Ethics Code Revisions – Our First Draft [Updated]

Update 7/3/2014: Second draft now available

The second draft of the revised SPJ Code of Ethics is now available, and you can review it here.


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.

2014 Code of Ethics revision: What’s new?

Compare and contrast with some help from this quick overview of what’s changed in the first draft. [PDF, 127 KB].

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 ksmith@spj.org

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

 

CODE OF ETHICS

 

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.

 

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  • Karen Eckel Bridgeman

    I’m impressed — with the “short version” being the four headings and each group’s first sentence AND with the longer version to include fuller descriptions in each category. I want to look at it more fully (off deadline), but I’m pleased with this outline of how professional journalists should do their jobs responsibly.

  • Steven A. Smith

    A good start. But I think stronger terms might substitute for terms such as “be wary,” “shun,” “avoid,” and such wishy washy language. In conflict of interest sections, can there be some reference to avoiding conflicts posed by employers who attempt to inappropriately influence coverage? Hard issue to tackle, but, from experience, an important element of conflict of interest. It seems something more is needed in the arena of social media, blogs and other variations of traditional platforms. Do the same standards for accuracy, attribution, anonymity, conflict apply to a journalist’s social media accounts as they do to the print or broadcast or more official online platforms? In accountability, I’d like to see a stronger take on transparency. I teach that transparency in all that we do is a fundamental ethical value — and interaction with viewers/readers/audience is a part of that fundamental value. Those are some very quick responses. i appreciate the chance to weigh in and may add more after a more thorough read.

  • Dave Lieber

    As a 30-year member of SPJ, good job to those who brainstormed this. Your mission obviously was to blow up the older manifesto and write something for the New Age. You certainly accomplished that! My take is that, if adopted as is, it would declare many current mainstream media practices unethical. Damn good thing.

  • Steve Buttry

    I have blogged about my dissatisfaction with these tweaks to the code: http://stevebuttry.wordpress.com/2014/03/28/spjs-ethics-code-update-proposal-just-a-few-tweaks/

  • Brandon Ballenger

    Kind of amazing to see a call to “engage and be a part of the process” after reading this.

    So a digital subcommittee was formed to represent, oh, the past two decades of journalism’s evolution — and then almost all of its recommendations were ignored?

    I’d love to hear why.

  • Steve Buttry

    I would, too, Brandon. I hope that we at least get an explanation.

  • Tootrue4you

    What about your award to Leland Yee?

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  • Carla Kimbrough

    The ethics code forgot the ethical responsibility of telling the story of diversity, even when it’s unpopular. Given the changing demographics of this country, media professionals – still a largely white profession – must address diversity. By 2050, whites won’t be the majority anymore in the U.S., so it would behoove the media to address issues that affect the broader society. Look around the table of those drafting these revisions, does this committee, which is tasked with an enormous job, have any diversity? I hope so. If not, understand that diverse viewpoints make things better.

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  • Jillayne Schlicke

    Instead of “should,” which allows for subjective interpretation, why not use the word “shall,” which speaks to choices and action–that’s what ethics is really all about, right?

  • Mike Brown

    I think Seeking Truth touches on this somewhat: “Seek sources whose views are seldom used. Official and unofficial sources can be equally valid.”

    I also agree with you that there is a need for telling the story of diversity. I think you support your idea with why diversity is newsworthy, as well as ethical to do so. I was hoping that the ethics code would also address/recognize citizen journalism for the same reasons.

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  • Dan Gainor

    I think it’s a bad idea to remove:

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

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  • Kathryn Foxhall

    Over the last 20 years there has been a surge in policies in agencies and
    others prohibiting staff from speaking to reporters without going through
    public affairs or press offices. This March SPJ joined others in presenting the
    latest two surveys showing that the restrictions are pervasive and journalists
    overwhelming believe they keep information from the public.

    SPJ president David Cuillier, indicating these restrictions are clearly
    getting worse, said, “We as journalists and citizens, we cannot stand for this.
    Simply, we have to push back. It’s time.”

    The profession must address questions including whether it’s ethical to
    do reporting under such intense censorship without fighting it as hard as we
    can and routinely warning the public when news is gathered under these dubious
    conditions.

    If we turn a blind eye to the questionable reliability of sources under
    these controls, we may not recognize when we publish information that is
    skewed, tragically limited or harmful.

    But we bear responsibility for that negligence.

    I’m sending suggested changes to the committee.

  • charper51

    I think it is a good first step, but I believe the following need more attention:
    –The use of fairly, fair and balance as standards. If you use these words, you need to define them. My definition of fair and balance may be completely different from someone else’s definition.
    –You need to define a nontraditional provider of news.
    –You need far more about transparency by reporters, editors and publications. I want to know far more about the background, biases and other information about journalists when they write a story.
    –I wish you had not removed: “Give voice to the voiceless.”

