The NUJ Code of Conduct underpins principles

" Persons seeking wholeness and maturity rise above the implicit utilitarianism of rule-keeping to develop the conscience of virtuous persons. To follow rules blindly is to surrender moral impulse". (Keeble, 2001) Introduction Journalist A is writing a story on drug dealing. He buys drugs undercover from a dealer to get closer to the story and believes this will contribute to the greater good by exposing the dealers in the end.

Journalist B thinks it is wrong to buy drugs to as it breaks his code of conduct and sees other ways in which the story can be approached. Does this reject the above quote from Keeble which says to follow rules blindly is to surrender moral impulse? Journalist B is applying his own values and sticking to the rules, but does this mean his 'moral impulse' is surrendered if he does what he believes is right?

Conor Brady in 'Responsibility in Coverage and the Public Interest', (McGonagle, 1997) outlines existing similarities between journalists and lawyers – both individuals involve themselves at the very deepest levels of other people's lives; both live on another man's wound and in doing so, may lose sight that their routine is another person's crisis; both individuals walk into a major issue of someone's life, summarise it to their own advantage, reach a decision and move on; and both live by the sweat of their brow-beating.

However, no two professions could be as dissimilar in theory and in practice as law and journalism. Every day, journalists face challenges that question both their professional and personal conscience. For a journalist to turn his back on his professional code (i. e. to break the code of conduct) and instead make a judgement based on his own value system, this could result in either success or failure depending on the story. On the other hand, lawyers have a strict professional conscience consisting of rigid rules and regulations, rights and wrongs.

For a lawyer to break his professional code (i. e. to break the 'law') it would more than likely result in severe punishment and redundancy. According to Keeble in 'Ethics for Journalists' (2001), the virtuous journalist is one who questions authority and break rules where necessary. The virtuous lawyer is the one with authority who questions those who break the rules. 'Journalists must seek ethical guidance from within themselves not from codes of organisations, commissions or councils'. (Keeble, 2001)

The NUJ Code of Conduct underpins principles such as social responsibility, professional integrity and respect for the public interest. It is required that journalists commit themselves professionally to this code, but many regard this as an idealistic view of the practice. A journalist battling against time constraints and mounting pressure to get a story before deadline is realistically unlikely to consult the code at the last minute. Ethics act as vehicles for 'professionalisation' – they push forward the highest practices, standards and codes of journalism.

They also act as vehicles for 'concientization' – they are instruments for self-reflection, for understanding ones own work and relating their practice into broader moral and ethical values. (Brants et al. , 1998) The struggle arises when someone's professional integrity collides with his or her own moral conscience. Journalist A broke the code of conduct and sacrificed his professional integrity to satisfy his own conscience. He believed it was his social responsibility to break the law and contribute to the greater good in the long run.

"The concept of professional ethics contains a contradiction between media-centred professionalism and citizen-centred ethics". (Brants et al. , 1998) But what happens when ones personal code of ethics does transcend the law? Many journalists view things such as door stepping, trespassing, inventing quotes, accepting freebies and paying sources perfectly acceptable if it means the resulting story will be in the public interest. However, by trespassing someone's property your are hindering their right to privacy and by inventing someone's quote you are hindering the public's right to truth and honesty.

The British press saw what were blatant invasions of Lady Diana's privacy totally justifiable as she was a public figure and therefore society had a right to know. They saw it as totally ethical; the legal system sees it as totally incorrect. "As far as royalty is concerned, the examples of Di and Fergie are evidence of what is unethical and downright criminal". (Brants et al. , 1998) Journalist Susan O'Keeffe, felt it in the public interest to expose irregularities in the beef industry on television in 1991. She was brought to court to reveal her sources, but refused and the case was acquitted.

The legal system had thought it necessary that she disclose her source of information in the interests of justice and prevention of crime. However, she was guided by her journalistic code of ethics (by refusing to reveal her sources), which superseded any legal obligations. Conclusion The law can be an inhibiting factor. There is no doubt that the media believes that at times they are operating under a legal onus. Journalists feel an inhibition because they have to comply with a legal system that does not encourage them to be courageous and outspoken.

Alternatively, as we move from one socio-political system to another, the media remain not only free from earlier controls but is it possible that they are turning into a chaotic playground void of any rules? 'Professionalism arrests, codes of conduct liberate. Naturally, it is a one-sided story, both ways. ' (Brants, 1998)


Brants, K. , Hermes, J. , & van Zoonen L. ; 1998; The Media in Question: Popular Cultures and Public Interests; Sage Publications; London Keeble, R. 2001; Ethics for Journalists; Routledge; London McGonagle, M. ; 1997; Law and the Media: The views of Journalists and Lawyers; Round Hall Sweet & Maxwell; Dublin.