In Herman Cain story, being flip about journalism ethics is not an appropriate response


By Kevin Z. Smith

When presidential candidate Herman Cain decided to challenge the press coverage of the sexual harassment charges surrounding his campaign, he reached for an interesting source of support: the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.

Last week his camp handed out copies to members of the media and mailed copies to the Los Angeles Times among others. He asked the press corps to evaluate how the Politico/Washington Post coverage violated specific tenets of the code. He also took his fight to the airwaves, touting the code on Fox News. Never mind that he blundered on the name and called it the “Journalists’ Code of Conduct.”

Our initial assessment of his claims are articulated in a previous post by Ethics Committee member Irwin Gratz. While we haven’t seen anything that would suggest that the reporting violated ethical standards, there is never a bad time to raise ethical questions. Journalists have standards of professional conduct and often put themselves through the steps of evaluating their behavior and work before it reaches the public sphere. That is precisely what sound ethical decision making is about. Questioning those decisions is fair and legitimate, generally because it creates healthy debate that is usually beneficial to our profession.

What has transpired from some people, however, has been something of a panning of Cain’s efforts, not just because he dared to challenge the press’ handling of the reports, but because he suggested that journalists need to follow “codes of conduct.” Silly, right?

On Monday the defense of the media started, and what’s transpired has proved to be more problematic for the fight for journalistic ethics than anything Cain alleged.

Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus went after Cain, defending the paper but admitting she wasn’t familiar with the SPJ Code of Ethics. She wrote: “I suffer from the instinctive journalistic aversion to official codes of conduct.” Meaning that most journalists avoid such tripe, contrived codes in favor of what, flipping a coin to make an ethical decision? Consulting the Magic 8 ball on her desk?

Later Monday, MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell showed her relative lack of ethical knowledge by snarking to Politico reporter Jonathan Martin, the reporter who broke the original story, “I assume you’ve read the journalistic code of conduct, whatever that is.” His response was equally flippant: “I have my copy well thumbed.”

This dismissive attitude only bothers me in that these people have presumably elevated their journalistic game to the level that they’ve landed employment with major national media outlets and have secured a visibility and reputation for being among the elite press corps in this country.

Well, not with knowledge of ethical standards, it appears.

First, to suggest that most journalists have an instinctive aversion to codes of ethics is wrong. In fact, it’s the minority, as in any profession, who seems to be devoid of knowledge about ethical standards. Second, to treat this code as if you’ve just come across a treasure map and have reservations about its validity shows more of a lack of comprehension on your part than it says about the legitimacy of the document.

The irony to all this, of course, is that every day some journalist or citizen visits the SPJ website and reviews our code. Aside from the home page, the Code of Ethics is the most visited page on our website. And, judging by the number of times “SPJ” and “code of ethics” appear in Google searches, it’s been well noted that our code is cited more than 300 times a year in making arguments for better ethical behavior.

That people like Martin, Mitchell and Marcus haven’t heard of the code shouldn’t be a badge of honor. That they scoff at the notion of a code of conduct should be an indictment about their work, not that of the Society’s for upholding ethical standards for so long. And, it’s likely that the Post, MSNBC and Politico have internal codes of ethics that guide their journalists’ work. Are they unaware of those as well?

Our code has been translated into 16 different languages and has long been the gold standard for ethical conduct in the profession. It has been copied, emulated and revised by news organizations for internal use here in the U.S. and around the world.

This summer a copy of SPJ’s new ethics book and the code made its way into the hands of British Prime Minister David Cameron. Cameron is creating a committee to evaluate the ethical standards of the British press after the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. The code could play a helpful role in establishing or reaffirming standards in that country.

And, the same day Mitchell and company were joking about this code, I received an email from a Knight International Journalism Fellow who is going to Haiti to work with journalists. She asked if SPJ could give her a copy of its new ethics book and some codes of ethics. I’m mailing those to her this week. That very shortly Haitian journalists will learn professional ethics using our code while certain Washington press members sit back and joke about it shouldn’t be lost on the thousands of journalists who have it posted in their newsrooms, or the thousands of college students who are taught professional ethics with the code as the backdrop.

Cain’s allegations aside, the last thing the press in this country needs are self-inflicted wounds over ethical standards.

