Only once in SPJ’s 100-year history has a resolution been adopted twice, unanimously, by convention delegates.That was on Nov. 16, 1973 — the day the Society adopted a Code of Ethics of its own, replacing one that was borrowed in 1926 from the American Society of Newspaper Editors.
It was a convention in Buffalo, N.Y., where I walked up to the dais and introduced the code, calling it “strong stuff” that outlawed accepting gifts, free travel or secondary employment that could damage a journalist’s credibility.
William Payette, the Society’s president, called for its adoption, expecting a fierce fight. All the delegates had copies of the proposed code, written on an Underwood typewriter, in their notebooks. They knew what was coming.
Instead of resistance, without objection or one word of debate, the code was loudly welcomed with a chorus of “ayes.”
I was walking from the dais when Russ Hurst, the Society’s executive officer then, grabbed my arm and asked me if the delegates understand what they had just done? He also had expected a battle over a code that urged journalists to “actively censure and try to prevent violations” of the code.
So once again, I returned to the microphone, to Payette’s surprise, and in a louder voice, emphasized that we were adopting a new code of ethics reflecting SPJ’s own “code of ideals in the practice of journalism.”
And a second chorus of “ayes” rang out, without objections or debate.
It was an idea whose time had come, and possibly the last time ethics was mentioned at an SPJ convention without triggering a debate.
Maybe because the path to that moment was paved by a resolution adopted by the 1972 convention to protect media credibility “by calling attention to abuses.”
The 1972 resolution asked the national Professional Development Committee, which I chaired, to do something about it.
This was the 1970s — civil rights marches, Watergate, Vietnam, a rising environmental crusade, and Vice President Spiro Agnew who was calling reporters “nattering nabobs of negativism.” The media were under ferocious attack. 1972 also was the year a Harris poll showed that garbage men ranked higher in public confidence than journalists.
Against this background, the Professional Development Committee considered a list of things to do, with a new code of ethics topping the list. The idea caught on, and wasting no time, the new code was drafted in time for the next convention, and adopted. Strong leadership in journalism ethics was a niche waiting to be filled.
The 1973 code contained a pledge. It said: “Journalists should actively censure and try to prevent violations of these standards, and they should encourage their observance by all news people.”
SPJ leaders responded with a go-slow campaign of hanging copies of the SPJ code on newsroom and journalism school walls.
For the next decade, the code nagged at members, as a good code should. It should not be words on paper, but a call to action.
On Nov. 19, 1977, a convention in Detroit adopted a resolution mandating that “chapters be encouraged to develop procedures for dealing with questions of ethics.” That was never done.
Then an oversight was noticed in the code. It did not mention plagiarism.
The 1984 convention in Indianapolis took care of that. A resolution was adopted mandating that the code include the words: “Plagiarism is dishonest and is unacceptable.” The resolution argued that “plagiarism by journalists violates the public trust and discredits all other journalists.”
It was the first amendment to the 1973 code and a small one. The next would be major.
The censure clause scared SPJ leaders. But many members wanted action on ethics abuses, and a willingness to face up to the censure clause.
SPJ was torn between a desire to lead journalism to a greater sensitivity toward ethical conduct, and a fear that such efforts might lead to “witch hunts” against journalists, and litigation.
My greatest fear was that 326 chapters had no idea how to handle ethics complaints, might act haphazardly and were getting no help from the national organization. But I was confident of the common sense of our membership, and there were no witch hunts.
In 1984, at the request of President Phil Record, I drafted procedures for addressing ethics complaints. At the time I was the national Ethics Committee chairman. On May 17, 1985, the SPJ board unanimously rejected the proposal at a meeting in Salt Lake City.
The censure clause issue came to a head at the 1986 convention in Atlanta, 13 years after the code’s adoption.
Edd Jussely, a delegate from the Mississippi Pro chapter, told the convention his chapter started an investigation into an alleged ethics code violation but dropped it when national SPJ officials said they would not back a censure action.
