There is little to criticize in SPJ’s Code of Ethics, except perhaps that it is a little bit dull. It is instructive, but prosaic. It contains carefully evolved and thoroughly discussed precepts about ethical conduct. But like most things edited by a committee, it lacks zest and tang, to name two consumer products.
The Code is an industry standard. It was first drafted in 1926 and updated several times since then, most recently over a two-or-three-year period that ended with the new Code’s adoption by the 1996 SPJ national convention.
The 1996 vote was announced to a prolonged standing ovation. Revising the Code had been an emotional process, with the final version having been drafted, appropriately enough, in Philadelphia, where other significant documents had been drafted some years earlier.
The 1996 revision broke new ground, acknowledging more specifically than earlier codes the journalist’s responsibility to be compassionate and accountable. Of its four sections, the longest and most important remains “Seek Truth and Report It,” an accounting of the journalist’s most basic responsibility – to be accurate and comprehensive and bold in reporting what needs to be known.
The section headed “Act Independently” reflects the long-held tenet that objective journalists must avoid conflicts of interest and anything that either tarnishes their objectivity or may be seen as doing that.
Two new sections – “Minimize Harm” and “Be Accountable” – acknowledge journalism’s role as part of the community it serves.
My chief complaint about the Code of Ethics always has been that it doesn’t sing. It’s not poetic enough. It could be more lyrical. So here’s something to conjure with: The Code’s major provisions lend themselves to a haiku-like construction.
I hesitate to call what follows real haiku. That ancient Japanese poetry form, first published in the 13th century, is perhaps best suited to Japanese. But haiku’s basic format – five syllables, then seven, then five – is an entertaining exercise and diversion for those of us who live with words.
For example, the underlying premise of the Code can be stated in a haiku-evocative phrasing:
Seek truth, report it,
And remember that all news
Each of the Code’s major sections is similarly reducible to this 17-syllable format:
Minimize the harm
But avoid the fatal flaw:
Striving to be loved.
Reporting without bias,
Condemn the bad example.
Do not let it pass.
Any number of suggestions in each of the Code’s major categories can be treated in the same cavalier fashion. For example, about acting independently:
It is not enough
To reject all involvement.
Better to be fair.
And to expand on the concept of minimizing harm:
Of those who are thrust by fate
Into the spotlight.
As for the famous,
Publicity got them there;
Don’t pander to them.
And, of course, there are the Code’s less-lofty provisions:
Shun the lurid tease,
And altered graphics.
But there’s also room for lyric innovation. The Ethics Committee has been exchanging e-mails recently about adding a provision to the code that covers the ethical reporting of war and terrorism. Here’s one approach:
Of course, consider
But do not be meek.
We have been criticized for the bluntness and brevity of the one absolute in the Code. So perhaps some expansion and explanation is in order:
Must be acknowledged.
And here’s a way to remind ourselves that we shouldn’t be too arrogant, standoffish and negative:
A good reporter
Should never be reluctant
To offer some hope.
You get the idea. Try it. E-mail your ethical haikus to EthicalFred@aol.com. Or, if you prefer, there’s a much-less-lyrical verse form that has a minimum of twice the number of syllables of a haiku – the limerick. Here’s one summarizing the Code:
Seek truth and report it and think,
Shunning favors, free tickets, and drink.
Please, minimize harm,
And sound the alarm
When someone goes over the brink.
Fred Brown, co-chair of the SPJ Ethics Committee, retired in January as political editor of The Denver Post.