journalism ethics

What would Jesus do?

Codes of conduct questions sometimes are reduced to a phrase: WWJD, what would Jesus do? In recent years columnists have used WWJD to push the ethical boundary wider to ask what Jesus would drive–and vanquished the thought of a sports utility vehicle as wasteful. Nutritionists deplore processed food and ask what Jesus would eat, and authors wonder what would Jesus do as a writer?

That’s not too hard. The only writing Jesus did was in the dirt. Remember that New Testament story of the woman accused of adultery?3 As the mob deplored her (not the man), Jesus scribbled on the ground. Some speculate that Jesus wrote the sins associated with the accusing men, and one by one, the men left the scene of the passionate crime, robbed of an opportunity to stone someone. Whatever Jesus wrote was lost in the time it took a light breeze or a sandal impression to obliterate the marks.

Jesus didn’t write, he did more. Madeline L’Engle once said, “Jesus wasn’t a theologian. He is a God who tells stories.” Telling a strong narrative is a high and noble calling, and the mission of the best authors, the best reporters, and the best feature writers. Thinking of a deity as the creator of the ultimate story, the meta-narrative, may help us as we consider the standards we should embrace in the act of writing.

Al Janssen, writer of 22 books, often talks to writers about the power of the narrative. He knows that the best way to reach a culture is to share a gripping story that includes a timeless message. The secret? Art must precede argument. A well-told news story draws readers in. Trivial stories told well will get a hearing; profound stories told poorly won’t. Perhaps the WWJD question can be rephrased. “What would Jesus have me to do as a writer?”

Journalists in the United States are fond of recalling the days of colonial printers who defied governmental authority and printed articles that challenged those in power. The public’s right to know is a guiding principle that is older than the nation, and the best writers these days temper this notion with a series of questions to position themselves on the side of angles. It’s more than a list of do’s and don’ts; it is a process of thinking about the need to obtain information and your reasons for it.

Among the oldest journalism groups in the nation are the Society of Professional Journalists and the American Society of Newspaper Editors, organizations that share a similar code of ethics. SPJ’s code, heavily influenced by ASNE’s code, includes three guiding principles: to seek truth, minimize harm and to remain independent. The complete code appears at the end of this chapter. In the 1940s, the Hutchins Commission on the press urged anyone in the media to provide a truthful, comprehensive, and intelligent account of the day’s events in a context, which gives it meaning. In addition, the commission said it was the responsibility of the media to give a representative picture of the various groups in society while helping society clarify its goals and values. They called this model the theory of social responsibility. Since most of us can’t print our own newspapers, magazines and books, it’s up to the people who do to include all a community’s voices in the press.

Among readers’ expectations of the press, whether inspirational or mainstream, is that it is committed to working for them.5 The tacit contract is that the publication will provide information that is consistent with its editorial policy. In most cases, that means avoiding even the appearance of working for sources.

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As a practical matter, the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Fla., has developed some questions writers can use to think through the business of obtaining and publishing information. Keith Woods of Poynter used his colleague Bob Steele’s question-approach in explaining this process to the National Society of Newspaper Columnists at its Seminar on Ethics and Excellence in Column Writing. According to Woods, from the outset of an article, writers should practice humility. They should ask themselves what they know and what do they need to know. Humility suggests that as writers, we don’t know everything. It requires the writer to consider the ethics involved in this situation along with the organizational policies and professional guidelines.

Better writers think about these basics and then ask, “Who else should be involved in the decision-making process?” A crucial issue today in the crisis communication model is the need to inform all the stakeholders in a decision, acknowledging that some stakeholders are more legitimate than others. One way to make sure that the writer possesses the right attitude is to ask, “What if the roles were reversed?” The process demands that writers switch roles with sources and think about the short-term and long-term consequences of the article.

