The Canons of American Journalism

By Professor J. Douglas Tarpley


[Full Text]

This draft represents a work in progress, part of a larger project. The ultimate goal of this project is to examine the codes of ethics/canons expressed by several major journalistic organizations since the turn of the century and ascertain how the standards have changed, if indeed they have.  I suspect that the shifts of codes through the years reflect what was happening in American society and culture at a particular time.


Professional codes provide a sense of professional identity for practitioners. Many scholars suggest that they signal the maturity of a profession. Practitioners of these professions–as distinct from jobs or occupations–organize into associations such as the American Medical Association, American Bar Association, and Society of Professional Journalists. Professionals belonging to such groups share special skills and knowledge required for their specific services. Moreover, they typically adopt–and occasionally revise and update–codes of behavior regarding the provision of these services.


Specifically, journalism ethics addresses problems concerning the behavior of reporters, editors, news directors, photographers, designers. It touches the editorial as well as the business dimensions of the news business. It is important to acknowledge the continuing discussion about the lingering question of whether journalism is a profession at all. Suffice it to say here that many journalists and their codes of ethics see it that way. Sociologist Michael Schudsen argued, for example, that it was this reach for professional status that motivated many journalists after the turn of the century to develop the codes and practices we see as representative today.


Within American society a basic function of journalism is to provide information to citizens. The assumption is that citizens require information in order to govern themselves intelligently. News organizations have pledged to provide that information. Another function is to contextualize that information for citizens with in-depth reporting/analysis, commentary and editorial expression to help them understand the meaning of the information. Journalists have pledged to provide these perspectives to give people some sense of “what the facts mean.” Tensions and potential problems arise in the context of this commitment by journalists to provide information and understanding of the meaning of that information. Journalism’s professional codes of ethics represent–and have historically represented–efforts to define, understand, and work through these points of tension in a corporate, professional context.


Moreover, these canons are more than merely matters of taste, self-interest, economics, or law. As Michael Sherer from the University of Nebraska said recently, both the law and ethics should guide the journalist. The law is clearly what a journalist can and cannot do; ethics is what a journalist should and should not do. Specifically, he added, a distinction often exists between what a journalist may do legally and what he may do ethically. With the freedom of the First Amendment extended to journalists must come some responsible behavior by the journalist, shaped by a strong commitment to what is right and wrong professionally. As a colleague of mine likes to say, “We journalists have entered into a contract with our neighbors. They expect us to provide a service for them. We are obligated to accomplish that with integrity.”


Codes play several specific roles within a profession. As already mentioned, a professional code provides a sense of professional identity for practitioners and a signal of maturity of the profession.  In addition, a code promotes professional autonomy by providing a framework for self-regulation. Finally, a code provides important guidelines for helping practitioners to make ethical decisions when confronted with problematic situations.


It is here that they are frequently misunderstood. They may be perceived to be exclusively algorithms for ethical decision-making, mechanical rules for operation; however, they often are abstract in character and positive, suggesting ideals rather than requirements. So, while some of the codes are abstract and general, others are specific and focused. Citizens exhibit preferences for either approach. In addition, codes are not typically “enforceable,” although they may be, as in the case of the journalist’s plagiarizing. That is, if journalists violate their organization’s code they may be held accountable for their transgressions. Some may even be fired, although as far as the rules prescribe ideas, they are unenforceable. For example, it would be senseless to punish photojournalists for failure to pursue the practice of photojournalism in a manner “worthy of the very best thought and effort of those who enter into it as a profession” in compliance with one of the statements in the canon of the National Press Photographers Association.


It appears to me that there have been two great waves of written codification in journalism generated by concern for ethics. The first occurred in the 1920s when newspaper journalists began to feel enough of a professional identity to form associations. The American Society of Newspaper Editors approved a code at its first meeting in 1922, a time when public consciousness of ethical problems was generated by the Teapot Dome scandal. The current ASNE code of ethics was adopted as a revision of the first code and as a “statement of principles” in 1975, several members objecting to having a code per se. A second wave of codification occurred in the 1970s, probably amid similar concerns, this time because of the Watergate burglary and subsequent cover-up. A continuation was fueled through the 1980s probably by the Janet Cooke fiasco.


Unwritten codes are much more difficult to ascertain, although they can become deeply embedded in the newsroom culture. Professor Philip Meyer has a good discussion of the aspects of unwritten codes in his Ethical Journalism. Warren Breed’s media classic “Social Control in the Newsroom” demonstrates how this social act of reporting and writing news is shaped and fashioned by the values of the general culture, the traditions, and canons–written and unwritten–of the profession. He suggests that journalists are not fully autonomous agents, but operate within a complex web of interacting social, cultural, economic, and organizational forces. While each strand of the web tugs a bit at the news covered, who covers it, what gets written, what gets edited, and what is eventually printed or broadcast, it is ethics that can help reporters, editors, and news directors to work through this maze in a deliberate, consistent, and wise way.


