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Claire Penhorwood Headshot

Journalistic Ethics Should Start at the Kitchen Table

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If I had to venture a guess as to how many journalists have had to defend themselves -- and their professions -- to someone in the past week, I would say the magic number would be... a lot! Thanks to the News Of The World phone hacking scandal that has left a 168-year-old publication out on the curb, journalistic ethics are once again in the spotlight.

With journalists taking bribes, news organizations withholding information for their own benefit and the seemingly never-ending string of journalists fabricating facts in stories, journalism can sometimes be a hard profession to defend. But ethical dilemmas come with the territory and by the time graduation rolls around, most journalism students have faced some sort of ethical or law-based dilemma. But what is the difference between ethics and law in the field of journalism?


Ethics and law are categorically not the same. Law sets forth minimal standards of conduct and states what a person is required to do; ethics suggests what a person ought to do. An ethical person, according to ethicist Michael Josephson, "often chooses to do more than the law requires and less than the law allows."

Non-ethical values in a journalist might result in selling the most possible newspapers, raising broadcast ratings or increasing website traffic. These are not bad practices in and of themselves, but how they are achieved is what must be considered.

Even at the tender age of 20, and with only one foot in the door that is my journalistic career, I have already met and worked with journalists who will do anything to get the story with little regard to ethical regulations. A reporter's methods and personal views can go out the window when the profit of an organization is at stake. To some, to be first to the story is sometimes better than to be fair to the story.

According to the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms
, everyone has the freedom of thought, belief, opinion and expression, including freedom of the press and other media of communication. But unethical practices can come into play when journalists jeopardize the rights of others in order to fulfill the mandate of their news organization.

In the wake of yet another media scandal, I can't help but wonder what can we be teaching the future generation of news gatherers that will curb, or with any hope, stop unethical decisions from being made?

In my opinion, the biggest aspect of understanding is exposure. Start young. As soon as kids or young teenagers start to ask their parents about something they read online, or something they saw on the news, it should be discussed.

It is important to encourage original thought and let children have their own opinions, but it can also be argued that providing children with the right tools to form those ideas is necessary in good parenting. Chances are that until they have had instruction in this area, they will form similar views as those their parents have; this gives parents the opportunity to give kids a good first impression on the media and the importance of unbiased news gathering.

Speaking of instruction, if they aren't getting it at school in some form of media literacy program, make sure they are getting it at home. Parents should go online with their kids and show them examples of good news and then news that might be slightly slanted or skewed in accordance with that particular organization's viewpoint. The catalyst for change in our society's media landscape could very well start at the kitchen table.

Gone are the days when we can assume that children and the next generation will just magically develop into good, moral, news-conscious citizens. Kids today have a lot more information at their disposal than I did when I was growing up. This gives them more room to be molded into ethical or unethical citizens. Let's make sure we close this revolving door of media scandals, by simply educating youth on how to recognize and produce the good and avoid the unethical.

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The Jayson Blair Affair | American Journalism Review