Get ready for ONA's DIY Ethics Code, because one size does not fit all

By on March 19, 2014

Most journalists understand the importance of an ethics code. But in our fast-changing profession, not everyone agrees on exactly what the code should say.

In an effort to bridge this gap, ONA is hard at work on a “Build Your Own Ethics Code” project, an outgrowth of the new News Ethics Committee. We’re curating a toolkit to help news outlets, as well as individual bloggers/journalists, create guidelines that respond to their own concepts of journalism.

An international group of about 25 contributors from news outlets, academia and social networks volunteered to write or review parts of the project, each taking a different topic. The first draft is nearly ready, and we’ll be opening it up for virtual crowdsourcing for comments in May at the International Journalism Festival in Perugia, Italy.

Keep an eye out in May for the launch of virtual crowdsourcing so you can add your ethics issues to ONA’s Build Your Own codes. We’ll be announcing from Perugia, Italy, where @tjrkent will be leading an ethics presentation at the International Journalism Festival #ijf14.

The toolkit starts with a small set of principles we think most journalists will consider fundamental. Points like: Tell the truth. Don’t plagiarize. Correct your errors.

Then it will guide users into a choice between a) traditional objective journalism, where your personal opinion is kept under wraps, and b) “transparency” journalism, meaning it’s fine to write from a certain political or social point of view as long as you’re upfront about it. We’ll also consider forms of journalism rooted in national traditions that differ from Western models.

Then we move on to nearly 40 more finely detailed issues on which honest journalists might disagree. For instance:

● Removal of items from online archives
● Use of anonymous sources
● Quoting, without permission, comments people make on social media
● Social media sources, verification and corrections
● Handling racial references hate speech and vulgarities
● Coverage of suicides, hostage incidents and bomb threats

In each case, we’ll cite various points of view. You can select for yourself one of the options, or develop your own approach. We’ll encourage you to publish the code you eventually create, and hold yourself or your organization to it.

The project will be “published” for general use only after crowdsourcing for comments and criticism.

And because the digital news ecosystem is a moving target, we expect the toolkit to be a living thing, with updates and expansion as new ethical issues arise and perspectives on journalism change.

Our initial group of volunteer writers and reviewers includes:

Alan Abbey, Shalom Hartman Institute, Jerusalem, National University, San Diego
Gil Asakawaka, University of Colorado and
Paul Bradshaw, Birmingham City University
Steve Buttry, Digital First Media
Eric Carvin, The Associated Press
David Craig, University of Oklahoma
Katy Culver, School of Journalism & Mass Communication, Center for Journalism Ethics
University of Wisconsin-Madison, EducationShift
Monica Guzman, Geekwire/Seattle Times
Thomas Kent, The Associated Press, Columbia University (project leader)
Peggy Kreshel, Grady College of Journalism
Kirk LaPointe, Organization of News Ombudsman, University of British Columbia
Mark Luckie, Twitter
Joe Mathewson, Medill School of Journalism
Kelly McBride, The Poynter Institute
Joy McDonald, Scripps Howard School of Journalism
Shawn McIntosh, Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Steve Outing, Digital Media Commentator
Lee Anne Peck, University of Northern Colorado
Jessica Plautz, Mashable
Jennifer Preston, The New York Times
Paula Poindexter, University of Texas, Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication
Geanne Rosenberg, CUNY, Benjamin Cardozo School of Law
Craig Silverman, media commentator and entrepreneur
Rachel Stassen-Berger, Star-Tribune, Minneapolis
Sylvia Stead, Globe and Mail, Toronto
Paul Voakes, University of Colorado
Stephen Ward, University of Oregon
Wendy Wyatt, University of St. Thomas, Minnesota

More to come soon as we launch the general crowdsourcing. For more information, contact us at

By Thomas Kent, The Associated Press, ONA News Ethics Committee