Business Ethics and the New Business Model of Journalism

Recently, the new Executive Editor of the Washington Post wrote a letter to her customers describing her ethical aspirations for the “net impacts” of the Post on our culture and society.  What struck me about her statement is that she makes no mention of the traditional ethical standards which made journalism a learned “profession.”

Sally Buzbee wrote:

Dear Washington Post subscribers,

I couldn’t be more excited to serve as Executive Editor of the Washington Post.  I came here because of the respect I have for the institution and its people.  Over the last month, I’ve spent time meeting and learning from my new colleagues and it has been a pleasure putting faces to the names of the journalists we rely on for news that impacts our lives and everyday decisions. Their collective curiosity, vigor and passion for this important work is palpable and inspiring and it is a privilege to play a role in sharing their expertise with you.

I’ve spent my career pursuing the facts, seeking out stories of significance and holding the powerful to account.  To lead the biggest newsroom in the Washington Post’s history is an incredible honor for me.  But to also join the Washington Post at this moment in history feels like the beginning of a journey we are embarking on together.  The world is ever changing, yet our commitment to you and to the profession I love, is not.  We will continue to deliver the quality journalism that you have come to expect, reporting relevant and meaningful information and analysis in ways that are most accessible and convenient to you.

We’ll work daily to ensure the growing, diverse range of voices in our newsroom is heard and reflected and that we are diligently finding and telling the stories that spotlight the experiences of our diverse readers.

As you may have read, we’re expanding our global footprint, meaning you’ll have access to even more real-time coverage.  Establishing breaking-news hubs in Europe and Asia gives us the ability to cover live events as they are unfolding around the globe so you can depend on us for timely news reports at any hour, whether in Australia or on Capitol Hill.

We’re combining our legacy of deeply sourced, fact-based, investigative journalism with cutting-edge digital innovation, keeping us at the forefront of journalism’s future so that you are both informed and delighted.  You can look forward to more award-winning video and audio storytelling and insightful, beautiful and immersive graphic presentations.

The most important thing I want to share is that we’ll always have a relentless focus on you, our valued readers.  There is so much ahead.  I am thrilled to be part of the Washington Post’s future and hope you are, too.

Sally Buzbee
Executive Editor

The Society of Professionals Journalists (SPJ) has a code of ethics, which affirms these 4 moral objectives:

-Seek Truth and Report It

-Minimize Harm

-Act Independently

-Be Accountable and Transparent

To recognize that the arrival of the internet and social media has upended the business model for print newspapers and television networks, the Caux Round Table has considered what a contemporary code of ethics for journalists should include.

Here is the draft of such a code of ethics for journalists:

Business Principles for Ethical Journalism
Caux Round Table for Moral Capitalism


1. Journalism is a quasi-public trust encumbered with fiduciary duties.  Journalism as a business provides a notable good of great merit for society.  News, information and well-argued opinion constitute a vital part of a society’s social capital.  Inaccurate news, false information and propaganda degrade a society’s capacity for finding common ground, mutual respect and tolerance.  The moral character of a society flourishes with responsible discourse to provide checks on extremism, stupidity and political authority.  Journalism is not entertainment.

2. Journalism as a business is community, not ownership, focused.  As a quasi-public trust, journalism does not seek to maximize financial returns for owners.  A business in journalism should be organized as a public-benefit corporation with its stock owned by philanthropic institutions.  Journalism companies must distinguish their rightful business model from the provision of that which is demeaning, dysfunctional, false, malicious, arbitrary and destructive of social capital.

3. The owners of companies providing journalism must support the creation of social capital.  Social capital – the reality of the social compact incubating justice, successful wealth creation and permitting the actualization of human dignity – is created over time by governments and civil society.  From the rule of law to physical infrastructures, from the quality of a society’s moral integrity and transparency of its decision-making to the depth and vitality of its culture, social capital demands investment of time, money, imagination and leadership.

4. Companies providing journalism will demand from their employees the highest standards of honesty, integrity and self-discipline in the craft of providing the highest quality news, information and well-argued opinion.

-These standards, as set forth in the SPJ code of ethics, are:

-Seek Truth and Report It

-Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair.  Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.

-Minimize Harm

-Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.

-Act Independently

-The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.

-Be Accountable and Transparent

-Ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public.

5. A journalist shall be competent and act with reasonable diligence.  Competent reporting and advocacy require knowledge, skill, thoroughness and preparation reasonably necessary for public dissemination of the journalist’s work product.

A journalist shall not knowingly: (1) make a false statement of fact or fail to correct a false statement of material fact previously made to the public by the journalist; (2) fail to disclose to the public facts and authority known to the lawyer to be directly adverse to his or her published work; (3) offer evidentiary arguments that the journalist knows to be deceitful or a misrepresentation of substantial truth; or 4) allude to any matter that the journalist does not reasonably believe is relevant or that will not be supported by credible testimony and evidence.