This column first appeared in the newsletter for the Media Ethics Division of AEJMC.
There has never been a better time to be a collegiate journalist—or a more challenging one.
Covering campus creates trials that transcend stereotypical stories about housing, food or Greek life. Now the news is of global pandemics and racial inequality, rising crime and ethnic disparities.
In truth, covering a college campus as a member of student media provides ethical challenges that transcend conventional media. Student-journalists report their community from the inside, chronicling clubs to which they may belong, student-athletes with whom they share classes, and holding accountable the leadership that sets policies impacting the community as a whole.
The majority of student journalists are instructed to follow the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, which provides a framework on which to build ethical standards of coverage.
The code, last revised in 2014, is categorized under four main headings:
• Seek Truth and Report It
• Minimize Harm
• Act Independently
• Be Accountable and Transparent
SPJ has determined these four principles to be the foundation of ethical journalism and encourages their use by all people in all media.
But the immersive nature of collegiate student journalists, which provides access and insight, also means that they need guidelines that are more tailored to the specific ethical challenges they face.
It was with that motivation that I applied for and was accepted into the Ohio State Center for Human Values Ethics Circle in the Spring of 2021 and used the experience to craft delve deeper into the specific ethical needs of collegiate journalists.
The result was the creation of the College Journalist’s Code of Ethics, an addendum to the SPJ Code of Ethics I plan to dispense to my students and our student editors and reports at the Ohio State Lantern. The goal is to see ethics for our student journalists through the lens by which they provide coverage, and for us to train future generations of journalists and media consumers through the use of the code in a class assignment in Media Law and Ethics.
Like the SPJ Code, this addendum has four main categories:
• Professionalism and Transparency
• Diversify Voices
• Serve Your Populations
• Fairness And Accuracy
Some of the guidelines may seem familiar to the SPJ Code but others have come out of our specific coverage experiences. They include:
1. Be fair and accurate when reporting your stories and recognize the need to identify yourself as a reporter anywhere and everywhere you encounter a source or potential source, including classes, school facilities or in social situations.
2. Press releases, email interviews and prepared statements may make reporting easier, but they are not the most effective way to serve your community. Get firsthand interviews and accounts when possible and conduct your own reporting.
3. If you have personal issues or unavoidable conflict of interest, real or perceived, in covering stories or participating in editorial decisions, reveal them to your adviser and editors right away so that you make work through the potential for coverage or participation.
4. A cohesive staff is important, but do not let friendships get in the way the professionalism Of course, it’s not a bad thing to be friends with your coworkers. Just be cognizant to encourage people of all different backgrounds and opinions to join the newspaper, even if your social circle is mostly homogenous. Diversity strengthens journalism.
5. Conduct a source audit at least once a semester to understand the bias that may creep into your reporting through sources.
6. Many of your sources, especially students, are not savvy about media coverage and may not realize the long-lasting implications of the information they provide. Ensure your sources are aware that the information they are providing can and will be disseminated beyond the boundaries of campus.
7. Consider unintended or undesirable consequences that may result from a story or interview in the near term and in the future for your sources.
8. Be aware that using university resources to contact sources can feel like an intrusion to those who call campus home, and be respectful and judicious in using such resources.
9. Remember that views held and actions taken in your late teens and early 20s can have long-lasting ramifications in the age of Google. Be conscious of this when posting controversial viewpoints or compromising images that may have questionable news value.
10. Words that live online have a long and everlasting reach. Establish a content-neutral policy as it relates to unpublishing online content if requested by subjects and authors, and apply your policy with fairness and a full explanation.
The complete 25-point College Journalist Code is still being refined, and this fall it will be used as part of an assignment to encourage students to understand why it is important for journalists to be ethical and why it is important to establish a Code of Ethics.
As part of the assignment, teams of students will be assigned one of the four sections and each team member will interview real student journalists about the topic and obtain real-life examples of the recommendations.
In addition, students will develop at least three recommendations for additional ethical considerations that should be added to the code, one of which can be a modification of a current ethical consideration.
The teams will then record a video conversation about the Code, their examples, and their suggestions for additions.
It is a challenging time to be a student journalist, and the lack of understanding of how journalists do their job can make it especially difficult when the coverage population includes friends, classmates and instructors.
This living document is intended to be utilized in conjunction with other ethical frames to help student media be responsible and responsive in their coverage.
Please contact me at [email protected] you would like to see our completed Code and assignment. Together we can work to help our students build the ethical frames that will benefit their coverage and journalism as a whole.