For some people, a code of ethics is a nice reminder of how to behave. For others, it’s a lifeline.
Jerry Roberts first became interested in professional ethics in the mid-1990s, when he says the American Society of News Editors, National Newspaper Association and other organizations began to emphasize establishing and bolstering the public’s trust in newspapers. As managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, Roberts facilitated the process of developing the paper’s own code of ethics, inspired in part by the times when a situation would arise in the newsroom for which he and his colleagues didn’t have answers.
He recalls learning some lessons the hard way. The Chronicle was reporting on a trial for a girl’s kidnapping and murder. As the conviction was announced, the murderer turned around and gave photographers both middle fingers. Roberts’ paper published the photo and, Roberts remembers, “just got clobbered by the readers who thought it was completely in bad taste.”
The San Jose Mercury News did not publish the photo, but instead shared a note from the executive editor explaining their decision and acknowledging that readers would likely find the photo offensive. From this incident, Roberts learned that to build credibility, one of the most important things a paper can do is simply to communicate directly with readers. When an ethical question arises in the newsroom, he advises that “the main thing is to have the conversation,” discussing the issues and the potential conflict.
When Roberts joined the staff of the Santa Barbara News-Press in 2003, one of his first moves was to distribute the SPJ Code of Ethics to staff. Together they held ethics sessions and worked on case studies. When a reporter was facing a difficult issue with a story, people would get together and consult the Code.
Eventually, ethical issues came up internally, chiefly between the staff and the company that owned the paper. Roberts and his colleagues’ outstanding handling of the situation, which developed into an ongoing million-dollar lawsuit and dozens of resignations and firings, earned them the SPJ Ethics Award in 2006, among other ethics honors.
Since leaving the News-Press, Roberts has worked as a freelancer and educator, joining colleague Phil Trounstine in 2009 to start Calbuzz, a site for political news and analysis in California. Roberts has covered politics almost since the beginning of his career, and after noticing that a reduction in the staff of California newspapers led to a shortage of state politics coverage and analysis, the duo teamed up to cover the niche.
Roberts’ interest in politics is based in large part on the psychology behind it, which makes sense considering he majored in psychology (specifically, social relations) at Harvard. He explores why people want to get elected to office.
“You basically have a person who’s creating an image of themselves,” Roberts said, and as a reporter, he’s compelled to peek behind the curtain. “What is the moment of revelation when you see who they are, not who they’re trying to be?”
Roberts has been an SPJ member since 1998. He joined because some colleagues were members; he has maintained membership because of SPJ’s commitment to ethical standards in journalism. He has made donations to the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation and the Legal Defense Fund over the years, citing the support SPJ offered during the News-Press events and the ideals for which the Society stands.
“People think of the Code of Ethics abstractly, like it doesn’t matter,” Roberts said. “As a manager and an editor, it was so important to me. At the News-Press, it was such a central thing. To have ethics codified was central to getting through the experience. It wasn’t just my opinion — there was something real there.”