In our last blog post, we spoke about simple steps you could take to build media literacy while consuming and sharing content online. In this post, we will cover the other side of the issue; how can we create ethical, accurate, and honest media?
The Five Core Principles of Ethical Journalism
One crucial concept that comes to mind as we begin to talk about this is ethical journalism. As explained by the Ethical Journalism Network, ethical journalism includes five core principles:
Truth and Accuracy
There isn’t a clear definition of truth in many scenarios. However, there is always room to be accurate. Accuracy in media can be defined as how close a statement is to the truth. Our last piece discussed that you should check multiple sources to see how precise information is when consuming media. This same concept holds when creating media. You should check multiple sources, evaluate sources’ credibility, and acknowledge sources’ weaknesses when including them in your work.
All creators have biases. You may be affiliated with a political party, be making content with financial support from a company, or have been contracted by an agency to review a product. In a perfect world, creators would act independently on all projects, but it isn’t a reality. Open and honestly share any conflicts of interest you have with the people you are working with and who will be receiving your work if it is appropriate.
Fairness and Impartiality
The content you are creating likely features a story. Whether real or fictional, stories almost always have multiple sides to them. Not every form of media will be able to show all sides. For example, a documentary may mainly focus on one person’s story, or a podcast episode might only have one person speak. However, when possible, try to make your work balanced by including other perspectives.
Words and pieces of media can harm people, whether they were meant to or not. Critically think through your content before it is published. Does your work have the potential to bring negativity towards a large group of people? Are you making content about subject matter that could leave people vulnerable? Are you shedding light on new details of a situation that may put people in danger? Thinking through some of these questions at all steps of creating could help you make more ethical content.
You will inevitably make a mistake no matter how hard you try to produce extremely ethical content. It is important to own up to the mistakes you have made and strive not to make them again moving forward.
Beyond the Five Core Principles
Stretching beyond the five core principles, people have begun to develop more resources to support accountability and ethics in journalism and media creation. Two notable ones would be Accountable Journalism and the New York Times Ethical Journalism Handbook. In addition, here are three simple ways you can begin making more ethical and accessible content.
Always Use a Variety of Sources
When collecting information from sources, try to gain information from as many places and perspectives as possible. Interview an eye witness, someone who has had a similar experience to who you are writing about, or experts on the topic. If appropriate, find peer-reviewed research studies and quality surveys. Maybe you will need to talk to law enforcement or find key documents using city, school, and other appropriate records. You might also look at social media or other content online.
The main point is there are plenty of ways to diversify the information you are obtaining for your media. Making a conscious priority to find various sources and brainstorming with other people about where you could find information can help your media become more balanced and accurate.
Critically Think About Your Language Choices
In written and spoken media, the language you choose to use is an important consideration that sometimes is overlooked. There are two main reasons for critically considering the language you use when creating content.
One reason is how you assign blame, describe groups, and discuss unfamiliar situations. Say you are writing a short news article about a new real estate development. You want to describe the neighborhood the development is located in. Members in the broader community often refer to the area as the “bad side of town, with little business and high crime rates.” You think about writing this in the piece in your own words. However, when you reflect, you realize this depiction is not accurate and describing the neighborhood like this could harm the communities of people who live there. Knowing this, you choose to write about some local businesses and community resources, leaving the prior statement out, and gives a more accurate depiction of the location.
Another situation where this same consideration applies is when you are creating media about unfamiliar topics. Perhaps you are covering a civil conflict in a country you have limited information about. From news articles, you learn that generally, one group has enraged another through an attack. You could write this statement simply, just as stated in the previous sentence. However, you know that the situation is more nuanced. Not acknowledging this in your media could lessen the piece’s accuracy and decrease how balanced and fair it is. Instead of including the short version, you write a few sentences that explain how the situation is nuanced and include other relevant details about the events taking place. By considering your language choices, you have just made your audience more accurately aware of the situation.
The other reason it is vital to critically consider the language you use is accessibility. When certain words are used, or sensitive topics are discussed unfairly, people will be restricted from accessing your content. Every piece of media is directed at a specific audience; however, you should take some general considerations.
As defined by the Bureau of Internet Accessibility, accessible language is “language that accommodates people of all ages and abilities, including those with cognitive disabilities, people with low literacy skills, and speakers of English as a foreign language.” When you are writing for a public audience, you should produce writing at an elementary to middle school level, depending on the topic, allowing as many people as possible to consume it. A free tool that can help you determine who will be able to read your content is this Automatic Readability Checker from Readability Formulas. Additionally, if you discuss sensitive topics or have other concerns, you will want to include a warning at the beginning of your media. By considering these factors, you can produce content that is more humane and fair for a larger group of people.
Address Biases and Funding
We are in an age of digital monetization. As someone who creates media, there may be times when brands pay you to create content, you are asked to report on sensitive topics, or you decide to make content that stems from one of your personal biases. Just like we discussed in the five core principles, you should be open about these factors. If you have particular identities and biases that you know will affect your creative process. Let your editors and project team members know about these. Additionally, if you are sponsored by someone to make content, include that information when sharing the creation. Being open about this can not only help you produce ethical content but can also help audiences assess the credibility of your source.
If you haven’t explored ethical media concepts before, implementing these five core principles and three tips can help you begin to prioritize ethics as you continue to create content. If you already check for some of the things discussed in this post, we hope you have learned a few more ways to continuously strive to make content that is accessible, accurate, fair, and humane for all. If you are interested in learning more, please visit the Purdue Writing Lab’s Media Ethics page, and this article exploring ethical issues in mass media pertaining to race and gender.