Journalists and publishers alike ought to honour and respect the ethical principles in this line of work. The question is, as a reporter or writer in this industry, how do you know when you’re jumping the gun? Do you rely on precedent matters? Your own experience?

The answers to these questions are, well, complex to say the least; however, worry not! We’re here to unpack them for you, and to discuss some points that are vital for every journalist to take into account — whether you’re out in the field or just in the newsroom going about your daily scope of work.

Here are four principles that every journo should uphold:

1. Be accountable

In order to enjoy your work as a journalist, you need to honour and respect the profession. You need to be able to hold yourself accountable in any situation you may have acted unprofessionally.

Everyone makes mistakes, but very few own up to them and take responsibility, which is why it’s important for journalists to hold themselves accountable — when they’ve acted in either good or bad faith.

When you make errors in your day-to-day work, account for those errors, serve an apology where it’s due and correct them if possible. Being accountable will give a positive impression to your colleagues and will show that you’re an honest writer trying to excel at their job.

2. Seek facts first

In some cases, journalists tend to mesh fact and truth together, or rather, interpret these two as one story. Truth be told, it’s not the same thing. When you seek 'truth', you’re searching for information that has already been proven, whereas when you're searching for facts, you’re using the information you have already gathered to build your story and to unveil the truth.

What a journalist should be looking for initially in any assignment designated to them is the facts — more than anything else. More than that, you’re pushing the boundaries of your journalistic mores.

For example, let’s say you’re pursuing a story about ‘who stole from the cookie jar?’. You might get excited to find out who the culprit is and want to publish speculations on various suspects; however, that’s not a journalist’s job. Your job is to gather the facts from reliable individuals and witnesses to comment on who actually stole the cookies.

Essentially, your task at hand is to gather facts to build the whole story —merely trying to seek who the culprit is a job that should rather be left for the detectives. Once you have all the facts, you can then confidently report on who stole the cookies, when, where and why.

3. Show humanity

For a journo, it’s important to strive to be humble towards others, especially towards your sources. Spend more time listening to them and less time speaking; don't badger your subject.

Even if you’re interviewing someone that is deemed by society to be a criminal, whatever personal emotions you may experience during your assignment, hold them in. Once you throw your emotions into your story, you’re clouding your judgment and the whole article starts to lose its objectivity.

Being humble also means showing sensitivity in situations where a family has lost a loved one or faced a dilemma. It’s not about who breaks the story first; it’s about getting all the facts straight and telling this person or person’s story. Don’t be the journalist who strives to make a name for themselves by exploiting people’s sorrows. Take it easy, be patient and pick the right time to make contact with your subjects.

There’s a huge benefit in waiting: When all your competitor publications have published their ‘scoops’, you now have the opportunity to report the story the right way and to relook at your angle. You’re likely to gather more facts by doing this since you’ve waited until your subjects are willing and ready to talk to you.

4. Strive to be independent and think for yourself

Being an independent journalist means thinking for yourself and not being tempted to accept rewards from politicians, individuals and organisations with an agenda. The only publication you serve is the company that you have been employed by.

When out on the field, it’s important to keep in mind that there are those out there with a hidden agenda, such as, politicians who want revenge, businesses that are trying to bring competitors down and individuals who are looking to degrade one another by utilising your efforts as journalists to settle a score.

It’s, therefore, important to be honest about situations where someone is trying to bribe you, offer expensive gifts or seek favours in exchange for information. This sort of thing needs to be reported to your editor or senior immediately. Be independent, report impartially and stick to your moral compass. In the long run, people will show confidence and trust in you. 

Do you think journalists need rules to regulate them in their work? What are your thoughts? Let us know in the comments section below.

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Did you know that journalists are deemed their own harshest critics in their work? Check out this article on Uncovering the importance of investigative journalism to learn more.