Ethics Code Revisions – Our First Draft [Updated]

When the 2013 Excellence in Journalism National Convention ended in Anaheim, Calif. last August, the work of the SPJ Ethics Committee really began.

Tasked with revising the 1996 version of the Society’s code, the 18-member committee wasted little time getting philosophically engaged. How much should we change? Shorter? Longer? More specific? More general? Keep, change or add to the guiding principles? What’s missing as we march into 2014 and beyond?

Update: Download the mark-through draft

Want to see just how much has been changed for this first draft of the revised SPJ Code of Ethics? Download a copy of the mark-through draft [PDF, 546 KB], which includes both the existing code’s text and the proposed updates as a comparison. Highlighted items are new, while items with a strikethrough mark are slated to be removed.

Shortly thereafter, a subcommittee was established to incorporate the views of the growing populace of digital media journalists. After several weeks of work, that group made its recommendations to the committee-of-the-whole and work began.

In late January, the overall committee was divided into four groups, each responsible with revising a principle component of the code: Seek Truth and Report It, Minimize Harm, Act Independently and Be Accountable. Each group worked through February and into March to revise the code language. When members completed their work it was handed to another group for editing.

What appears below is the FIRST DRAFT of the committee’s work. We are posting it here and it will be made available to you in various mediums as we begin the spring regional conference schedule. You are invited to place comments here, with your regional or local professional or student chapter, or contact me directly, the Ethics Committee chairman at

I can’t emphasize enough that this is an on-going process. It is our intention to solicit as many comments and recommendations as possible over the spring season and meet as a committee again in May to consider your suggestions. So, please comment. As we move this process forward, we hope to produce a final version from the committee in mid summer, giving members/delegates about six weeks prior to convention to read and consider the code that will come to this year’s convention.

So, enjoy the read. Engage and be a part of the process.

Kevin Z. Smith
SPJ National Ethics Committee Chairman




Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that justice and good government require an informed public. The journalist’s duty is to provide that information, accurately, fairly and fully. Responsible journalists from all media, including nontraditional providers of news to a broad audience, should strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Responsible journalists think ethically before acting, and make every effort to get the story right the first time.  Integrity is the foundation of a journalist’s credibility, and above all, responsible journalists must be accurate. The purpose of this code is to declare the Society’s principles and standards and to encourage their use in the practice of journalism in any and all media.

 Seek Truth

Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information. Journalists should:

Aggressively gather and update information as a story unfolds and work to avoid error. Deliberate distortion and reporting unconfirmed rumors are never permissible.

Remember that neither speed nor brevity excuses inaccuracy or mitigates the damage of error.

Journalists, not sources, are responsible for the accuracy of stories. Verify information from sources before publishing. Information taken from other news sources should be independently verified.

Work to put every story in context. In promoting, previewing or reporting a story live, take care not to misrepresent or oversimplify it.

Clearly identify sources; the public is entitled to as much information as possible on source’s identity, reliability and possible motives.  Seek alternative sources before granting anonymity. Reveal conditions attached to any promises made in exchange for information. Keep promises.

Seek sources whose views are seldom used. Official and unofficial sources can be equally valid.

Diligently seek subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to criticism and to allegations of wrongdoing.

Avoid publishing critical opinions by those seeking confidentiality.

Never alter or distort news images. Clearly label illustrations.

Avoid re-enactments or staged news events.

Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional, open methods will not yield vital information to the public.

Never plagiarize. Always attribute information not independently gathered.

Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience.

Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be clearly labeled.

Avoid stereotyping. Examine your own cultural values and avoid imposing those on others.

Recognize a special obligation to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection. Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.


Minimize Harm

Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect. Journalists should:

Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort.  Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance, irreverence or an invasive behavior.

Be sensitive when seeking or using information, interviews and images of people affected by tragedy or grief. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.

Recognize the harm in using photos or information, including any photos and data from social media forums, for which the source is unknown, or where there is uncertainty regarding the authenticity of the images or information.

Recognize that legal access to information differs from ethical justification to publish. Journalists should balance the importance of information and potential effects on subjects and the public before publication.

Realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention.

Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity. Avoid following the lead of others who violate this tenet.

Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects, criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges, and victims of sex crimes. Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.

Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of online publication. Provide updated and more complete information when appropriate.


Act Independently

A journalist’s highest and primary obligation is to the public’s right to know. Journalists should:

 Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.

Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations that may conflict with an impartial approach to information-gathering.

Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; do not pay for news or access.

Deny favored treatment to advertisers and donors, or any other special interests, and resist pressure to influence coverage.

Identify content provided by outside sources, whether paid or not. Distinguish news from advertising and marketing material. Shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.

Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.


Be Accountable

Journalists should be open in their actions and accept responsibility for them. Journalists should:

Clarify and explain news coverage and encourage a civil dialogue with the public over journalistic practices.

Admit mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently wherever they appeared, including in archived material.

Expose unethical conduct in journalism.

Disclose sources of funding and relationships that might influence, or appear to influence, reporting.

