Emails soliciting entries for various awards flood journalists’ inboxes toward the end of each year. Organizations like SPJ and the Online News Association administer most major contests, but many advocacy organizations offer similar awards intended to recognize journalists’ work.
Non-profit organizations that advocate for cancer or environmental research, for example, may sponsor award contests for journalists covering those beats. While awards — especially ones so specific to a person’s area of expertise — are attractive and desirable, those administered by such advocacy organizations present complex ethical challenges for journalists.
SPJ’s Code of Ethics does not explicitly address journalism awards, but one of its main tenets tells journalists to act independently. The document also says they should avoid any conflicts of interests “real or perceived” and “refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment.”
Awards administered by advocacy organizations likely don’t have nefarious intentions. The mission is often to encourage responsible and accurate reporting on a specific subject or field. But as noble as their intentions may be, submitting entries and accepting awards from these organizations may lead some journalists into sticky situations.
A journalist could realistically find himself in an ethical quagmire if he previously accepted an award that included a cash prize from a group that lobbies for more nuclear research, for example, but later needs to report on the same organization. The journalist may report that story impartially, but members of the public may wonder if a person who accepted an award from the group treated it differently or not as harshly.
The best solution to these problems is not to get into them in the first place. Journalists should be very selective about the award contests they enter and the awards they accept.
Journalists should first see if their news organizations restrict the type of contests they may enter. Freelancers should also check the policies of their most loyal clients.
When company policies don’t provide the needed guidance, journalists should ask themselves whether accepting an award from an organization may complicate their professional life months or years later. If journalists are still on the fence about entering such award contests, they should either err on the side of caution or seek additional input from a fellow journalist or editor.
Also, a safe rule is to automatically rule out any contests from advocacy organizations that include cash prizes or other expensive gifts like travel.
When journalists do win and accept awards administered by advocacy organizations, they have a responsibility to disclose that relationship and award in any of their future reports that include mentions of that group or its leaders.
While it may seem self-serving to encourage journalists to only enter contests administered by the Society of Professional Journalists and other professional journalism organizations, those awards are generally not controversial and are not likely to bring up ethical questions down the road.
Contests administered by advocacy organizations may be appealing since most don’t charge for entries and may look good on a resume, but protecting one’s reputation is a lot more valuable than any tangible award or cash prize. ***
Andrew M. Seaman is chairperson of the SPJ Ethics Committee and a health reporter for Reuters. On Twitter: @andrewmseaman