The idea of journalism is rooted deeply into the history of mankind. From the earliest cave drawings of pre-historic man, to the journalistic media of today’s modern society, it has evolved into a means by which news can be transmitted to every corner of the earth simultaneously, keeping the general public informed of everything from A to Z. Along with its evolution, a journalistic Code of Ethics incorporating standards, principles and canons were designed as guides to assist professional journalists in the truthfulness, accuracy, objectivity and fairness of their reporting, and to help with difficulties such as conflicts of interest and ethical dilemmas. The Preamble to the Society of Professional Journalists in America states;
Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist's credibility. Members of the Society share a dedication to ethical behavior and adopt this code to declare the Society's principles and standards of practice.
Within the four categories of the SPJ Code of Ethics, several guidelines are worthy of special note;
Seek Truth and Report It
Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.
Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.
Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.
Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources' reliability.
Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.
Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.
Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.
Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.
Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.
Clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct. Encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media.
Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.
Abide by the same high standards to which they hold others.
For a full overview of the SPJ Code of Ethics: http://www.spj.org/
As important as these guidelines are, they are just that, guidelines, and were not intended as a set of rules. They are also not legally binding under The First Amendment where it prohibits the making of any law that among other things, impedes, infringes or interferes with the freedom of speech and the freedom of the press. Even so, the Code of Ethics is widely used by thousands of journalists, editors, writers and newsrooms as a platform to gauge their ethical culpability in reporting the news. But there are also thousands of journalists who seem to write by their own set of rules and guidelines, and appear to have taken “freedom of the press” out of context in the pursuit of headlines. Enter Sensationalistic Tabloid Journalism.
In brief, the definition of Tabloid Journalism is; “A publication of small format giving the news in small form usually with illustrated, often sensational lurid material. It tends to emphasize or exaggerate events and stories such as disasters and catastrophes, and repeat scandal and innuendos about the deeply personal lives of celebrities, sports stars and politicians etc.” A perfect example in this age is the over-concentration by tabloid media on reporting every aspect of Michael Jackson’s life, particularly, coverage of his 2005 trial. Under the guise of freedom of the press, the media seemed to feel they had the right to blatantly distort, twist, manipulate, misinterpret and misrepresent the truth in the pursuit of headlines. It still continues now, after his death.
Diane Dimond in her last New York Post article wrote, He walked out of court a free man, not guilty on all counts. But Michael Jackson is so much more than free. He now has carte blanche to live his life any way he wants, with whomever he wants, because who would ever try to prosecute Michael Jackson now?
On whatever scale a journalist or amateur writes in a public arena, we are all held accountable for the factual content of the material we present. At the same time, the public bears the responsibility for correctly interpreting the validity of the written word. This can be difficult at times given the over saturation of conflicting stories that are printed. There will always be those who believe everything they read, but in looking at the sources from where the information is coming from, keeping an open-mind and not being too quick to judge, we can start to separate fact from fiction.
One final note; regardless of how true or untrue, essentially each story contains an ideal, bias or pre-conceived notion of the person writing it. We can never truly be impartial. Knowing this; understanding this, does not give anyone the right to judge another through the written word. What happened to Michael should never have been allowed, and it most certainly should never happen again. Not to anyone.
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