Abide by the same high standards they expect of others.



Quill Flashback: 21st-Century Journalism Requires 21st-Century Code

The following opinion piece originally appeared in Quill Magazine in April 2011. To read the counterpoint that appeared in the same issue, follow this link: Quill Flashback: The Current Code is Inclusive and Flexible

By Steve Buttry

The SPJ Code of Ethics absolutely needs an update.

The Code, adopted in 1973, was revised three times between then and 1996 but not since. Why would SPJ stop keeping its ethics code current when new tools, new opportunities, media restructuring and current events continue presenting journalists with new ethical decisions?

I have always liked the SPJ Code, because it combines simplicity with detailed guidance. Three of the Code’s four basic principles — seek truth and report it; minimize harm; be accountable — are clear, direct and seldom disputed. They remain the heart of good journalism ethics and widely accepted by journalists. The fourth principle — act independently — is not as universally accepted and is at the heart of some recent controversies. The update process should include a discussion of whether this principle needs revision.

The SPJ Code doesn’t address journalists’ opinions at all. Of course, opinions have never been regarded as unethical per se. Editorial writers and columnists were allowed to have opinions and voices, but many have advocated “objectivity” (a word that never appears in the Code, another thing I like) for editors and reporters.

In controversies over Dave WeigelJuan Williams and Keith Olbermann, you seldom hear the SPJ Code cited. In the debate over whether journalists should attempt to be objective or whether that is a charade resulting in what Jay Rosen criticizes as the “view from nowhere,” no one can cite guidance from SPJ because the Code is silent on the whole matter.

The Code’s elaboration on the principle of independence focuses mostly on keeping our distance from advertisers. Perhaps it’s time that SPJ take up the messy issue of independence from sources, interests, and our own opinions and personal lives.

The SPJ Code isn’t helpful in guiding journalists in the use of social media. When The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post released guidelines discouraging staff members from expressing opinions in social media, the resulting discussions did not cite SPJ because the Code offers no guidance on whether or how journalists should separate private and professional emails and social media.

The Code is more than those four simple principles. It elaborates on each principle in a way that is helpful for journalists trying to make decisions in a variety of situations. “Seek truth and report it,” for instance, is followed by 17 related specific pieces of advice. These explanations need updating to fit today’s context rather than when they were last updated in 1996. If 17 provided helpful guidance 15 years ago, would 20 or 23 points be excessive today?

On my blog in November, I went through the entire code, suggesting issues and, in some cases, language to consider in updating. I’ll do that here just for the points in the first section (on seeking and reporting the truth) that I think need the heaviest revision. The actual language of the Code of Ethics is in italics.

I’ll start with a suggested addition: The heart of seeking the truth is accuracy. I would like to see SPJ advocate that journalists use an accuracy checklist, as Craig Silverman suggests. Silverman notes thatchecklists are proven to reduce errors in crucial professions such as surgery and pilots. If we want to uphold the truth as a core principle, why shouldn’t we advocate a proven system to improve accuracy?

I used my own checklist, inspired by Silveman’s, in checking facts and links for this article. SPJ should adopt a sample checklist as a supplement to the updated Code of Ethics, encouraging journalists to adapt and use it and journalism professors to teach it.

I also think the obligation to report the truth entails an obligation to encourage reporting of errors. SPJ’s Code should endorse the Report an Error approach.

Journalists should: Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.

This needs rewriting and expansion to apply to the way journalists cover unfolding news stories. I’d suggest something like: “Diligently seek out subjects of news coverage to give them the opportunity to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing. In unfolding coverage of breaking news, criticism or allegations may need to be published before a journalist can get a response. In these cases, the initial coverage should reflect the effort to get a response, and the response should receive prominent play whenever it comes.”

The update needs to go beyond the technology-driven changes to how we cover breaking news. It also should recognize and address journalism’s widespread practice of he-said-she-said stories that don’t get to the truth. The mere effort to report a “balanced” story with charge and response does not satisfy the obligation to report the truth.

Perhaps the Code should say something like: “The journalist should fact-check, seeking documentation, videos, eyewitnesses and people with first-hand experience (always remaining aware of individual biases and the weakness of human memory) to come as close to the truth as possible.”

SPJ needs to advocate fact-checking of sources as central to ethical reporting, helping journalists move beyond the balanced reporting of competing lies or especially reporting lies and facts with equal weight.

Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.

I don’t like the word “anonymity” here. Truly anonymous sources — people who won’t disclose their names even to the journalist — should never be used as anything more than tipsters.

It would be better to reword this: “Journalists should always question motives and know a source’s identity and background before promising confidentiality.” And I would add: “Don’t accept the condition that you would never publish the information; you must remain free to seek other sources of the information, while protecting a source’s identity.”

Remember Judith Miller’s absurd dismissal of responsibility for her inaccurate reporting about intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq: “If your sources are wrong, you are wrong.” I think the SPJ Code of Ethics needs to state unequivocally: “Journalists, not sources, are responsible for the accuracy of the stories; you should verify thoroughly enough to refute false information from sources.”

