I, a seasoned accounting professor, started taking a journalism class at Harvard to become a better writer and hopefully blogger. In the process, I found amazing similarities between the disciplines of accounting and journalism. Both are self-governed with an obligation to the truth. According to The Elements of Journalism (Kovach & Rosenstiel, 2007), the following are some of the basic tenets of journalism:
1) Journalism's first obligation is to the truth.
2) Its first loyalty is to citizens.
3) Its essence is a discipline of verification.
4) Its practitioners must maintain an independence from those they cover.
5) Its practitioners have an obligation to exercise their personal conscience.
One could easily, replace journalism with the word accounting as I have done below. For example,
1) Accounting's first obligation is to the truth.
2) Accounting's first loyalty is to the public (Article II - The Public Interest).
3) Auditing's essence is a discipline of verification.
4) Accounting practitioners must maintain an independence from those they audit (Article IV - Objectivity and Independence).
5) Accounting practitioners have an obligation to exercise their personal conscience.
In fact, similar wording are used in the AICPA's Code of Professional Ethics (references provided above). I think
few would debate that all accountants have an obligation to act ethically. CPAs must pass an ethics exam and take continuing education on ethics to maintain their licenses.
I was struck, however, by a few words in the journalist's code that we in accounting might consider adopting. The first stand out word is "truth." The AICPA Code might define this as "substance over form" or as our auditor report refers to "fairly present, in all material respects." The second concept that stood out to me was the notion of "personal conscience.” The Code mentions "integrity, objectivity and due professional care," but not "conscience." I like the fluidity of the idea of "personal conscience." To me, it may even serve as a higher standard than meeting the rules of a Code.
Here's an example of what I am talking about. The tax textbook I use asks students if an accountant can keep a client if the client will not correct a prior year return that has an error. Almost all the students will say, "No." The Code of Professional Ethics," however, states that the accountant could withdraw, but can also can keep the tax client as long as the error does not effect the current year's filing. Thus, an act that would go against most individual's consciences, the Code says is permissible. Thus, are we teaching good people to become bad people? Shouldn't the Code take in consideration the notion of conscience?
What do you think about this idea of personal conscience and the AICPA Code of Professional Ethics? Like journalism, should accounting practitioners have an obligation to exercise personal conscience?