Handbook of Independent Journalism (7-End) : Ethics and Law

A FREE press has tremendous power, if power is defined as the capacity to influence others. The news media in a democracy generally have the right to report information without prior government approval.

Many countries provide legal protections to journalists so they can exercise that right. But with rights come responsibilities.

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For journalists, the most basic responsibility in a free society is to report the news accurately and fairly: to practice ethical journalism.

Ethics is a system of principles that guides action. While the law establishes what you can and cannot do in a given situation, ethics tells you what you should do.

It is based on values — personal, professional, social, and moral — and springs from reasoning. Ethical decision-making simply means applying these values in your daily work.

The Declaration of Chapultepec, approved by countries in the Americas in 1994 as a counter to pressures on freedom of expression throughout the hemisphere, makes clear that ethical journalism is essential to the long-term success of the news media:

The credibility of the press is linked to its commitment to truth, to the pursuit of accuracy, fairness, and objectivity and to the clear distinction between news and advertising.

The attainment of these goals and the respect for ethical and professional values may not be imposed. These are the exclusive responsibility of journalists and the media. In a free society, it is public opinion that rewards or punishes.

Ethical lapses do occur in journalism. Reporters have invented information. Editors have accepted payments from sources. News organizations have published advertisements in the guise of news.

When this happens, the public has a right to question everything that appears in the news media.

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