Should science journalists have an ethical code?

A journalist might instinctively baulk at the idea of an ethical code. However, in a world where the use of social media means that news can be broadcast in a matter of seconds and anyone can call themselves a journalist, there is a convincing argument that guidelines be introduced.

Bagla says there are many 'basic truths' in journalism, like accuracy. Credit: Katherine Nightingale

“It’s certainly open to debate whether people feel these codes are helpful, but I think it helps to have some kind of yardstick, a set of norms, especially for people working on their own,” Cristine Russell, from the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing, United States, told a session on the subject.

It would also be useful for people who are new to the profession. But drawing up an ethical framework for journalists has its challenges.

It is difficult to decide what is right and wrong, good and bad, particularly as such a framework would have to transcend cultural boundaries, David Dickson, director of SciDev.Net, told the meeting.

A code would have to take into consideration different versions of best practices adopted by different organisations and the fact that journalists from different regions of the world are subject to different kinds of pressures and commitments when reporting. Journalists themselves also come from very different backgrounds.

But Pallava Bagla from New Delhi Television, India, argued that there are several basic given truths that one could start with when drafting an ethical code.

“There are many basic truths in journalism,” he told me after the meeting. “When it comes to issues like credibility, accuracy and plagiarism, it is obvious where we should stand. Guidelines should be developed, and the organisations or journalists should tweak them,” he said. “The code of ethics should be allowed to evolve.”

Rouwen Lin, SciDev.Net contributor

2 Responses to Should science journalists have an ethical code?

  1. Maryn says:

    Aww c’mon. It can’t be that hard: The (US) Society of Professional Journalists and Association of Health Care Journalists already have them. (I am board member AHCJ.)

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