The Online News Association this month is launching its “do-it-yourself” ethics code project. It’s a mechanism to help news organizations, small startups and individual journalists and bloggers create their own codes of ethics. It’s also a resource for journalism students creating their own personal ethics statements.

“Do-it-yourself ethics” has a funny ring to it, though. It hasn’t taken long for questions to come in:

  • Are we saying journalists can choose whatever ethics they want and still be journalists?
  • Are ethics relative, varying by country and culture?
  • What about traditional codes of ethics? Are we trying to replace them?

Below is what the ONA team thinks. The project is still in a crowdsourcing stage, so we want your views, too. (Join us at http://bit.ly/onacrowdsourcing.) Only after several months of comments and suggestions will we consider the project truly ready for use.

ona-conference-full-color-rgb-514x139The “DIY” initiative came out of an open workshop at the Online News Association annual conference last October. About 200 people gathered around easels, trying to select the most important ethics projects for ONA to focus on. One of those selected was the DIY effort.

Behind the DIY initiative is the idea that our profession these days encompasses ever more people, philosophies and definitions of “who is a journalist.” Some believe that a sense of ethics may actually be the most important way to identify who’s a journalist and what a person actually means by the term.

But some journalists don’t even know where to start in defining their own code of ethics.

In the months since the ONA conference, about 20 people from universities, large news organizations and news startups in four countries have been trying to respond to this need. We’ve composed and edited pages dealing with the most common ethical issues journalists face.

Starting with fundamentals

We started with some fundamental ethics principles, lest people design codes so broad that they would lose all meaning. (The loss of all meaning actually wouldn’t be a problem, in the view of those who consider everyone with a cellphone and Twitter account to be a journalist. But we do see a distinction between people who post news on a social network now and then and those who consider themselves committed to the journalistic profession.)

Our basics include just 10 fundamental concepts (tell the truth, don’t plagiarize, don’t take money to skew your stories, etc.). We tried hard to keep this list as short as possible; we wanted every one of them to be an idea anyone could accept.

But after those, we move on to ethical questions where honest journalists can disagree. For instance, some of us have no problem with writing from a certain political point of view (as long as we’re transparent about it). Others favor the traditional principles of objectivity and neutrality. Our code can encompass either approach.

In all, our site contains about 40 pages on such ethical issues as as hate speech, photo editing, suicides, social networks and removing items from online archives. For each, we offer various points of view to help users decide what approach is right for them.

Example: Some journalists believe hate speech and actions should be reported. Sunlight, they say, is the best disinfectant; hate groups need to be exposed. Others believe the opposite: News organizations have no duty to cover haters and reward them with publicity. Our page on the subject doesn’t declare who’s right, but presents arguments on both sides. (We need more ideas, links and international perspectives for many of our pages, so please join our crowdsourcing and offer them.)

Are ethics relative?

We’ve been asked if our project means that ethics are relative. The ombudsman of a major European news organization told me that if the world’s journalists can’t settle on a single, universal ethics code, “they should be locked in a room until they do.”

A code everyone can agree on would be a great thing. In our work, we consulted at least 15 ready-made ethics codes from 10 countries. Such codes will fit the needs of many journalists just as they are. (Full disclosure: I’ve been asked to help with the ongoing revisions of the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics code.)

But we believe differences of opinion on some ethical issues are so great that many journalists and organizations will prefer the DIY model. Should Dominique Strauss-Kahn’s “perp walk” after his arrest in New York have been shown on TV? Of course, say most American journalists, because it shows how he looks in police custody. No way, say many French reporters, because he hadn’t yet been convicted of anything. However long journalists are locked in a room, it’s unlikely they’ll come to a common view on subjects like this.

Similarly, the ethics codes of some news organizations mandate respect for the state or the national religion. To journalists elsewhere, such provisions would be anathema.

Not everyone who uses our site will create an entire ethics code from it. Some will use the project simply as a basis for ethics discussions in the newsroom. We also know that an ethics code isn’t a Potter Box that will produce an answer to any question dropped in; it’s a basis for decision-making as individual cases arise.

DIY ethics in the classroom

Students can use the DIY ethics project to develop their own standards to guide decisions. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Joi Ito, https://www.flickr.com/photos/joi/3753639451/)

Students can use the DIY ethics project to develop their own standards to guide decisions. (Photo courtesy of Flickr user Joi Ito)

Our special hope is that journalism and mass communication instructors will use our project with their students. Assignments to create personal ethics statements are becoming ever more common in journalism and P.R. classes. Our site should be a valuable resource. Professors may want to require that students come up with their own examples and links for decisions they reach by using our site.

We encourage professors to profit, in particular, from the diversity of students in their classes. Ethical choices that seem obvious to some students may be much more problematic for people from another nation or culture. These differences can be the basis of rewarding class discussions. Many pieces of journalism these days are read around the world. If journalists know that an ethical choice they make will be questioned elsewhere, they can be transparent about the decision they made and why.

Your students are also welcome to join us in the crowdsourcing effort.

Thomas Kent is the leader of the ONA “Make your own ethics code” project. He is the standards editor of The Associated Press and teaches international reporting at Columbia University’s School of International and Public Affairs. He tweets at @tjrkent.