Journalism and Ethics


Today’s news values are more complex than ever before. Journalists navigate often competing professional, commercial and ethical considerations in the gathering and disseminating of news, while attempting to adhere to its role in society as the fourth estate. At journalism’s very best, it is one of the arts of democracy providing news and analysis world-wide offering societies a form of self-governance (Part One: The Roots of Objectivity, 2004). At the worst, it is a propaganda tool that manipulates audiences and forsakes public responsibilities when it fails to adhere to its ethical responsibilities. Code of ethics vary between publications, providing a sometimes unclear, contradictory expectation of reporters. For this reason it is essential to view journalism’s responsibility to the public through the social theories of Kantian Contractarianism and Gewirth’s principle of generic consistency.

The necessity for ethics in Journalism has evolved and deepen over the years while the profession itself adapts to changing societies it attempts to serve. Historically, journalism has focused on developing and spreading news to the people. Today, the role of journalists according to the Australian Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance Code of Ethics is to convey information, ideas and opinions by “describe[ing] society to itself. They convey information, ideas and opinions, a privileged role. They search, disclose, record, question, entertain, suggest and remember… They give a practical form to freedom of expression” (MEAA, 2015). Journalism at its core is related to the communication process in which information is developed and spread between people. Through communication to others, journalism is related to maintaining a balance between what is ethical, professional and profitable, oftentimes proving to be a paradox. However, this is not the case, as because professional ethics is committed to the business of communication, it must be ethical in order to survive as a profession. The media, in particular journalism, relies heavily on public interest to maintain its authoritative voice and credibility. Journalists furthermore must find a balance between objectivity and fairness to remain ethical. The continuously changing nature of journalism has sometimes caused true information, when not moderated by justice and responsibility, to cause people and groups harm. Therefore journalists must understand that the ethical value of truth is not absolute, and there are circumstances in which justice must take precedence, as should have been the case during the Sydney Siege on Martin Place, December 2014 (Posetti, 2014). To remain ethical journalists are required to gain knowledge of when to withhold true, yet potentially harmful information in the event of preventing unnecessary and unjust harm to others. These decisions need to be determined by reference to independent and objective principles in order to avoid biased and self-seeking publications. Due to the potential danger of a story becoming unbalanced or unfair during the writing and editing process, editors must exercise great caution. As potential harm could befall a group or person as a result of such an unfair publication, it is the responsibility of the journalist to be vigilant regarding achieving a balance of fairness. The responsibilities journalists face are arguably more important than other professional communicators as the influence from the inherent trust they require from the public can be incredibly powerful that public relations of advertisement companies often lack, and as a result, upholding their ethical responsibility outlined above is essential.

As the world evolves, so too does the journalism industry, although not always at the same rate causing ethical issues to be undefined or easily misunderstood. The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) is an American body that aims to serve as a guide for Journalistic integrity worldwide. SPJ’s code of ethics operates under the first concise heading of “seek truth and report it” for the core of journalistic decisions and reporting (SPJ, 2015). Similarly, the Australian Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance (MEAA) Journalists’ code of ethics can be simplified to the four lines of “honesty, fairness, independence, and respect for the rights of others” (MEAA, 2015). These values for both organisations make up the strong, inherent ethical core that modern journalists must adhere to. Both organisations place great importance in their individual codes emphasising the values of accuracy of work, attributing and sourcing all information and the avoidance of manipulation from images, sound or personal beliefs and opinion as essential codes that must be followed. SPJ goes into further detail on what is expected of individual journalists, including a disclaimer explaining that individual principles should not be taken out of context, while MEAA  also explains that only “substantial advancement of the public interest or risk of substantial harm to other people” allow any of the principles to be overridden (MEAA, 2015) (SPJ, 2015). The strengths of these codes is how articulate they are, and the clear outline of responsibilities for individual journalists. Upon comparison of the two agencies however, MEAA is significantly shorter in its expectations of journalists than the US body SPJ. Most Australian news outlets base their individual code of practices on the MEAA’s code, although often a simplified version causing a weakness in what active reporters feel obliged to follow. Furthermore, the different ethical principles that different organisations administer oftentimes cause a conflicting understanding of Journalistic efforts. A recent example includes the media’s reporting of the Martin Place siege, in which critics have labelled “full of ethical risks and verification pitfalls” as it “highlights the critical importance of verification and should also serve as a reminder of the need to pause to carefully consider ethics and social responsibilities” (Posetti, 2014). Ultimately however, the greatest weakness of journalistic codes of ethics is that they serve merely as a guide, and are not enforceable. Media associations lack the power to regulate their members, and while they can cancel a membership they are unable to prevent that person working as a journalist. A 1997 study highlighted that journalists are often pressured into acting in ways contrary to the principles in codes of ethics (Burns, 2002). Journalism in a digital age is becoming increasingly focused on the highest views, ability to break a story, and shock value to go viral in spreading information, rather than a responsibility to the public.

