A Do-It-Yourself Code for Ethical Journalism

The Online News Association logo.

The Online News Association logo.

The ethics of journalism is an ever-present question, and one which journalists and editors have varying opinions about. Different situations can require different rules and regulations — there is no one-size-fits-all ethical code.

The Online News Association (ONA) has been crowdsourcing with news writers, researchers, and editors to create an ethics code of journalism that can apply to many situations. The project is oriented towards news organisations, startups, individual journalists and bloggers. 

The project lead, Tom Kent, said in an email interview:

We felt there needed to be an option for those who didn’t want to take a ready-made ethics code of the type many organizations offer, but wanted to work through the creation of their own code reflecting their own journalistic values.

At the heart of the debate on ethical journalism, impartiality in reporting is an ongoing concern for journalists. This project is trying to steer a middle course, offering a set of fundamental principles and including flexible “building blocks” that journalists or organisations can customize depending on their individual view of journalism. The proposed code will also offer arguments from various perspectives on each subject.

The first part of the process was to agree on basic, fundamental concerns for journalists, including “telling the truth”, “conflicts of interest”, “community”, “professional conduct”. They suggest that each news outlet or journalism addresses these concerns first and foremost.

Step two in the process is for the journalist or news outlet to address the question of impartiality. Once this has occurred, they can go on to customize the ethical code as they see fit. This includes choices from a long list of concerns, everything from obscenities and advertising to confidential sources. They try to make sure they have an international reach, a wide range of necessary subjects, and an up-to-date attitude.


The project has gained contributions online, and has been publicized at journalism meetups in Europe, such as WAN-IFRA (Turin, Italy), the Organization of News Ombudsmen (Hamburg, Germany), and the Global Editors Network (Barcelona, Spain).

Built up through a crowdsourced process, a core team of volunteers contribute to the code, and accept comments contributed from interested parties around the world. However, the core team is made up of journalists, news professionals, and journalism educators hailing from a wide range of solely Western organisations. Kent addressed this via email:

We were conscious from the start that the program needed to be truly international. We have worked hard to balance our initial content with comment from around the world, especially through the international gatherings mentioned above (all of them have a good variety of north-south participation). Crowdsourcing (via the online site or in personal contacts) has come from places as varied as India, Ethiopia, Nepal, Kenya and Senegal. We have tried to look at issues as broadly as possible.

He notes that on some issues — he noted that of journalists receiving gifts — they have had discussion with “southern” journalists. 

Kent is currently the standards editor of the Associated Press. The project is created to help those working outside of the typical news system (bloggers, startups, individuals), begging the question of whether or not they are merely reinventing the globalized wheel of mainstream journalism standards. 

Nonetheless, the process has been full of discussion. Kent noted:

I guess I was most surprised by how much attention our crowdsourcers devoted to our fundamental principles, particularly the question of telling the truth. We thought “truth” was a pretty clear concept, but we wound up dealing with some issues that go back to the earliest philosophers: is there only one truth, and who owns it? In response, we talk as much now about honesty, accuracy and fairness as we do about “truth.” 

The project grew out of a workshop at the ONA's annual conference in 2013. Currently working in Google Docs, they will continue their work until the ONA conference in Chicago in September, when they will provide a report on their progress and will move towards a more interactive web interface. 


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