Editor Steve Smith said he knew there had to be a change in the Spokane Spokesman-Review code of ethics when the newspaper began sponsoring blogs.
The only question was: How does the paper incorporate the loose, sometimes marginal journalism blog postings into the company’s code? Currently, the Spokesman-Review has 40 staff or paper-related blogs on its Web site.
“It is really difficult,” Smith said, adding that he has been working on the code for several years, making additions as needed. “The employee’s code of ethics doesn’t address online, and we have a lot that is online. We need to bring the code into the 21st century.”
Smith and managing editor Gary Graham are essentially facing the same task the SPJ Ethics Committee faced in 1996: revamp the code of ethics to include new issues while keeping traditional journalistic concepts such as accuracy and honesty in view.
The paper’s last complete update of the code was in the mid-1990s and is based on the SPJ code, Smith said. The issue now with blogs, he said, is that it contains so many new questions about who owns the posting and whether the newspaper should do any editing of the reader’s opinions.
To help look at the issue, the newspaper brought in a team from the American Press Institute and the Poynter Institute in August to meet with the Spokesman-Review staff and readers in a two-day workshop on media ethics.
During the API/Poynter session, staff members began grappling with the idea that reader blogs are different from normal reporting, and they began to question how to handle many of the issues, including whether to vet blogs before posting, edit a message before posting or leave the blogs alone.
“Steve is satisfied with most of the code, but it does need updating,” said Gordon Jackson, the paper’s former ombudsman and a journalism professor at Whitworth College in Spokane.
“There is the question of blogs: ownership and responsibility of materials, what are the guidelines for a normal response,” Jackson asked. “We want to work on language to cover what may be other issues that the staff may identify when they see gaps in the code that I or the editors may not see.”
Jackson said he does not see any “glaring omissions” in the paper’s existing code, but he said the inclusion of the online issues is important.
“It is the changing environment that is nudging them,” he said. “It is not urgent, but it is important. Because it is not urgent it could be put off, but (Smith) has committed himself to revising the code.”
Following up on the Poynter/API session, Smith, Graham and Jackson are holding additional staff meetings to discuss and develop new language for the company’s code. They told Quill they hope to have an initial draft in place during the first half of 2007.
Like the SPJ Code of Ethics, the Spokesman-Review’s code is and will continue to be a green light code or a code that gives permission rather than restrictions, Smith said, adding that the code will have significant input from the newspaper’s staff.
“The staff should have enormous impact,” Smith said. “There are certain principles that cannot be compromised. There is application of purpose here, but absent good discussion with the staff, we will never get the staff buy-in (to the code) that will make it stick. We want the code to be clear and uncomplicated, but one that also allows it to be fair.”
As an example of some of the complex issues facing the paper, Smith recounted a recent case in which the paper had made a decision not to use a certain photograph, but one of their staff bloggers disagreed and ran the photo.
“Does he have the ability to challenge my decision?” Smith asked. “Ultimately, I pulled the photo. There are ethics issues here — how much voice and latitude do you give your staff? Hopefully, our code will give us all a little bit of guidance.”
Becky Tallent is an award-winning journalist and public relations specialist with more than 12 years experience as an energy/environmental and financial journalist. She is currently an assistant professor of journalism and mass media at the University of Idaho. Tallent volunteers on SPJ’s education committee and has been a member of the Society since 1972.
Tagged under: Ethics