Posts Tagged ‘Code of Ethics’


Society’s Code Belongs in Newsrooms, Not Courtrooms

First Lady Michelle Obama meets with Melania Trump for tea in the Yellow Oval Room of the White House, Nov. 10, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics finds itself in the middle of a $150 million lawsuit filed by the First Lady of the United States against a controversial news organization.

First Lady Melania Trump is using the Society’s Code of Ethics in a lawsuit seeking $150 million in damages from the parent company of Mail Online, which the former model says alleged in a now-retracted article she worked at one time as an “elite escort.”

The website eventually retracted the story.

The first family’s knowledge of the Society’s Code is obviously a pleasant surprise, but its use in any lawsuit or legal proceeding is inappropriate. The United States is a country of laws, which should be the determining factor in any court case.

Trump’s demand for a jury trial was filed Monday in New York. Mail Online’s conduct “violated professional standards of journalism ethics as exemplified by the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics,” according the filing that also list specific principles.

“In publishing the defamatory statements about Plaintiff [Trump], Mail Online failed to live up to any of these important ethical principles of journalism,” the filing continues.

Mail Online – as it often does – likely crossed what the Society considers lines in the proverbial sand in its article about Trump, but ethical breaches are not criminal or illegal. The Society’s code “is not, nor can it be under the First Amendment, legally enforceable,” as its footnote declares.

The Code is a document containing timeless principles the Society and its members believe are the bedrock of responsible journalism. The document is also aspirational and should be read as a whole. Individual principles should not be cited out of context.

While the Code displays these caveats and directives in its footnote, the document often finds itself in courtrooms. A journalism professor discussed the Code at length last year during the case between Terry Bollea – better known as Hulk Hogan – and Gawker Media. The case ultimately resulted in the shuttering of Gawker Media’s namesake website and the sale of its other properties to Univision.

The Society can’t keep people and their lawyers from citing its Code of Ethics, but the hope is the deciding factors in any legal action are established and constitutional laws. A document crafted by a professional organization does not fit that description.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee.

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NJ Press Should Rally Against Unconstitutional Order

Screenshot illustration of The Trentonian’s website.

Journalism is a competitive business. Reporters and news organizations try to get scoops for praise or financial gain. Certain circumstances require cooperation and unity to prevail over those rivalries, however.

An injunction imposed by a New Jersey Superior Court Judge Craig Corson is currently preventing The Trentonian and its reporter Isaac Avilucea from reporting on a document issued by the state’s child protection agency. The case is complicated and sensitive, but Avilucea handled the story with care.

If there was ever a time for cooperation and unity to prevail among the press in New Jersey, it’s now.

The order against The Trentonian and Avilucea can’t be allowed to seep into the nation’s proverbial water supply and embolden judges across the country to impose similar unconstitutional restrictions on the press for every leaked government document.

Other news organizations and journalists in New Jersey and surrounding areas should show solidarity by responsibly covering the story at the heart of the document. A dozen or so ethically reported stories on the issue will show Judge Corson he cannot stop a valid news story from seeing the light of day.

Additionally, the editorial arms of news organizations should continue to show support for The Trentonian and Avilucea by explaining to their readers, viewers and listeners why prior restraint is unconstitutional and a blow to foundational elements of our democracy.

The Society of Professional Journalists states in its Code of Ethics that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough.

The Society and its professional chapter in New Jersey issued a statement this afternoon against the order.

As the Bill of Rights enshrines the freedoms of speech and press into the U.S. Constitution, so does the state constitution of New Jersey.

“Every person may freely speak, write and publish his sentiments on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right,” according to the document. “No law shall be passed to restrain or abridge the liberty of speech or of the press.”

The order of prior restraint levied against The Trentonian is not only an attack on core American values; it’s also an insult to those New Jerseyans hold close to their hearts.

Journalists in New Jersey should realize the danger this order poses to their news organizations, colleagues around the country and democracy. They should diligently work to make sure this story is not silenced and this order does not stand.


Andrew M. Seaman is the ethics committee chairperson for the Society of Professional Journalists.

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Sean Penn Throws Stones from Glass Houses

In this screen grab from CBS, Sean Penn sits with Charlie Rose of 60 Minutes.

In this screen grab from CBS, Sean Penn sits with Charlie Rose of 60 Minutes.

“I’m really sad about the state of journalism in our country,” Sean Penn told Charlie Rose tonight in a taped interview that aired on 60 Minutes.


Journalism in the U.S. has its problems, and many of them are exemplified by Penn, who wrote a Rolling Stone article that profiled Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

In the brief interview with Rose, Penn defended his reporting and writing. Unfortunately, he expressed no regrets about missed opportunities or the deals brokered to secure the interview, which I took issue with in my previous blog post.

Penn expressed regret that people are not talking about what he hoped they would discuss, which is the war on drugs. But, people are talking about his reporting, integrity and accountability. “Let me be clear, my article failed,” Penn told Rose.

What Penn doesn’t understand is that journalism gets the attention it deserves. Good journalism is able to stand up to the criticism and challenges lobbed its way. Bad journalism crumbles and becomes the conversation – as Rolling Stone should know.