I also think the Code should provide more explicit guidance on what to use from confidential sources and what to consider in granting confidentiality, something along these lines: “Do not publish critical opinions from people seeking confidentiality. People who wish to express opinions in the media should stand behind their opinions. Confidentiality should be granted only to gather important facts that could not otherwise be learned.”


Update the Code? No. The current version works, says Irwin Gratz

Submit your thoughts: Update/no update

Journalists should consider power and eagerness in deciding whether to grant confidentiality. A powerful source volunteering information is trying to use a journalist and should be held accountable for what he or she says. A vulnerable source being approached by a journalist may express reluctance to talk at all without confidentiality. You still should examine motives, seek to get the source on the record and verify information provided, but this source is in a more acceptable position for granting confidentiality.

The Code should encourage journalists to use confidentiality as a means to find on-the-record sources and documentation that can be quoted. Quote the confidential sources only as a last resort.

Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.

I would add: “Where brief reports can present only limited context, use links to provide full context. In print editions, refer readers to online sources providing greater context.”

Never plagiarize.

Much as I love the direct simplicity of this passage, it’s no longer enough. I would add: “Be diligent in identifying sources of information clearly in notes, whether digital or paper. Sloppiness is never an excuse for plagiarism.”

But journalists’ responsibility to attribute goes deeper than cut-and-dried plagiarism. The Code needs to tell journalists to credit sources by name, not by vague descriptions such as “press reports,” “critics,” “a blog,” or by indirect references such as “was reported” or “reportedly.” SPJ also needs to note that ethical journalists should link to original sources in digital content.

Support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.


I would add: “The responsibility to support this open exchange does not override the responsibility to report the truth. When sources are giving false information in support of their views, the journalist should fact-check and report the truth.”

Recognize a special obligation to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection. 

I would add: “When reporting information from public documents, journalists should link to them or publish them online in pdf or other formats, so users can examine the documents themselves.”

An updated SPJ Code should start where the current Code does: Seek truth and report it. But the Code should address the 21st-century decisions that principle presents.

Steve Buttry has spent 40 years working in print, digital and television newsrooms. He presented more than 30 ethics seminars for the American Press Institute, focusing largely on the challenges of digital journalism. Contact or @stevebuttry on Twitter. In 2010 he was named one of Quill’s 20 “Journalists to Follow.”


Quill Flashback: The Current Code is Inclusive and Flexible

The following opinion piece originally appeared in Quill Magazine in April 2011. To read the counterpoint that appeared in the same issue, follow this link: Quill Flashback: 21st-Century Journalism Requires 21st-Century Code

By Irwin Gratz

I realized I was becoming an old codger back in the mid-1990s, when SPJ was debating the current version of the Code of Ethics. The new Code was being discussed at a breakout session of the SPJ National Convention, and several speakers warned that the Code was, in its language, failing to take note of the budding age of computers.

Technological developments, they said, were giving journalists so many new tools that surely the Code had to make accommodations for them, be they the way photos could be enhanced, or the new ways digital audio could be edited. That’s when it hit me. I raised my hand and chimed in on the discussion, saying that rather than the Code having to be modified to fit the new technology-enabled practices, maybe people using the new technology should modify their practices to conform to the Code.

Journalism is a very, very old business, and over time its practitioners have learned a lot of important lessons the hard way. SPJ owes its very existence to the idealism of college students who believed — correctly, I think — that poor standards and loose ethics did a disservice to the public.

But ethical standards aren’t exactly like the Ten Commandments. They have evolved over the years as we’ve learned that while credibility and truth-telling are paramount, sometimes it’s OK if the truth comes from people who won’t be named (see Watergate). And even deception has its place when it serves to root out corruption (e.g. “Mirage Bar and Grill” set up by Chicago journalists in the 1970s who snagged city inspectors seeking bribes) or the public safety (e.g. when ABC had someone apply for a job at supermarket chain Food Lion in the 1990s, then use a hidden camera to record dangerous food handling practices). But we’ve also learned that a staple of the news business, crime reporting, really does affect real people — mothers, fathers, children of victims who can be hurt by what we write and helped if we exert some restraint in the gratuitous publishing of facts just because we have them.

The Code of Ethics SPJ adopted in 1996 reflects these lessons. It has very few absolutes (deliberate distortion of facts, distortion of news content and photos, and plagiarism to name the only three). The “shoulds” and “avoids” in our Code recognize the enormous range of situations journalists can find themselves in as they chronicle human behavior. The triumph of the 1996 Code over its predecessor is its ability to state ethical journalism principles without tying the hands of journalists as they go about their daily work.

More than anything, the Code is a road map journalists can follow when confronted with an ethical dilemma, framing the questions but ultimately leaving the difficult task of decision-making in the hands of the only people truly qualified to make those ethical decisions: the journalists who will have to live with them. And the Code points out that journalists should be accountable for their actions. When I discuss the Code with students, I tell them the goal in ethical decision-making is reaching a decision and being able to explain your justification for that decision. And, I add, you have to realize that after your explanation, some people will continue to disagree with you.

