A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

Gone But Not Forgotten: Ethics Guidelines From Phil Record

By Quill

Phil Record, past president of SPJ, died in 2010. The longtime Fort Worth Star-Telegram editor was a friend of Bob Schieffer and noted advocate for uncompromised journalism ethics. As a media ethics instructor at the Schieffer School of Journalism at Texas Christian University, Record gave his students guidelines by which to do their jobs.

John Lumpkin, director of the Schieffer School, and Steve Buttry, journalist and TCU alumnus, passed Record’s ethics guidelines to Quill.

UPDATE: On his blog, Buttry writes about Record’s involvement teaching journalism ethics.

Ethics Guidelines From Phil Record:

•Credibility is the most precious thing you have in the field of mass communications. Cherish it. Protect it. Art Nauman, retired ombudsman of the Sacramento Bee, once said of credibility: “It is gained by the inch; it is lost by the foot.” You also learned that the law tells us what we can do, ethics tells us what we should do. Never forget that just because you have the right to do something does not mean it is the right thing to do. Also remember that the ethical thing is what you should do when no one is looking.

•In events involving violence, controversy or conflict, place yourself in the place of the person or persons who will be subject to news coverage. Take a minute to ask yourself how you would want to be treated if you were in their places. Reflect seriously on the answers. Then act accordingly.

•There is no such thing as a minor error. No error that chips away at your credibility is minor. We see numerous corrections of these so-called “minor errors” every day in our newspapers. It is true that only a handful of persons may have taken note of the error. But multiply that handful by a hundred “minor errors” and look at the damage done to the newspapers’ credibility in a year.

•Shed a little blood over your errors. Brushing off an error as something of unimportance is apt to anger a supervisor. But supervisors are much more apt to be sympathetic and forgiving when they find a person actually grieving over an error. In your bleeding, learn; then move on, intent never to so err again.

•Never needlessly cause harm or injury to another. There are many things we will do that will, by their very nature, cause others to grieve or to hurt. Always strive to minimize the grief or hurt.

•Always consider the consequences of your actions to others and to yourself and your employer. A true consideration of the consequences can be a mind-changing experience.

•Always consider the motives of all – including yourself – involved in an issue.

•Learn to be a good listener, especially when you are being criticized or corrected. This is an art because it is normal for us to immediately start building a defense when criticized, and in doing so we no longer devote our full attention to what is being said to us.

•Be compassionate. Be sensitive to the needs of others. Be sympathetic to those who are hurting. Compassion, sensitivity and sympathy are virtues. It is often the insecure who will abandon these virtues in fear of appearing to be weak. In doing so, they often expose their weaknesses.

•Limit the use of unnamed sources. The public doesn’t like them. They weaken credibility. Too often they are a tool of lazy reporters. Do not permit the cowardly to make personal attacks on another while hiding behind the cloak of anonymity.

•We are in the truth-telling business so beware of resorting to deception. The reason must be compelling.

•Don’t forget that even the most public of persons have not sacrificed all rights to privacy. Everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity and respect.

•If you give your word to someone, keep it. Be fair; even if life is not always fair.

•Be willing to give voice to the voiceless. You may be their only hope.

•Follow the “Mom rule” – never do anything you would not want your mother to know about.

•You will be dealing with some people who are filled with hatred, racism, intolerance and feelings so extreme that they become irrational. No matter how fair you try to be, these people will berate you and call you unfair. Learn to accept that. It’s part of the business.

•Finally, recognize your own prejudices and biases. Don’t try to deny them. We all have them. But when we recognize them, we can deal with them. Then, and only then, will you be able to fulfill your mission of presenting the truth as you find it to be, not as you wish it to be.

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