Telling a hard truth may be the action that has the most consequence. A Hindu proverb says, “He who speaks the truth should have one foot in the stirrup.” Anyone who has spent time in reporting news knows the danger of doing the job of reporting the truth and being rewarded with grief. Reporters must be ready to chronicle the good, bad and ugly with boldness as part of our cherished press freedoms. All writers, from the poet to the penny-a-word hack, enjoy the legacy of America’s press freedoms. Once the writer considers the preceding questions, the final idea is to be prepared to explain the decision-making process to an editor, a colleague and others, including readers. The explanation may not win admirers; the goal is to ask the question and be prepared to provide a response, even a response that will have your hand clutching the reigns while your foot slips into the stirrup.

The question-method allows a writer to think about Macro issues that may not have clearcut answers, but the press, which includes feature writers and freelance contributors, has developed a number of conventions to help writers gather and publish information with efficiency. Writers endure relentless deadlines, and the need to internalize conventions is a must.

The following ideas are considered the basics of ethical conduct for writers.

Rules for quoting sources

Beginning writers tend to neglect attribution, but a good rule of thumb is to include attribution once every paragraph. Use speech tags such as “said.” One editor in the Southwest would send his writers a note that urged, “Use said. Use said. Use said. Use said. Use said. Use said. Use said. Use said. Use said. Use said. Use said. Use said.”

Got it.

The goal is to tell your reader the source of your information. Help her know that the information you are providing came from a source outside yourself. Using “said” or “according to” or similar phrases is the best way to establish that the information you are providing was from a source, not you. Answer the question, “Who says?” by connecting a quotation with a person’s name and identity. The best speech tags do not unduly flatter or offend, which makes “said” the perfect verb. Avoid weak verbs such as “snipped,” “sniffed,” “sneered,” “whined,” “laughed,” “hooted” and so on. Novelists like to use this kind of attribution and other attribution words such as “honked,” “coughed,” and “barked.” These words are creative alternatives, but they can be inflammatory. The best idea is to play it straight and use “said.” Believe it or not, readers will read over the “said,” and the flow of your article will not be noticeably disturbed.

Better to be overly cautious and use more attribution than less. These days writers are a little too cavalier in their writing. They use some attribution but make readers guess the source of the other information. Guessing games can be tiresome and rude, and lead to ethical mine fields, or as I like to say, “mind fields, where vagueness is the enemy of clear thought.”

In summary, cite a source for quotations but never lift a quotation from someone else’s work. Do your own interview. When you check a quotation from another writer’s published interview with a source, you may be surprised to learn that the source will challenge the exact wording of the phrase. Finally, it may be obvious, but it’s worth noting. Never make up a quotation and don’t be tempted to fill in a quotation if a source says, “You write so well. Just have me say something witty.” Not good and not ethical. Remember it is your credibility that will suffer.

Credibility demands that you always verify information, particularly in cases where some of the comments are in dispute. When one elected official accuses another elected official of improper conduct, the writer must get both sides. In most publications, no article of wrongdoing is written unless someone is charged with a crime; however, the nature of politics often leads to surly comments from opposing candidates. It’s imperative that the writer finds out as much background as possible using official sources and unofficial sources. Remember that concept?

Interview the people who are paid spokesmen, official sources, and those who are not on the payroll, unofficial sources. Check public records in the courthouse or on the web. Above all, talk to the people who are being accused.

For writers who are new to interviewing, asking another person difficult or embarrassing questions is impolite; however, many a person didn’t have a chance to explain because no one gave her an opportunity to go on the record. When the questions are too painful, try one of the following soft wind-ups. Say, “Your critics say . . . “ This technique makes it sound as if the writer doesn’t endorse the judgmental position, but she is just doing her job. Many variations exist for the same approach. “It’s been reported . . . ” Notice the passive construction of that sentence? Writers tend to avoid the passive voice as poor prose, but it has its uses when we don’t want anyone to know the identity of the person who made a controversial statement.

Another approach that allows an interviewer to ask a question that may make a source uncomfortable is: “What do you say to those who claim . . . ” Or, “Let me play Devil’s Advocate and ask you . . . ” These clauses allow the writer to gain some distance from the accusatory question to soften the source’s potential anger at you for suggesting that anyone could do wrong.