Since 1996, there have been additional calls to modify the Code. I initiated one such discussion in 2002 (“Does the SPJ code need a wartime update?” Quill, April 2002). At the time, I was asking whether we needed specific language to justify the convention that reporters don’t report on troop movements, or how do reporters “act independently” without being guilty of being un-patriotic? At that time, members of the Ethics Committee believed our Code language would enable those reporting war to answer such questions; no other SPJ members proposed a change in language, and none was adopted.

Now the update question is being asked again. Certainly new channels for journalism have formed in the past decade or so, and older forms appear to be in decline. But what does that mean for the Society’s Code of Ethics? I still insist: very little. Journalism, at least responsible journalism of the kind SPJ has long advocated for, is still a desirable goal, and you reach that goal through the traditional methods: viewing things for yourself, interviewing people, reading documents. In that process, all the old ethical dilemmas arise, such as when to report and when to hold back for more corroboration; how to balance the public right to know with individual privacy rights; and how far to go in offering individuals a right to respond to elements in a story.

It is suggested that the accelerated news cycle requires the Code to be more insistent about obtaining reaction from targets of news and more explicit about efforts made to contact individuals in any story that’s run.


Update the Code? Yes, absolutely, says Steve Buttry

Submit your thoughts: Update/no update

The Code addresses these matters, though not always specifically. It is a strength of the Code to speak in generalities, since the specifics of most cases are different, and ultimately individual reporters and editors, in whatever medium they do their journalism, will be held responsible for their decisions.

I am still waiting to hear what is so fundamentally different about Web journalism. Is it that news and opinion mix so freely online? That once happened in newspapers too, but journalists following our Code and others like it learned the value in “distinguishing” between advocacy and news reporting. The best Web journalists will do likewise and benefit from it. There is room for those who mix news with commentary so long as they follow the Code’s admonition to label it as such and not misrepresent facts or context. Many “alternative” newspapers have done this well for years.

One of our past national presidents, Fred Brown, recently argued that the Code contains evidence that the Society tried too hard in its last iteration to cater to the specifics of existing journalism technology. Specifically, he cites a passage where the Code urges “that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent.” Indeed, the Internet revolution is giving new meaning to the term “headline,” and “images” is probably more appropriate now than “video” or “photos.” Fred’s point is that when it comes to a document like the Code, simpler is often better.

I’m not averse to making changes to our Code of Ethics. But having worked with it and worked to explain it over these past 15 years, I’ve found it to be a most helpful, inclusive and flexible document. It speaks to great principles of journalism. The way news gets told in America, and around the world, is certainly changing, in ways few of us could have hardly imagined. But I have waited, so far in vain, for evidence that journalism itself is changing in fundamental ways that require us to make major changes to the Code.

Irwin Gratz is a member of the Ethics Committee and is a past national SPJ president. He works as “Morning Edition” producer for Maine Public Broadcasting Network.


The value of an ombudsman

It was reported once more this past weekend that the Washington Post is considering getting rid of its ombudsman position of 43 years. Current ombudsman Patrick Pexson moved the story past the rumor stage with his Sunday column  Pexson said newly installed executive editor Marty Baron believes there are plenty of avenues already in place for addressing criticism of the Post and, with tightening budgets, the salary didn’t make sense.

“There is ample criticism of our performance from outside sources, entirely independent of the newsroom, and we don’t pay their salaries,” Pexson quotes Baron as saying.

Granted, ombudsmen have been dying off at a steady rate since the 1970s, but they’ve always had an important and revered position with the largest of America’s newspapers. The Post’s ombudsman has been a position of great inspiration and purpose for one of America’s greatest media institutions.

Herein lie my concerns: First, allowing those outside the newsroom to be the sole source of criticism for your publication isn’t the same as having internal checks and balances with self-imposed accountability. Second, if Baron and others think that they can manage the task of addressing criticism by using in-position editors they are missing the entire value of having an ombudsman. Allowing subjective editors to replace an independent ethicist becomes nothing more than a whitewashing effort to resolve complaints. By allowing the alleged offenders within the newsroom to help serve, even in a small way, as the judge and jury means you are eroding the very credibility you hope to attain with a separate reader advocate.

I’ve learned a lot from my 20 years on the SPJ Ethics Committee. Something that has always struck me as odd is this ill-conceived notion that people who become editors are suddenly bestowed with indelible, sage moral reasoning. You see in many newsrooms editors deemed the best purveyors of ethics.  But, if that were the case, most ethically suspect material would never make it before the public, assuming review by these moral mastodons. We’d have no case studies to analyze; we’d need no code of ethics. We’d simply leave it to the moral attributes of a few who are in power by virtue of their longevity at the workplace or their abilities to get the most of a reporting staff or polish a rag tag piece of copy into a masterpiece of prose.