A review of a number of the codes themselves as well as scholarly works about journalism ethics–and I am particularly indebted to Clifford Christians–indicates that the chronology of journalism ethics began before the turn of the century, probably in the 1860s with the Philadelphia Public Ledger, which introduced 24 Rules, stressing accuracy and fairness during the Civil War. Clifford Christians notes that in 1889 the word ethics first appeared in an essay on press criticism by W. S. Lilly entitled “The Ethics of Journalism.” Historian Hazel Dicken-Garcia noted that although newspapers were vigorously attacked as early as the seventeenth century, Lilly’s article represented the first time the criticism was directly connected to ethical principles.


Journalism education was active early in the call for attention to ethics, too. In 1912 when the School of Journalism opened at Columbia University with $2 million from Joseph Pulitzer, publisher of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and New York World, the central place of ethics was noted. Pulitzer said, “I desire to assist in attracting to this profession young men of character and ability, also to help those already engaged in the profession to acquire the highest moral and intellectual training. There will naturally be a course in ethics, but training in ethical principles must not be confined to that. It must pervade all the courses.”


The formal codes or canons of American journalism first surfaced in 1910 when the Kansas Editorial Association officially adopted the first code of ethics for journalists, written by William E. Miller. In 1922 the code of ethics called Canons of Journalism was adopted by the first annual meeting of the ASNE. As one scholar observed, “the ASNE Canons of Journalism is the star of early codes.” Several journalism associations copied or imitated its content during the 1920s. In 1926 ASNE members voted for voluntary compliance to the organization’s code rather than disciplinary action for journalists falling short of the code. This voluntary compliance became standard policy for media codes of ethics hereafter, although some groups reconsidered the concept. In 1924 Nelson Crawford of Kansas State University published the first textbook and a classic on newspaper ethics in the United States, The Ethics of Journalism. Two years later in 1926 The Society of Professional Journalists/Sigma Delta Chi (SPJ/SDX) adopted the ASNE Canons as its own code of ethics.


In 1929 “the journalist’s journalist” Walter Lippmann published A Preface To Morals in which he posited that one of America’s basic problems was his generation’s failure to discriminate right from wrong. He argued that foundational to sound professional practice and a vibrant society are both an informed mind and a vibrant conscience.


The concern for responsible, ethical behavior by media practitioners for the benefit of the people continued to find expression from the 1930s through the 1960s. For example, in 1934 Congress established the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) with the charge to broadcasters to operate “in the public interest, convenience, and necessity.” Some additional examples:


In 1944 the landmark Commission on the Freedom of the Press was formed, funded in part by Time editor-in-chief Henry R. Luce and in part by Encyclopedia Britannica. The Commission emphasized five well-known points about media:


(1) truthful accounts in their context of meaning;

(2) a public forum of comment and criticism;

(3) a representative picture of a society’s various cultures;

(4) clarification of goals and values;

(5) full access to the day’s intelligence.


In 1949 the FCC ruled that the airwaves “are public property,” necessitating that broadcasters make them accessible to various viewpoints. Simply, all sides of controversial issues should be presented, with a balance achieved through overall programming.


The 1970s constituted the second decade of the two greatest waves of written codification in journalism generated by concern for ethics, this time probably due in great measure to the Watergate scandal. However, there were several additional causes for a growing concern. This “preoccupation” with journalistic ethics may have occurred, in part, because never before had the mass media attained such visible national power. With the advent of media conglomerates, concentrations of multiple media ownership, and the striking growth of newspaper chains, people observed essentially three major television networks, two weekly news magazines and two wire services, and a few major metropolitan newspapers dominating the media scene. Second, it was popularly perceived that through the reportage of these national media the public’s support for the war in Indochina waned. Third, through the efforts of these news organizations–The Washington Post, in particular–President Richard Nixon was pressured to resign from office before being impeached. Finally, many of the journalists themselves–in TV journalism, in particular-achieved something of celebrity status. So, the 1970s, like the 1920s, stimulated a great preoccupation with journalistic ethics.


Some specifics:


In 1971 Minnesota organized a statewide news council, followed by Hawaii that same year.