Other writers use a direct approach and unapologetically plow ahead with a series of hard-hitting questions. Both methods have merit. All writers have different approaches to obtain information. If you are reserved, use it to your advantage, and ask questions sheepishly by backing the car into a space. If you are bold, use your spirited high-speed chase to sail into the freeway on two wheels and a cup of coffee. Sources want to talk and writers must be ready to give them an opportunity. In those rare cases where a source cannot be located, explain to her colleagues, friends or family members that you are working very hard to include the source’s viewpoint in the article. It’s not good enough to call once and leave a message. You may risk becoming a nuisance, but you should call over and over if for no other reason than to let the office know how committed you are.

George Archibald, a newsman with several decades of reporting acumen, knows that his sources for the U.S. Senate and U.S. Congress must cross the capitol rotunda on the way to a committee meeting. When he needs a source, he finds a strategic spot and waits for the source to stroll by. The practice is not an ambush; it’s a method of making sure his question to a valuable source gets to that person unfiltered by an aide and without delay. This style may not be yours, but it emphasizes the need to be vigilant.

Occasionally, all your efforts fail. The source you need is on an airplane, in a meeting or plain unavailable. Be honest. As I suggested earlier, tell your audience that you tried to contact Mr. X, but he could not be reached. You can tell the reader the number of times that you called. You can mention that you tried the telephone, facsimile machine, electronic mail, U.S. Postal service, personal contacts–the specific means that you used, but do your best not to suggest that the source was avoiding you. A good ethical rule of thumb is to give people the benefit of the doubt and never ascribe motives to their behavior. Only God and the person know the reason for an action. The motives may be tainted, suspect and dripping with malice, but you can’t know another person’s heartbeat.

To maintain accuracy, make it a habit of calling sources to double-check quotations. A recorder is no substitute for pad and pen or interviews typed directly into a computer, and many a sentence has been mangled from lips to ears to article. Check your quotation and you will be accurate, courteous and unusual. Typically, publications ask writers to avoid showing a source the finished article; however, no editor wants to publish inaccuracies. Learn your publication’s policy and practice checking names, dates, quotations and other information that you did not observe directly.

Trust in the media

Trust in institutions continues to decline in the 21st century, but public confidence in the media is among the lowest. Since the mid-1989, when communism fell in Europe, trust in the media went from 54% to 32%.6 Among the problems for readers is high-profile cases such as Jayson Blair, 27, of The New York Times who resigned May 1, 2003 after he was accused of plagiarizing or fabricating 36 of 73 articles recently reported in the newspaper.7 By May 28, 2003, Rick Bragg, 43, a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter for The New York Times resigned over the use of his byline on an article largely the work of a freelance writer, J. Wes Yoder, a recent college graduate. The feature article concerned Florida oystermen and Yoder, an intern, did much of the work, according to the Associated Press.

By June 5, 2003, two leading editors of The New York Times retired following the back-to-back episodes. Executive Editor Howell Raines and Managing Editor Gerald M. Boyd resigned following questions over their judgment. In 2003, the 152-year-old institution faced national scrutiny with loyal followers pledging continued support. However, others such as conservative columnist George Will told the June 8, 2003 audience of ABC’s This Week with George Stephanopolous that the idea that The New York Times is far superior to other metropolitan newspapers is just a fiction.

These lessons can’t be emphasized too much. Checking information for accuracy is crucial and young, middle-aged and elderly writers must do this duty. In all cases, verify information by attributing it to a source; however, the best approach is to find a second source to substantiate the information. It’s hard, hard work but so worth it. The good news is that a USA TODAY/CNN/Gallup Poll shows that of 262 adults who said that they had been part of a story covered by the media, the perception was far favorable: “78% found the coverage had been accurate.”

Gonzo reporting

Writers such as Hunter Thompson broke a number of conventions of source reporting. Along with anti-war sentiment and free love of the 1960s came the notion that straight reporting was straight jacketed reporting. To counter the approach of squeezing all the opinion from an article, writers retreated to European model of reporting where journalists interject themselves into the poetry of the moment. They psychoanalyze the action and offer their interpretations. Some even express the thoughts of a source and that hidden motivation that I alluded to as deadly.