In this position as chairman of SPJ’s Ethics Committee I field numerous ethical complaints from the public. In almost every incident they call SPJ’s Ethics Hotline because they’ve already pleaded their case with the reporter and an editor but were ignored, spurned or told there was no problem. None of these papers have independent ombudsmen, so the verdict lies with the people who are being criticized. These have included cases where the reporter’s wife is campaign manager for a candidate, where an editor has lobbied in the paper to get a coach fired after he cut the editor’s son during tryouts. They’ve involved cases where they’ve refused to run corrections even after documents were provided to show the reporter made a factual mistake.

We then wonder why our moral currency with the public isn’t of much value anymore. And, now we have a great paper wondering why an independent, judicious voice is needed to lend credibility to its work and image.

Last fall, a young reporter called me saying she questioned her editors’ decision to pay for travel, hotel and meal expenses for a couple who were going to see their son in prison. The story focused on the tribulations of having an incarcerated family member. They asked the couple to be a part of the story. The couple wanted paid, and the paper agreed to send them 100 miles away to visit their son. The couple ran up room, meals and bar bills the paper paid. When this young reporter, a year removed from college, questioned the ethics of the editors, she said she was informed “this is way things get done in journalism” and if she didn’t like it, she might want to look elsewhere for a job. And, if she brought it up again, she’d need to. This type of ethical decision making is more common in American newsrooms than we want to admit. And, this is the moral reasoning we are pleased to show the public whose interests we claim to be serving?

In a journalism world where hollowed-out excuses are readily used as foundational support for ethical decision making, why would a newspaper with the reputation of the Washington Post consider removing the very underpinning of integrity and credibility from its news coverage? Granted the Post is assailed every day for its decisions, just like most of America’s media. But, until now, it has never considered allowing those who could be breaking ethical standards to sit in judgment of themselves.


(Smith is chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee. He served as chair from 1994-96 and 2010-present. He is the former president of SPJ (2009-10). He currently teaches journalism ethics at the University of Dayton.


The price of plagiarism

This post is written by Andrew M. Seaman, who is a member of SPJ’s ethics committee.

The decision by the Knight Foundation to pay Jonah Lehrer, who has admitted fabricating quotes and duplicating material, $20,000 for a speech brought swift ire from many journalists.

I join that disappointed chorus; the Knight Foundation’s choice to use its money in this way is antithetical to its long tradition of advancing the field on so many fronts. But it’s also important to remember that plagiarism and shoddy journalism’s price tag is much higher than $20,000. Thieves and fabricators cost us much more through collateral damage.

Every day, journalists work hard to explain the world. While some of them are bad apples, the vast majority hold true to the Society of Professional Journalists’ first ethical tenet: seek truth and report it.

Admittedly, it’s getting harder and harder to do that, especially with decreasing support from many news organizations that live by the motto: do more with less.

And while most good journalists are recognized internally by their editors and colleagues for their hard work, only a few – Cronkite, Murrow, Woodward and Bernstein – will become household names with the public.

Still, journalists show up each day to do their work and report on everything from local school board meetings to civil wars.

But just because a report is broadcast, printed or posted doesn’t mean people will watch, listen, read or click. No, journalists need to earn their audience’s trust before they do that.

Much of that trust belongs to the individual news organization, but another sizable portion is owned by the entire profession.

For example, when Gallup conducts its annual poll about the media, it lumps all newspapers, broadcasts and websites together under mass media. There is nothing wrong with that, but it means every journalist is responsible for maintaining that trust.

In September 2012, the number of Americans who distrusted mass media reached 60 percent, according to Gallup. That’s the lowest level of trust in over 15 years of available data. The last time the annual poll showed a majority of Americans trusting the media was 2006.

When people like Jonah Lehrer, Jayson Blair, Stephen Glass and Janet Cooke come along, it’s like bomb. It doesn’t just ruin their careers and reputations; it also hits journalism’s collective trust.

Take Stephen Glass, who was caught fabricating stories at The New Republic, as an example. He was not just found out; his rise and fall was also turned into a movie that starred Hayden Christensen.

Jayson Blair, who was caught fabricating stories at The New York Times, had his deceptions chronicled in a lengthy front-page story. The same goes for Jack Kelley with USA TODAY.

There’s nothing wrong with movies or explaining a plagiarist’s or fabricator’s deceptions, but these examples show how easy it is for the average person to start questioning and distrusting every story from The New York Times, USA TODAY or any other media organization.

Some people may offer excuses for what these people did. Perhaps the stress was too much for them? Maybe they couldn’t find the stories they once did? I don’t know why they did what they did, and frankly I don’t care. There is no excuse for deception.

When a person consciously steals another person’s work or invents their own reality, they do not just ruin their career. They damage the reputation of every journalist doing hard and honest work – from those covering the school board meetings to those in the middle of war zones.

I don’t think it’s possible to put a price on that damage.

So, why am I angry that the Knight Foundation gave Jonah Lehrer $20,000 to speak? It’s because I don’t understand why anyone would give money to someone who has already taken so much.

