Is your journalism ethical?

The ethical journalism test

<a href="" target="_new">Image by Randen Pederson</a> released via <a href="" target="_blank">Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0</a>
Image by Randen Pederson released via Creative Commons CC BY-SA 2.0

Journalism, PR or propaganda?

If the content you produce pushes an agenda, spins a line, favours a sector of society, promotes a certain initiative without question, is manipulated to achieve a subjective outcome, or has a desired outcome, you are probably producing public relations copy or even propaganda.

Real journalism is based on applying strict editorial ethics to all we do so that we can scrutinise the issues that have the most impact on the lives of our audience.

So, does your journalism pass the test? Consider the following questions to see whether your journalism is ethical or not.

Ten questions to ask yourself

  1. What is my journalistic purpose?
  2. What is my personal motivation?
  3. How can I include others with different perspectives and diverse ideas?
  4. Have I included, in fair measure, perspectives I disagree with?
  5. What motivates those I am interviewing and are my questions fair, leading, or manipulating?
  6. What if the roles were reversed? How would I feel?
  7. Do I have a preferred outcome – an agenda?
  8. What are the possible consequences of my actions  –  short and long term?
  9. What are my alternatives to maximise my truth-telling responsibility and minimise harm?
  10. Am I able to justify my thinking and my decisions to my colleagues, to those I interview, and to the public?

Seven rules for getting it right

  1. Seek truth and report it as fully as possible – eyes wide open.
  2. Act independently – owe nobody and don’t seek favours or favourites.
  3. Minimise harm – had it not been for you, the world would never know.
  4. Assess all facts – don’t ignore the uncomfortable, or that which goes against your script.
  5. Independent sources – don’t follow the flock, find fresh voices and perspectives.
  6. Thoroughly check the validity of information – take nothing at face value.
  7. Be wary of subjective manipulation – don’t be swayed by those who want you to put a positive spin on news.

Seven attitudes of mind

  1. Be honest, fair, and courageous in gathering and reporting.
  2. Give voice to the voiceless, scrutinise the executive and the powerful.
  3. Guard vigorously the role a free media plays in an open society.
  4. Seek out and disseminate competing perspectives.
  5. Remain free of associations and activities that could compromise.
  6. Be compassionate towards those affected by your actions.
  7. Treat all with respect, not as means to your journalistic end.

A dozen rules on accuracy

  1. All work must be well-sourced.
  2. It must be based on sound evidence.
  3. Your writing must be thoroughly fact-checked.
  4. It must be presented in clear, precise language.
  5. Avoid unfounded speculation.
  6. Accuracy is more important than speed.
  7. All the relevant facts and information should be weighed to get to the truth.
  8. If an issue is controversial, relevant opinions as well as facts may need to be considered.
  9. Gather material using first-hand sources wherever possible.
  10. Ensure you read through everything you write.
  11. Check the authenticity of documentary evidence and digital material.
  12. Corroborate claims and allegations made.

Six considerations regarding impartiality and diversity of opinion

  1. Strive to reflect a wide range of opinions.
  2. Be prepared to explore a range of conflicting views.
  3. No significant strand of thought should be ignored or under-represented.
  4. Exercise your editorial freedom to produce content about any subject, at any point on the spectrum of debate, as long as there are good editorial reasons for doing so.
  5. Ensure to avoid bias or an imbalance of views on all issues, particularly controversial subjects.
  6. You will sometimes need to report on issues that may cause serious offence to many. You must be sure that a clear public interest outweighs the possible offence.

The public interest test

  1. Exposing or detecting crime.
  2. Highlighting significant anti-social behaviour, corruption or injustice.
  3. Disclosing significant incompetence or negligence.
  4. Uncovering information that allows people to make more informed decisions about matters of public importance.
  5. Protecting the health and safety of the public.
  6. Preventing the public from being misled.
  7. Protecting issues of freedom of expression.


Be open, honest and straightforward in dealing with contributors, unless there is a clear public interest in doing otherwise. Where allegations are being made, the individuals or organisations concerned should normally be given the right of reply.


It is essential in order to exercise your rights of freedom of expression and information that you work within a framework which respects an individual’s privacy and treats them fairly while investigating and establishing matters which it is in the public interest to reveal.


Always remain independent of both state and partisan interests. Never endorse or appear to endorse any organisations, products, activities or services.


Accept information from any source, but know you will need to make a personal decision as to which information is worth considering and which is not. Sources must always be checked, especially when dealing with first-time sources that have never been used before. It is important to protect sources that do not wish to be named.

The author of this piece, David Brewer, is the founder and editor of Media Helping Media. David has worked as a journalist and manager in print, broadcast, and online. He was the managing editor of BBC News Online when the site launched, the managing editor of International EMEA setting out the editorial proposition, hiring staff and overseeing the launch, the managing editor for the launch of CNN Arabic in Dubai, and a launch consultant for Al Jazeera English in Qatar. He has spent many years delivering journalism training worldwide, mainly in transition and post-conflict countries. He is currently mentoring journalists and editors of refugee and exiled media and helping train journalists in countries where the media is still developing. David is active on Mastodon.