Professor Dunham’s Ten Commandments for journalism ethics in a multimedia world

In the classroom at Tsinghua. (Photo by Zhang Sihan)

In the classroom at Tsinghua. (Photo by Zhang Sihan)

Journalism ethics are universal. But some ethical issues take on an added dimension on multimedia platforms.

After spending nearly two decades in digital journalism — writing an online column for BusinessWeek, creating two blogs and teaching multimedia journalism — I have boiled down my advice for my Tsinghua University Global Business Journalism students to ten commandments. Here they are:

•1. Thou shalt not steal

  • Don’t lift other people’s posts. Or quotations. Or photographs.
  • Intellectual property is intellectual property. If you don’t have the right to reproduce a photo or an article – even with attribution – don’t do it!
  • Make sure to properly attribute any quotation you pull from another source. Every single time!
  • If the original published source of your item turns out to be incorrect, you can be held liable for civil penalties in courts of law if you republish the falsehood.

•2. Thou shalt get it right.

  • 24/7 deadlines are no excuse to get it wrong.
  • Carefully attribute all facts you cannot confirm.
  • Just because somebody else published it on the Internet or sent it out by social media doesn’t make it true.
  • Just because somebody told you something doesn’t make it true. As the old journalism saying goes, even if your mother told you, check it out.
  • Better to wait a few minutes to confirm or disprove a post than to get it wrong, wrong, wrong.
  • As the Pew Research Journalism Project wrote: “Even in a world of expanding voices, accuracy is the foundation upon which everything else is built.”

•3. Thou shalt repent with speed and sincerity.

  • If you get something wrong, or link to another source who got it wrong, make sure you correct the mistake. Pronto. Your credibility is on the line.
  • Make sure to send corrections to your followers via social media. Falsehoods can go viral and it’s very hard to reel them back in.
  • If you made a mistake and others linked to your post, inform them of your mistake. Pronto.
  • Apologize.
  • Learn from your mistake.
  • Because of the instantaneous nature of digital communication, correcting errors is more important – and difficult — than ever.

•4. Thou shalt avoid gratuitous personal attacks.

  • Multimedia journalism provides you a basketful of communications options. Don’t use them to be childish, petulant or rude.
  • The same rules of fair play apply online as apply in traditional media.
  • Don’t mistake “snark” and “attitude” for wit and cleverness.

•5. Thou shalt be fair and balanced.

  • It’s not a partisan slogan. It’s our goal as journalists.
  • Fairness should never be sacrificed at the altar of an artificial deadline.
  • Efforts should be made to contact public figures referred to or criticized in multimedia reports.
  • Avoid sensationalism or distortion that is designed to win you “clicks” or “page views.”
  • A few tips from the Society of Professional Journalists:
  • “Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.”
  • “Never distort the content of news photos or video.”

•6. Thou shalt not use unnamed sources to attack others.

  • It’s a sure sign of a journalism amateur or poseur.
  • People have a right to know who your sources are, with rare exceptions.
  • People have a right to know your sources’ motives.
  • If someone is too cowardly to attach their name to an attack quote, it tells you something about the person.
  • As SPJ writes, “The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.”

•7. Thou shalt live in a glass house.

  • Don’t do anything you would criticize someone else for doing.
  • Journalists are public figures. Hypocrisy is news, whether the hypocrite is a politician or a reporter.
  • From National Public Radio’s Ethics Handbook: •“We hold those who serve and influence the public to a high standard when we report about their actions. We must ask no less of ourselves.”

•8. Thou shalt never give false witness about who you are.

  • It is always unethical to pose as someone else to collect information for stories.
  • You should identify who you are and for whom you work.
  • You should never identify yourself simply as a “citizen,” a “constituent” or a “consumer.”

9. Thou shalt not pay sources for information.

  • Or interviews.
  • It’s unethical. It separates infotainment sites from journalism sites. Let TMZ.com get the paid-for celebrity scandal scoop. Better to keep your soul.

•10. Thou shalt not be paid off.

  • Don’t take money to post, publish or air something.
  • Don’t show favoritism toward sponsors, advertisers or donors.
  • Disclose any conflicts of interest you or your publication may have.
  • Transparency allows your audience to weigh your credibility.

As SPJ’s code of ethics declares,  “Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility.”

We owe it to the public. And ourselves.


3 Comments on “Professor Dunham’s Ten Commandments for journalism ethics in a multimedia world”

  1. […] first 7 of these commandments in just the past 3 months – and Bernie and some others are no better. Professor DunhamMike, I noticed you quoted something that isn't factual. Although St. Louis and San Diego have […]

  2. […] Ten Commandments for journalism ethics in a multimedia world. Retrieved February 23, 2016, from https://rickdunhamblog.com/2014/04/11/professor-dunhams-ten-commandments-for-journalism-ethics-in-a-m… Ward, S. J. (2010, January 26). Digital Media Ethics. Retrieved February 23, 2016, from […]

  3. […] Dunham’s blog he has posted he posted an article entitled “Professor Dunham’s Ten Commandments for journals […]


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