About a month before I took office as president, outgoing leader Dave Aeikens suggested I subscribe to Google Alerts and use “SPJ” and “Society of Professional Journalists” as my link words. This way I could be up on the latest information being circulated about the organization. When SPJ pops up in cyberspace, it quickly shows up on my iPhone and in my e-mail box.
It’s been a blessing for me because every time our name appears on the Internet, I’m aware of it immediately and the context in which it occurs. At times it’s been a curse. I get about 50 alerts each day. Many times I start reading my Google Alerts before I get out of bed.
Over the first half of my presidency (is it half over already?), I’ve noticed that SPJ’s name shows up more often than not with regard to our Code of Ethics. This follows suit with Web site traffic that shows our ethics section is second in terms of page views only to the home page.
What this clearly means to me, the one-time chairman of the ethics committee and one who spent 18 years in its service, is that journalists and our public are watching us, reading our work and applying the Code daily to journalistic situations. And that is magnificent.
Adopted in 1996 after two years of debate and writing, our Code is very impressive. The fact that I get 15 alerts on average every day because someone refers to our Code is testament to its value within our profession.
When I took office, I asked our ethics committee to evaluate the Code to see whether it needs refreshed. Certainly a lot has happened to alert the journalistic landscape since 1996. Other organizations are making modifications to their codes to reflect the shifting sands of journalism brought on by the Internet. Some close to the SPJ Code disagree that it needs tweaked, saying it’s applicable in all situations. Others, me included, disagree. But it makes for a healthy debate.
My experience over 20 years tells me that SPJ’s Code of Ethics provides the brightest lamp for those searching for ethical advice. Ethics is one of the most popular topics of discussion at our national convention and spring conferences. And, talking over the years to countless journalists in newsrooms across the country, I can tell you it’s constantly on our minds, as it should be.
As president, I’ve been asked to talk on a variety of topics, but none as routinely as our professional ethics. In a time when we are watching our industry shrink and our numbers dwindle, with our focus on the future, our public remains interested in seeing that we maintain the highest level of ethical behavior. We should be equally concerned. Some of those Google Alerts suggest that we are allowing our values and principles to slip. Should budget cuts create a marginalizing of our morals?
In fact, the opposite is true. As we endure newsroom budget slashes, we have a greater responsibility to remain vigilant about our ethics. As we are forced to do the jobs of three people, we have to also take on a greater moral duty to see that all of our work remains truthful and objective. As we transition from legacy media to the bright lights, fast pace and glamour of cyberjournalism, we need to draw strength from our powerful ethical principles, not shed them like an old skin.
As journalism expands into new frontiers and yet fights for relevancy in an age of information explosions, it will be our ethics that sets us apart, guides us and brings in new minds and wisdom. No one is in better position to address ethics than the Society of Professional Journalists.
I know because my Google Alerts are telling me.
Kevin Z. Smith is the 2009-10 SPJ President. He is an assistant professor of journalism at Fairmont State University and spent 20 years in newspapers as a reporter and editor. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.