Professional ethics

I’ve been thinking a lot about the concept of “professional” and “professional ethics” in the past year, trying to come to grips with something I feel strongly about but haven’t quite identified yet. I’m pretty sure it’s the lack of the substance I’m feeling more than an abundance of it.

As I have absorbed the concepts over my lifetime, I now hold that professionals are those who have achieved a level of knowledge and competence in the application of that knowledge to be able to offer their services in their respective fields for pay or honor or even personal pleasure. A key to professionalism is that it concern a fairly specific, even if broad, field of knowledge; i.e., medicine, law, science, or other body of acquired knowledge that exceeds what would be commonly available to everyone in a culture.

Fields such as medicine and law are relatively easy to define, while others, such as journalism and accounting are much more difficult to circumscribe, involving so many gray areas. Yes, no, I don’t know aren’t always available resolutions to professional questions.

As a journalist purveying news to the general public, I consider myself a professional and I also consider that there are standards I need to apply in my public writing.
– consider public versus private writing — can I be less strict in what I write if it is not for public consumption? Gray areas.
– opinion is valid so long as it is so declared.

The internet brought up questions to me from the onset, mostly about source and validity of the content that became available. As an inter-university data exchange, the initial offerings were highly regarded, if weighted by scientific skepticism properly held for any set of data being exchanged. As the content grew from university to private supply, sourcing became more and more problematical.

The difference between the New York Times and my blog is huge. The paper owns a city block in New York City, has been in business since 1851, and has demonstrated it’s responsibility to factual reporting long enough to be trusted by those seeking news of the world. Biased? Perhaps, but in an institutional manner that is self-acknowledged and professionally handled in print.

While I have a demonstrable record of writing, it is known to very few people and not easily put to any test. You may like or detest what I have to say, but you have no reason to trust anything I say other than your personal knowledge of my professional standards and personal failings.

What I think is most important to being a professional is adhering to an external set of principles — guidelines and ethical considerations — that are particular to the profession. In medicine, the practitioner is under the elemental caveat to “Do no harm.” A lawyer’s first professional duty is to the client, not himself or any other party at interest.

A journalist is held to a wide variety of standards of ethical fact checking, news gathering and disclosure of points of view. It’s not that any professional cannot have opinions, points of view, holes in the knowledge base — it’s just that they are bound to acknowledge them and not act on them.

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