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.
At the intersection of technology and journalism, there’s a debate about fairness, privacy and punishment. Because of the Internet, news about arrests of people in many of our local communities is permanently and easily available online. Some people object that stories or cop-log briefs about arrests pop up during Google searches, years after the cases were resolved and the offenders tried to move on.
I love connections. A friend and I regularly trade “Six Degrees” stories about who we just met and how they fit into some other facet of our lives, through channels we wouldn’t have predicted. Professionally, though, I’m leery of having ties to people, places or events in my community.
The New York Times is accustomed to controversy and criticism for its high-profile journalistic decisions. Recently, in a peculiar turn of events, the newspaper was targeted for saying and doing nothing. As best as I could tell, the Times was not to blame for the frenzied rumors swirling around the capitol in Albany, N.Y.
When the SPJ Ethics Committee started a blog, and we wanted a catchy name, I suggested “Canon Fodder.” Others on the committee correctly rejected that idea. The double meaning didn’t work. We didn’t want anyone confusing the rules governing other professions with the principles guiding journalism.
Jeremiah Charles Overbaugh met the woman he’d marry while inspecting chickens at a hatchery. As a single parent, Marlene Plant got her driver’s license when she was in her 40s and later beat cancer. Ann Mary Roberts had six best friends: her dogs Quigley, Sadie and Shamrock and her cats Hootie, Miss Kitty and Sweetie Man.
The sudden appearance of Virginia Tech shooter Seung-Hui Cho’s mental health records in July, more than two years after the massacre, brings renewed interest in how the mental health of college students is monitored. Suicide is a very present and real threat on America’s college campuses.
We all likely committed some version of this cognitive error while driving: We bawled out “What a stupid idiot!” to some driver who swerved into the wrong lane. It’s instinctive. We assume that the person behind that car’s wheel has to have an IQ of zero and no coordination.
The photo ran on the front page, above the fold. Several government officials were lined up; one smiled and held oversized scissors, about to cut a ribbon. President Barack Obama, also grinning, was tucked into the group. One of my co-workers saw the front page and the picture in a vending box, briefly frozen by our competitor’s prominent scoop.
So many calls to the SPJ Ethics Hotline are questions on deadline, and we’re always happy to help. Then came a request from Ohio, where Stephanie Calondis Geiger of the Columbus Council on World Affairs was teaching journalism to 60 teenagers.
August 1st, 2008 • Quill Archives
Ethics: Fundamentals should still apply, even in digital age
These days I’m several ounces heavier as I travel to my reporting assignments. That’s because of the Flip video camera in my breast pocket. It’s a little bigger than a credit card. Its stature in my newsroom, though, is large. After a gradual start about a year ago, video has become part of our daily routine.
Journalism and the media in these days of rapidly developing digital technology, self-publishing and the incredible advances of the Internet seem like the Wild, Wild West. Certainly, the world has gotten smaller and access to the kind of publishing apparatus once the purview of newspaper companies that owned printing presses and broadcast companies with FCC licenses has grown.
STAFF REPORT Each year, SPJ’s Ethics Committee awards grants to student and professional chapters to be used for programming during the annual Ethics in Journalism Week, scheduled for April 21-27. This year, grants totaling $11,125 were given to chapters hosting programs that further drive the SPJ Code of Ethics’ principle of acting independently.
There seems to be no shortage of ethical issues in journalism these days. And we know not every decision is an easy one. But the most important thing in your decision is that you use sound reasoning when coming to a conclusion.
For journalists, the opportunities for freebies are plentiful and tempting. Hors d’oeuvres are within reach at catered functions. A source wants to break the ice by buying us a drink. That new book on sale? Go ahead and take one, the author says; share it with your colleagues.
Let’s just say I wasn’t too pleased to find out that the recently elected president of my homeowners association in Denver is a lawyer who works for a firm that represents the developer of my neighborhood. How did I learn this?
My first live encounter with the SPJ Ethics Committee turned into a test of ethics. I joined SPJ in 2002, but, living 70 miles from the closest active chapter, it took me a while to make much of a connection. On a whim, with a sense of exploration, I went to the national convention in Tampa in 2003.
December 1st, 2006 • Quill Archives
Newspaper works to include blogging in code of ethics
Editor Steve Smith said he knew there had to be a change in the Spokane Spokesman-Review code of ethics when the newspaper began sponsoring blogs. The only question was: How does the paper incorporate the loose, sometimes marginal journalism blog postings into the company’s code?
The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics is voluntary. We do not have a mechanism for investigating complaints or enforcing discipline on SPJ members, much less other journalists. But our code does provide a framework to evaluate ethical behavior, and we encourage fellow journalists and the public to hold news reports and commentary up to ethical scrutiny.
March 30th, 2006 • Quill Archives
Editor: Opinion boards need a strong foundation in ethics
As he starts each new day at the Deseret Morning News in Salt Lake City, Jay Evensen is faced continually with ethical issues. Evensen is editorial page editor for a newspaper that is wholly owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek truth and report it.” It’s been referred to as the “prime directive” in the SPJ Code of Ethics, and it will be the theme of the Fourth Annual Ethics in Journalism Week. SPJ chapters, leaders and members have set aside April 24-28 to place a special emphasis on discussions and activities that support responsible reporting.
VIRGINIA GERST Virginia Gerst calls it the “easiest and the hardest decision I have ever made.” She’s referring to the day she walked away from a job she’d held for two decades rather than compromise her integrity. Gerst was arts and entertainment editor at Pioneer Press, a chain of weeklies in suburban Chicago.