What Are the Universal Principles that Guide Journalism?

    by Martin Moore
    February 2, 2010

    Defining principles of journalism is difficult. Rewarding, but difficult.

    Back in 2005 it took the Los Angeles Times a year of internal discussions to settle on its ethical guidelines for journalists. The Committee for Concerned Journalists took four years, did oodles of research and held 20 public forums, in order to come up with a Statement of Shared Purpose with nine principles (which was subsequently fleshed out in the excellent “The Elements of Journalism” by Kovach and Rosenstiel).

    Time spent thinking can then translate into a lot of principles. The BBC’s editorial guidelines — which include guidance about more than just journalism — run to 228 pages. The New York Times’ policy on ethics in journalism has more than 10,000 words. Principles needn’t be so wordy. The National Union of Journalists (U.K.) code of conduct, first drafted in 1936, has 12 principles adding up to barely more than 200 words.


    But, once defined, these principles serve multiple functions. They act as a spur to good journalism, as well as a constraint on bad. They provide protection for freedom of speech and of the press — particularly from threats or intimidation by the government or commercial organizations. And they protect the public by preventing undue intrusion and providing a means of response or redress.

    Principles in the Online World

    In an online world, principles can serve another function. They can help to differentiate journalism from other content published on the web, whether that be government information, advertising, promotion, or institutional or personal information.

    One of the key elements of hNews — the draft microformat the Media Standards Trust developed with the AP to make news more transparent — is rel-principles. This is a line of code that embeds a link within each article to the news principles to which it adheres. It doesn’t specify what those principles should be, just that the article should link to some.


    Now that lots of news sites are implementing hNews (over 200 sites implemented the microformat in January), we’re getting some pushback on this. News sites, and bloggers, generally recognize that transparent principles are a good idea but, having not previously made them explicit online, many of them aren’t entirely sure what they should be.

    When we started working with OpenDemocracy, for example, they realized they had not made their principles explicit. As a result of integrating hNews, they now have. Similarly, the information architect and blogger Martin Belam, who blogs at currybet.net and integrated hNews in January 2010, wrote: “it turned out that what I thought would be a technical implementation task actually generated a lot of questions addressing the fundamentals of what the site is about… It meant that for the first time I had to articulate my blogging principles.”

    So, in an effort to help those who haven’t yet defined their principles, we’re in the process of gathering together as many as we can find, and pulling out the key themes.

    This is where you can help.

    Asking for Feedback

    We’ve identified 10 themes that we think characterize many journalism statements of principle. This is a result of reviewing dozens of different (English language) principles statements available on the web. The statements were accessed via the very useful journalism ethics page on Wikipedia; via links provided by the Project for Excellence in Journalism; and from the Media Accountability Systems listed on the website of Donald W. Reynolds Institute of Journalism.

    These themes are by no means comprehensive — nor are they intended to be. They are a starting point for those, be they news organizations or bloggers, who are drawing up their own principles and need a place to start.

    We’d really like some feedback on whether these are right, if ten is too many, if there are any big themes missing, and which ones have most relevance to the web.

    Ten Themes

    Our 10 themes are:

    1. Public interest Example: “… to serve the general welfare by informing the people and enabling them to make judgments on the issues of the time” (American Society of Newspaper Editors)
    2. Truth and accuracy Example: “[The journalist] strives to ensure that information disseminated is honestly conveyed, accurate and fair” (National Union of Journalists, UK)
    3. Verification Example: “Seeking out multiple witnesses, disclosing as much as possible about sources, or asking various sides for comment… [The] discipline of verification is what separates journalism from other modes of communication, such as propaganda, fiction or entertainment” (Principles of Journalism, from Project for Excellence in Journalism)
    4. Fairness Example: “… our goal is to cover the news impartially and to treat readers, news sources, advertisers and all parts of our society fairly and openly, and to be seen as doing so” (New York Times Company Policy on Ethics in Journalism)
    5. Distinguishing fact and comment Example: “… whilst free to be partisan, [the press] must distinguish clearly between comment, conjecture and fact” (Editors Code of Practice, PCC, U.K.)
    6. Accountability Example: “The journalist shall do the utmost to rectify any published information which is found to be harmfully inaccurate” (International Federation of Journalists, Principles on the Conduct of Journalists)
    7. Independence Example: “Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know… [and] Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived” (Society of Professional Journalists)
    8. Transparency (regarding sources) Example: “Aim to attribute all information to its source. Where a source seeks anonymity, do not agree without first considering the source’s motives and any alternative, attributable source. Where confidences are accepted, respect them in all circumstances” (Australian Journalists Code)
    9. Restraint (around harassment and intrusion) Example: “The public has a right to know about its institutions and the people who are elected or hired to serve its interests. People also have a right to privacy and those accused of crimes have a right to a fair trial. There are inevitable conflicts between the right to privacy, the public good and the public’s right to be informed. Each situation should be judged in the light of common sense, humanity and the public’s rights to know” (Canadian Association of Journalists)
    10. Originality (i.e. not plagiarizing) Example: “An AP staffer who reports and writes a story must use original content, language and phrasing. We do not plagiarise, meaning that we do not take the work of others and pass it off as our own” (Associated Press Statement of news values and principles)

