A code of ethics is a set of guidelines which are designed to set out acceptable behaviors for members of a particular group, association or profession. Journalists, advertisers, and PR professionals each have their own separate code of ethics. These guidelines set by different professions are very similar to one another, but also have their differences in relation to their actual profession. In this blog, I am going to compare and contrast the different codes of ethics, discuss why there are differences given the professional roles, and why or why not all mass media should or should not operate under one code of ethics.
Some of the major points that are similar throughout all of the codes are: truth, honesty, accountability, fairness, respect and avoiding conflicts of interest.
The American Advertising Federation (AAF) says that advertising shall tell the truth, and not mislead the public. AAF also has honesty in its code of ethics. In my opinion though, truth and honesty are essentially the same thing. If an advertiser isn’t being truthful, then they aren’t being honest either. Same with PR professionals and journalists.
All of the codes of ethics expect their professionals to be held accountable for their own work. The Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) code of ethics say that journalists shall admit mistakes and correct them promptly. The Public Relations Society of America (PRSA) also holds independence as a professional value saying that they are accountable for their own actions. Fairness, respect, and avoiding conflicts of interest are other values held throughout the different codes.
While most of these generalized and broad expectations of these different professionals are held throughout all of the different codes of ethics, there has to be some variances between them to adhere to the different jobs of the professions. For example, the American Marketing Association (AMA) values Citizenship in its code of ethics. Neither AAF, SJP, or PRSA have anything about citizenship in its codes. To AMA, citizenship is fulfilling the economic, legal, philanthropic and societal responsibilities that serve stakeholders in a strategic manner.
AAF has Guarantees and Warranties as a part of their code of ethics which neither of the other professions discuss. The Guarantees and Warranties code says that advertising of these things shall be explicit, with sufficient information to apprise consumers of their principal terms and limitations and that advertisement should clearly reveal where the full text of the guarantee or warranty can be examined before purchase. This is necessary for advertisers, but not necessarily a code that could apply to journalists.
Advocacy is a professional value of PRSA. Their code states that they serve the public interest by acting as responsible advocates for those they represent. The other professions don’t necessarily advocate as much as PR professionals do. It is especially important for journalists not to advocate and to provide alternative viewpoints in their work.
Minimizing harm is valued by the SPJ. It is necessary for journalists to treat sources, subjects, and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect. Journalists have to work very closely with their sources, and they also have the duty to seek the truth and report it. PR professionals and advertisers don’t necessarily have to work as closely with people about subjects that could be very sensitive. This is why it is more necessary to have minimizing harm as a value for journalists rather than advertisers and PR professionals.
I don’t think there should be one governing code of ethics for all of these different professions. I think all of them have the same general guidelines such as honesty, integrity, truth, respect and accountability. But the jobs vary too much in some aspects to have one code of ethics apply to all of them. For example, journalists don’t need the code of bait advertising or price claims like the AAF has. Each code of ethics has specified what they expect of their professionals, and it is unreasonable to have one combined code of ethics that apply to some but not to all of the professionals in their respective jobs.
Codes of ethics are a necessity in every profession for many reasons. When an organization or profession has a set code of ethics, and it is perceived as an integral part of the organizations culture, when it is understood and when it is followed and enforced, it can provide protection for the organization. G.R. Claveria of eHow says a code of ethics is important because it prevents unjust treatment, promotes goodness for everyone, brings out the best in individuals, holds people socially responsible and creates higher standards.