Is it time to update the SPJ Code of Ethics?

It’s not a new conversation. But with the spring comes renewed interest in examining the SPJ Code of Ethics and its usefulness in addressing the many facets of contemporary journalism.

The March/April issue of Quill addresses the question in a cover story. There are two perspectives:

– Yes, says Steve Buttry, a longtime editor and digital news evangelist. By his account, 21st century journalism requires a 21st century code.

– On the other hand, past SPJ president Irwin Gratz says the Code, as adopted in 1996, is inclusive and flexible. It’s structured to address the many considerations journalists and outlets make daily – considerations that were present in 1996 and remain present today.

But those aren’t the only perspectives. What do you think? The SPJ Ethics Committee wants to know. Tell committee members what you think. Comment below and/or submit a letter to the editor. If emailing a letter, please include a phone number for verification.

Let the reasonable discourse begin!

– Scott Leadingham

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  • Brandon Ballenger

    I read both perspectives with great interest, but was disappointed that they failed to address each other’s points. A follow-up would be useful, especially since Steve Buttry raised a number of specific issues and made suggestions for addressing them, whereas Irwin Gratz made a broader argument.

    Since Steve is on Twitter, I asked him to rebut the general point Irwin makes that the code is designed to be flexible. He answered:

    “Providing guidance in areas where the current code is silent doesn’t decrease flexibility. It increases relevance.” (Direct link:

    I agree, but I’d love to hear the counterargument and a rebuttal of Steve’s suggestions. Otherwise, we should work on discussing and implementing them.

  • Scott Leadingham

    Hi, Brandon.
    Thanks for your comment and feedback.

    First, while I can see while this kind of piece lends itself to a point-counterpoint sort of structure, we tried to avoid that strictly speaking. So, when we were planning this feature for Quill, I told Steve and Irwin that a straight point-counterpoint method wasn’t required.

    That being said, though, both reviewed the other person’s draft and had the opportunity to respond or revise accordingly. Both agreed that their original versions were best left without major restructuring or responding directly to the other person’s points.

    Overall, both reflect considerations from two sides of the issue. Of course, those aren’t the only two sides, and there are many more ways of approaching and reflecting the need to update or not update the code. And that’s why we’re inviting people to give feedback.

    So, thanks for your interest, and please send along more comments. There is not, as of yet, any defined time when feedback needs to be received. This is only the beginning of what will surely be a longer, more in-depth discussion.

    Scott Leadingham
    Quill Editor

  • Steve Buttry

    I appreciate Brandon’s desire for a more direct debate, and I would happily engage in one. But I just reread the Gratz piece and I don’t really see any specific points to respond to. He says he’s “not averse” to changing the code, but insists that it needs “very little,” without telling us what those little needed changes are. He says it’s a “helpful, inclusive and flexible document” (I agree). But since he did not say how the current Code helps journalists address any of the ethical challenges of digital journalism that I have heard repeated questions about, he really gives me nothing to respond to.

    He likes the current Code. I like it, too, and I will like it more when SPJ updates it to address the full range of ethical decisions that journalists face in the digital age. I’ll gladly debate my points, elaborated in greater detail on my own blog (, with anyone. But it’s hard to debate someone whose position is “maybe people using the new technology should modify their practices to conform to the Code.” Until he sees that the Code doesn’t cover current ethical decisions, we don’t have a lot of substance to debate.

    Thanks for your interest in this, Brandon. And thanks, Scott, for inviting me to contribute to Quill.

  • Paul LaRocque

    There is no urgent need to update the SPJ Code of Ethics. As noted, an ethics code is a statement of principles, not law. Any attempt to be more specific, such as inserting in the code articles that address new media, merely sets up the code for continued revision.
    News gathering and reporting have not changed since the first story was told. The methods have changed, but not the process. And regarding the code, if any change is called for, it’s for simplification rather than additions that address new media and reporting methods.
    The last ethics committee discussed at some length and suggested letting the code stand but linking its articles to online examples and cases that address specific principles. Thus, the code would not have to change to meet media changes. The principles, much the same as those in our US Constitution, would be interpreted and explained by the online library of information linked to the code’s articles. The library could be updated quickly and easily without bothering the code.
    A more immediate reason for not changing the code is that it is printed in the new “Journalism Ethics: A Casebook of Professional Conduct for News Media,” which SPJ has just published. Perhaps, when the casebook is updated next, the Code of Ethics can be streamlined – making it less specific and reliant on its strong statement of journalistic principles. In the meantime, let’s get the case studies and explanations online.

  • Brandon Ballenger


    I would respectfully disagree that the code needs streamlining, although I think getting case studies and evolving explanations online is an excellent idea.

