Rebecca Atkinson, online publications editor, Museums Association

Ethics vox pops
What are your own professional values?

As a journalist I work to a code of conduct and journalistic values that were instilled in me during professional training.

Some of these stem from my legal obligations (around defamation, contempt of court and right to reply) and others from a “good practice” approach to language, as illustrated in the Guardian and Observer style guide, which Museums Journal has largely adopted.

General principles include ensuring stories are fair, represent different perspectives, are contextualised and don’t sensationalise sensitive issues – this isn’t always black and white, but they have to guide the basis for an article.

Another ethical guideline that bears on my work is the duty to report on things that others may not want reported – censorship is the enemy of many a journalist.

On the other side of the coin, it’s important to communicate to stakeholders and, where possible, work with them to ensure all of the above principles are adhered to.

Museums Journal and Museum Practice are editorially independent from the Museums Association, but we are part of the organization, so making our editorial guidelines available to people is really important.

One of the challenges as a journalist is the thin line between being an impartial reporter and having views on what are quite often contentious issues and situations.

Like museums, I don’t believe I am or can be apolitical – in many cases, this isn’t an issue but it does influence the types of stories that we cover and our approach to it.

It’s also more prominent with comment pieces, blogs and social media. Ethically, I think it’s a question of acknowledging this, constantly questioning my motivations and responses, and ensuring that what I think doesn’t get in the way of the first principles I mentioned – fairness, context and rationality.  

What does the public need from the code of ethics?

First and foremost, they need to know it exists and understand what museums are, why they do what they do, and why it matters.

People are increasingly aware that they cannot always trust the media, politicians, corporations and so on – museums could easily become another untrusted source, so the code must try to avoid that happening. Every organization is now subject to more scrutiny: “Are you telling the full story?”

Secondly, they need to be able to understand the code. The language must be accessible and it must be relevant.

Thirdly, I think the public needs to be represented in the code. If they are not, then it will become irrelevant to them.

If you could change one thing about the code of ethics, what would it be?

I would put more challenges in there so it becomes as much a campaigning document as it is a set of guidelines or toolkit. That’s not to say it should be judgmental or hardline (“our way or the highway”) but what I think the MA has learned from Museums Change Lives is that we can and should challenge the sector to think hard about what it does and why.

It should get people to question their approach and the ethical questions their work raises, and try to increase ethical standards across the sector.
 

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