A journalist is a journalist, student or not: Why j-students have ethics codes too
The job of a journalism school includes providing its students with a solid journalistic ethical foundation. Rhiannon Russell compares the student ethics codes of institutions across the country—from UBC all the way to King's—and with explanation from directors and professors at some of Canada's most well-known journalism schools, lays out why, when it comes down to it, the rules of the game are the same for everyone, student or not.
Whether it’s called a code of ethics, rules of the game, or professional standards, most Canadian journalism schools have put in place some sort of guidelines to inform their students of proper ethical behaviour.
The ethical guidelines are distinct from generic academic integrity policies that apply to university and college programs, though these kinds of policies are a foundation for rules specific to journalism students.
The generic policies – which, for example, ban plagiarism and other forms of academic dishonesty – obviously still apply to j-students, but since doing journalism properly requires knowledge of nuanced ethical practices, an ethics code is seen by many journalism professors as necessary.
“To some degree, we’re dealing with something different in a journalism school,” says Christopher Waddell, director of Carleton University’s journalism and communication school. For instance, a journalism assignment is very different from a history essay – in terms of both theoretics and execution.
A journalist is a journalist, student or not, and the same legal rules and ethical principles apply, whether content is being published in a major daily, broadcast on a TV network or posted on a school blog.
The Canadian Association of Journalists’ “Principles for Ethical Journalism” is one of Canada’s most well-known ethics codes.
We've compared several schools’ codes to that of the CAJ and find that they’re all pretty similar, with one exception: Most schools don’t have any guidelines for social media use. (The CAJ revised its principles last year to include digital media.) But more on that later. For now, the comparisons.
(Note: Each blurb below has been taken directly from the respective school's students' ethics code.)
Principle: WE STRIVE FOR ACCURACY AND FAIRNESS
Concordia: Always aim for accuracy, neither adding nor omitting material which would distort the meaning of a story. Every bit of information used in a story must be verifiable by your editor/producer/instructor. Under no circumstances should you fabricate or fake any material.
Ryerson: Accuracy is the first and most important value for reporting. Every reporter and therefore every journalism student is responsible for ensuring total accuracy in every story, including every class assignment, regardless of size or scope. Facts include the correct spelling of names, correct job titles, ages, dates, and every other detail in a story. Accuracy is also required in direct quotes as well as all reporting of people's opinions, feelings, and recollections. What people say should be represented fairly and in context.
Wilfred Laurier Brantford: Students will be held responsible for any inaccuracies in their work, whether intentional or merely careless. But fabrication -- the making up of information -- is the most serious form of academic and journalistic dishonesty. Nothing justifies it. In journalism, it destroys the public's faith that what is presented is accurate reportage; at Laurier Brantford, it is a serious offence against the standards of the Journalism program and the university's Student Code of Conduct and Discipline.
Mount Royal: In the case of photographs or video of events such as accidents, fires and other disasters, we will take care to maintain the dignity of the subject as much as possible without undermining the truth of the event.
Principle: WE ARE INDEPENDENT AND TRANSPARENT
King’s: Story subjects, P.R. firms, and others sometimes offer journalists free gifts, materials, services, or samples. Know that journalistic independence can be damaged by accepting free stuff. If an unsolicited gift is received, return it immediately. If this is impractical, donate it to a homeless shelter, food bank, or some other recognized charity.
Concordia: Do not engage in deceptive practices. Always identify yourself as a journalist when on assignment. Do not use undercover methods unless you have been cleared in advance by your editor/producer/instructor... Avoid conflicts of interest. Do no accept remuneration or gifts of any kind from sources or subjects. Do not abuse your position to curry favor with anyone.
Ryerson: When students contact sources for any story assignment, they should identify themselves as students of the School of Journalism. The student should say what the interview is for: normally, it's best to say that it is for a class assignment but that there is a possibility of later publication or broadcast. (If you don't indicate that the information could end up in print or on the air, then you will have to secure the subject's permission if you later decide to make a submission for publication or broadcast.)
King’s: Staging and re-enactments are sometimes part of broadcast/online production. They should never fake emotion or pretend to be present for an important part of the story…Any scene dramatized for storytelling purposes must be clearly identified.
Principle: WE KEEP OUR PROMISES
Carleton: Reporting without direct attribution is sometimes essential to go beyond the apparent and superficial in covering public affairs. Do, however, identify sources and attribute information as a general rule. Journalists making a commitment of confidentiality should be aware that, in law, they have no legal privilege with sources and may be convicted of contempt of court, a criminal offence, for honouring their commitment.
