Personal ethics statements by staff

This section addresses the following questions:

Journalists concerned with ethics and transparency are increasingly creating personal ethics statements to establish trust with audience members. However, it can be difficult for a journalist who works for a larger organization to maintain an independent ethics code.

Some journalists insist on doing so, adopting a take-it-or-leave-it approach with their employers. These are likely to be journalists with high personal profiles whom the employer really needs for business or professional reasons. Generally, however, journalists need to recognize that a personal statement must operate within the context of a corporate code and broader, more fundamental principles.

Think of these three layers of ethical statements – broad principles of the profession, a corporate code of behavior and a personal declaration – in descending levels of abstraction.

A broader code, like the New Guiding Principles that Tom Rosenstiel and Kelly McBride suggest in “The New Ethics of Journalism” is a foundational statement that informs every act of journalism and draws upon core values. Then imagine the corporate codes as expectations for specific behaviors: Here is how we use anonymous sources. This is when we make corrections.

Emerging in this context, the personal code describes an individual journalist’s professional mission and reveals his or her most prominent conflicts of interest.

One well-known U.S. tech journalist, Kara Swisher, discloses in a personal statement on her blog Re/Code that her spouse is an executive at Google. And Nellie Bowles reveals that she owns a stake in her family’s cotton farm. While Bowles promises not to write about farming ever, Swisher makes an argument for the integrity of her work covering Google. Her experience covering Google predates her marriage. Her wife’s financial fortunes will pass directly to their children. Rather than suggest these are not conflicts, she asks her readers to judge her extensive body of work.

Not everyone has conflicts of interest that require divulging. It’s only the most obvious connections, with a bearing on your professional work, that bear mentioning. What are the most obvious conflicts that would cause others to doubt your loyalties?

But the key to personal statements is to see them as an extension of corporate standards. Your personal code can’t undermine or reprioritize your newsroom’s values. Katherine Boehret begins by telling readers she is not an unbiased reporter. Instead, she writes, she is a subjective columnist. She goes on to point out that she doesn’t invest in the companies whose products she reviews or take freebies or speaking engagements from them. Perhaps the most helpful disclosure she makes is the relationship of Re/code’s parent investors to the editorial content she produces. There is none.

It’s fair enough that some editors and managers might object to personal statements on the grounds that they could confuse audience members. But that shouldn’t stop individual journalists from drafting a personal statement for the sake of personal clarity. It’s a helpful exercise to do even in private, even if you don’t have a venue to publish it.

That said, it has been pointed out that a personal ethics statement is not a guarantee; it is simply what a journalist chooses to publicly announce. Nothing forces a journalist to be 100 percent accurate or honest in his statement, and some elements of a journalist’s biography can be read in different ways. If a journalist used to work for an oil company, she might be a defender of oil companies’ interests; alternatively, she may have inside information that puts her in a position to do excellent investigative reporting on such companies. Personal ethics statements are both a sign of a journalist’s credibility, and a test of it.

The main author of this section is Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute.