There has been a lively debate among members of the Ethics Committee about whether the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists needs to be amended to address the ethical issues that swirl around coverage of war and terrorism.
We Ethics Committee members are of two minds about this. Probably a couple of dozen minds, actually, for that’s how many members comprise the Ethics Committee.
One argument holds that the Code is a living document. It should be revisited and edited and revised from time to time to reflect the changes that sweep through journalism periodically and unpredictably.
Who would have thought, before Sept. 11, that our national psyche, and our national media, would have been affected so profoundly by events the likes of which we have never had to deal with before?
The other argument is that the Code is like a constitution. It was intended to stand the test of time. It was written with the future in mind, and its principles are immutable and basic. To tinker with its provisions every time a new circumstance arises – no matter how dramatic the circumstance – is a mistake.
And let’s not even think about the angst, confrontation and general disorder that inevitably accompany even the mere suggestion of getting the membership to agree on new Code language.
Still, the issue has been raised. Local chapters and regional meetings have been asked to think about it. Undoubtedly it will be a major topic at SPJ’s annual meeting in Fort Worth, Texas, which begins the day after the first anniversary of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.
Each of the four major portions of the Code has relevance to this discussion. That, in fact, is a good measure of the document’s overall relevance to all kinds of situations.
At the same time, an argument could be made that each of the four sections could be made more specific to answer changing conditions.
The four sections are “Seek Truth and Report It,” “Minimize Harm,” “Act Independently” and “Be Accountable.” In each can be found language that applies to our current circumstances as a nation and as journalists.
Under “Seek Truth and Report It,” the Code says that journalists should “recognize a special obligation to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection.”
War certainly qualifies as “the public’s business,” and while we shouldn’t put troops or civilians in imminent danger with what we make public, journalists nonetheless should always begin with an assumption that everything possible should be open and accessible.
Also applicable, especially in the current confrontation with an alien culture, is Code language that says journalists should “examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others” and also “support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.”
There’s more: “Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.” And “tell the story and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so.”
Since last September, we have been made well aware that our commitment to seeking truth is often unpopular with the majority.
The Code’s “Minimize Harm” section doesn’t explicitly cover the life-or-death situations raised in wartime. The harm it addresses is not quite so dramatic. Still, there is relevant advice in: “Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.”
On the other side of the equation – the questions of overt patriotism verging on jingoism, the wearing of flags and bunting on television news sets – the Code’s “Act Independently” clauses are quite applicable. That includes the basic premise that follows the headline: “Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.”
Does that mean a good journalist cannot simultaneously be a good citizen? Absolutely not. A good citizen does his or her job, and for a journalist, that includes – to use the Code’s language – being “vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.”
And speaking of accountability, the Code ends with an admonition that journalists “are accountable” – not that they “should be” accountable, but bluntly that they “are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.”
It says we should “invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct” and “admit mistakes” and “expose unethical practices” in the news media. Most significantly, it says journalists should “abide by the same high standards to which they hold others.”
As in “Minimize Harm,” there is nothing explicit in “Be Accountable” that applies directly to the terrors of war and its coverage. Interestingly, it is these newer sections of the Code – the ones written in response to public criticism of journalists’ icy detachment – that fall short in addressing these issues.
National security has always been a concern and has always been an authoritative (or authoritarian) defense against journalists’ intrusiveness. Of course, it has been a long time since it has been this prominent a concern.
This isn’t a proposal to do it, mind you, but there’s certainly an argument for adding something to the Code of Ethics that says we should always argue for openness and access but acknowledge the need to prevent death and destruction.
Then again, there’s nothing specifically in the Code that says “Don’t murder anyone or cause anyone to be killed.” Maybe some things are too obvious to require more specificity.
Fred Brown, co-chair of the SPJ Ethics Committee, recently retired as political editor of The Denver Post. He is organizing a project to study media and government ethics.