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Importance of ethics for journalists

I’d like to touch on the importance of ethics for journalists. Unfortunately, not all reporters have or use their ethics. Personally, I try to adhere to the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, available online at spj.org. I’ll address the particulars on another day, but but the importance of having a code at all should be addressed first.

Different forms of journalism serve important roles in our country and communities. Beyond the regular checks and balances of our government, journalism tries to keep our leaders honest. It gives a voice to the voiceless and holds the powerful accountable. But in order to do any of these things, a journalist has to have the trust of their readers and their sources.

Even the small stories have the potential to impact someone’s life greatly, so sources need to know a reporter is responsible in order to trust them enough to grant an interview. There are important stories that go untold because a reporter doesn’t have the trust of a key source. Sometimes stories are about major community decisions, and readers need to know that the research has been done and that the story tells the whole truth and isn’t misleading them.

Doctors and lawyers have tests, bar exams and licensing boards to make sure they’re doing their job properly. Restaurants have health inspectors. Mechanics and hairdressers are licensed. But all you need to do to call yourself a reporter in the 21st century is to pick up a pen (or open a Google Doc) and start writing. There are no prerequisites, and that’s why earning the trust of sources and readers is so important. For stories to have impact, they have to be trusted.

Reputation is a reporter’s license, and the public trust is the certification. A good journalist must gain them, and keep them. Having a code of ethics provides guidelines on how to do that.

Breaking the code doesn’t set off alarms in Journalist Headquarters (because it doesn’t exist). The Journalism Police won’t arrest anyone or revoke a license. But if reporters act unethically too often, their work loses value in the eyes of the public. If a reporter develops a poor reputation, it might be difficult to get sources to speak with because they’re scared they’ll be misquoted, misidentified or simply misled.

For a reporter, being trustworthy is everything.

Stay healthy and try to have a little fun this weekend (within CDC guidelines, of course).

Joshua Vissers holds a B.A. in multimedia journalism and is associate editor at the Daily Mining Gazette. Send questions to jvissers@mininggazette.com.

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