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Cheesehead Chatter: Ethics, morals are part of journalism too

Despite what seems to be an increasingly popular opinion in today's world, the job of a journalist is not to spread "fake news," show biases or make people look bad. I know, that's a crazy concept, right?

Rather, our job - in simplest terms - is to report the news. Seems easy, right? Well, guess again.

I recently attended the annual Minnesota Newspaper Association convention in Bloomington, where I - along with hundreds of others in the newspaper business from around the state - attended workshops, seminars and presentations relating to our field. One of the sessions I attended was about ethics in journalism.

The presenter asked us what we thought our purpose as journalists was. Of course there was a variety of answers, but after we had discussed different ideas, he showed us a quote that said the central purpose of journalism is to "provide citizens with accurate and reliable information they need to function in a free society" ("The Elements of Journalism," by Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel).

That might not be the first thought that pops into your head when thinking about the job of a journalist, but it really is true. And if you haven't already, I hope that quote makes you realize that we, as journalists, don't take our jobs lightly. We know that what we do directly affects society, sometimes in ways we didn't anticipate.

When I got my journalism degree from the University of St. Thomas, the last class I had to take as a graduating journalism student was called communication ethics. That class has really stuck with me because it made me realize how complex this field is and how much people can be affected by the words I write and the pictures I take.

As a small-town journalist for a weekly newspaper, I don't often have earth-shattering, breaking news stories, but that doesn't mean my work can't still have an effect on my readers. That means I have to research my subject matter. I have to find the right people to interview. I have to choose my words carefully. I have to tell all sides of the story. I have to take the right photos. I have to make sure I get it right.

Luckily, journalists have tools that help us "get it right" in terms of ethics. The Society of Professional Journalists - SPJ - has an ethics code that's widely used in the journalism field. Most of my class on ethics in college revolved around this ethics code. The main sections of the code outline a journalist's job as follows: seek the truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable and transparent. Each of those subsections then goes into more detail. In case you're interested, the full code is online at https://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp.

Ethics codes, of course, can't easily solve every ethical dilemma a journalist encounters, but they help. And the SPJ code is just one of several available to us. Many bigger news organizations, like the New York Times, have their own codes that are tailored more to their company but are still helpful to others as well.

In short, journalists - at least the good ones - aren't just feelingless robots who only care about how many readers or viewers they get. We care about the impact we have on society; we care about our subscribers, and we have morals.

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