The Code and Juan Williams

The firing of NPR’s Juan Williams last week for his remarks about Muslims and the connection of his dismissal to SPJ’s Code of Ethics isn’t really a case that establishes precedence.

The fact that NPR executive Vivian Schiller said his behavior violated SPJ’s Code of Ethics and NPR’s code wasn’t surprising to me since our framework for professional ethical standards has long been considered the gold standard for the industry, here and abroad.

According to The New York Times, Schilller said: “We terminated his contract because of our news ethics guidelines. The guidelines are based on the same news ethics guidelines of the Society of Professional Journalists, and are very similar to that of The New York Times and many other news organizations.”

SPJ has known since its code revision in 1996 that the code would be weaved into the fabric of many newsroom policy manuals. Just last year, according to my Google Alert, our ethics code was repeated in part or wholly more than 3,500 times. People are not only reading the code, but also applying its principles on a gratifyingly regular basis.

The appropriate section of the code as it applies to William’s comment can be found under the heading Seek Truth and Report It: “Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.”

In Williams’ case his remarks … “I mean, look, Bill (O’Reilly) I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the Civil Rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.” suggest he not only stereotyped based on religion but on physical appearance.

I received an e-mail Monday morning following the incident from a woman whose son lives in Spain. A terrorist attack there was thwarted when Muslims reported suspicious activity by men hauling materials in and out of an apartment. She went on to say Muslims reporting against Muslims is common because most who embrace the religion realize that violence is not a component of their beliefs.

Then I found her next suggestion very provocative. Instead of punishing Williams for his insensitive remarks, someone needs to educate him, she said. You can’t stereotype people.

“But fanatics on both sides would rather not acknowledge this. Sarah Palin, Bin Laden, Glenn Beck and Al Qaeda all share one core belief — that every Muslim is a potential suicide bomber. Spreading this belief helps both camps keep up with recruitment needs, amassing their private armies of frightened sheep. The rest of us know better. The rest of us know that the world is full of good and bad people of all shapes, sizes, and religions. Juan Williams forgot this fact, but in a world where the bleating grows louder every day, you can hardly blame him.”

[Clarification: The above paragraph is from the previously referenced e-mailer, not the opinion of Kevin Smith or SPJ]

Let’s hope Williams’ lesson proves beneficial to journalists who provide news coverage and analysis on topics like this. Williams isn’t the first to violate ethical standards, nor will he be the last. The assurance to the American public is that there are ethical standards in journalism and people can be held to them. All of this creates a more reliable and responsible press.

Kevin Smith is chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee and immediate past national president.

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  • My dissatisfaction with the number of categories wasn’t the raw number. You could have used only one category (feature writing, for instance) and it would have been okay as long as entries were really feature articles, and not a mix of various types of writing.

    It’s hard to compare a feature article to an investigative piece, or an opinion article. Yet the finalists for feature writing were a mix of those types of journalism.

    I’d suggest going through a representative mix of video-game sites, determining what sort of writing is typical for those sites, and deriving a list of categories from what video-game sites are actually publishing.

    My intuitive guess is reviews would top the list, followed by features, opinion pieces, hard news (which would mostly be product releases and industry news), with investigative journalism and explanatory journalism tied for last place.

    That’s six categories there, and if you split it into written/video, 12.

    If that’s too much for the available judges to handle, eliminate the weakest categories. But don’t pretend that an investigative expose is a feature piece. Keep the categories accurately defined.

  • itsnotmyfault

    I had a bit of trouble understanding the categories, but it could be laziness when reading them? I’m pretty sure the Adrian Chmielarz piece was a “feature”, but was miscategorized as “news”. I’m curious if the judges also re-categorized contestants as they went through them, but I doubt it.

    One of the biggest problems with the games media is that almost everything that isn’t basically a copy-paste of a press release is fairly … opinionated? Basically, the writer’s personality is too clear in everything. It’s like reading blogs, rather than reading papers. I’m sure the judges are a little too familiar with that now. I propose a new category that could possibly serve as a “containment” category: Best Games Blog. A giant dumpster to put all the poorly sourced, but interesting/provocative pieces. It is a very bad suggestion that I hope you don’t take, and instead make it simpler to understand the difference between “news” and “feature”.