In 1973 members at the national convention of the Society of Professional Journalists revised the 1926 code of ethics it had borrowed from ASNE. The new code became the model for several subsequent codes of other organizations and fueled interest in journalism ethics. The revised code continued the tradition of non-enforcement for the code’s provisions, preferring a voluntary compliance. Also that year the National News Council was formed, patterned after the British Press Council. Essentially created to hear complaints from citizens about their treatment by the media, this council accepted complaints, collected testimony, requested media explanations, and rendered judgment in Columbia Journalism Review and Quill magazines. American journalists extended mixed support to the council with the New York Times and Associated Press opposing it from a libertarian perspective. The Christian Science Monitor, however, welcomed the council as did the Louisville Courier Journal, whose Chairman Barry Bingham served on the Task Force. The council eventually folded in 1983.


In 1974 journalism professor John Merrill published his landmark book on journalism ethics, The Imperative of Freedom, in which he argued journalism autonomy from a libertarian worldview. No outside control should be imposed on the press, he argued. He declared that any movement from a libertarian press model represented steps toward an authoritarian press model. The concern did not stop at the end of the decade, although the flurry subsided some.


Through the 1980s attention to journalism ethics continued. In 1980 Janet Cooke, reporter for the Washington Post, was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for a story she wrote about an 8-year-old youngster named Jimmy mainlining heroin from a dope-dealer and boyfriend of Jimmy’s mother. Later when it was discovered that Janet Cooke’s story was fabricated, the Washington Post returned the prize. The result was a serious amount of soul-searching by the Post staff as well as other journalists around the country. The case fueled the public’s distrust of the media and fueled continued reflection about the role of ethics in journalism.


In 1984 the prestigious Poynter Institute for Media Studies offered its first applied ethics course for reporters and editors. That same year the University of Kentucky offered the first annual workshop about teaching journalism ethics, co-sponsored by AEJMC, for professors new to the teaching of ethics. Several other academic endeavors followed with seminars and journals dealing with journalism ethics.


In 1985 SPJ members of the board of directors unanimously denied expulsion procedures and reaffirmed professional journalists’ preference for voluntary self-regulation. In 1987, after President Reagan’s veto of Congress’ effort to renew the FCC’s Fairness Doctrine, the provision was abolished. Broadcast journalists hailed this as a victory for freedom of the press, free-flow of information, and for the American people.


The 1990s continued the attention to journalism ethics with the Poynter Institute sponsoring a conference in reaction to the “preoccupation with scandals which promote a red-light ethics of restraint and a timid press.” The decade also saw a growing interest in Civic Journalism, a hotly-debated development of journalism. In 1996 the Society for Professional Journalists adopted a completely revised code of ethics at its annual convention. The code is based on four general principles. Journalists are to: (1) seek and report the truth; (2) minimize harm caused by the reporting process; (3) act independently-remaining free from conflicts of interest and not bowing to pressures from those who would distort the news; and (4) remain accountable to their sources, audiences, and fellow professionals. The version takes into account new technology and the “expanding arena in which journalism takes place.”


To summarize: Since about the turn of the century, journalists, scholars, and citizens have demonstrated a fluctuating concern for and interest in journalism ethics. Two decades, in particular, reflect a torrent of codification in journalism ethics–the 1920s and 1970s. These two waves of codification were caused by a growing sense of professionalism among journalists themselves, a popular concern for the power and influence of media within American culture, and a frustration with scandal in American culture. The immediate stimulus often seemed to be the concern for scandal among those “serving” the public–politicians and journalists, in particular.


A brief review of the codes of ethics of two major professional journalism associations–ASNE and SPJ–will help to illustrate the values and principles to which journalists–these journalists, at least–held. In addition, it will reveal some distinctions between the codes of the two organizations and some changes of expression occurring over time to the codes of each news organization. The two news organizations were selected for this overview because they were active early in creating codes, and because their codes became templates for other organizations’ efforts.


The American Newspaper Editors was organized in 1922, under the leadership of Casper S. Yost of the St. Louis Globe Democrat. As the group’s constitution said, “Although the art of journalism has flourished in America for more than two hundred years, the editors of the greater American newspaper have not hitherto banded themselves together for the consideration of their common problems and the promotion of their professional ideals.” Its counterpart, the American Newspaper Publishers Association, had virtually excluded all but business topics from its agendas up to that point.


The group’s early meetings focused a lot of time and energy on questions of ethics. Specifically, a bitter dispute originated about the group’s authority to expel a member, Fred G. Bonfils of the Denver Post, who stood accused of blackmailing oil millionaire Harry Sinclair in connection with the Teapot Dome scandal. At one point the vote of expulsion was taken, but the action was rescinded and the editor was allowed to resign. Later the organization clarified its position, declaring that it did not intend to serve as a policing organization.


