Crowdsourcing Journalism Ethics: Thoughts on ONA’s Project

As far as we at CIMA can tell, the Online News Association’s Build Your Own Ethics Code Project, launched this month, is a first. It is a crowd-sourced “mechanism to help news organizations, small startups and individual journalists and bloggers create their own codes of ethics,” writes project leader Tom Kent, the Associated Press’s standards editor and international reporting teacher at Columbia University.

Given a global media environment in which anyone with a smartphone can be a journalist of some kind, this is a great way to use the technology that has made this new environment possible to help keep it “clean.”

Kent’s article, in PBS’s Media Shift, offers a list of fundamental concepts as a starting point for participants interested in building a “do-it-yourself” code of ethics. These seem fine, as far as they go. But from my vantage point as a long-time print journalist (whose former newspapers are now all online, of course), I would offer two more, plucked from my years at the Washington Post and from J-school at Arizona State:

  1. Do not misrepresent yourself as something other than a journalist when working on a story. Your interview subjects should know up front that they could end up in the public eye–no ambush journalism.
  2. Do not engage in selective interviewing to advance an agenda or to make a point. If  you interview only sources who will give you quotes that support your thesis, you commit dishonest journalism. The list of fundamental concepts provided in the project documents touches on this, in that it states, “Recognize voices on all legitimate sides of an issue.” But this is a bit too passive for my taste. Recognizing that there are other voices is not quite the same thing as actively going out and finding sources who might offer a countervailing or cautionary point of view on whatever the topic of your story is.

Because ONA’s project is based on crowd participation, I’ll make those two points on the project’s site at as the whole point of the exercise is to get ideas from many. So my sense of ethics compels me to disclose that I’m presenting them here as well because it was my turn to write CIMA’s blog.

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