Ethics has been identified by the leadership and membership of the Society of Professional Journalists as one of SPJ’s two main missions.
In membership surveys, and in strategic planning meetings conducted over two years ending in 2001, ethics consistently emerged as one of the two things that separates SPJ from other journalism organizations.
SPJ’s other principal mission, Freedom of Information, for years has been the focus of chapter programs, public discussions and materials prepared for local and national media annually. That happens every year, in March, on the anniversary of the adoption of the Bill of Rights. Freedom of Information and access to public records also are the focus of the September issue of Quill.
Now, the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, the nonprofit adjunct and financial support for SPJ, has approved a grant that will allow the Ethics Committee and SPJ Board to fulfill the mission and master plan of the Society of Professional Journalists by giving equal emphasis to the importance of ethical journalism.
Starting in 2003, the last week of April each year will include special efforts targeted at spreading the word that journalists – at least, those who show their commitment by supporting SPJ – really do care about doing their jobs responsibly and ethically.
We picked April because it’s the month when Quill is devoted to ethics. That will help to focus attention on Ethics in Journalism Week.
Here’s what the Ethics Committee proposed to the SDX Foundation. It was approved unanimously by Foundation board members attending the mid-April meeting in Indianapolis:
- Mailing pocket-sized copies of the SPJ Code of Ethics to each of the Society’s 280 chapters for distribution to local journalists. Chapters also will be encouraged to provide pocket-sized Codes to media employers to give to new employees.
- Including, in the same mailing, one plaque-quality copy of the Code for members of the chapter to award, when and where appropriate, to a local media outlet for exemplary ethical behavior.
- Also distributing poster-size copies of the Code to each chapter (depending on size of chapter membership) to give to newsrooms for them to post.
- Providing suggestions for chapter programs, panels and public discussions of ethical issues during Ethics in Journalism Week. Included would be a media packet giving pointers on arranging talk-radio and television interviews and op-ed pieces to address ethical issues in journalism. It would also acquaint producers and editors with the availability through SPJ of experts able to address those issues as they arise throughout the year.
- Making available, on a one-to-a-region basis, a $1,000 stipend to help cover expenses of bringing in well-known ethicists or journalists involved in high-profile ethical issues to speak at regional or local meetings.
The Ethics Committee was granted up to $20,120 for the first year. Part of that total, $8,120, is more or less fixed. It’s for printing and mailing expenses incurred by SPJ headquarters for distributing 56,000 pocket-sized Codes of Ethics, 1,400 poster-sized Codes for posting in media offices and 280 Codes mounted in plaque form, for awards presentations.
The other $12,000 is subject to regional requests. In other words, that money won’t be spent unless regions have specific plans approved by the Ethics Committee.
Chapters should start thinking now about coordinating with their regional directors to identify programs and speakers. We’re figuring out the logistics now, but the probable procedure is that applicants will apply to the Ethics Committee for one of those one-to-a-region grants.
But clearly, we don’t intend that one week in April be the only time for SPJ to pay particular attention to ethics. It’s always on the minds of journalism professionals, students and the public, judging from the constant flow of questions to the Ethics Hotline and Ethics Committee members.
In the last half of this April, for instance, just one committee member (me) was asked for advice about whether a Catholic reporter should be assigned to cover the priest-as-pedophile story; what constitutes plagiarism; if reporters were too patriotic in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks; how a reporter should approach victims and survivors after a tragedy; when journalists should mention when a child is “adopted” or “biological;” whether reporters should concern themselves with national security – if, in fact, such a thing actually exists; and whether public relations or straight journalism is more objective in PR’s acknowledgement of bias or reporters’ sometimes-flawed attempts to avoid it.
It’s obvious that there’s plenty of material, at all times of the year, for robust ethical discussions.
No one can predict when an ethical dilemma will arise. It’s always best to pitch these programs to something in the news. And invite the public, too. Readers and viewers are more interested than you might think in issues that involve ethical decision-making. It doesn’t matter whether it’s because they like to see journalists in embarrassing positions or because they like to see them doing the noble work of identifying and criticizing flaws in their own profession. Whatever the motivation, it’s good to get the public involved.
Ethical behavior is crucial to journalism’s credibility. Credibility is vital to a responsible news medium’s survival in a competitive environment. And ethics has long been one of the things distinguishing SPJ from journalism organizations that don’t give as much attention to the “big picture” issues that SPJ focuses on.
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.
Tagged under: Ethics