Kevin Z. Smith is a past SPJ national president and current chairman of the Ethics Committee

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  • Thank you for the superb analysis. The Mitchell “snarking” and the Marcus
    arrogance of destitute ignorance should make them poster children of the
    worst of American Journalism. I didn’t realize they were both so empty headed, ungrounded and intellectually lazy. I labored 42 years in journalism and began my awareness of the code back when SPJ was Sigma Delta Chi. It guided my actions from being a beat reporter to running a news division. Sad to think
    that some of our practitioners today are so clueless and without a navigational

  • Mark Scarp

    I’m Mark Scarp, like Kevin Smith a member of the Ethics Committee. Ethics codes, and particularly SPJ’s — as Kevin says, the gold standard of the profession — have tremendous value. But even though it’s wise not to make it one’s only source of ethical knowledge — it should be one of many sources — there’s something else important here. Ethical journalists deserving of the name are willing to self-examine frequently, using many good bellwethers. What I came away with from the Mitchell and Marcus examples was that to them simple gut-checks are all a “real” journalist needs to rely upon. News flash: Your gut may help you to decide what makes you feel better about a situation, but it often won’t tell you the whole truth. You have to also use your brain. And Marcus? Funny how she describes her “aversion” to “official codes of conduct,” as journalists don’t like rules, etc., but it’s the very job of journalists to make sure that the powerful adhere to the rules. So while she doesn’t have to swear eternal fealty to the SPJ Code of Ethics, she, and all of us should consider it, or other non-gut sources, as an excellent place to start an ethical self-examination.

  • Donald W. Meyers

    But the question is, do we let the Herman Cains of the world cherry-pick and misquote the code to further their own agendas? As I noted on Irwin’s post, one can argue that not naming Cain’s accusers falls under minimizing harm, since these women would be exposing themselves to the wrath of fanatics. It’s the same rationale we use for not naming certain crime victims, even when they testify in court. Nor should we let these pseudoethicists suggest that the code is punitive. After all, the censure clause was removed and the code is viewed (at least by those who bother to read it in full and understand it) to be aspirational.

  • Well, said, Mr. Smith.

    Emil Dansker, 60-year member, 50-plus-year reporter, editor and publisher and and teacher of journalism and combat correspondent in Marine Corps, which, by the way, was 236 years old November 10-

  • very interesting article, i did shared on digg by the way.

  • Joseph Camps-High-Country

    Dear Society of Professional Journalists, In the course of what she believes to be a private conversation; A Pulitzer Prize winning journalist discloses, what are potentially biased political professional views. Does this warrant analytical examination of potential biases in reporting in her work? According to the letter of Society of Professional Journalists ethics and not interpretations thereof, how do reporters police themselves of this next to impossible task of complete balance?

  • Elizabeth Gurley Flynn

    Elizabeth Gurley Flynn Says:
    December 25th, 2011 at 11:37 am

    “Being Flip About Journalism Ethics is More Appropriate than Violating Them”

    Professor Smith needs to look a lot closer to home for “wounds inflicted” on the nations’s press.
    Public expressions of disagreement over journalism standards is far from being the “last thing the press in this country needs.”

    The last thing the press in this country needs is the deliberate violation of its standards by its most visible elements – in order to discredit and censor individual reporters who do the daily work of informing the people.

    The Ethics Committee offers no such thing as an ethical self-examination to those reporters, Professor Scarp.
    In fact, as Professor Smith can attest, such reporters who appeal their concerns all the way to the president’s office will be dealt with by being simply — ignored. As in, forever.


    Almost two years ago, the most prominent and influential free press attorney in the nation lied to an obscure Midwestern reporter facing a contempt conviction and expecting jail time. The fabrication was repeated several days later to the AP and to the state’s leading daily.
    Three months of persistent struggle on the part of the reporter resulted in the memo below. The omission of several tangental sentences unrelated to the hard facts does not in any way alter their meaning.

    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


    A question of ethics? You tell me.

    – Three months proved more than enough time to sink the reporter’s reputation securely in the mud, weighted down by innuendo, rumor, and gossip. Only the desperate threat of litigation prompted the statement’s author to post it on the RCFP site .
    But no one ever saw it, 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 now completely 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 who 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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