What does the NASW Code of Ethics really say about talking to journalists? Do it.

In preparing for my interview on CSSW’s SOCIAL WORK LIVE show tomorrow, I thought I’d go over the Code of Ethics to identify the passages relevant to advocacy, and specifically those relevant to talking to members of the media. Below, for your reference, is the result. I think it’s very clear that the Code of Ethics comes down on the side of transparency and accountability---that is, on the side of collaborating with journalists when we can ensure that our clients’ participation is voluntary and informed.

Of course, whether talking to the press is consistent with our code of ethics is a different question than whether it’s politically advisable within our workplaces. The media contains power, and that is why Communication Departments are so eager to monopolize messaging. That power can help our clients, or hinder them. However, I read the Code as saying it is beholden upon us, as social workers, to know how to approach and use this power rather than to cede it to others. You definitely shouldn’t need to go through a Communications Department to:

  • Talk to journalist about patterns found at your workplace.

  • Inform your clients that a journalist might be interested in their story, and passing on the journalist’s contact information.

  • Act as a bridge between journalists and your clients, building trust and helping to negotiate the terms of engagement re: attribution and accuracy of quotes. As one reporter wrote us, “I think the users trusted me with their stories because they knew the workers had their backs.”

  • Call up journalists to inform them about important policies that impact your clients.

  • Speak about your own experience with the system you’re working in (as opposed to speaking on behalf of your organization, which is different).

But in order to do any of these, social workers themselves need to know how to interface with the media. This stuff should be central to our advocacy classes, our workplace cultures, our whole M.O. as social workers, but of course, it isn’t. Anyway, that’s a rant for another day.

Without further ado:

What does the NASW Code of Ethics really say about talking to journalists?

1.07 Privacy and Confidentiality

(a) Social workers should respect clients' right to privacy. Social workers should not solicit private information from or about clients except for compelling professional reasons. Once private information is shared, standards of confidentiality apply.

(b) Social workers may disclose confidential information when appropriate with valid consent from a client or a person legally authorized to consent on behalf of a client.

(c) Social workers should protect the confidentiality of all information obtained in the course of professional service, except for compelling professional reasons. The general expectation that social workers will keep information confidential does not apply when disclosure is necessary to prevent serious, foreseeable, and imminent harm to a client or others. In all instances, social workers should disclose the least amount of confidential information necessary to achieve the desired purpose; only information that is directly relevant to the purpose for which the disclosure is made should be revealed.

(k) Social workers should protect the confidentiality of clients when responding to requests from members of the media.

2. Social Workers' Ethical Responsibilities to Colleagues

2.01 Respect

(a) Social workers should treat colleagues with respect and should represent accurately and fairly the qualifications, views, and obligations of colleagues.

(b) Social workers should avoid unwarranted negative criticism of colleagues in verbal, written, and electronic communications with clients or with other professionals. Unwarranted negative criticism may include demeaning comments that refer to colleagues' level of competence or to individuals' attributes such as race, ethnicity, national origin, color, sex, sexual orientation, gender identity or expression, age, marital status, political belief, religion, immigration status, and mental or physical ability.

(c) Social workers should cooperate with social work colleagues and with colleagues of other professions when such cooperation serves the well-being of clients.

2.08 Impairment of Colleagues

2.09 Incompetence of Colleagues

2.10 Unethical Conduct of Colleagues

3.07 Administration

(a) Social work administrators should advocate within and outside their agencies for adequate resources to meet clients' needs.

3.09 Commitments to Employers

(a) Social workers generally should adhere to commitments made to employers and employing organizations.

(b) Social workers should work to improve employing agencies' policies and procedures and the efficiency and effectiveness of their services.

(c) Social workers should take reasonable steps to ensure that employers are aware of social workers' ethical obligations as set forth in the NASW Code of Ethics and of the implications of those obligations for social work practice.

(d) Social workers should not allow an employing organization's policies, procedures, regulations, or administrative orders to interfere with their ethical practice of social work. Social workers should take reasonable steps to ensure that their employing organizations' practices are consistent with the NASW Code of Ethics.

6. Social Workers' Ethical Responsibilities to the Broader Society

6.01 Social Welfare

Social workers should promote the general welfare of society, from local to global levels, and the development of people, their communities, and their environments. Social workers should advocate for living conditions conducive to the fulfillment of basic human needs and should promote social, economic, political, and cultural values and institutions that are compatible with the realization of social justice.

6.02 Public Participation

Social workers should facilitate informed participation by the public in shaping social policies and institutions.

6.04 Social and Political Action

(a) Social workers should engage in social and political action that seeks to ensure that all people have equal access to the resources, employment, services, and opportunities they require to meet their basic human needs and to develop fully. Social workers should be aware of the impact of the political arena on practice and should advocate for changes in policy and legislation to improve social conditions in order to meet basic human needs and promote social justice.