    There are, of course, many excluded from here. We could, for example, have gone into much more depth in the area of “limitation from harm,” which is only briefly referred to in number nine. Principles to inform newsgathering could form another whole section in itself.

    There is also the growing area of commercial influence. In the U.S., the FCC FTC has become pretty animated about bloggers taking money to promote goods while appearing to be impartial. In the online world, the line between editorial and commercial content can get pretty blurred. Right now this is just covered by number five, independence. Should there be a separate principle around independence from commercial influence?

    Any and all responses are much appreciated, so please leave them in the comments. Also feel free to get in touch directly if you’d like to continue the discussion (I’m at martin DOT moore AT mediastandardstrust DOT org).

    Tagged: ap hnews journalism media standards trust principles

    4 responses to “What Are the Universal Principles that Guide Journalism?”

    1. Robert Leclaire says:

      “Truth and accuracy”? ” Verification”?
      Surely you jest.
      The vast majority of what passes for journalism these days is mostly paid shills parroting official government statements to maintain the illusion of order and the pillaging of the Constitution.
      No real investigations or follow-ups on significant issues. The more devastating a story is, the more likely it is to be ignored or swept under the rug.
      People don’t trust the sock-puppet media anymore because they sold out long ago to government and corporate interests.
      There are countless millions of people out here who are fuming at the media’s complete failure to uphold their responsibility. And that responsibility in a democracy (a Republic actually) is to maintain a constant and vigilant eye on actions of the leaders in government and to hold their feet in the fire of accountability.
      They have failed miserably.

    2. Tony says:

      Robert’s comments also touch-on “fairness” in that our media systems represent the perspectives of the “ruling class” far more often than the common person.
      I am curious how many of the organizations who have investigated the idea of treating “all parts of our society fairly and openly” really understand the implications of that aim. First there’s the challenge of recognizing that a huge portion of our population, especially lower-income communities, have no organized spokespeople to represent their perspective. Second, we must recognize that there is little incentive for any advertising-driven media institution to cater to communities advertisers have limited interest in reaching.

      For whatever reason, newspapers have admirably held to these sorts of principles while other media institutions have seemed to abandoned them entirely. I hope their adherence to these sorts of principles will serve to differentiate them and ensure their survival.

      But, my vision of “fairness” simply could not happen in print. To treat all perspectives fairly requires enough space for almost infinite perspectives, and the capacity to sift and seek out those perspectives you wish to see. At present, that could only be done by the people themselves, and only on-line.

    3. Steve Friday says:

      I think the principles as defined are very useful. I know over the past months the NYTimes has been bitten several times by contributors who have not been revealing their paid connections to the organizations they have written about. Bloggers’ connections are even more murky and are why I infrequently read sites that don’t demonstrate any clear Editorial Board control. I’m also becoming concerned more and more when I read that someone has been given anonymity in commenting to a reporter. That kind of largess seems more and more frequent and I think damages a news organization’s ability to publish transparently reliable material.
      I think the public as consumers of news ought to bear equal responsibility for the continuously dropping standards of reportage. It seems people are becoming less critical in their reading and often only read those things that reinforce their already held biases and opinions.

    4. Albert Scardino says:

      A helpful sampling of rules from around the world. Number 7, Independence, includes an unlimited right-to-know on the part of the public, a clumsy club to swing around to bash anyone in the way. The public have a right to know every detail about their government, but that right does not trump all other rights, including the right to privacy. And simply because an individual is serving temporarily in public office, he does not abandon his own right to privacy in his personal life. The same is true of celebrities in sports, entertainment, business, philanthropy or any other sector. Societty is best served by respecting the individual rights of each one of us.

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