How a new journalism ethics book can help PR pros

If journalists and PR professionals could agree on one code of ethics, what would it look like? Just maybe this one.

According to the Public Relations Society of America, September is Ethics Month. It’s time we started thinking about them a lot harder.

Imagine what we could accomplish as public relations professionals if journalistic ethics codes not only incorporated the realities of Internet-centered communication, but were accepted universally by the journalism and PR fields as the basis for resolving issues of fairness and accuracy.

That time may be near. The Poynter Institute seems to be speeding it along with the publication of Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel’s “The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century.”

Poynter, a strategy and education center for both student and working journalists, has developed and offered ethics training since the early 1980s. That led, in the early 1990s, to Poynter’s introduction of its first set of ethical guidelines, which became the keystone of ethics codes created by the Society of Professional Journalists and other organizations.

I have long advocated use of the SPJ’s ethics code in crisis management media relations, as leverage to persuade writers and editors to amend their copy or behavior when either appears to violate it. However, that code is a little antiquated. It doesn’t take into consideration the Internet’s immense impact on media relations of all kinds, traditional and social.

McBride and Rosenstiel’s new book finally does that. Here are the ethics practices it presents, along with my parenthetical comments on the meaning and impact of these recommendations, should the media adopt them:

1. Seek truth, and report it as fully as possible:

• Be vigorous in your pursuit of accuracy. (Fact-check.)

• Be honest, fair, and courageous in gathering, reporting, and interpreting information. (If you have a bias, admit it.)

• Give voice to the voiceless; document the unseen.

• Hold the powerful accountable, especially those who hold power over free speech and expression. (Don’t let Bully Pulpits become B.S. Pulpits.)

2. Be transparent:

• Show how the reporting was done and why people should believe it. Explain your sources, evidence and the choices you made. Reveal what you cannot know. Make intellectual honesty your guide and humility, rather than false omniscience, your asset. (Avoiding, for example, false logic and giving known prevaricators the same visibility in your coverage as more reliable sources. Remember what Martin Luther said, “You are not only responsible for what you say, but also for what you do not say.”)

• Clearly articulate your journalistic approach, whether you strive for information or approach information from a political or philosophical point of view. Describe how your point of view impacts the information you report, including how you select the topics you cover and the sources that inform your work. (Clearly distinguish when you’re stating an opinion rather than reporting something as fact.)

• Acknowledge mistakes and errors, correct them quickly (which in a Digital Age means within minutes of determining that a mistake has been made) and in a way that encourages people who consumed the faulty information to know the truth. (In other words, give as much space/time/prominence to the corrections as you did to the faulty info. We in public relations have known this for some time, because it speaks to the bond of trust with our audience.)

3. Engage community as an end, rather than as a means:

• Make an ongoing effort to understand the needs of the community you seek to serve and create robust mechanisms to allow members of your community to communicate with you and one another. (Interactive engagement with stakeholders, a PR 101 Best Practice but new territory for a lot of traditional journalists. This is also how the PR/journalism dialog needs to be held on a regular basis, with mutual respect.)

• Seek out and disseminate competing perspectives without being unduly influenced by those who would use their power or position counter to the public interest.

• Recognize that good ethical decisions require individual responsibility enriched by collaboration.

• Seek publishing alternatives that minimize the harm that results from your actions and be compassionate and empathetic toward those affected by your work.

• Allow and encourage members of the community to self-inform. Make journalism a continuing dialogue in which everyone can responsibly take part and be informed. (More interactivity, a concept currently leading to development of wiki-like approaches to news publication and annotating.)

I am hopeful that representatives of the PR industry can work with Poynter, journalists, and journalism organizations to help make “New Ethics” a practical tool for use by both.

Poynter’s leadership has volunteered to help that process along. Now who’s going to step up on our side?

Jonathan Bernstein is president of Bernstein Crisis Management, Inc., a virtual consultancy with operations worldwide. He is also author of a McGraw-Hill textbook, “Manager’s Guide to Crisis Management.”

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