A journalist friend who also is commissioner in a fantasy baseball league to which I belong recently sent an email to all the team owners who also are journalists.
Does playing in a league that features modest fees and prize money constitute a form of sports betting? he inquired. And if so, does that constitute an ethical violation?
After all, he noted, there have been cases where sports columnists have been disciplined and even fired following disclosures that they had placed some rather large bets with gambling bookies.
Ultimately, we decided to go ahead with our league this spring because none of us are sports reporters, the money is nominal, and winning requires a lot more strategy and skill than a simple bet.
I bring up this matter not just because it raised an interesting question but because I loved the mere fact that we were having that conversation.
It also illustrates a belief that I’ve long held when it comes to journalism ethics.
I’ve never thought of ethics as a high-brow concept or something that we ponder during the occasional panel or classroom discussion. It’s not a code of conduct written in stone or parsed in a textbook.
To me, it’s more like a daily meditation and a way of looking at the world. It’s part of the fabric of everyday life as a reporter, not just on big stories where there are tough decisions and close judgment calls.
I think of it more as a practice that requires some thoughtful behavior on matters as large as a front-page story or as small as a cup of coffee that we insist on paying for or whether we can place a small bet on a sporting event. Ethical decision-making is also something that grows more difficult the harder we work at our craft.
When I’ve talked to student journalists on this topic, I explain that one way they can avoid an ethical dilemma is to not work very hard and not dig very deep.
But then I quickly add that they’ll be lousy journalists if they don’t dig deeper into news stories and willingly put themselves into situations where ethical questions grow more frequent and complex.
That’s also one reason I like the SPJ Code of Ethics, particularly in the way we apply it not as an immutable set of rules but rather as a tool to help working journalists work though those problems.
This issue of Quill is the one we devote each year to stories on journalism ethics. It comes out at a time of year when some of our chapters will be holding ethics events ranging from panel discussions to the popular ethics hold ’em poker games.
But our preoccupation with this topic is year-round and day-by-day.
Small wonder then that journalism ethics is one area where SPJ is viewed as an industry leader and where our Code is seen as the gold standard.
We do a lot of great and important work each year in other areas such as freedom of information, diversity, professional training and defending the public’s right to know.
But our ethics code — as one longtime SPJ member once told me — is our franchise. It’s the area where people both inside and outside our profession turn to us first.
Just in this past year, we’ve had a would-be presidential candidate and a school board in New Jersey try to use our Code for their own purpose.
In both instances, we’ve had to remind people that one of the strengths of our Code and the reason for its durability is because it is a voluntary set of guidelines that call for balancing competing interests in order to do what is right.
But the fact that they held up our Code as something of value is a testament to its strength and utility.
I also love the fact that we’re never done with this work. Last year, SPJ and the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation published the fourth edition of our book “Journalism Ethics: A Casebook of Professional Conduct for News Media.”
And this year, our Ethics Committee has undertaken an ambitious project of issuing a series of position papers that elaborate on such topics as political activity and checkbook journalism.
I’d urge you to buy the book and read those position papers on our website. The first several papers are in this issue of Quill, with more coming to the website this year.
I think you’ll find as I do that not a working day goes by when these guideposts are not useful tools in negotiating and resolving ethical questions, be they large or small.
John Ensslin is the 2011-12 SPJ President. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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