I remember vividly a conversation I had about 10 years ago with Patrick Lee Plaisance, a former journalist and current media ethics scholar at Colorado State University. I asked him why he chose to focus his teaching and research — his life’s work — on ethics.
He looked at me surprised, like it was the dumbest question he had ever heard, and he replied: “It’s all that matters.”
Well, I thought, that’s a pretty bold statement. What about effective information gathering? What about accuracy, clear writing, amazing video/multimedia, database analysis, fighting for open government, or telling compelling stories?
But, I later realized, he’s right.
If the best journalists in the world lack credibility then they are nothing. All we have is our credibility. We aren’t granted “journalist” status by earning a certain college degree or being issued a government license. We earn it by reporting responsibly.
That is why SPJ considers ethics one of its cornerstone missions, and why this year we are taking a close look at the SPJ Code of Ethics, with a potential update this fall (more on that here). In this issue of Quill you can read members of the Ethics Committee describing a draft update of the Code. You can also read Monica Guzman’s discussion of personal ethics in a digital age, as well other articles about ethical issues.
Great stuff, but a code is not enough.
During our discussions this year, I think we need to remember that codes are just roadmaps for reaching an ethically sound destination. The real work is behind the wheel.
We have more journalism codes of ethics than we know what to do with. It seems like every journalism organization and most newsrooms now have their own codes. The American Society of News Editors website lists dozens of codes.
The standard code since 1926 was produced by ASNE. Then SPJ created its own version in 1973, updating it in 1984, 1987 and 1996. Every month the SPJ Code of Ethics page gets about 17,300 page views, more than any other page on the SPJ website.
But we need to step back and look at the big picture. It’s too easy to focus on specific wording of a “code.” For example, I imagine one debate that will emerge this year is whether we include words and platforms like “social media” or “Twitter” in the code, or will it be outdated within three years? Codes are useful, but they also can distract us from core principles that have guided humans for thousands of years.
At their worst, codes, if used simplistically and without thought, can be crutches — a way for someone to cherry pick a line to justify a gut call. Want to publish a photo of a dead child? Then choose “Seek truth and report it.” Want to avoid publishing the photo? Then choose “Minimize harm.”
Codes are just starting points for deeper discussion. That’s where SPJ fits in.
BEYOND THE CODE
I challenge all journalists to print out the SPJ Code of Ethics and pin it up at their desks. It’s the industry gold standard, and it’s available here in English and 12 other languages, including Croatian and Macedonian.
Then, I challenge every journalist to live beyond the code:
• Read works by dead thinkers.
Every journalist should be familiar with fundamental ethics principles and philosophy — the writings of Aristotle, Plato, John Stuart Mill, John Rawls, Immanuel Kant and others who have spent their lives thinking about human action. Take a philosophy class at your local college or at least brush up on their work.
• Read works by living SPJ thinkers.
The SPJ Ethics page (spj.org/ethics.asp) has a ton of resources and discussion about ethics, including case studies and position papers. We even have an ethics hotline (317-927-8000, ext. 208) that is monitored by committee members, and the Chicago Headline Club runs its own hotline (866-345-3662). Ethics Committee Vice Chairman Fred Brown wrote the fourth edition of the SPJ book “Journalism Ethics.” Buy a copy, read it, and have him autograph it at EIJ14 in Nashville this fall. Go to ethics discussions at conferences.
• Write your own creed.
Sometimes it helps to write down what we value — to put on paper what is important to us. In 1914, Walter Williams, founding dean of the Missouri School of Journalism, laid out his thoughts in “The Journalist’s Creed.” Williams said in 304 words what we explain in our 759-word code. He said it quite well, including: “I believe in the profession of journalism. … I believe that the journalism which succeeds the best … is a journalism of humanity, of and for today’s world.”
Because in the big scheme of things, really, it’s all that matters.
David Cuillier, 2013-14 SPJ president and former SPJ FOI Committee chairman, is director of the University of Arizona School of Journalism, where he teaches and researches access to public records and data. He is co-author with Charles Davis of “The Art of Access: Strategies for Acquiring Public Records.” Reach him at email@example.com.