How should we do what we do? A Code of Practice for today’s journalism.

The Fourth Estate has a clear mission of fostering, supporting and incubating a free press that contributes to a healthy society.

In its guiding principles, it talks about the kind of journalism that tells the truth, is transparent about what it does, and engages meaningfully with the community it serves.

As far as broad, guiding principles go, they stand up pretty well. But as Journalism Advocate for Fourth Estate, I have been asked to go further and develop a more detailed code of practice to spell out what those principles mean in daily use. And to do that, I need your help.

I am no stranger to developing ethical standards for journalism. As the Editorial Director of Australia’s major public broadcaster, that was a big part of my job, and I helped refine and oversee a very detailed set of editorial policies. It’s the kind of document you will find in almost every major news outlet across the world, and the basic tenets tend to be consistent and familiar.

Independence, accuracy, fairness and balance are almost always mentioned in one form or another, as well as accountability and transparency. What follows from those bedrock principles is often a series of balancing acts:

  • Balancing the public interest with personal rights to privacy;
  • Balancing the coverage of often violent and distressing news while avoiding gratuitous harm and offense;
  • Balancing the need to include a wide diversity of views with the need to follow the weight of evidence and reach firm conclusions; and
  • Balancing the need to respect and be fair to those in the news with the need to ask tough and uncompromising questions.

Less often talked about in codes of practice is the need to ensure journalists are properly representing the community they serve, listening to them, understanding them and ensuring you are providing them with the news they need. In a world of social media and increased interactivity, this can often mean finding ways to share the news making and storytelling process with others, to crowd source information and ideas while at the same time preserving the integrity of the editorial process.

There are also new challenges which have been less well and less consistently handled:

  • How far can or should journalists rely on artificial intelligence or machine learning when reporting the news?
  • In a world where everything lives forever online, when and why should journalists agree to take stories down?
  • As business models collapse, are there appropriate and inappropriate new ways of funding journalism?
  • What are the rules around reporting on personal content from social media accounts?
  • Is ‘de-platforming’ ever a legitimate thing to do?

Over the next couple of months I am going to wrestle with many of these issues and raw together a code of practice that Fourth Estate can stand behind and endorse. But I can’t do it alone. No matter how many existing codes I read and how many senior journalists and editors I turn to, the process will fail without much broader input from the people we seek to represent.

That’s why I am asking as many people as possible to share their thoughts with me on what should be in a code of practice for journalists in 2019. Where are the blind spots? How do reporters and their editors need to change the way they think or the way they work if they need to earn and maintain the public trust in their work?

I can be contacted via email at and you can also share your ideas and suggestions to the Fourth Estate Twitter account – @FourthEstateOrg. Just include the hashtag #JournalismAdvocate so I can more easily find it and respond.

As this project takes shape I will be aiming to keep this dialogue going, to share with you the issues I am wrestling with and the questions I have. And when the code is complete, it will continue to be a living document that can grow and change over time. The aim will not be to replace or rival the many fine codes that already exist across journalism, but to create one that best captures the aims and ambitions of Fourth Estate and its members.

Alan Sunderland
Journalism Advocate for Fourth Estate