    You say “methods have changed, but not the process.” I think they change together, and there is reason to update the code. It should not be undertaken lightly, or by a small handful of people, and it is not urgent, but it deserves constant discussion.

    I think Steve’s suggestions are somewhat attentive to what can already be reasonably interpreted in ways that apply to new media, and what can’t. For instance, on the point that journalists should, “Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible,” Steve says this:

    “I know many might feel an urge here to say that journalists should be especially skeptical of tweets and other information from social media. I don’t think that’s necessary. Journalists should be just as skeptical of information from social media as they are of information from other channels.”

    The code is very flexible, as you and Irwin have said (and as Steve acknowledges). It is well-designed, but it isn’t timeless.

    Look at what Steve says about the next point, “Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing”:

    “This needs rewriting and expansion to cover 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 stories should reflect the effort to get a response, and the response should receive prominent play whenever it comes.”

    I don’t see anything else in the current code that addresses concerns about unfolding coverage, where new information is coming in and being shared by journalists live, in the moment. That’s a big ethical responsibility that needs consideration — it recently came up in January when Rep. Gabrielle Giffords was shot and NPR erroneously reported that she had died, for example. (In that specific case, some elements of “Minimize Harm” probably could have prevented the mistake. But it’s only one example.)

    News is no longer just a daily newspaper, with deadlines and time to reflect, to make phone calls and fact-check. It’s moved beyond even an evening TV report. Those things aren’t going away, and the code addresses them fairly well. But there are new situations that reporters face, and a new diverse and global audience with different expectations of us.

    The Constitution is subject to amendment, too, and has seen substantial changes as our society evolved. Looking back now, it seems absurd that women couldn’t vote, that we had to add that over 100 years later. There will likewise be things the next generation of journalists can’t believe were never codified as ethical considerations. I hope they don’t take 100 years to make it in.

  • David Barbour

    I think the ethics code needs to be updated. I very much like the specific changes advocated by Steve Buttry in his article in Quill, March-April 2011. I think they do not go far enough, however.

    Joshua Holland, author of _The Fifteen Biggest Lies about the Economy_ said on a recent appearance on Book TV during questions: The standard of American journalism is not to hold up an idea and suggest that because of certain facts this idea may not be true. He said that the standard of American journalism is to report something someone said and to report what an opposition organism said. Although in practice it may not be even that with many ‘journalists’ reporting only what someone said.

    I think because of this we need to add even stronger language to the ethics code. I propose something along these lines:

    Never report uncritically any statement. Giving the source is not enough. Never report uncritically any statement even if you have an opposing view. Determine independently the truth and falsity of any facts which support or undermine the statements and report the entire story.

  • Anna Tarkov

    I agree entirely with Steve Buttry and others who feel the code needs revision. I read both sides in Quill in their entirety and I found Steve’s argument a great deal more compelling and convincing. Not only that, but I find it to be truer based on my own personal experience. I have written for print as well, but I definitely work in digital primarily and Steve is correct when he says that the current code doesn’t address many of the issues we run into. I don’t believe there has ever been a greater upheaval in journalism than the one we are still experiencing today. The SPJ code should reflect this reality.

    To draw an analogy, I see the current code much as the Constitution of the United States. It was and is a powerful document that continues to speak to us today. However, a Bill of Rights was also added and it is no less vital to the stewardship of our nation. The current code is just like the Constitution: an excellent foundation. But at this time, more is needed.

  • Sylvia Gurinsky

    I thought the 1996 revision watered down the code too much by abandoning absolute language and heading toward platitudes. The code must be updated. And now that practitioners of reporting include millions of people who have never had any formal training in journalism ethics, more detail needs to be included about sourcing, plagiarizing, sensationalism, source-paying, altering of photos and videos, quoting out of context – basically, everything.

    But more may need to be added about the reliability of information, given that so much of it comes from hyper-partisan areas. A more complicated situation for journalism requires a far more detailed Code of Ethics.

  • Matt J. Duffy

    I’d like to see the code update its language regarding unnamed sourcing. The topic is addressed in an academic paper I’ve co-authored that will be published in the Journal of Mass Media Ethics.

    Here’s the current language: “Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability. Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep Promises.”

    We suggest making it far more restrictive: “The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability, so use of unnamed sources should be limited to cases of compelling public importance where required to protect an innocent or wronged party. All other uses of anonymous sourcing should be avoided. When use is justified, independently verify accuracy from at least one other source, provide reasonable identifying details on unnamed sources, and publicly explain the rationale for anonymity.”

    For more information:

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