The Society of Professional Journalists was founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi (SDX). It currently claims to be the nation’s largest and most broad-based journalism organization.


SPJ’s first code of ethics was “borrowed” from the American Society of Newspaper Editors, “the star” among codes and the model for years. In 1973, SPJ wrote its own code. It was revised in 1984, 1987, and 1996. The present version of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics was adopted by its members in September of 1996. Representative SPJ codes are included in the appendix for review.


These codes indicate that journalists consistently hold some things to be of importance, worthwhile, desirable. Specifically, what is the gospel of American journalism, according to these written statements? What common denominators, presuppositions, values and principles can be inferred from an examination of the codes of these two groups? That is, to what things do journalists consistently hold?


First, journalism gives readers, listeners, or viewers two dimensions of information–the facts and an understanding or “interpretation” of those facts. Straight news stories present the facts, free from opinion. In-depth articles, investigative pieces, editorials, commentary and columns give the audience some sense of what the facts mean. Often this meaning is accomplished in the context of local as well as regional and national communities. An important aspect of this coverage is that journalists want these valid but distinctive forms of journalism to be clearly labeled. That is, the audience comes to the news experience with expectations; journalists are expected by that audience to observe several conventions.


Second, information is published to help the audience to make intelligent and informed decisions as citizens as well as in their personal lives. As the 1975 ASNE Statement of Principles declared, “The primary purpose of gathering and distributing news and opinion is to serve the general welfare by informing the people and enabling them to make judgments on the issues of the time.” And as the 1973 SPJ code declared, “We believe that agencies of mass communication are carriers of public discussion and information.”


The SPJ codes declare a corollary concept: It is a special task of journalism to let citizens know how their social institutions are operating and that they are operating in a “open” manner. The most recent SPJ document declared that journalists should recognize “a special obligation to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection.”


Finally, journalism serves as a marketplace for the distribution of goods and services. It is interesting to note that these business matters were directly addressed in several of the early state codes. In fact, the 1910 Kansas code committed half of the code to business matters–advertising, circulation, etc. Moreover, the business matters were focused on in the first half of the document, with editorial concerns being addressed in the second half of the code.


Several principles can be identified by which journalists stand. One of the most obvious is the continued commitment to codes as voluntary guidelines. Provisions are not made to “disbar” or “excommunicate” unethical members. Although journalists may cross a legal line and suffer the consequences–as in the case of privacy, for example–action based on the codes and supported by judicial committees within the organization are virtually non-existent. This probably reflects the journalist’s preoccupation with independence and freedom. They have been reluctant to add sanctions to their codes.


A commitment to voluntary guidelines is not the only principle consistently embraced. There also is a commitment to objectivity as the norm. This traditional principle was articulated in the early codes and well established by the 1950s. American journalism historically shied away from the European approach, preferring an objectivity or neutrality when reporting news. SPJ’s 1996 code declared, “Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresented fact or context.” It added, “Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.”


Journalism historians have suggested a number of explanations of why objective news reporting developed. Whereas some contend that the growth of wire services like the Associated Press required reporters to make their writing seem unbiased since they would appear in newspapers with differing political positions, others trace the beginnings of objective reporting to criticism of community leaders of the excesses and sensationalism of “yellow journalism.” And still others suggest that it evolved as journalists imitated the scientific method during the first part of the 20th century. Whoever is right, this model of objective journalism represents a considerable trek from the intensely partisan press of Colonial America.


A third principle is the commitment to truth telling. As Lambeth said in his book Committed Journalism, “Most fundamentally, the need is for a habit of accuracy. Truth beyond all other principles, is the guiding guarantee for ethical journalism.” This principle is brandished and is listed at the top of the SPJ codes. As the 1973 SPJ code declared in its first statement, “The Society of Professional Journalists . . . believes the duty of journalists is to serve the truth.” And the 1987 SPJ code said, “Journalists must be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know the truth.” The 1996 code made the charge “To Seek Truth and Report It” the first quality discussed in the narrative. Following that general charge are nearly 20 specific applications of ways journalists can operationalize that principle. For example, they are to make certain that sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent an idea or person. They are to test the accuracy of information from all sources. The ASNE landmark 1922 code is a bit more restrained, but the meaning is clear and the call unqualified: “By every consideration of good faith a newspaper is constrained to be truthful.”