Don’t try this at home. In the United States, this approach is best reserved for publications with editorial policies that can endure the heavy oar that stirs the waves of controversy. Fictional techniques such as repeated phrase, foreshadowing and dialogue are useful to the feature writer, but once the writer steps into the shadows of fantasy, then she has failed in the craft of non-fiction.

Problem areas

The Society of Professional Journalists code says that nothing of value should be accepted from a source because gifts and favors can compromise the integrity of journalists and their employers. Retired cartoonist and editor John V. Lawing says that gifts are acceptable if they can be consumed on the spot. A professional sporting event is no less than a banquet without name cards. After a hearty dinner, writers can enjoy barley and hops and snacks throughout the match.

Lawing’s consumption rule tends to break down given that many calories. Each writer must learn her publication’s policy or risk raising the ire of an editor who is convinced that free lunches choke free speech.

I once covered a Billy Graham crusade meeting where speaker John Wesley White gave me copies of his books. Overcome with guilt, I drove to his hotel and left a check for the evangelist with the night-shift manager. Later that night I confessed my lapse in judgment and my editor laughed me to scorn. In her ethical calculus, evangelists often give books to anyone.

Her rule: If the gift is for anyone, it’s OK to accept it.

However, some sources give gifts of limited value to the participants–pens, notepads and trinkets, but reserve the wristwatch, tote bags and T-shirts for the press. Many writers accept these gifts anyway, but the more prestige a publication possesses, the more it will ban the smallest token.

Once at a dinner theater in south central Pennsylvania, I received an invitation for a complimentary meal for two and passes to cover the performance. The publication for which I worked considered the dinner and show to be a perquisite. That policy changed the night that found my wife and me at dinner to cover the season opening along with the publisher and his wife, and the editor and her husband–all on complimentary passes. No one knew the other was attending. How embarrassing for the publication. Covering arts, entertainment and sports requires that a publication formulate a consistent policy that includes paying its way. However, smaller publications with battered budgets are more likely to accept press passes as the price of staying in business.

Conflicts of interest

Some press organizations ask writers to avoid high-profile involvement in politics, community affairs, and social life to avoid the appearance of a conflict of interest. In the 21st, the civic journalism model encourages writers to engage the community and be an active part of solving problems. In these cases, the writer is best served by seeking the sage advice of her editor. Editors may extend permission to deviate from the standard, but woe to the writer who engages in a political event or protest rally, writes about it, and then confesses. Forgiveness may be easier than permission, but with writers, it can cripple a reputation as a professional.

Your goal is to avoid appearance of conflicts as you pen your article. Help yourself by avoiding entangling alliances that hurt your primary cause–telling a story. A militant believer who covers an issue that she finds laudable may find solace in a publication that is committed to that cause, but the opportunity to sell the article a second, third, and fourth time will be hurt when the next editor learns of the trade-off.

Conflicts of interest manifest themselves in other ways. Consider the task of writing about a sniper who terrorized a city. Police authorities may think a journalist has information that can help the investigation. Should a writer share this information? It can be a tough call because public safety is at stake. However, most writers do their job and let the police do their job. As a writer gains a reputation, the temptation to trade information increases in a quid pro quo arrangement. It may work, or it may backfire. The only safe ground is to check with your editor. She may approve the exchange, or she may not.

Remember, your work is an honorable calling and it can be accidentally sabotaged when the ethical code is jettisoned. When deals are struck between a writer and a source, a precedent is created. Should you need to contact that source again, she may think of your working relationship as a partnership that is subject to negotiations. Editor Frank Keegan once told me that friendships with sources must be handled with panache. A writer must be close enough to obtain reliable information; in some cases, the information may be provided to you over another writer. When the relationship gets too cozy, a writer will find it increasingly difficult to probe into a thorny issue.