Additional Information:

“Knight CEO regrets paying plagiarist”

Jonah Lehrer’s speech:

Jonah Lehrer’s latest tweet:




Share your newsroom’s plagiarism policy

Representatives from some of the most prominent journalism organizations are confronting the industry’s struggle with plagiarism and fabrication. To better understand the issue, we want to hear from the nation’s newsrooms about their policies aimed at eradicating such behavior.

The mission started when Craig Silverman, author of Regret the Error and a Poynter adjunct faculty member, detailed ten episodes of plagiarism during what he labeled “journalism’s summer of sin,” and challenged journalism’s professional organizations to work together to attack the problem.

The challenge was taken up by Teresa Schmedding, president of the American Copy Editors Society, who talked about the idea during her workshop presentation in September at Excellence in Journalism. SPJ President Sonny Albarado committed the society to participate.

Schmedding began her letter of invitation to the committee with a stark assessment, “Plagiarism and fabrication are killing us.”

A committee with journalists and journalism educators, including representatives of the American Copy Editors Society, the Associate Press Media Editors, the American Society of News Editors, College Media Advisers, the Online News Association and the Radio Television Digital News Association.

President Albarado and Ethics Committee Chair Kevin Smith asked me to represent the Society of Professional Journalists on the committee. The committee has been divided into three subcommittees, each looking at a different aspect of the issue.

William G. Connolly, a retired senior editor of The New York Times, is leading the committee effort. Connolly is a founding member of the American Copy Editors Society and has served as the president of its education fund.

The goal is to create an e-book that would define practical guidelines for preventing, detecting and responding to plagiarism and fabrication. The plan is for the e-book to be ready for a summit meeting that will be part of the ACES national conference in St. Louis on Friday, April 5.

Silverman, who is also a member of the committee, asked Poynter readers for help recently:

“ 1. We’d like to collect examples of newsroom policies that talk about plagiarism and fabrication. What do you tell your people about what is and isn’t plagiarism? Do you have ethical guidelines that address these issues? We want as many of these policies as possible.

2. We’d like to hear from newsrooms that have instituted measures to detect and prevent incidents of plagiarism and fabrication. Do you do random checks? Do you use plagiarism-detection services to root out stolen content? Do you call sources quoted in a story? Any examples of internal practices or programs would be great.”

SPJ members who have examples to contribute should email them to Silverman at, and if you have questions or suggestions about the committee’s work, you may email me at

Silverman’s original article, “Journalism’s Summer of Sin marked by plagiarism, fabrication, obfuscation,” including the examples, is available at


When is a picture too much?

By Andrew M. Seaman

One of the last moments of Ki Suk Han’s life was broadcast to the world on the cover of Tuesday’s New York Post.

The 58-year-old Queens man was pushed in front of an oncoming Q train in New York City’s subway system on Monday. On the cover, Han is shown clinging to the subway platform seconds before being pinned between it and the cars, according to the Post’s description of events. He later died of his injuries.

The front page caught the attention of several journalists, whose Twitter reactions and judgments were nicely curated by Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman.

“Grim,” “sickening” and “over the line” were all used to describe the Post’s front page.

SPJ’s own Kevin Smith, chair of the Ethics Committee, wrote in a tweet that the Post’s decision showed an “astounding lack of ethics.”

Indeed, the SPJ Code of Ethics is clear that journalists should minimize harm by showing good taste and not pandering to lurid curiosity.

Unlike gut-wrenching pictures that show the human toll of wars or the devastating impact of natural disasters, the photo of Han on the Post’s cover does not add to the public discourse. The picture tells us nothing more than Han was most likely terrified in the last moments of his conscious life.

This is not the fault of the photographer – R. Umar Abbasi – who is now facing public backlash and questions about whether he could have done more to save Han. Like many of the photographers asked by Gawker, I don’t have enough information to weigh in on that argument.

Blame, however, does fall on the editors of the Post, who had time to make the decision to publish the image on the cover – with an oversized “DOOMED” splashed across the bottom.

A quick look at the paper’s website shows that there are other photographs the Post could have used, including exteriors of the subway station and a waiting ambulance. Though they may not be as jarring as the image of Han about to be hit by a train, those pictures are more respectful toward him and his family – another lesson from the Code of Ethics.

In this case, the damage has been done. Others reproduced, linked, tweeted, blogged and disseminated the cover throughout the world.

Perhaps the best we can hope for is that the Post and other news organizations will learn from the ample public backlash brought on by this cover.


An air of objectivity

A lot has been made of the word “objectivity” as it relates to news coverage and reporting.
Some people believe it is an attainable value in American journalism, a principle worthy of our efforts. Others think it is nothing short of a myth. The rankling over whether objectivity can truly exist in journalism has been the subject of so much contention over the years, I feel like I can stand before a mirror and carry on a lengthy debate with myself.

I know the rhetoric.

I also know what I believe and how I apply it to my role as chairman of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee.