In addition to the truth principle, the codes make a commitment to independence as a core concept. Operationally, this means that journalists are to be as independent as possible politically, socially, and economically; they are to be free from any entanglements that might work on them to distort or influence their work. Specifically, the guidelines note that a journalist should not compromise this freedom by “the acceptance of gifts, free or reduced travel, outside employment, certain financial investments, political activity, participation in civic activity, or outside speaking engagements.”


Another principle embraced by the codes is a concern for appearances. The ASNE code said, “Journalists must avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety as well as any conflict of interest or the appearance of conflict.” An SPJ code said, “Journalists and their employers should conduct their personal lives in a manner which protects them from conflict of interest, real or apparent.” This concern probably stems from abuses by journalists in the past, but also reflects the awareness of the public relations dimension of codes. This is not to suggest that journalists wish to discourage good for its own sake, just that their ability to do “real” good may be diminished by careless, thoughtless appearances.


On the matter of granting confidentiality to news sources, SPJ consistently said, “Journalists acknowledge the newsman’s ethic of protecting confidential sources of information.” Less direct, ASNE asserted that promises of confidentiality should not be given in the absence of “clear and pressing need,” but adding that such pledges, once given, should be honored “at all costs.”


In addition, the codes pay considerable attention to other standards: to accuracy; to provisions for running correction whenever a newspaper has made a mistake; to a strong statement of impartiality and fairness; with a clear call for journalists to responsibly identify, discuss, question and challenge the government and other social institutions engaged in the public’s business; with a call for journalists to be “servants of the public,” as the SPJ codes have put it historically. A review of the preliminary table of comparisons among the ASNE code of 1922 and statement of 1975, and of the SPJ codes of 1973, 1987 and 1996 in Appendix A illustrates the striking number of similarities in journalistic values and principles among these codes. But, some contrasts can be noted between the ASNE codes and the SPJ codes as well as differences among the codes for each organization.


A few noteworthy:


First, a most obvious difference between the two organizations’ codes is the specificity of the language and examples. ASNE tends to be more general, positive. SPJ more specific. Some critics see the ASNE as being frustratingly ambiguous, therefore, and less useful.


A second difference between the two is audience. ASNE is a group of newspaper-oriented professionals, whereas SPJ includes journalists working in all areas of journalism. Photojournalists, broadcast reporters, newspaper people, among others, provide SPJ with great diversity.


While the wisdom of predicting the future is questionable at best, it helps professionals to plan when we consider current practices and extrapolate them into the future to see if we like the professional world we think we see. It seems that given the primary focus of the codes to give information to people, to contextualize that information by bringing understanding to people, the following concerns may be worth thinking about. These are mentioned in passing to be developed later and for discussion.


There is a continuing trend toward news organization ownership and control by non-media concerns. This development may have serious impact on journalists’ ability to do their jobs in the future. We have only to think about GE, Times Warner, Rupert Murdoch’s News Corp., Ltd., and Capital Cities/ABC to realize that these media giants have, since 1990, consumed a larger market share of existing media, including many news organizations.


Also, with the decreasing number of hands at the major national controls, there is an increasing diversity of news media outlets targeted for particular populations. This diversity includes MTV News, news produced for ethnic audiences as well as gays and lesbians; news for persons with disabilities, news available on the World Wide Web, etc. This is not a throwback to the partisan press of Colonial America. Whereas the early twentieth-century press was composed of a variety of voices supported by funders with a diversity of agendas, this modern manifestation may, in fact, be supported by a few with financially and politically correct agendas. Journalists need to be certain that the stories of the future continue to reflect the reality of many voices, to reflect the “voiceless” within our society, and to reflect an open discussion of public policy issues. Journalists may need to be certain that what sounds like a lot of voices is not merely a choir singing the same tune in harmony.


Finally, the possibility of a blurring between news and entertainment may have an effect on journalistic practices. For example, the blurring is occurring, in part, because so many broadcast news reporters, who have earned credibility for presenting the truth, double as magazine show anchors (a division of the corporations’ entertainment divisions).  News journalists must not be seduced into becoming public relations practitioners for corporate America; they must be vigilant to protect their credibility and the truth with as much integrity as they have been vigilant in the context of the relationship with government.


In summary: A review of the codes and statements of ethics from ASNE and SPJ indicate that news reporters hold a litany of ethical values and principles in common. Norms can be identified, although they are being reevaluated by some thinkers today. In a culture where universals are often frowned upon and their proponents are often denigrated, journalists are demonstrating growing sensitivity to a pluralistic and multi-cultural America. The question may become, will a more situational and relativistic ethic overshadow and ultimately replace values and principles that have been heretofore able to endure?


North America, SocietyAnonymous