Journalism Codes of Ethics Now Focused More on Financial Success, J-School Researchers Say

Columbia, Mo. (Feb. 13, 2004) — For the past 15 years, the public’s perception of the news media has been becoming more negative, causing historic professional stress for journalists. The industry has moved from privately owned to publicly traded and toward conglomeration of ownership in order to maximize profits. Readership of newspapers and viewership of broadcast news have fallen. A new study by researchers at the University of Missouri-Columbia found that changes to the journalism code of ethics have played a significant part in the negative perception of today’s media.

Lee Wilkins
Lee Wilkins

Two journalism professors at MU’s School of Journalism, Bonnie Brennen and Lee Wilkins, recently analyzed and compared two early codes, the 1923 American Society of Newspaper Editors (ASNE) code and the 1934 American Newspaper Guild (ANG) code, with the 2003 New York Times code of ethics and found several significant changes and shifts in professional thinking.

“The ASNE code set out to maintain the rights and dignity of the profession and tried to establish ethical standards for journalistic conduct,” Brennen said. “For example, the ASNE code says that invasions of privacy should be avoided unless the public warrants such intrusion, and editors are asked to not publish unofficial charges without giving the people the opportunity to defend themselves.”

The ANG code, Brennen and Wilkins found, insists that reporters respect the rights of individuals by crafting factual and fair news reports that accurately represent an unbiased account of the news. It gives reporters little room for exceptions or extenuating conditions.

When the researchers looked at the Times’s code, they found striking differences from the ASNE and ANG code. The Times code focuses mainly on conflicts of interest, economic health and financial success. For example, staff members are prohibited from freelance work that competes with the Times while noting that the Times sphere of influence is larger than ever. Also, according to the code: “Staff members may not appear on broadcasts that directly compete with the Times’ own offerings on television or the Internet…As the paper moves further into these new fields, its direct competitors, clients or potential clients will undoubtedly grow in number.”

In terms of conflicts of interest, the code, Brennen and Wilkins said, interprets the subject broadly, linking conflict of interest to perception of the newspaper’s impartiality, neutrality and the integrity of news reports. Other elements that influence the integrity of the news reports, such as accuracy and tough-minded evaluation of both sources and the information they provide, are not mentioned in the Times code.

Brennen and Wilkins found that the sections in the code based on economic and financial success of the Times are one of the main fault lines in the profession: the tension between economic goals and the traditional view of journalism as a public service, something emphasized in the earlier codes. The Times, they believe, has placed its economic health on an equal footing with the public trust.

“If the recent Jayson Blair incident is any indication, management’s financial concerns – as articulated in the ethics code – have their parallels in real life,” Brennen and Wilkins said. “The emphasis reveals something central about the profession: concerns about financial profitability do remain on an equal footing with journalistic duty and service.”

Updated: March 12, 2020

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