What is your ethics as a journalist

Journalistic ethics

Everyone who wants to work in the field of journalism, be it as a journalist or as a press officer, has to deal with the subject of journalistic ethics. Because if the journalistic and ethical basic rules are not observed in reporting or in other daily work, the responsible journalist must expect a reprimand from the press council, which can have a negative effect on his reputation and even on his career.

Introduction to journalistic ethics

The journalistic and ethical principles that apply in Germany were defined in the Press Code in 1973 by the German Press Council. Both journalists and publishers, through their respective professional associations, have agreed to the journalistic principles that were formulated in the press code. The press code is therefore a voluntary commitment. In terms of content, the German Press Council was guided by the code of honor formulated by the international journalists' federation, which represents journalists from 117 countries.

The press code comprises a total of 16 points, which encompass all fields of activity of the journalist. In addition to these official statutes, further rules have been established in practice that distinguish qualified journalism. This includes the following points: A message must be confirmed by at least two independent sources. If a conflict is the subject of the reporting, both sides must have an opportunity to express their point of view. The journalist must always maintain a critical distance from the topic, even if the topic is close to his heart.

Publishers and journalists have agreed on the currently valid ethical principles based on past experience. Because from the imperial era to the end of the Second World War, journalists were all too often instrumentalized by the respective rulers. After the Second World War, based on these experiences, freedom of the press was even guaranteed in the Basic Law. With the status of a free press, journalism in Germany actually assumed the function of a fourth power in the state, which can critically observe politicians as well as the state and its organs and point out grievances. However, this status was extremely fragile, as the Spiegel affair in the 1960s had shown. The press code therefore defined journalistically clean action and its limits for the first time.

Nevertheless, the journalist moves in a gray area both in research and in reporting. This is especially true when he works investigatively to uncover grievances. This often leads to a responsibility problem. For example, if there are valid suspicions that a politician is corrupt or certain grievances can only be demonstrated using practical examples. In these and similar cases it is often questionable whether the human dignity of those affected could have been attacked by the reporting and possible public reactions. The most important paragraph of the press code therefore says that a journalist should respect the truth and uphold human dignity.

In order to meet this responsibility, the right of rectification was also introduced. This means that the medium that has published news and allegations that have subsequently been shown to be incorrect or false, must correct them in an appropriate manner.

The three basic ethical questions

Journalists must be aware of the three important basic questions of journalistic ethics, especially when it comes to controversial and sensitive topics. These are ethics of virtues and values, ethics of duty and ought, as well as ethics of consequences and responsibility. Journalists often get into this ethical conflict when they report on explosive topics and do not receive their information through official channels, but from informants who have insight into internal matters. Even if the protection of informants has a high priority, the journalist must always ask himself the question in his research and counter-research, for example, whether he might endanger his informant or whether a publication might have negative consequences.

Central fields of application of journalistic ethics

In practice, the journalist has numerous tools to live up to this ethical responsibility. The journalist may not be able to find out where the objective truth lies in an issue, especially when it comes to controversial topics. Here he has the option of describing the different viewpoints in approximately the same way, so that the media user can get an idea of ​​the different statements for himself.

One of the most important principles, which is also enshrined in law, is journalistic due diligence. This states, among other things, the following: Both the content and the truthfulness of messages must be checked before they are published. If it is a question of rumors or unconfirmed reports, this must also be made clear in the reporting. Comments are also to be clearly separated from reports. If the content is taken from a reputable source such as a news agency, the diligence requirements are less stringent. If, on the other hand, the reporting encroaches on the rights of a third party, extremely strict standards apply. The general right of personality is one of the rights that must always be taken into account when reporting. This is often opposed to the basic right of freedom of the press, which is why it must be carefully weighed in each individual case which right is to be rated as higher.

Journalistic independence is one of the most important criteria for serious reporting. In everyday life this means: If the journalist or someone close to them is involved in things they want to report on, it is better to have a colleague do the reporting in order to dispel any suspicion of influencing them from the start. For example, a journalist who is himself a member of a political party can hardly report impartially about what is going on in that party.

To a certain extent, the journalist is dependent on certain information from insiders. In the course of research, the journalist often has to access this information without naming the informant. This is known as informant protection and is considered to be one of the greatest assets of journalism. For example, the journalist can also make use of his right to refuse to testify should the reporting lead to legal proceedings in which the other side also wants to know who passed the information on to the press.

The ethical principles of journalism apply not only to the traditional media, but also to online media, which are often viewed by the public even more suspiciously than a newspaper or a television program. Although the Internet has proven to be a convenient means of research, the journalist must observe the duty of care much more intensely than if he researched in the traditional way. The reason: Anyone can post any information on the Internet regardless of its truthfulness, which is why this information must never be used without thorough counter-research.

[Back to course structure]