Shortly afterward, Meredith Oakley of the Arkansas pro chapter proposed a resolution asking the SPJ board of directors to recommend, in consultation with the national Ethics Committee and local chapters, procedures for chapters to use to handle ethics complaints, subject to approval by the national convention the following year in Chicago. The resolution was adopted.
This, Oakley said, would “implement some of the language within the code.” She wanted “clarification and guidance” on the ethics code, for what is “proper and just.”
On April 30, 1987, the SPJ board at its meeting in St. Paul voted to “recommend no procedure for chapters to handle ethics complaints and that the board recommend the deletion of the censure phrase,” according to the meeting minutes.
It is noteworthy that the board ignored a mandate from a convention of delegates. Under Article Nine of SPJ’s bylaws, “the convention shall be the supreme legislative body of the organization.”
Lawyers have long argued that journalists should not admit to ethical standards because they might be held against them in court, a stance that could gain no public trust or credibility for journalists. Bruce Sanford, SPJ’s attorney, was among them and often raised the specter of lawsuits if the Society acted against journalists who discredited journalism.
But on page 25 of the April 30 board minutes, Sanford is quoted as saying: “If you believe in ethics, you have to take some risks.” On the other hand, Sanford offered a memorandum to the board that day saying that enforcing ethics was an “oxymoron.” He preferred “using hypothetical situations to provoke discussion.” Otherwise, said the memo, enforcing the code “would likely engender a rash of lawsuits.”
The national board went to the Chicago convention in November 1987 refusing to follow the 1986 convention directive. During the floor fight that followed, the president of the Washington, D.C., chapter proposed deleting the censure clause from the code, and replacing it with a “Mutual Trust” passage calling for ethics education programs and the adoption of more codes of ethics.
The motion was adopted by a 162-136 vote, after expressions of dissatisfaction with the board’s handling of the 1986 convention’s mandate.
By my reckoning, SPJ leadership by this point had shrugged off four convention resolutions mandating action on ethics abuses and procedures for addressing ethics complaints.
This history reveals an organization leading the way on ethics, then losing its way as its leadership turned timid, out of touch with the wishes of its membership. It ended a stormy period that provoked hard feelings and some broken friendships. Though everyone is for ethics, not everyone agrees on how to walk the talk. And while journalists thrive on controversy, it’s usually not welcome close to home.
Subsequent years seemed dull by comparison. The toothless 1973 code of ethics, while still considered a model for journalists after 23 years, was ready for retirement.
The national Ethics Committee met in Philadelphia in June 1996, with the intention of drafting a new “green light” code of ethics, which it did in two days. The backbone of the new code hinged on four principles: Seek Truth and Report It, Minimize Harm, Act Independently and Be Accountable. I was told the Poynter Institute suggested this framework.
Participants gathered into four groups to suggest standards for each of the four principles. As the Region 5 representative, I chaired the “Be Accountable” section and witnessed the birth of a new code of ethics, more modern in its outlook for a journalism industry that is always changing.
The code was adopted by a national convention in Arlington, Va., the following September, including passages urging journalists to “expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media,” and to “encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media.”
A new generation of leaders, like President Kevin Smith and Al Cross before him, along with the national Ethics Committee, now speak out against ethics abuses, most recently on checkbook journalism and conflicts of interest posed by television expert commentators with undisclosed ties to industries that potentially gain advantage from their comments.
As a member of the Ethics Committee, I watch the committee struggle with ethics issues raised by a rapidly changing world of journalism. There’s talk of expanding the code to take into account the new world of online journalism: blogs, Twitter, Facebook, YouTube and other social media. Things never imagined in 1973, an era of typewriters. Clearly, this is no time for ethics wimps.
For me, it’s been 38 years of working on ethics for SPJ without a single dull moment. And still counting.
Casey Bukro is a member and past chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee. He is a past president of SPJ’s Chicago Headline Club and worked for the Chicago Tribune for 45 years as an environment reporter and overnight editor. He retired in 2007.