King’s: Do not promise any source anonymity, or use an anonymous source, without approval of your instructor.
Principle: WE RESPECT DIVERSITY
Concordia: Always strive for fairness and balance, looking into all sides of every issue and presenting all relevant viewpoints. Do not overlook the weak and inarticulate in favor of the rich, powerful and influential.
Wilfred Laurier Brantford: Students should seek to understand and represent the diversity of their community in their reporting and recognize that unofficial sources can provide valid, often under-reported, perspectives and information. They should treat their sources in a respectful and professional manner, recognizing their own cultural values and avoiding imposing those values on their sources. Students should present a contextualized range of facts, opinions and sources (both official and unofficial) in their work as a whole and avoid stereotyping.
Principle: WE ARE ACCOUNTABLE
Carleton: If erroneous information is disseminated, doadmit and correct the error(s) as soon as possible.
King’s: All complaints and allegations of error need to be responded to, calmly and promptly. If a complaint or allegation is made, the course instructor must be informed.
As a journalism student myself, it’s refreshing to know that most students across the country are being taught similar ethical practices. As slippery and complicated as journalistic ethics is often said to be, it’s clear there are definitely tried-and-true principles of the business.
Now, some schools’ codes are more in-depth than others. Mount Royal University in Calgary has one of the longest codes of ethics in the country. At 53 pages, it covers most everything – from trespass laws to consuming alcohol while on assignment.
“As far as I know, other than the CBC’s, ours is the longest in Canada,” says Shauna Snow-Capparelli, a professor at Mount Royal who wrote the code. She’s also on the CAJ ethics committee.
Snow-Capparelli says much of Mount Royal students’ work is published in the Calgary Journal, so the school’s code of ethics is one and the same with that of the Journal.
Mount Royal’s principles include many examples and scenarios, because “students [are] just learning this and it’s brand-new,” Snow-Capparelli says. When journalists enter the workplace, they’re expected to already understand the profession’s ethical frameworks.
At the British Columbia Institute of Technology, students are handed copies of the CAJ and RTDNA (the Association of Electronic Journalists) codes. Why not create school-specific guidelines?
Connie Monk, the school’s program head, says this method prepares students better for the workplace. “We want to reflect industry standards,” she says. “These are codes that journalists have spent a lot of time working on” and they are “rooted in reality.”
Similarly, the University of British Columbia gives its students the Society for Professional Journalists’ ethics code.
For David Swick, professor at University of King’s College in Halifax and writer of the school’s ethics code, it’s more important to compact guidelines into a unintimidating document that students will actually use and not stuff in a drawer, never to be referred to again. (Hey, it happens.)
“I thought, ‘What would be best for King's?’ he says. “I was afraid students wouldn’t read it” if it was too long, he says.
Swick proposed a three-page document. “Obviously it won’t be fully comprehensive, but we’ll hit really hard on the points we want to cover,” he says.
King’s posted its code online in April 2011, and it’s already been revised once since. “[Codes] are works in progress,” says Swick.
Fewer Canadian colleges have ethics codes. Humber College provides its students with ethical guidelines, and Loyalist College’s QNet News, the journalism school’s integrated news website, has detailed standards of practice as well.
Unsurprisingly, Mount Royal’s extensive code is one of the few that references social media: “The overriding concern here is to remember that our online posts are public, and we must do nothing to lend an impression that we are anything but impartial.”
Snow-Capparelli notes that it’s a lot of work keeping codes of ethics up-to-date nowadays. “There are so many things the courts haven’t yet dealt with. Journalists are kind of stuck going by best practices…courts haven’t decided what’s legal so we have to decide what’s ethical.”
News organizations are grappling with this too. Both the Toronto Star and The Globe and Mail are in the process of revising their codes.
There’s no doubt that, with technology evolving quicker and quicker, codes will have to be revised more and more frequently.
Carleton has three policies in place that focus on ethics, publishing and media usage, but Waddell says faculty will likely look at adding some guidelines for social media usage in the next few months.
“[Students] need to know if you’re a journalist, you’re a journalist all the time. You don’t have two different personalities,” he says. Learning how to use social media responsibly is crucial for student journalists just as it is for professional journalists.
“That’s an issue the mainstream media has been dealing with for a while now,” says Waddell.