ONA prepares a DIY ethics code

The Online News Association is working on a crowdsourced ethics code project

The Online News Association is working on “Build Your Own Ethics Code,” a toolkit to help news outlets, bloggers, and journalists decide on ethical guidelines that match their own ideas about reporting and journalism.

The project, which includes the collaboration of ONA’s news ethics committee with roughly two dozen journalists and academics, will give reporters a chance to look at the issues that arise in the course of reporting and to draw up an ethical code based on the kind of work they do and the ethical help they believe they need, said ONA’s executive director, Jane McDonnell.

“I think that when you get journalists in a room together, you can see that there is a complete will to make sure that their reporting and distribution is as close to perfect as they can get it. But the speed at which they work often kind of negates that, or makes it more difficult,” she said.

ONA will also open the project up for crowdsourcing at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy, in early May.

With the media landscape changing so rapidly, reporters need guidance more than ever. “It’s not black and white as it used to be. You had an ethics code that, you know, a corporate media entity handed down to you, and you followed it and you didn’t really veer from that too much. It’s impossible to do that now in some respects,” McDonnell said.

The toolkit is split into three sections. The first covers a handful of “fundamental principles that we think all journalists are likely to agree on,” like protecting sources and avoiding plagiarism, said Thomas Kent, a deputy managing editor at the AP and a member of ONA’s news ethics committee.

The second section gives reporters a choice between a traditional, objective approach to journalism and the style advocated by journalists such as Glenn Greenwald, who make their opinions clear in their work. Finally, the project covers 40 or more “issues on which honest journalists could disagree,” Kent said, including how to handle sensational material and anonymous sources. Each topic will be presented with various points of view, leaving reporters to pick the one they agree with most.

“We want it to reflect the evolution of honest journalism,” Kent said. Crowdsourcing, via email or a comment board, will help the news ethics committee keep an open mind. “We don’t feel that anyone has a monopoly of knowledge about these subjects. We think you have to be honest, but there are lots of points of view.”

McDonnell also said that the guide would be a constantly updated online document. (By contrast, the Society of Professional Journalists’ code hasn’t been updated since 1996.) Reporters will be encouraged to publish the ethical codes they create, and to hold themselves and their news outlets accountable to them. Not all existing news organizations have ethics codes, Kent said, but the ONA expects the project to be particularly useful to startups and independent journalists.

“Our hope is that we’ll be able to raise awareness about these issues,” McDonnell said. “And then, when a journalist is in the middle of reporting and finds himself or herself in a situation that makes them feel uncomfortable, or they have a question about it, they have a place to go to see whether people have dealt with it. And they have a choice.”

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Edirin Oputu is a former assistant editor at CJR. Follow her on Twitter @EdirinOputu Tags: , ,