Writers need sources; sources need writers. It’s a marriage of convenience, and it’s a mistake to think that sources are warm to you because you are charming and likeable. Columnists and opinion writers get inundated with telephone calls and email, and it’s tempting to consider all this attention as recognition of a person’s innate grasp of that cogent insight and gift for white-hot thinking. Once the person retires, the contact may stop. The reason is simple. The people who called wanted to influence public opinion; the contact with the writer, the conduit, was secondary. It is another part of the act of being humble for a writer not to believe her own public relations and not to think that her voice is more than pale dust floating on a summer breeze.

Think of the physician who is confronted with helping a family friend in an emergency. It may be easier to think more clearly when the person is not a friend who is hurt, but a patient who needs care. The clinical approach helps the physician focus on the job at hand. It doesn’t make her cold-hearted to be detached. It makes her more efficient, a better caregiver. Likewise, the writer who maintains professional distance from a source will find it easier to conduct routine business, and, in unusual times, do more of the same. Should the situation decay or become a friendship, the source and the writer may be better served by a change in assignment. Your audience will appreciate your desire to tell the story with as much impartiality as is humanly possible given that all of us are bound by our inherent mental maps that lead us in predictable ways of thinking.

The work of a writer can result in some unintended consequences. When a TV camera and fill light appear, the action may take a turn to the contrived. When a writer opens her notebook, a source may become self-conscious, and alter her behavior and speech in ways that she may be unaware. A more blatant example is a protest that gets heated only when the press is present. When the notebooks and broadcast equipment are stowed, the actors relax, drop their protest banners and glide over to Starbucks for refreshments. In these cases, writers must make a decision on the best way to characterize the action. Will the feature article take a light-hearted tone that suggests the protesters are pandering to an audience, and their commitment is subject to the presence of an audience? Or, will the on-again, off-again demonstration be ignored to avoid presenting a confusing picture of the rally? How much does a writer tell about the scripted nature of the protest versus the spontaneity? The Poynter process model may help you as you ponder these questions. While story telling is the goal, you must let the facts get in the way, and not resort to fiction just to jazz up the narrative.


Few writers will openly admit that they want a prize for their work, and more than one well-known journalist has denied the phrase “coveted prize.” “I never coveted a writing award,” they say, hurt in their rheumy eyes. For the rest of us, writing contests can be a mixed blessing. The legitimate ones enhance your marketability, and your sense of accomplishment. The weak ones prey on our need of acceptance in a business that is built on rejection.

A writer cannot go wrong by clearing a writing entry with an editor, particularly when the working relationship is ongoing. An occasional column in a publication doesn’t merit asking permission for you to submit it to a contest. However, the marketing arms of companies are very sophisticated about planting product and service information in the mass media. Among the cleverest approaches by the less scrupulous jackals is to send out a notice of a contest early in the year that says the entry deadline is months away. The idea is that writers will have time to engineer an article that will be suitable for a contest about the dreaded X and ways to avoid it or the need to practice Y and ways to succeed at it. In some cases, the organizations that support these public awareness campaigns use these contests to advance their public relations mission at the expense of your credibility. The work you publish isn’t a paid advertisement and readers will have no idea that you are subtly selling something. It’s on the order of a product placement in a movie or TV show. Will you be complicit? You may win an award, but will it be the kind of recognition that will make you proud of your achievement?

Among the guidelines for selecting a reputable writing contest with which to enter is to evaluate the entry fee. Contest fees can exceed $100. Some places publish a writer’s work with the hope that she will buy a copy of the publication. Writer Jill Darling calls this fraud “poetry.con.” Some of the funnier submissions of poetry can be found at

Contest fees in the $10-to $20-range are more acceptable. Next, consider the people who will evaluate the entries. Judges should be independent. They may be paid for their labor, but they shouldn’t be beholden to the organization as board members or employees. Again, your best approach is to advise the publication for which you write of your intention to enter a contest, and allow the decision to be a cooperative one between you and an editor.

This is an excerpt from Dr. Michael Ray Smith‘s book Used with permission.

Download the entire book for free from our MTI Online resource center.

Photo by Diana Polekhina on Unsplash

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