To the many voices who respectfully say it’s a farce, and to the growing voices who contend it’s nothing more than a concocted standard by which journalists could hang their principled crowns for display for all these many years, I concede this point – we are all biased.

We have favorites and there are those things we do not like. We have a core set of beliefs and we nurture them, guard them and share them, and we feel threatened if we are asked to shift our thinking in another direction, be that politics, religion, social issues or fiscal philosophies.

I use those four constants because they’ve been at the core of a lot of national debate during this presidential year. They will continue to garner attention in the next. Our core feelings of conservatism or liberalism are at odds. We are figuratively crossing swords every day over social issues and how to manage the nation’s finances. The rhetoric is divisive and acidic many times. And journalists are weighing in.

Over the past months the SPJ has been deluged with calls and emails from journalists with questions about political ethics. Aren’t journalists supposed to be objective? Why are they lying and spinning the truth?

One journalist’s blog response could best be summarized by “Get over it. American journalism hasn’t been objective for years. Think Yellow Journalism.” In other words, why are we still having this discussion and why do people still cling to this lame, cockeyed notion that journalism is about impartial, unbiased, objective reporting?

Here’s my retort. I admit up front it’s not objective.

We are still having this discussion and we still harbor hope for objectivity because it matters that much to people who want to believe that the press is the bridge between the lies and the truth. They want to believe that journalists can resist their inner voices and personal feelings and deliver news that has truth and fairness at its foundation. It matters because in a world of increasing distortions and subjective opinions being packaged and sold as “fact” it’s still important to hear information that fairly takes all views into account, even those we don’t personally agree with. It matters because when we stop being objective and fall into the trap of adjusting news to accommodate our sources and not our public, we sell out our reputations and hand over our credibility. Our integrity is gone.

Think of objectivity as the act of holding your breath under water. No one expects you to be able to do it 24 hours every day. They expect that you can do it when the need arises. The consequences of not doing it are dire.

In the privacy of your home, among family and friends, you can choose to breathe as you wish. But, when you are reporting and producing news, you are expected to “hold this breath” and repress those personal feelings, working toward the goal of objectivity, much like the person submerged needs to strive for the goal of staying alive.

You “hold your breath” when you cover an event, create a news story, when someone asks you to wear a political button or erect a sign in your yard. You “hold your breath,” too, when your friends and family ask you to write stories about them, when the publisher asks for a business story about his dry cleaner. The breath holding doesn’t mean you can’t have personal feelings or opinions. In fact, it’s best if you recognize those and admit them to yourself. What it means then is these biases, subjective political, religious, social views should not surface in moments when it can impact your work as a journalist.

You see, attainable or not, it’s still worthy of our strongest efforts. To give in and suggest that journalists can’t reach this platitude is to hand over our trade to the charlatans, the carnival barkers and the mind benders. And that would surely suffocate us, our public and our democracy.


Community involvement often raises ethical conflicts

How serious does a conflict of interest have to become before you can call it a conflict of interest? Believe it or not, this conundrum is intended as the start of an ethical discussion.

The SPJ Code of Ethics is clear: Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know. The code also advises journalists to “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived, and to “Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.”

Many news media companies apply that injunction to those who gather, report and edit the news but not to those on the so-called business side of the operation.

So when the president of the University of Cincinnati abruptly announced he was resigning Aug. 21, one of those with a seat on the UC Board of Trustees was Margaret Buchanan, publisher and president of the Cincinnati Enquirer.

The reason Greg Williams quit remains a public mystery. As Enquirer reporter Cliff Peale wrote in a Sept. 28 story, “It remains unclear, a month after Williams’ departure, whether he was forced to resign from his $451,000-per-year job six days before the start of fall classes. It’s also unclear why the board decided to award him a $1.3 million severance package.”

Publisher Buchanan announced she has resigned from the UC Board of Trustees. “My news team is reporting aggressively on the departure of UC President Greg Williams and the search for the next president,” Buchanan said in a statement reported Sept. 28 in the Enquirer. “The credibility that is so important to our news team’s work is my highest priority, and I did not want my involvement with UC to make it uncomfortable or confusing for them or for the community.”

Big questions do remain unanswered. First, why should the board of a public university be allowed to preside over a president’s resignation without giving account to the public whose sons and daughters attend there and to Ohio taxpayers who support it? And second, what earned Williams a severance package that looks to be three times his annual salary when so many people are out of work?

Give Buchanan points for recognizing the conflict and resigning her seat. The Enquirer stories I reviewed usually made note of her membership on the board, which would be consistent with the SPJ Code’s statement to “Disclose unavoidable conflicts.” Whether this conflict truly was unavoidable is a bigger question.

I also think it’s fair to question whether she really understands the conflict. Peale’s story also reported that after her resignation from the UC Board of Trustees, Buchanan was appointed chairwoman of UC Health, an affiliated health care company. While she’s off the Board of Trustees and out of that line of fire, she’s still involved with the university. Given the centrality of health care costs and policies, it’s hard to imagine she is not going to be at the center of important decisions that deserve public explanation. How will she and the region’s metropolitan newspaper handle that when news arises?

