The first Quill ethics column of 2014 seems like the perfect opportunity to talk about ethical resolutions for the coming year. Hundreds of calls to the Society’s Ethics Hotline, weeks upon months, have inspired this list. So, it stands to reason that if you can make these resolutions and stick to them, you will be doing your all-important part in 2014 to turn around the reputations of journalists.
When SPJ leaders announced their intentions to consider a revision to our Code of Ethics, it seemed like a logical first step to ask “why?” After all, sound reasoning should be offered before digging deep into the nuts and bolts of rewriting the 17-year-old code.
It’s never easy saying goodbye to an old friend, especially one that has been so loyal and helpful to you over the years. Old friends remind us of simpler, bygone times when we become confused by all of the noise and uncertainty generated in our changing world.
When it comes to codes of conduct, history presents a long and populated account of people wanting to do the right thing. Whether it’s through religious teachings, political legislation or the development of morality by 10 young men trapped on an island without adult supervision, rules of moral behavior quickly develop for the betterment of the group.
At the risk of losing my lifetime membership in the Journalism Club of America, I think it’s important to say that not every story needs the news media’s attention. Sometimes, no matter how tempting, we need to take a pass — for ethical reasons.
The SPJ Code of Ethics provides valuable guidelines to journalists for handling sticky issues that inevitably arise. SPJ’s Ethics Committee has noted in one of its position papers that the Code is regarded as the “gold standard” when it comes to aspirational codes of ethics.
As far as single questions go, it was the perfect one to ask when you’re writing one of those end-of-year, forward-looking pieces in hopes of capturing some thoughtful insight from purported experts. “What is the single biggest challenge facing journalism in 2013?”
When I speak to students about ethics, I call this the “duh” section. There are no absolute rights in journalism and very few absolute wrongs. The latter are the “duh” section: You cannot take someone else’s words and pass them off as your own.
Some years ago while teaching a freshman composition course at a state college, I received a paper from a student whose writing had taken an astounding turn for the better. Suspecting she plagiarized the paper, I investigated and, not to my surprise, discovered she had lifted wholesale from an online source.
In slightly more than a year, the American public has been treated to some of the most high-profile and media-hyped criminal trials in decades. Since July 2011, we have given the watchful public Casey Anthony, Conrad Murray, John Edwards, Roger Clemens and Jerry Sandusky, each catapulted into the national spotlight and scrutinized under the hot lights of the media.
People magazine pulled no punches with its April 9, 2012, cover showing deceased Florida youth Trayvon Martin’s innocent good looks peering over the emboldened yellow wording: “An American Tragedy.” It was a clear message with an obvious editorial agenda, magazine design students from the University of Central Florida told me recently during a visit to that school, pulling no punches of their own in their critique of the cover.
I was watching TV the night news broke of singer Whitney Houston’s death. My phone buzzed shortly after 8 p.m. on Saturday, Feb. 11, with an Associated Press news alert. I made a quick post on Facebook, and within minutes the social medium was red hot with comments.
A former student of mine, now working for a metro paper, called recently to ask about the ethics of reporting suicides. A businessman had jumped from a high-rise apartment onto a bustling street below, leaving behind a grieving wife and three daughters.
Each week thousands of people visit the SPJ website, and many of them navigate to the ethics page to read our Code of Ethics. In fact, aside from the homepage, the ethics page has the single largest population of unique visitors in the last year, nearly 35,000.
As calls to the SPJ ethics hotline have come in over the past year, it’s clear to me that one area of ethics has distanced itself from the rest in terms of concerns, questions and complaints. That is conflicts of interest.
Editor’s Note: Since this column was written, ABC has announced that it will no longer engage in the practice of checkbook journalism, though it did leave open the possibly of an “extraordinary circumstance” leading to the use of licensing fees. Is it time to wave the white flag, hold our noses and get over it — “it” being the increasing practice of news organizations paying money to news sources?