate.

Explain your policy for taking down stories so users know requests are handled consistently and not granted based on personal preference. Do you have a way for people to request an article be taken down? Make it easy to find, and talk openly about that process. Also, explain when information is changing quickly around a breaking news story. Include information about where and how people can get updated information. If a situation changes and a story is no longer accurate, explain that clearly in all stories and social posts where it was shared.

Act Independently

The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.

Journalists should:

Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.

Publish information explaining how you work to avoid conflicts of interest. Use plain language, not jargon, so users can get an idea of situations in which the guidelines would apply. When there is a certain or possible conflict of interest related to specific coverage, explain what it is and how you handled it within the story itself.

Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity or impartiality, or may damage credibility.

People assume journalists get a lot of things for free. Publish any policies or guidelines your newsroom has related to accepting gifts. If you attend a meeting or trip or sporting event, disclose if it was paid for by the organizer or not.

Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; do not pay for access to news. Identify content provided by outside sources, whether paid or not.

Make it clear that you don’t pay people for interviews and that you do not accept payment for people to be featured in news stories. Consider explaining how you find sources and people to interview, including how the interview process works. If is sometimes involved — if you sometimes will buy a source a cup of coffee or pay to use a source’s photo — explain that.

Deny favored treatment to advertisers, donors or any other special interests, and resist internal and external pressure to influence coverage.

If a story you are covering is connected to an advertiser or donor, explain how you worked to avoid any influence from them in the story. Discuss how the advertising and news departments are separate. Explain that whether someone is an advertiser does not affect what stories you publish or the content of the stories. Make sure these explanations are included within the story in which the advertiser is mentioned.

Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two. Prominently label sponsored content.

Talk openly about your funding. Explain how you make money. Make sure there are clear explanations attached to labels so people understand what things like “sponsored content” or “native content” are. Remember to include explanations about who produces it and how it is separate from standard news content.

Be Accountable and Transparent

Ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public.

Journalists should:

Explain ethical choices and processes to audiences. Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content.

Publish your ethics, values and explanations for your decision making. Consider doing this as an FAQ page or on an “About Us” or “Ethics” page. Once it’s public and written down, add shorter explanations linking back to this information in the stories themselves.

Respond quickly to questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness.

Make sure it is easy for people to get in contact with you. Make sure you are checking emails, comments, etc. and responding to questions, providing explanations or making corrections based on the feedback you receive. Also, get in the habit of regularly asking for feedback from your community. Explain to them you want to be the best news organization possible and you’ll need their help and feedback to make that happen. Have links to elements of your FAQ or About us pages handy for use in replies to comments and other feedback.

Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently. Explain corrections and clarifications carefully and clearly.

Make your corrections policies public, with enough detail that users can understand which types of errors are corrected and where corrections can be found. Create a way for people to easily submit a correction. Be willing to have an open dialogue around a correction and seek feedback from the community. When discussing a correction, try to include information about how you’re working to prevent it from happening in the future.

Expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organizations.

It’s OK to say you don’t agree with how another news organization handled something. When doing so, explain how you would have done it differently based on your values and ethics. Be willing to admit the faults that exist in our industry when discussing journalism and news content with the public. Also be willing to show humility when discussing lapses of judgment or harm caused by your own staff.

Abide by the same high standards they expect of others.

Don’t ignore questions or criticism. We expect others to be accountable for their ethics, their staff and their decision-making, and we should be willing to do the same. Try not to ignore members of your community who may be critical of your coverage. Try to answer questions and explain how journalism works instead.

The SPJ Code of Ethics is a statement of abiding principles supported by additional explanations and position papers that address changing journalistic practices. It is not a set of rules, rather a guide that encourages all who engage in journalism to take responsibility for the information they provide, regardless of medium. The code should be read as a whole; individual principles should not be taken out of context. It is not, nor can it be under the First Amendment, legally enforceable.

Sigma Delta Chi’s first Code of Ethics was borrowed from the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1926. In 1973, Sigma Delta Chi wrote its own code, which was revised in 1984, 1987, 1996 and 2014.