Opinion writing is high on the list of ethical misconduct. It is fertile ground for poisonous weeds, toxic entanglements, and libel ab initio. Its place in the world of publication comes from a basic understanding of what opinions are not—they are not necessarily true. By definition, an opinion is a viewpoint or a judgment formed about something, not necessarily based on fact or knowledge. Since they make no pretense of truthfulness, opinions avoid some of the ethical dilemmas encountered when writers actually try to tell the truth. Nonetheless, it has its own demons and zombies lurking about waiting to pounce on unethical opinion writers. Hence this study on the ethics of writing opinions.
There is a clear dividing line between the strata of opinion writers. First in stratification are journalists, columnists, and reporters. The rest of us are second. This dividing line stems from journalists having written ethical standards to help them steer around ethical cesspools. They also claim fealty to and protection by academic and professional clubs. Their membership status rewards them with standards and defenses not generally available to the rest of us.
The Society of Professional Journalists is a broad-based journalism organization dedicated to two intertwined and overlapping goals. They advocate the free practice of journalism and high standards of ethical behavior. The Preamble to their bylaws establishes the connection between their constitutional rights and their ethical standards. “We do hereby establish and ordain these bylaws of the Society of Professional Journalists, which seeks to unite journalists of talent, truth and energy in good fellowship; to assist the members in living up to the noblest principles of journalism; and to advance the standards of journalism by TAKING ACTION to help safeguard First Amendment guarantees and ensure freedom of information, FOSTERING adherence to a code of ethical principles, CREATING opportunities for professional development, ENCOURAGING diversity in coverage and staffing at all levels of the profession, thus increasing journalism’s value as a democratic institution.”
The SPJ’s code includes four core ethical requirements. (1) Seek Truth and Report It; (2) Minimize Harm; (3) Act Independently; (4) Be Accountable and Transparent. Each core requirement is supported by dozens of specific explanations, parallels, and directives. The disclaimer at the end of their code is as important as the code itself. “The SPJ Code of Ethics is a statement of abiding principles supported by additional explanations and position papers that address changing journalistic practices. It is not a set of rules, rather a guide that encourages all who engage in journalism to take responsibility for the information they provide, regardless of medium. The code should be read as a whole; individual principles should not be taken out of context. It is not, nor can it be under the First Amendment, legally enforceable.”
Three out of the four core ethical requirements are self-explanatory. One stands out—the directive to minimize harm. It seems diluted, especially when compared to the Physicians Oath—Do No Harm. However, the direction to minimize harm is reasonable, as explained in the Code’s fine print.
- Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort.
- Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.
- Show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage.
- Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes, and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent.
- Consider cultural differences in approach and treatment.
- Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.
- Realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention.
- Weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information.
That code and others vested in academe are sufficient ethical directives. They do not apply to the rest of us because we’re not safeguarding the First Amendment, uniting in good fellowship, ensuring freedom of information, encouraging diversity, or increasing journalism’s value as a democratic institution. We are just writing our own opinions about things with an eye toward publication. So, ethical norms govern us.
There are at least seven gems we can borrow from the SPJ.
- Be wary about opinions that are potentially harmful.
- Don’t be arrogant or intrusive.
- Show compassion on the page along with firmly held opinions.
- Be especially sensitive when opining about juveniles, sex crime victims, or domestic violence.
- Carefully consider cultural differences in opinions.
- Recognize each individual’s inherent right to privacy.
- When opining about the follies, foolishness, ineptness, and political angst of politicians, make sure your opinion is taken as an opinion, not a fact.
I am an author and a part-time lawyer with a focus on ethics and professional discipline. I teach creative writing and ethics to law students at Arizona State University. Read my bio.
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