What they are and where they come from

Aidan White

The first attempts to articulate the rights and responsibilities of journalists which form the basis for modern notions of ethical journalism were made more than 150 years ago at a time of confrontation between The Times of London and the British government.

John Thaddeus Delane, the editor, responded to government criticism of the paper by articulating a complete philosophy and body of principle for the guidance of journalism. In two leading articles in February 1852, he underlined the cardinal principle of truth-telling: “The duty of the journalist is the same as that of the historian — to seek out the truth, above all things, and to present to his readers the truth as he can attain it.”

He underscored the duty of journalism to be independent from government: “…to perform its duties with entire independence, the press can enter into no close or binding relations with the statesmen of the day, nor can it surrender its permanent interest to the convenience of the power of any government.” In order to achieve these objectives, he argued, the press has to be free “to investigate truth and apply it on fixed principles to the affairs of the world.”


“Newspapers B&W” by Jon S licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0


Applying these principles, the Manchester Guardian famously criticised its Government and risked the support of popular opinion in its reporting of the Boer war at the end of the 19th Century. Its greatest editor C. P. Scott and owner John Edward Taylor were ready to sacrifice the commercial success of the paper to preserve journalistic integrity — better extinction, they said, than a failure of principle.

Scott wrote most of the great things that have been said about newspapers. One message that particularly resonates today in talk about self-regarding free speech and the Internet is from his centenary article in 1921 where he wrote:

“Comment is free, but facts are sacred…the voice of opponents, no less than of friends, has a right to be heard. Comment also justly is subject to a self-imposed restraint. It is well to be frank, it is even better to be fair.”

From these noble efforts, codes and standards were developed by journalists, editors, publishers and others to protect the notion of editorial independence and “fourth estate” journalism. Today, there more than 400 codes and statements of principle that have been developed around the world over the past 100 years. These are mostly voluntary codes and they provide an aspirational framework for the exercise of journalism.

They have been developed at national and international level by media professional groups, often in consultation with lawyers, media academics and civil society groups. Many media organisations and journalists’ bodies have developed their own codes, some of them included in formal contracts of employment for journalists and other editorial staff.

While many journalists are unaware of the exact wording of the codes and may struggle to recite the precise elements of their national, international or even enterprise code, the cardinal principles which underpin ethical journalism work are well understood. They are instantly recognisable to media staff around the world as a shared and common basis for editorial work. These fundamental values are:

  • Accuracy and fact-based communicationsJournalists cannot always guarantee ‘truth’, but getting the facts right is the cardinal principle of journalism. Journalists should always strive for accuracy, give all the relevant facts and ensure that they have been checked.

  • IndependenceJournalists must be independent voices; they should not act, formally or informally, on behalf of special interests whether political, corporate or cultural. They should declare to their editors – or directly to the audience – any relevant information about political affiliations, financial arrangements or other personal connections that might constitute a conflict of interest.

  • Fairness and ImpartialityMost stories have at least two sides. While there is no obligation to present every side in every piece, the stories produced by journalists should strive for balance and provide context. Objectivity is not always possible, and may not always be desirable (in the face, for example, of clear and undeniable brutality or inhumanity), but impartial reporting builds trust and confidence.

  • HumanityJournalists should do no harm. They should show sensitivity and care in their work recognising that what they publish or broadcast may be hurtful. It is not possible to report freely and in the public interest without occasionally causing hurt and offence, but journalists should always be aware of the impact of words and images on the lives of others. This is particularly important when reporting on minorities, children, the victims of violence, and vulnerable people.

  • Accountability and TransparencyA key principle of responsible journalism is the ability to be accountable. Journalists should always be open and transparent in their work except in the most extraordinary of circumstances. When they make mistakes they must correct them and expressions of regret must be sincere. They listen to their audience and provide remedies to those dealt with unfairly.

Although these ethics are generally well understood inside journalism, to be useful they have to be applied in the real world of reporting. Most news media provide detailed advice to their editors, reporters and production staff to illustrate how they work in practice. This advice comes in the form of “style guides,” or occasional instructions, or through detailed editorial and production guidelines.