Man Bites Dog: The Nature and Nurture of Ethical Journalism

Man Bites Dog: The Nature and Nurture of Ethical Journalism

Category : Global News

In our age of “fake news” with journalists widely distrusted by the public, we may benefit from a better understanding of what good journalists do, how to identify ethical journalism, and how to support more of it.

Despite what some pundits would have us believe, good journalists do exist. They work each day with the highest professional ethical standards in mind.

According to The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), ethical journalism is “truthful, compassionate, independent and transparent.” We need ethical journalism now more than ever.

No journalist is ever wholly objective on any news topic, especially if controversial. However, good news stories written by ethical journalists are not that hard to spot.

Good journalists report all the sides in any issue as accurately and as equally as possible. Good journalists make sure all opposing viewpoints are represented fairly. No special interest get special treatment in the selection of quotes or facts.

Good journalists may have their own views on the people and events they cover, especially when controversial, but you will find no trace of it in their writings. Their news stories are free of bias. A news story may have an “angle” or “news hook,” but never a slant.

Good journalists verify all facts in a story from at least two reliable “sources,” more if possible, and ideally from a variety of sources. In a story on a traffic accident, for instance, statements from the drivers are balanced by statements by at least one eye-witness along with quotes from the investigating officer and ideally the police accident report.

Good journalists ask the tough questions. They dig for the story behind the story. The investigate and  report the truth as best they can learn it. They do not accept anything they are told at face value. They stay skeptical without becoming cynical.

Good journalists verify each “fact” from as many sources as possible, the more the better. In the canon of ethics for journalists, news stories citing only one single source are discouraged, although necessary at times, but that single source must be carefully vetted and corroborated before the news story ever appears in print.

A reporter may quote a news source stating an opinion (placing the quote where it best fits the story flow), but good journalists differentiate opinions from facts in all news writing. Even if they agree, they accept as given that beliefs are not facts.

Good journalists write tight and get it right. Simple nouns and verbs do the job of reporting the news. Good news stories are free of undue adjectives and adverbs.
Features stories may show off a writer’s creativity and perspective, but not hard news stories. Opinions belong on the editorial page, not the news pages.

Good journalists are skilled at writing “straight news.” Their stories usually use an “inverted pyramid” style. The most crucial facts are on top, called “the lead,” followed by a “nut graph” or “neck” paragraph (or two) placing the news event into context. Nut graphs help readers make sense of the news The rest of the story presents facts and quotes in descending order of importance.

A playful example:

Headline: “Man bites big dog.”
Lead: “A local man yesterday was first to bite into a 15-foot hotdog offered free to the public at the grand opening of the new Mustard’s Last Stand food cart downtown.”
Nut graph or neck: “The food cart is among a dozen small businesses opening this month as part of the city’s  economic revitalization initiative.”

FYI: The inverted pyramid style goes back to the earliest days of print newspapers. News stories often were and still are cut for length, from the bottom up, to fit all the stories into the available space (the “news hole” is determined by how much advertising is sold). If only the first paragraph or two sees print, that’s still enough to report the core news.

Now you have the basics of what makes any news story trustworthy.

I’m bringing all this to your attention because this week, April 22-28, is “Ethics in Journalism Week.”  In connection with this observance, SPJ.org offers a simple four-part Code of Ethics that all good journalist follow:

  • Seek truth and report it — Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.
  • Minimize harm — Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.
  • Act independently — The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.
  • Be accountable and transparent — Ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public.

If you read a news story in any publication that meets these ethical standards, then you are reading the work of good journalists.

We will continue to suffer fake news and unreliable reporting only if we tolerate it. Talk back. Object to unethical journalism, Never accept it a “normal.”

Whenever you spot ethical reporting in a newspaper or magazine, or on the internet, you can support quality journalism by sending a short, polite note to the editor or publisher. You can help the venture stay in business by thanking the advertisers or other backers, saying you found them through a publication you trust.

We may dislike the news being reported. We may dislike what the facts imply about some notion of reality we hold dear. That’s fine. Demand solid evidence and debate the facts openly. Truth and the rule of law uphold democratic republics.

Demand and support ethical journalism. The Fourth Estate remains our best guarantor of freedom and democracy in America and the world.


Judah Freed worked four decades in Denver as a local to national and international journalist before moving to Kauai in 2010. He is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists and the Hawaii chapter of SPJ.

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About Author

Judah Freed

Judah Freed is the author of Global Sense and the publisher at Hoku House.

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