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Mar 17 / King Kaufman

Society and technology change: Should journalism ethics evolve too?

If you’ve got a little time, here’s some heavy reading that I think you’ll find interesting. It’s a keynote speech by Steve Buttry, Digital Transformation Editor at the news publishing company Digital First Media, at a Digital Journalism Ethics Symposium last week at the University of Colorado.

Buttry, whose wisdom is often quoted in the Bleacher Report Blog, argues that as society changes and technology transforms communication, journalism ethics must evolve. He notes that the ethics behind such revered documents as the U.S. Constitution and the Hippocratic Oath have changed over the years. The former originally considered blacks subhuman, and the latter required doctors not to take money for teaching medicine.

An important thing to remember about a code of ethics is that it’s nothing more than a set of rules. Rules can be broken. So having the rules doesn’t guarantee ethical behavior, and, as with the Constitution and the Hippocratic Oath, there’s no guarantee that what the rules say are ethical will always be considered ethical. Buttry writes:

I want to note that efforts in this nation to outlaw abortion or marijuana or alcohol or marriages by gay and lesbian couples didn’t come close to stopping people from ending pregnancies, altering their moods or expressing commitment to their lovers. That’s something to keep in mind if you’re drafting an ethics code for your news organization … Good journalism ethics don’t grow from strong rules. Good journalism ethics grow from strong conversations about our values and about making good decisions based in those values.

Buttry notes that while many organizations agree on the core principles of an ethics code—usually some variation of the Society of Professional Journalists’ “Seek truth and report it; minimize harm; act independently; be accountable”—there are often shifts in emphasis over time. Buttry writes that in his own writing, he has changed his view to value transparency (“be accountable”) more than independence (“act independently”), as he often blogs “about matters in which I’m intimately involved.”

I disclose those involvements and my readers can decide whether that involvement influences my judgment or heightens my insight or both. Or neither. But if you read my blog, you know my experiences and connections.

The teeth of Buttry’s speech is his “thoughts about the guidance we need to offer journalists today about accuracy, attribution, confidential sources and social media.”

I won’t go over it here. It’s 5,000-plus and worth the read. But as one example, I’ll mention that Buttry writes about the continuing refusal of many outlets to link to digital sources, and how ethical codes have been slow to require linking. “Anyone striving for relevance in ethical leadership needs to address the issue of linking in digital content,” he writes.

We at Bleacher Report, which has long required its writers to link to any digital source of information, obviously agree.

Do you agree with Buttry? Should ethics change over time or are they fundamental and unchanging?