Ethics: A matter of trust and honesty

By · Sunday, February 27th, 2011

Today’s topic in the editing class that I teach at the Newhouse School is “ethics.”

This is one of my favorite topics, although it saddens me as well.

Why? Because there are so many examples out there of people making unethical decisions or, worse, not taking ethics into consideration at all.

I was struck last week by a string of three headlines on our local website, One by one, each headline told of someone who had been accused of, charged in connection with or convicted in a case that had to do with trust and honesty.

Ethical decisions don’t involve what is legal or illegal. They are a matter of doing the right thing or at least striving, always, to make the best decision with conscience. How?

We advocate in our book, “Think Like an Editor,” that when faced with an ethical decision, you consider the key stakeholders:

  • Audience
  • Peers and profession
  • Yourself

Journalists represent others, not just themselves. They have a responsibility not only to readers and sources, but to advertisers as well. They also must live with every decision, so personal stakes are high, too. Every decision will not “break your way,” but you still must be comfortable with the way things are done.

One way to do that is to picture yourself explaining the decision after it has been made. Can you be comfortable revealing to an outsider:

  • Who met and talked about it
  • How the discussion proceeded
  • What viewpoints were raised
  • How the decision was reached

By setting your mind on the outcome, you will be helping yourself in the present. As we say in the book:

Journalism is founded on this kind of openness, which we expect from others in our reporting every day. We recoil at secrets.

I’m looking forward to an hour of enlightened and enlightening discussion about ethics today, in our allotted class time. But the matter will not end there. It is something we all deal with any time we have choices to make.

Emilie Davis

For more about ethics, read Strategy 39: Ethics


When I taught a journalism class at Virginia Commonwealth University, I asked each student to write their personal ethics statement to help drive home the importance of behaving ethically. Some of the students said writing the statement helped them understand that ethical behavior is each journalist’s responsibility.