    To make my point more clear: the Adrian Chmielarz piece spawned as a personal response to a single tweet and was backed host of thoughts the author was kicking around while considering GamerGate and his own gaming/games. The overall effect was news: it was an “in-depth (studying a topic by surveying all sides)” about Women and Video Games. However, the way it was formed was more like a feature. It’s a two-part article that has a bit of a back-and-forth with the other Twitter user (more parts if you count the other person’s responses). Not to mention that it felt more like a color piece: It seemed like Chmielarz’s goal was to put the reader in his shoes and explain the reasons why Chmielarz feels the way he does about the subject as a whole, but in the context of the surrounding twitter-fight. A personal moment backed by plenty of explanation.

    In other words: blogging done right.

    I don’t know enough about news to know if there’s a better word for it.

    Moving on to my next complaint/suggestion:

    There are some outlets I trust because they are pretty much JUST press releases. With what seems like a minimum of personal opinions, they publish release dates, trailer releases, rumors of future releases, and “what you can expect from this game” sort of pieces. They don’t deserve an award for anything amazing, but they do deserve an award for consistency.

    The best example I can think of is http://www.siliconera.com/. They’re heavily focused on Japanese games. In addition to information about games releases for Western audiences (it seems focused on the American Audience), they also publish international release dates for tons of games that have no Western marketing. Only months or years later, when the game is finally set to be translated for international release will other outlets finally provide information, but by then Siliconera has beaten everyone else to the punch by… months or years. However, given the way they write their pieces, they’d definitely never come away with any of this year’s Kunkels.

    So, I have another absolutely horrid suggestion: An award for News Localizations.

    Sites like SourceGaming and Siliconera work to bridge the gap between Western and Japanese Audiences. It’s a valuable service, but that value isn’t reflected in the current system which seems to reward the original creations/reporting. Operation Rainfall could also be put on the list as one of the “top dogs” of this niche. Where’s the love?

  • Thomas Bleed, PHD

    First of all, the awards received absolutely zero coverage or publicity of any kind. They came and went without a sound, and I doubt even the people who got the awards realized what happened until well after it was over. How can these awards promote and reward good journalism if nobody knows they even exist?

    Secondly, a Gawker affiliate should never receive a journalism award of any kind. Kotaku is a repeat offender when it comes to ethics violations, cronyism, nepotism, bad writing, hit pieces, quote mining, undisclosed product promotion, flagrant disregard for facts and leaking private info that isn’t even newsworthy. As a Gawker site, this is par for the course, but it should not be acceptable for the SPJ.

    Kotaku is not a news site, it is tabloid. Just because it occasionally prints an adequate article once in a blue moon does not make up for the site-wide corruption and unprofessional nonsense it produces every hour of every day. Kotaku should not be eligible for any kind of award relating to journalism and it was an extreme disappointment that the second thing I ever heard about these awards is that Kotaku won several.

    This is absolutely unacceptable and if you want gamers to appreciate these awards and take them seriously, you’re going to have to refuse to ever award Kotaku anything. Because you can’t have a business ethics contest and hand out awards to the Chicago Outfit just because an underboss disclosed his tax statements.

  • GGBigRedDaddy

    I appreciate the awards more because they are merit based, every journalist has an opportunity to do better and get recognition for it.

  • Thomas Bleed, PHD

    The fact that you’re actively working for and associating with a company that exemplifies everything wrong with journalism should definitely be taken into account when discussing the merits of your article.

  • YOUR PROM DATE

    Giving any Gawker affiliate an award for best journalism is like giving John Wayne Gacey a man of the year award for not stabbing someone he passed in the grocery store. I understand you were trying to go for a blind eye and objective quality, but by doing so you actively chose the worst possible examples of journalism.

    I don’t think that was the best way to go about doing this, and I am, I think, justifiably mad about those choices. I won’t get into Jim Sterling’s nomination, but that’s another show of the worst possible example

  • DEADBEEF

    I don’t get people hating on a Gawker writer as a winner. People are individuals and while Gawker on the whole is an unethical outlet, that doesn’t mean there aren’t a few diamonds in the rough to be found there.

    As for the Kunkel awards, they were good. Personally…..I’m just so exhausted from the culture war that it takes me a bit to get my mindset back to just good journalism. To get my mindset away from “how is this article trying to deceive me?”

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