Learning the news: Following ethics guidelines makes journalists more objective

Journalists are humans too and complete objectivity is impossible, which is why good news sources employ a code of ethics. Does yours? writes Roger Plothow.

Journalism is a human endeavor, which means it is plagued by human failing – bias, inaccuracies large and small, the whole gamut.

Anyone who looks you in the eye and says that journalists are capable of being truly objective is either lying or engaged in a rather sad self-deception. Because we recognize that human work can never be perfect, we adopt standards against which we measure ourselves.

Yes, here I go again, with that pesky Society of Professional Journalists and its highfalutin code of ethics. You’re right; I can’t seem to let it go.

Every self-aware person on the planet understands that from the moment we are born we are being shaped by our surroundings and experiences. We come into the world genetically predisposed in one way or another, so between nature and nurture we become wonderfully diverse and essentially incapable of objectivity. Journalists don’t get a pass on this fundamental truth.

To deal with this, we establish measurements and standards that we apply when making decisions. Even that, of course, is not a perfect process, but it gets us as close as we can be at mimicking objectivity, which is the impossible goal that we aim to achieve while knowing we’ll never quite get there.

So, whether it’s reviewing a particular story or shaping our overall approach to news, we ask ourselves questions like: Are we seeking truth and reporting it? Do we strive to minimize harm? Are we acting independently, free of influence by advertisers or those in power? Are we sufficiently transparent and accountable? Do we have policies in place to ensure we can adequately enforce all of our ethical guidelines? Do our journalists know and understand these guidelines?

What, you may ask, does this have to do with news literacy? Everything, actually. You can be excused for not wanting to sort through the news flotsam and jetsam coming at you every day and trying to decipher which is real and which is not. That’s the whole reason there’s this thing called journalism with which I am so enraptured. Journalists do this for you! How great is that?

Part of having good life skills is knowing what you’re good at and when to call in the experts. I wouldn’t think of attempting to rewire my house, because I would probably end up burning it down. If you don’t want to spend your entire day figuring out which Facebook post to believe and which to ignore, start by relying on news sources that follow basic standards of good journalism. So, for wiring, call and electrician; for news, rely on a journalist. Simple!

The problem, I repeat yet again, is that so many sources that claim to practice journalism do no such thing. So, it is up to the consumer to determine is a news source actually has a set of standards to which it holds itself accountable.


Roger Plothow is editor and publisher of the Post Register. This is part of a weekly year-long series on media literacy.


ADVERTISEMENT