What ethical principles are fundamental to exercise the profession of journalist?

Journalism has lex artis , deontological principles: they are few, simple and clear. They are well explained in the numerous deontological codes known since the beginning of the 20th century, many of them in force in many countries and newsrooms. To point out some, the Code of the Federation of Associations of Journalists of Spain (FAPE), the Council of Europe (1993) or the recent Global Ethical Charter for Journalists (June 2019) of the International Federation of Journalists serve. They all say the same thing, albeit in different words and sizes.

The principles are equivalent and can be summarized as follows:

  1. The truth. The journalist searches for the truth, diligently. Facts and data. “Communicate or receive truthful information” reads article 20 of our Constitution, one of the most brilliant and eloquent texts on freedom of information and opinion, essential subjects for journalists. And for democracy.

2nd Verification. The diligent search for truth requires applying the principle, the method, the discipline of verification. Check, contrast, distinguish, clarify … are essential elements and requirements for good professional work. The journalist is insofar as he verifies, he does not take for granted what they tell him, what he reads or hears, what others say or write. Verifying supposes skepticism against the plausible, the possible or probable. Verifying requires training, experience, knowledge, more than ever in the new digital age, in which excesses and pitfalls abound. Also the opportunities. Verifying requires technique, professionalism.

  1. Relevance, proportionality, completeness, criteria. These four concepts are not synonymous, but they are complementary, they have to do with each other. The journalistic account must be relevant in the background (avoid the banal and inconsequential, although it gives color and follow-up) and in the form, which is interesting and understandable. The information requires proportionality in its content, taking into account those interested and affected, providing context, references …
  2. Differentiate information, opinion and advertising. Facts are sacred, opinions are free. An essential principle that forces journalists and the media to clearly differentiate between one and the other spaces. Information and opinion go together, but on different sidewalks, with clear differentiation. The same for advertising, which has its own ethical requirements, although it is not the task of journalists. Reporting requires suspicion of manipulation, of the use of the journalist by partial sources, sometimes legitimate, but partial.

5th Loyalty to the citizen. Who do they serve, who do journalists owe? The answer is unequivocal: to citizens (readers, viewers, or listeners). Sources are necessary, but not recipients of information; they are instrumental to one goal: to inform. A concept that must be shared by the professional editor, who must protect journalists and encourage them to fulfill their ethical duties, in their own interest. Forgetting that principle is the best way to go astray, to the loss of credibility, which is the main asset of journalism (of journalists and editors), its reason for being.

6th rectification. The nature of journalists’ work is labile. The risk of being wrong is high. The work is urged by current events, by speed, and this encourages imprecision and mistakes. That is why it is necessary to rectify diligently, with generosity, with breadth and with humility. Rectification contributes to credibility. Try to repair and compensate for the damage caused. Good journalists, serious media, immediately rectify.

The exercise of journalism needs freedom, but above all personal conscience, independence

The exercise of journalism needs freedom, but above all personal conscience, independence. Freedom is not unlimited, it comes up against other rights of third parties that must be respected and protected. The argument of freedom cannot be the mockery, the excuse to justify bad practice, the one that does not respect the previous principles. Exercising journalism imposes risks, it goes through permanent ethical dilemmas that each journalist’s conscience must resolve. For this reason, internal debate, consultation with other colleagues and experts helps to face and resolve these dilemmas.

All this can be expanded with more concepts and reasoning, from the presumption of innocence to the attribution and transparency of sources and citations and the good management of conflicts of interest. Also for the rejection of plagiarism, for the protection of the weakest, for respect for privacy … However, the six elements stated are inexcusable, a sufficient guide on the lex artis and the good practice of journalism: its professional ethics.


2.- Is it ethical to publish the judicial summaries before the sentences are issued, being able to create parallel trials?

The journalist’s duty is to report truthfully, with verification, with relevance. Court summaries are a valuable source of information, most often reliable if context is incorporated into them. The duty of the secrecy of the summary and its custody affects the actors of the same, the judicial organs and all those involved in the process, but not the journalists who must focus on the dark corners, apply transparency, detergent for dirty areas .

One of the precautions for professional practice is to avoid manipulation, delivery to interests with sources

One of the precautions for professional practice is to avoid manipulation, delivery to interests with sources (you tell me and I count your version as mine and good). A judge or prosecutor complicit in a journalist can compose an irresistible power, which does not help justice. And the same, a lawyer with her main journalist. The citizens’ duty to inform and the right to know are the heart, the backbone, the nature of the work of journalists. The consequences, the effects … should be taken into account, but the essential thing is to satisfy the right to know.

A resolution of the FAPE Arbitration, Complaints and Journalism Commission on Journalism (4/2005) has been published on this matter, with reasoning that may interest those interested in this problem: http://www.comisiondequejas.com /wp-content/uploads/4.pdf .


3.- What are the ethical limits when reporting a person who has committed suicide?

Suicide is a subject studied and analyzed for many years by sociology, law and psychology. The literature for this purpose is very abundant. There are associations interested in the problem and dedicated to its prevention that have formulated interesting recommendations, which journalists should be aware of and keep in mind and, likewise, should be discussed in the faculties.

A first approach to the apparently rude problem would be to propose that suicide should be treated by journalists: well, as the ethical codes mandate. The abundance of recommendations for dealing with sensitive or rugged issues can generate more confusion than clarity. Multiplying ethical codes and specific recommendations to report on traffic accidents, terrorism, violence, childhood, the elderly, disabilities … is a temptation for each interested or affected group, although it is convenient to find and highlight useful patterns for all these matters .

  • First criterion:suicide cannot be taboo, a reserved matter that should not be reported. It is a real fact, that it exists, that it has explanations and that it cannot be ignored. The citizen has the right to know. So you have to report suicide.
  • Second criterion:the question is not whether to report or not, but how to report, starting with the application of the general principles of the code: truthfulness, verification, general interest, context, respect for privacy … those expressed a few pages earlier.
  • Third criterion:information of this nature has guardrails, beacons that must be taken into account. For example: prudently manage the images, avoid unnecessary repetition, flee from sensationalism and avoid falling into the temptation to explain the causes or reasons with little knowledge, based on more or less close but unsubstantiated testimonies. Likewise, mental health experts must be cared for to use the most appropriate and precise language to avoid hasty, exaggerated conclusions.

Among other issues, the suicide prevention associations advise “to avoid disclosure and details about the methods, the location, not to be exaggerated and to take families into account”.

As in so many other sensitive, sensitive topics, this type of information requires reflection by the journalist when writing and editing the story. To form criteria, it is often useful to discuss with other colleagues what the informative treatment of suicides should be like. The problem does not lie in informing, but in how it is done.


Leave a Comment