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.
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 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.
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.
April 5th, 2011 • Quill Archives
Gone But Not Forgotten: Ethics Guidelines From Phil Record
Phil Record, past president of SPJ, died in 2010. The longtime Fort Worth Star-Telegram editor was a friend of Bob Schieffer and noted advocate for uncompromised journalism ethics. As a media ethics instructor at the Schieffer School of Journalism at Texas Christian University, Record gave his students guidelines by which to do their jobs.
Since 1996, when SPJ implemented the current Code of Ethics, there have been calls to update, modify or otherwise change what is widely accepted as a gold standard in journalism ethics. After adopting its first code from the American Society of Newspaper Editors in 1926, SPJ implemented its own code in 1973, with additional revisions in 1984 and 1987.
I am not convinced that ethics can be taught, even though I’ve been trying to do it for six or more of the eight years since I (sort of) retired from The Denver Post. When you think about it, ethics depends on a person’s good moral instincts, and those are the product of many things, including parents, peers, good and bad examples, religion and other beliefs, all producing a gut feeling for what’s right and what’s wrong.
Once upon a time, I covered two funerals. One was a funeral for two girls killed in a crash with a state trooper who was speeding. The other was for a pastor gunned down in mid-service by an apparent schizophrenic. What was the ethical difference between covering these two funerals?
More than four years ago at a meeting of the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation board of directors in Indianapolis, two board members asked if I’d be interested in editing a fourth edition of SPJ’s widely acclaimed book on journalism ethics. It was in a dark and smoky cigar bar in Indianapolis, Mac McKerral insists, though I remember the rather sterile second floor of the SPJ headquarters where McKerral, a former SPJ president, and Howard Dubin, longtime treasurer of the SDX Foundation, first mentioned it to me.
In October, while attending the BlogWorld and New Media Expo 2010 in Las Vegas, I found myself anxiously scanning the convention program looking for a session on journalism ethics. I mean, after all, I was the newly appointed SPJ Ethics Committee chairman, and I wanted to get my hands good and dirty at this convention.
In June, weekly newspaper editors from around the world visited The Mountain Eagle in Kentucky, a paper known for its plucky pursuit of truth in coal-mining territory. I heard Editor Ben Gish recall a police officer intentionally burning down the newspaper office many years ago.