Now a look at the “Should We?”


Law tells us the “could we?” when it comes to online and other types of media. Could we include first and last names with photos on our Web site? Could we publish minors’ names if they are found guilty of a crime? Could we write about birth control? Could we publish a letter to the editor without including the writer’s name?

You can find the answers to these questions based on court cases – precedents that help lawyers and judges – and journalists! — decide how to deal with new situations as they come along. The answer, by the way, is “yes” to all these legal questions – according to the courts.

But that doesn’t mean we always want to do something just because we can. Exploring that gray area between “could we?” and “should we?” is what happens when we apply ethics. Once staff members have decided they have the law on their side, they still may need to talk long and hard about their reasons for publishing something.

To help them make tough decisions, staffs might want to look at the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, approved by the organization in 1996. Briefly, it states journalists should

• Seek truth and report it. Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.

Minimize Harm. Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.

• Act Independently. Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.

Be Accountable. Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.

For more explanation of the code:

What about cyber reporting? Do the same ethical standards apply? Journalists in recent years have been concerned because bloggers and others who embrace “citizen journalism” often have not studied ethics and may not think such codes should apply to them.

Jonathan Dube of disagrees. His site takes a look at the Internet and new technologies and how these impact media. His Bloggers’ Code of Ethics uses the SPJ code as its basis.

Could we? Maybe. Should we? Let’s study each situation more closely.

Aaron Manfull

Aaron is in his 26th year of advising student media. He is currently the Director of Student Media at Francis Howell North High School in St. Charles, Missouri. He is the Journalism Education Association Digital Media Chair and co-Director of Media Now. He is the 2023 JEA Teacher Inspiration Award Winner and is a former Dow Jones News Fund National Journalism Teacher of the Year. He is one of the authors of the textbook "Student Journalism and Media Literacy." You can find him on X and Instagram @manfull. He's a proud father. A transplanted Iowan. And an avid Hawkeye Fan.

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