The Gravity of Ethics in Communications

March 1, 2021 in Insights by Melody Lynch

It’s a lesson I learned very early on in my career, as a green producer cutting my chops in television news – words matter. Nuances of words matter. The placement, prominence and delivery of your words matter.

As February was IABC’s Ethics Month, I started to ponder the ethical implications of editorial decisions, and the shared ethics and responsibilities of journalists and communications practitioners.

The gravity of our editorial decisions was a frequent discussion between myself and my co-producer in the newsroom. Building a show… determining the news of the day… the angle… the lead. It’s a tremendous responsibility when the information you communicate, how you communicate it and the order in which you communicate it impacts how those consuming the news perceive any given story and the gravity of that story. 

It was something that weighed on me as I navigated my career through various producer roles before leaving journalism for public relations. 

These same considerations apply to communication professionals in their day-to-day work, though they may not have the same stage and prominence as a news program. 

Recently, working with a non-profit client, this discussion came up in light of many of the negatively framed campaigns they’ve witnessed targeted at the individuals they serve. We were tasked with creating an impactful campaign with positive language that doesn’t do further harm toward stigmatizing the people affected. 

Similar to journalists, as communications professionals and leaders, we have a responsibility to take the utmost care with what we put out in the public realm. In line with the Canadian Association of Journalists Ethical Guidelines and IABC Code of Ethics for Professional Communicators, communicators and journalists alike must:

Be truthful and accurate. We communicate facts and immediately and transparently correct any mistakes or misinformation.

Do what we say we will. Just as journalists must keep promises to sources, we must do the same with those we serve. This includes not over-promising on what we can deliver.

Give credit where credit is due. We always cite our sources and give appropriate credit to others’ contributions.

Respect diversity. We listen to, respect and strive to include other viewpoints in our stories that are representative of diverse values and perspectives, and are sensitive to cultural differences and beliefs.

Avoid conflicts of interest. Unless we can get express consent from all parties involved, we avoid situations where there are competing interests.

Ultimately, we must be accountable to those we serve, just as journalists are accountable to the public. This includes holding ourselves and others to account when missteps are made (and they inevitably will be). What we do when missteps happen, will help to set us apart and foster trust for the profession.

When in doubt on any question of ethics – consult the full IABC Code of Ethics or digest the many resources they put together for Ethics Month here.