A Journalist’s Creed, Examined

As journalists, the debate is ongoing: what are the universal values we should hold to? Beyond the obvious legal constraints that we must operate within, there’s no accreditation board for journalists— we are really only bound by institutional or cultural codes of ethics, which of course vary widely.  

Modern journalism has a lot to learn from Walter Williams, the first dean of the world’s first school of journalism at the University of Missouri in 1908. Today I’d like to break down his famous Journalist’s Creed and discuss what each part of it means for journalism today. Plaques bearing the creed are up in the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. since 1958, as well as all over Mizzou’s campus. Below the bold sections are parts of the actual creed, and the italicized parts are my comments. The image at the bottom of the page is of a plaque bearing the creed near the building housing the Columbia Missourian newspaper.

My purpose in sharing this is to introduce you to the creed and get you thinking about journalistic codes of ethics.

I believe in the profession of journalism.

This may seem like a simple and uninteresting way to begin, but it’s actually rather a profound statement. Too often I hear people say, “Today, thanks to social media, everyone’s a journalist.” I think it’s easy to assume that a journalist’s job is to be be a fact-reporting robot, but in reality we must be thoughtful about what we produce and do so in a professional manner.

I believe that the public journal is a public trust; that all connected with it are, to the full measure of their responsibility, trustees for the public; that acceptance of a lesser service than the public service is betrayal of this trust.

This section really gets to the question: to whom should a journalist be beholden? Themselves? Their editors? Their bottom line? Ultimately, Williams says, a journalist’s duty is to the public. This means any attempt to mislead the public or betray their trust ought to be totally unacceptable.

I believe that clear thinking and clear statement, accuracy and fairness are fundamental to good journalism.

I like the “clear statement” sentiment here. Too often it seems as though a news story is dancing around the facts of a story, or trying to spin them in a certain way. I’m all about transparency, and ideally I would love to see all facts being stated as clearly as possible.

I believe that a journalist should write only what he holds in his heart to be true.

Journalists are human, too! Notice how Williams doesn’t just say “what (s)he knows to be true,” but what they know in their heart to be true. To me that implies that this applies to questions of morality as well as questions of fact.

I believe that suppression of the news, for any consideration other than the welfare of society, is indefensible.

You very often hear in journalism circles about the public’s “right to know.” If there are facts that the government has the right to know, it is our duty to report them, unless doing so would actually harm society. Obviously this is a very subjective case-by-case kind of thing to deal with, but it’s also something we ought to reflect on.

I believe that no one should write as a journalist what he would not say as a gentleman; that bribery by one’s own pocketbook is as much to be avoided as bribery by the pocketbook of another; that individual responsibility may not be escaped by pleading another’s instructions or another’s dividends.

On the gentleman (and lady!) sentence: If you’d be unwilling to say something to a person’s face, it’s probably best not to write it about them! (This is a good rule of thumb for pretty much any aspect of life, in my humble opinion.)

“Individual responsibility may not be escaped by pleading another’s instructions or another’s dividends.” If you make a mistake, own it. I make little mistakes in my writing all the time (I’m sure there’s at least one typo in this very blog post) and have occasionally made slightly more serious errors. Owning up is easier said than done, I know, but we all make mistakes all the time, and it does no good to shift the blame to others.

I believe that advertising, news and editorial columns should alike serve the best interests of readers; that a single standard of helpful truth and cleanness should prevail for all; that the supreme test of good journalism is the measure of its public service.

Simply ask: does a piece of journalism do the public good? Will a reader be better or worse off for having read this? If not, why are you producing it?

I believe that the journalism which succeeds best — and best deserves success — fears God and honors Man; is stoutly independent, unmoved by pride of opinion or greed of power, constructive, tolerant but never careless, self-controlled, patient, always respectful of its readers but always unafraid, is quickly indignant at injustice; is unswayed by the appeal of privilege or the clamor of the mob; seeks to give every man a chance and, as far as law and honest wage and recognition of human brotherhood can make it so, an equal chance; is profoundly patriotic while sincerely promoting international goodwill and cementing world-comradeship; is a journalism of humanity, of and for today’s world.

There’s a lot here, but the part that really stands out to me is the fact that what Williams describes as a journalism of humanity also adheres to values that transcend mere humanism. I think what he means by “Fear God and honor man” is that journalists should recognize that although we are working in service of the public, there is an even higher power than humanity that we should aim to serve. I also love the “profoundly patriotic while sincerely promoting international goodwill and cementing world-comradeship” line. The two values promoted here do not have to be mutually exclusive.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this introduction to the Journalist’s Creed. I’m working on memorizing it, and I would love to see more journalists today use it as their guide!

The Journalist’s Creed near the campus of the University of Missouri.

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