As such, it is essential to explore the ethical role of journalists through the relevant theoretical foundations of Gewirth’s argument for the principle of generic consistency (PGC) and the further developed dual obligation information theory (DOIT), and the Rawlsian, or Kantian, theory of Contractarianism. Gewirth’s PGC explores the thought that people are purposive agents with individual freedoms and well-being that that applies equally to all agents everywhere and at all times. DOIT builds upon this idea, exploring how media practitioners are committed to ethical norms as information as a communicative action is doubly normative (Spence, 2011).  Firstly, information has an inherent structure that must comply with the epistemological condition of truth ensuring disseminators of information commit to certain ethical principles and values of honesty, sincerity and justice as unavoidable and not merely optional unlike corporation’s code of ethics. Secondly, the neglect or purposeful abuse of information (as can be argued in the reporting of Martin Place siege case) is a violation of universal rights, specifically that of freedom and well-being (Posetti, 2014). Therefore, justice and ethics are inextricably linked in the process of information communication. The responsibility of fair and accurate information is placed on individual journalists, for those who do not spread truthful information are encouraging misinformation, or disinformation. A violation of justice leads to substantial social consequences when misinformed people make poor decisions as a direct result from unethical reporting. Furthermore exploring the importance of justice in media, Kantian Contractarianism from John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, explores how it can be applied to the media. This theory believes “each person is to have an equal right to the most extensive basic liberty compatible with a similar liberty for others”, and that social and economic inequalities are to be arranged so that “they are to be of the greatest benefit to the least-advantaged members of society” providing “fair equality of opportunity” (Singer, 1993). John Rawls’ view was that each person matters, and matters equally, and as such is entitled to the same consideration creating a natural duty of justice. This viewpoint, when adopted by journalists requires empathy of others, valuing liberty and social freedoms. Rawls’ social creates a mutually beneficially agreement between media professionals and consumers, that is free from social constructs and prejudices, complimenting the DOIT and PGC that provide a framework which for an objective and independent basis for morality through human rights (Singer, 1993). Together, they overcome moral relativism as individuals and groups, allowing for the fair assessment of news with justice the key motivation. In a world where different organisations hold separate code of ethics, and different societies have different norms, these theories allow for an ethical and responsible framework that individual journalists should adhere to in reporting news.

The production of media content has fundamentally changed over time, however that does not mean the ethical responsibility of journalists should disappear. Until journalistic codes of ethics become enforceable, there will always be the risk that media organisations will continue to manipulate which ethical practices they choose to follow. By applying the theories of Rawl and Gewirth, however, individual journalists can take accountability for their reporting, hopefully avoiding future examples of unethical reporting practices through following the idea of what is just.



Burns, L. (2002). Journalism in Action. In Understanding Journalism (pp. 16-30). London: Sage Publications.

MEAA. (2015, April). Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance – Journalists’ Code of Ethics. Retrieved from Media Entertainment & Arts Alliance:

Part One: The Roots of Objectivity. (2004). In S. Ward, Invention of Journalism Ethics: The Path to Objectivity and Beyond (pp. 9-87). Baskerville: McGill-Queen’s University Press.

Posetti, J. (2014, December 16). Q&A: how the Sydney siege was reported by the public and news professionals. Retrieved from The Conversation:

Singer, P. (1993). Social Contract Tradition. In A Companion to Ethics. Wiley-Blackwell Publishing.

Spence, E. (2011, September). Information, knowledge and wisdom: groundwork for the normative evaluation of digital information and its relation. Ethics and Information Technology, Volume 13, Issue 3, pp. 261-275.

Spence, E; Dunn, A; Quinn, A. (2011). In Media Markets and Morals (pp. 11-104). West-Sussex: Wiley-Blackwell.

SPJ. (2015, April). Society of Professional Journalists. Retrieved from SPJ Code of Ethics:



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