  • charper51

    I think you have a good start, but here are some thoughts:
    –Balance and fairness are used in three places. One person’s definition of these words can be completely different from another person. I think you should eliminate these words because they no longer provide value.
    –Please define nontraditional provider of news.
    –Please emphasize transparency for reporters, editors and publications. I think this area is critical. I would like to see bios, biases and other information, including links to other stories. I am tired of parsing political bias in stories from all sides.
    –I would reinsert give voice to the voiceless.

  • Guest

    Yes there are other views:

    “Journalists
    and marketers have a symbiotic relationship – at some point, they need
    each others’ cooperation to succeed. They, along with their readers,
    listeners and viewers, are part of a communication triad that fails if
    any part of the triad is weak or out of balance.”

    http://events.r20.constantcontact.com/register/event?oeidk=a07e91m84uk0632a76b&llr=it6slgdab

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  • SPJ Region 5

    SPJ Code of Ethics: Chicago Report

    The
    following suggestions and comments regarding the 2014 overhaul of the 1996 SPJ
    Ethics Code come from the April 12 SPJ Region 5 conference in Chicago.

    OVERVIEW:

    Questions posed of the proposed code improvements:

    1. Does this suggested revision of the code cover the essential guiding pinciples
    of our profession in concise and efficient language?

    2. Is this suggested revision of the code helpful to journalists to improve
    and maintain their professional standards?

    3. Will these proposed changes maintain and improve the public’s trust of
    journalists and their work?

    Generally, the proposed code changes are an improvement over the 1996 document, but they are still riddled with redundancies and must be further simplied and distilled. For example, the preamble could be boiled down to this: Justice and
    good government require an informed public.

    Journalists should serve the public with fair, accurate and comprehensive
    information reported with integrity. This code sets forth our Society’s
    principles and standards in the practice of professional journalism.

    One suggestion: The preamble must include as one of the code’s raison d’etres
    “to protect the public’s right to know.”

    Items of concern NOT addressed in the proposed changes:

    1. Is it ethical for reporters covering events, issues and people to – in
    print or on broadcasts – to analyze, comment and critique those events,
    issues and people and still maintain a fair and objective journalistic
    status?

    2. Is the use of music and other forms of emotional manipulation an ethical use of journalistic tools when used in video reports?

    3. Is a role for dramatic re-enactments — in essence “faked footage” — in serious journalism?

    4. What mechanism(s) exist(s) to enforce the revised code once it becomes
    adopted? Should there be an appeals process for those journalists who
    believe they are innocent of charges of ethics code breeches?

    Other suggestions and ideas

    The code should be a call for journalists everywhere to unite as a single
    community and watch each other’s backs, rather than always viewing each
    other as “the competition” and setting up barriers between
    journalists.

    Seasoned professionals understand the broad concepts of an ethics code, but
    student journalists need specific and concrete rules to fully understand
    what constitutes an ethical breach, e.g. Do not pick information and
    photos off the Internet and put them in your reports even in they appear
    to be public domain and real information. Verify the facts and be certain
    of copyright infringements before publication.

    Respectfully submitted,

    DANN GIRE Chicago Daily Herald

    Region 5 of SPJ

  • AndySchotz

    Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to comment.

    I posted my thoughts on the first draft on the Region 2 blog:
    http://blogs.spjnetwork.org/region2/?p=48

    Andy Schotz
    Region 2 director, SPJ

  • lynjensen

    In the “Avoid stereotyping” part I suggest you return to the listing of protected groups (beginning with “race” and ending with “social status.”). The revision is too vague. If your intention is to expand the kinds of stereotyping that are to be avoided, then simply add, “and any other categorizations likely to result in stereotypes” or something similar.

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  • Donald_W_Meyers

    I would have left “Never plagiarize.” the way it was in the code. It was eloquent and to the point. That second sentence is superfluous commentary.

  • TucsonTerpFan

    One of the possible problems with seeking diversity is somewhat revealed in your post. “Look around the table of (sic) those drafting these revisions, does the committee…have any diversity.”

    To too many “diversity” is only seen. However, at the end of your post, you’re right on target! “[D]iverse viewpoints make things better.” There’s more to diversity than people just looking different when simply seen with the naked eye.

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  • Opinaripeople

    Still too PC. Is not role of journalism to report as accurately as possible without personal, political, religious, for example, agenda and to rely on editors to warn of bias that slips in or tends to warp reporting? If these basics were present in a person or organization of “good public character and commitment,” there would be many needed adjustments in ethics. In my view, ethic do not require group-think on issues of any era.

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