Maybe Cain’s “Code of Conduct,” But Not Ours

We appreciate the efforts of the Herman Cain PAC to publicize the standards and practices contained in the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics. The Cain PAC has been fighting back against allegations of sexual harassment circulating in the media. But we think it’s important to point out our code is not “the Journalists Code of Conduct,” rather SPJ’s attempt to model a Code of Ethics for journalism organizations. Many such organizations promulgate their own codes of ethics, a practice we heartily endorse.

Our code does indeed recommend journalists “Identify sources whenever feasible.” It goes on to say, “The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.” And it suggests journalists, “Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity.” And, “Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information.”

However, in this, as in many areas, SPJ’s code avoids taking absolutist positions against journalistic practice. We do so because we believe there are occasions when the public’s right to know must be paramount.

Whether journalism organizations have handled the allegations against Mr. Cain ethically can be a matter of debate. The SPJ code can help frame the terms of that debate. But nothing in the code should be used to pre-judge the outcome.

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

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  • Bob Higgins

    NOT taking Cain’s side, but have a question. Since the matter was a civil one settled out of court and not a criminal case, obviously someone here violated their disclosure agreement. If it was one of the parties, or the attorney involved, this opens up a HUGE ethical can of worms. A source that violates a disclosure agreement will not only lie to you, but lie again under oath or subpoena.. leaving the journalist in question holding the bag.

  • Kim P Jones

    It’s a classic political move–take the heat off me–by turning it up on someone else or blaming someone else for my problems.

  • Donald W. Meyers

    Good article, Irwin. I would also add that our code calls for us to minimize harm, and when we’re dealing with victims of sexual harassment, and the alleged harasser is politically prominent, holding back identities is a way to minimize harm.

  • Elizabeth Gurley Flynn

    Lucy Dalglish Says:
    April 22nd, 2010 at 4:07 pm

    This memo is to clarify misperceptions regarding the circumstances surrounding Claire O’Brien’s refusal to appear before a Kansas inquisition on February 10, 2010.
    Ms. O’Brien was subpoenaed to testify in Dodge City, KS, in a murder investigation. She had written a story in the Dodge City Daily Globe regarding an October 13 jailhouse interview that also included statement from an anonymous source.

    It was my understanding from talking to a GateHouse representative before the scheduled testimony that the company had told Ms. O’Brien that it would provide an attorney for her at the Feb. 10 proceeding, but that if she refused to testify regarding her anonymous source, its financial support for her legal representation and subsequent potential fines would end that day.

    Lucy Dalglish

    Executive Director
    Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press

    Speaking of ethics – the nationally known and influential author of the statement above agreed to post it on the RCFP site after discrediting an obscure reporter who had, in fact, truthfully represented the situation it references to the press.
    No one ever saw the statement, however, because it was “posted” in the RCFP archives, at the bottom of a long list of comments responding to a story posted over a month earlier. At some point after August, 2011, it disappeared entirely from the site – and all questions/concerns about the matter are ignored.
    The only other place it was posted was in the SPJ FOI blog, again buried as a comment, toward the end of about 20 others. Then, the topic was closed.

    Now, the statement is buried even deeper – no longer filed in Reporter’s Shield Law, but in Uncategorized. The SPJ has actively censored this issue, which is NEWS by any standard. It has ignored requests to take a position and/or to examine its own role, chilled online discussion, and advised members with questions to contact its FOI officer privately, rather than insist on transparency.
    It censored the reporter’s rights to free speech, to defend herself, and to seek the support of her fellow journalists when it cancelled her discussion of the issue at a regional conference – at the last minute.

    What the hell is ethical about this? What kind of ethical framework is so driven by power differentials as to render itself meaningless? It’s SUPPOSED to be hard to do the right thing – that’s what ethics are for.
    There’s nothing abstract about this reporter. She’s a person. She’s suffered greatly, and she has a family that’s been damaged.

    Beat reporters who risk their personal liberty and their careers to safeguard the traditions you teach them are not attorneys with national spheres of influence. They are not college professors with tenure, whose idea of defending a free press is to take positions, write letters – then publish the fact that they have taken positions and written letters.
    The vast majority of them do not write for the NY Times or the Washington Post. They work at small to midsize papers for low wages for the privilege – and it is a great one – of keeping unimportant people informed about the dynamics of power that shape their lives.
    They are vulnerable. Of course they expect state and corporate interests to attack them. But they don’t expect to be ambushed and thrown under the bus by their defenders and allies. The RCFP and the SPJ sent a message to working reporters when they did this.
    And they also sent a message to the state.


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