This is not the first time her community involvements have brought her public attention. City Beat, a local publication, reported in April that Buchanan sits on the executive committee of what it labeled a major real estate development connection and is in charge of overseeing publicity and marketing efforts for the organization.

Her role was not disclosed in a 1900-word Enquirer article that City Beat said lauded the efforts of this development group despite the economic downturn.

I fully understand that being involved with community enterprises is a perfect way for the news company’s top officer to associate with other local leaders, to demonstrate the company’s commitment to the community and to contribute to those efforts that are intended to improve the quality of life of residents. But it almost always raises questions and makes for some uncomfortable moments.

Where is the line when contribution becomes conflict of interest? Should a media executive sit on any board of a policy-setting public university where news is made routinely? Should a media executive take any role relating to publicity for any organization? If an executive sits on a university board, should he or she insist that there be no secrets no matter how embarrassing the event might prove?

This debate is more important than ever, given that most cities now have fewer media outlets than a few years ago. In a one-newspaper town such as Cincinnati, competing voices are unlikely to challenge the role Buchanan played and it will be uncomfortable for Peale or any reporter to dig out those facts.

As someone who served for 12 years as the managing editor of a community newspaper without an on-site publisher, I understand the importance of those community commitments and the potential for conflict.

Publishers and other media executives need to keep asking themselves whether their involvement will improve the community without impeding the community’s access to important information. They also must ask themselves if these positions don’t compromise the credibility of the journalists who work to inform the community.

I also wonder whether making decisions involving millions of public dollars and affecting 41,000 students is an appropriate position for any news media executive. It’s certainly a debate the profession should engage.


SPJ’s Code and Social Media

In an effort to bring some sense of ethical standards to the unbridled spirit that often accompanies social media, people have traditionally reverted to the default settings of the legacy mediums for a sense of guidance. These codes, based on traditional media practices, can serve as a centrifuge by taking new, technologically driven media and breaking it down into its simplest components of journalism. These components are universal for all media. In SPJ’s ethics code they are truth, fairness, harm, independence and accountability.

The Society of Professional Journalists relies on its current ethics code to be a standard-bearer that can be applied to the varied mediums, rather than addressing social media specifically. This has been a source of debate from external influences, as well as from within SPJ.

The debate comes down to a singular focus – Does the code require rewriting to directly reflect the new technologies, specifically digital and social media, or can it serve this new journalism through a more overarching interpretations of its existing standards? To put it another way, is the code about functionality or inspiration? The answer for SPJ can be both.

To complicate this debate is the code’s existing language. The code does offer specifics as it relates to broadcast news and other times with print. It mentions news teases for broadcasting and headlines for newspapers. It talks about readers, listeners and viewers in a time when newspaper, radio and television were the three legacies. Today we might reference crowd-sourcing where the public provides integrated collaboration with the media. The question that arises is, if the current code was written to take into account specifics in 1996, why is there a resistance to do that same today to acknowledge the differences between old media and social media?

The retort then is to fairly ask why the current language doesn’t serve the ethical concerns of these new mediums sufficiently and provoke the pragmatic question: Must the code need revised every time technology advances and introduces another form of journalism? If we rewrite it today to address the ethics of Twitter, what happens if Twitter disappears? Do we rewrite it to address Twitter’s replacement?

The real test of the current code’s value comes from reading it line by line. For instance, Under Seek Truth and Report It, the first instruction is “Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error.” Does this mandate speak clearly enough to the use of reporting via social media such as Facebook, Twitter, Four Square, Tumblr, blogs? Is there a discernible difference between testing the accuracy for a newspaper or TV news cast and doing the same for Twitter?  If the answer is yes, then that needs to be explained in a forthright and logical manner. In short, a case needs to be made for how it’s different and why the current code should be changed.  If no, then the code has provided sufficient advice.

In addition:

Identify sources whenever possible. Are the rules the same for all mediums or does it need to change for social media?

What about promising anonymity?
Using undercover tactics?
Differentiating between news and advocacy?
Labeling analysis?
Giving others the opportunity to respond to allegations before publishing?
Showing sensitivity with interviews?
Promoting good taste?
Being judicious about naming criminal suspects, victims?
Disclosing conflicts?
Identifying yourself as a journalist?
Denying favorable treatment?
Showing a reasonable guarding of a person’s privacy?

If these questions cannot be specifically applied to social media reporting practices, then more viable, directed solutions are in order.

As always, the most sensible way to producing a strong code of ethics is to field test it repeatedly. If it comes up short in providing you with reasonable solutions or guidance, then it’s not doing its job.

To that end, my advice is to give the code a chance; at the very least, when in doubt, use it as the default setting. If you are looking for the solution to a social media ethics question and you have any doubts about what is ethical, always err on the side of applying the same standards as those used in other mediums. It may not please you or jibe with your reporting style, but it will almost certainly put in a group with others who follow these standards and give you a defendable position.



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