Our timing was superbly ironic. The first national Ethics in Journalism Week, April 24 to May 3, 2003, also was the week in which the antics of Jayson Blair shamed The New York Times. It also was when two reporters at the Salt Lake Tribune were caught collecting money from a supermarket tabloid without telling their editors.
The whole idea of Ethics Week is to prevent just this sort of thing. So we’re going to try it again. Ethics Week 2004 is coming up quickly – less than six months off.
This is a good time to start thinking about programs and about applying for the $1,000-per-region grants that have been made available thanks to the generosity of the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation.
Seven of SPJ’s 12 regions received grants in spring. Their programs have been reported here previously. Several of them had to do with covering the war in Iraq. There was a request to fund production of a television public service announcement about ethical journalism. There were visiting lecturers and discussions of violence in the media.
At its meeting in Tampa in September, the ethics committee decided to change the regional grant procedure this year in two important ways:
1. We’re going to set an earlier deadline for applications – probably sometime in January, instead of late February as it was the first time out. Applications still must go to regional directors first, who will make recommendations to the Ethics Committee.
2. When we decide who gets the money, we will send a form asking the program planners to report back to the committee on how it went: how many attended, a general report on what was said, comments from attendees. Successful applicants might want to recruit a student or someone to write the report. We talked about sending an extra $50 just for that purpose.
This is not yet the final word on how this process will work. By about the time this issue of Quill appears, the committee will have more details worked out, and that information will be sent to chapter leaders.
Last year, the Ethics Committee awarded a total of $6,657 to the seven chapters that were successful in seeking regional grants. In addition, expenses for printing pocket-size, poster-size and plaques of the Code of Ethics totaled $3,812.32, for a grand total of $10,469.32 in expenses for Year One – or roughly half the $20,120 the committee got from the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation for the first year.
Hoping that all 12 regions will apply for grants in the second year, and that other expenses will remain about the same, the committee in April requested and received permission from the SDX Foundation to spend the leftover 2003 money in 2004, plus another $5,400 that was granted to SPJ to spend, through the committee, in Year Two. That comes to just a little more than $15,000 ($15,050.68) that the committee can budget for the 2004 Ethics in Journalism Week.
There was some committee discussion in Tampa about changing the date of Ethics Week, along with changing the date of the ethics issue of Quill. But at least for 2004, a majority of the committee felt it best to stick with the current schedule, but setting an earlier deadline for grant applications.
In other words, the next National Ethics in Journalism Week will be April 25 to May 1, 2004, or thereabouts. Last year, the committee funded a few programs that came several days before the actual beginning of the week.
Grant recipients also will be asked to report on how the money was spent, so the committee can give a more comprehensive accounting to the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation. We also plan to post the reports online. And speaking of online, another element of Ethics Week will be to post a list of ethical questions similar to the discussions we posted last year.
One thing the committee wants to add to Ethics Week this year is a bit of a re-education for our members on the history and intent of the SPJ Code of Ethics.
Two things illustrated the need for that clarification.
One is that earlier this year, SPJ issued a statement criticizing a Coca-Cola shareholder’s proposed resolution that the company withhold financial support for National Public Radio until NPR can be “certified” as complying with SPJ’s Code of Ethics. The complaint was based on the resolution-drafter’s perception that NPR coverage was often anti-Israel.
Some committee members felt we shouldn’t be discouraging public use of the Code as a measure of journalistic performance. But other committee members felt the problem was the reference to “certification.” It indicates the public – and perhaps even members – are unclear about the nature and purpose of the Code.
Further evidence of that was the proposal from another SPJ committee that the Code be amended to include language urging editors to give credit to everyone involved in the development of a story. Ethics Committee members generally felt the code shouldn’t be amended with such specific language. It smacked of attempted micromanagement.
So add that to your list of things to think about for Ethics Week 2004. Talk about ways to reacquaint members and explain to the public that the Code of Ethics is a set of principles, not instructions. To the extent that there is enforcement of those principles, it’s through disclosure and dialogue, not sanctions.
And don’t forget those $1,000-a-region grants. Get creative. Get cracking.
Fred Brown, co-chair of the Ethics Committee, is a newspaper columnist and television commentator in Denver. You can e-mail him at EthicalFred@aol.com.
Tagged under: Ethics