Integrity, credibility = your license to be a reporter


by Bob Kay

Unlike doctors and lawyers, journalists are not required to be licensed and be subject to an official code whereby they can lose their permission to practice in a certain field. Nonetheless, professional journalists are subject to their own code of ethics such as the one created by the Society of Professional Journalists. In this code the SPJ urges all journalists to follow four important principles: seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable.

Even though there is not a legal code that journalists must follow, as a scholastic journalist you need to follow the principles of the SPJ code or you can suffer certain legal consequences. One of those consequences is that you may be sued for libel. But more importantly, if you don’t follow some kind of ethical code you will lose your credibility as a journalist. When this happens there is no need for an official board to take away your “license” to practice journalism. People won’t believe you and won’t read your work. Publications won’t hire you, and your writing in social media circles will even fall on deaf ears.

As an adviser, it’s important that you provide clear ethical standards for your staff. You need to have a clear editorial policy and code spelled out and distributed to each staff member. There should be some type of editorial policy printed in your publications. Most importantly, teach ethical responsibility in your classrooms. While I was an advisor I always challenged students with typical hypothetical ethical situations that they would encounter while working as a journalist to see how they would respond. For example, what if you happen to hear a coach using profanity with one of his players while you are eavesdropping, and haven’t identified yourself as a reporter. Should you print this?

In the end you must preach integrity and responsibility to your staffs, and make sure they have clear guidelines and a “journalist’s ethical compass” as they ply their trade.

Bob Kay is the former newspaper adviser at Grayslake Central High School in Illinois.  An attorney, he is now a member of the KEMPA board.  His blog focuses on First Amendment issues for scholastic publications.