As vice chair of the SPJ Ethics Committee, I get a lot of questions from journalism students who want feedback for their assignments. “How would you define ’ethical journalism’?” “Have you ever been in an ethical situation?” I recently got this one: “How can journalists avoid running into ethical problems?”
As a car show was getting underway in Northeastern Pennsylvania in 2009, one of the cars turning into the parking lot burst into flames after it was hit from behind by another vehicle. Trapped inside, the car’s only occupant — a 64-year-old man — died.
He is one of the people in modern history most quoted by journalists. He knows everything, but goes by many names. Some call him an official. Some call him a source close to the matter. Others just call him anonymous. After years of work, many say he should be forced into retirement.
My peers in middle school often sent letters asking for autographs to famous athletes. I, on the other hand, wrote letters to Walter Cronkite. My father spent many hours during my childhood explaining to me the role the “most trusted man in American” played in the latter half of the 20th Century.
With an overwhelming chorus of “ayes” in September, delegates of the Society of Professional Journalists ushered in a new era of journalism ethics. After a year of work and debate, approved revisions to the SPJ Code of Ethics for the first time in 18 years.
It’s finally here. After over a year of listening, gathering input, releasing drafts, doing re-writes and addressing concerns, the newly revised Code of Ethics is ready for prime time. But the show isn’t over yet. Just like in show business, it’s not over until the proverbial fat lady sings.
September 3rd, 2014 • Quill Archives
Code of Ethics Revision: What’s Up and What Has Changed
The SPJ Ethics Committee met the weekend of July 11 to 13 in Columbus, Ohio, to put the finishing touches on a Code that will be presented to delegates at the national convention in Nashville, Sept. 4 to 6. Members of the SPJ Ethics Committee in Columbus for the in-person meeting were Kevin Z.
NOTE: A version of this critique from Steve Buttry first appeared on his blog. The rewrite of the SPJ Code of Ethics is moving in the right direction, just not far enough. In three monstrously long posts in 2010 and earlier this year, I called for an update of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics and criticized the first draft of an update by the Ethics Committee.
When delegates convene during the closing business session at the national convention this September, they will have an extraordinary vote before them: whether to support revisions to SPJ’s Code of Ethics. There have been three such revisions and two compete rewrites in the Society’s 105 years, so this is a big moment for SPJ.
Transparency is the new objectivity. If you don’t believe me, ask many of journalism’s millennial ethicists; they’ll tell you it’s far better to be open about your conflicts than it is to be detached from them. That represents a significant step in a new ethical direction.
As you may have heard, SPJ is in the process of reviewing and revising the current Code of Ethics, which was last updated in 1996. Here’s an update on what the Ethics Committee has been working on, and will continue to work on until the national Excellence in Journalism convention Sept.
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.
You won’t read this very often in a magazine or from any news outlet: Whatever you read in this section, steal it. That’s right, take the words, work, ideas, and use them yourself. Make copies, pass them out at work and in class, disseminate far and wide.
SPJ’s Code of Ethics is among the most cited codes for journalism professionals, but there are certainly more from other organizations and news outlets. These codes are mostly starting points to guide ethical decision-making. Often the gray areas of journalism ethics require your own additional thought process.
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.
A few months into my Knight International Journalism Fellowship in Haiti, I was conducting a training session in a radio newsroom in the capital when a reporter danced through the open door. He proudly announced that he’d just bagged a big contract to run a presidential candidate’s campaign for the upcoming election.
In December 2011, the SPJ Ethics Committee began releasing position papers and explainers that expand on certain points of the Code of Ethics. The goal is to explain in more detail some of the larger issues addressed by the Code – and provide additional resources for journalists considering ethical questions.
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?
One of the strongest voices for the defense of a federal shield law, Sen. Charles Schumer, D-N.Y., announced in early April that he was willing to again author a version of the Free Flow of Information Act. Some might consider it a futile effort given that a version of a shield bill has been introduced on the Hill since 2005 with no success, albeit with some progress of acceptance.