Over the past hundred years, journalists realized what defines good journalism. The Society tries to encourage those traits through its Code of Ethics. Failing to hold people accountable is not good journalism. Failing to be independent is not good journalism.

Penn told Rose that this experience with the press is “an incredible lesson in just how much they don’t know and how disserved we are.” He’s right, but he didn’t realize he was talking about himself.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee.

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ONA Unveils Ethics Project

unnamed (1)The Online News Association (ONA) unveiled this week its much-anticipated project that allows people to “Build Your Own Ethics Code.”


ONA’s website features a tool that allows people to add specific “building blocks” to a group of fundamental principles that should apply to all journalists. The build-your-own approach is meant to create unique codes for people and organizations.

The project “recognizes that no single ethics code can reflect the needs of everyone in our widely varied profession,” according to ONA’s website. “We believe the best hope for convincing all journalists to adopt and live by an ethics code is to give them ownership and flexibility in creating one.”

There are obviously differences between the approaches of ONA and the Society, which continues to endorse a single document of abiding principles as its ethical code. However, comparing the two approaches is a futile exercise.

The committee responsible for revising the Society’s Code of Ethics was conscious of the fact that it should represent journalism presented in any media: print, broadcast and digital. From the small newspaper without a Twitter account or website to the Huffington Post, the Society’s Code needs to provide guidance.

To accomplish its goal, the committee avoided language specific to any media. After all, journalism is essentially unchanged since the dawn of time: something happens and people tell each other about that something. Journalists now just tell people about events in different ways.

Also, the Society’s Code “is not a set of rules, rather a guide that encourages all who engage in journalism to take responsibility for the information they provide, regardless of medium,” according to the document.

ONA, on the other hand, took a much different approach by allowing people and organizations to create very specific codes. The project is reminiscent of a common project employed by college journalism professors, who often encourage their students to create personal ethical codes.

The ONA approach also mirrors that of large news organizations that create unique ethical codes. Those organizations include the New York Times, NPR, Reuters and AP.

What’s interesting is that many of the people who worked on ONA’s project also helped last year to revise the Society’s Code. The common origin shows there is room in the world for both codes from ONA and the Society – along with the dozens of codes from other journalism and news organizations.

In general, every person – whether he or she is a journalist or not – has an innate sense of right and wrong that will not be perfectly captured by an ethical code. What’s wonderful is that there are more and more resources to provide people with guidance as they wrestle with the unique challenges of being a journalist.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society’s Ethics Committee. He’s also a journalist in New York.

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All Student Journalists Need the First Amendment

Flickr/Ed Uthman (http://bit.ly/1KHZL70)

Flickr/Ed Uthman (http://bit.ly/1KHZL70)

Few actions are more offensive than educational institutions stomping on the First Amendment rights of students.


Those breaches include the all-too-frequent contamination of student media by administrators and marketing officials.

Butler University, a private school in Indianapolis, recently removed and replaced the faculty adviser of its student newspaper with one of the institution’s spokesmen, according to the Indianapolis Business Journal (IBJ).

While the reason for her removal wasn’t explained, Loni McKown told the news organization she believes it’s due to accidentally forwarding a confidential email to the paper’s student editor. McKown remains on the faculty of the university, but was told termination is possible if she advises students working for the paper, according to the IBJ.

Regardless of the reason for McKown’s removal, Butler University should be ashamed and embarrassed for replacing her with its own spokesman. There are obvious lines in what is and is not acceptable in journalism, and one must wonder whether the people making decisions for Butler University’s school newspaper and journalism school understand those very basic principles.

Educational institutions are small ecosystems that mimic the larger world. The administration and its student government are the politicians of that system, and the student media is its proverbial fourth estate. No U.S. citizen should accept the government restraining the press, and that should not stop at the grounds of any educational institution.

Student media at educational institutions serve two very important purposes. The first purpose is to inform the university community about events – both good and bad – impacting their lives. The second purpose is to train students who will someday go on to become journalists and news consumers. People should question an intuition’s motives and value if it ever tries to disturb either of those missions.

In this case, the IBJ writes that the Butler University spokesman appointed as the new adviser offers an impressive resume that includes decades of experience at one of the U.S.’s great newspapers and a year serving as the school newspaper’s public editor. Still, would the average person feel comfortable with one of President Obama’s press secretaries editing the New York Times?

Student media are the laboratories for many of the U.S.’s future journalists, who are the torchbearers of public enlightenment. The Society of Professional Journalists firmly states in its Code of Ethics that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy.  If people allow the education and training of the country’s future journalists to be compromised, they are taking a sledgehammer to one of the tenets of democracy.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee.

 

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Some big news about the Society’s Code of Ethics

When the committee revising the Society’s Code of Ethics met on Ohio State University’s campus last summer, an idea without a name was born.


Screenshot of the SPJ Code of Ethics on the organization's website.

Screenshot of the SPJ Code of Ethics on the organization’s website.

The idea was to create a library of resources for people seeking additional guidance in the ethical practice of journalism.

After months of work, people now accessing the Society’s Code of Ethics on SPJ.org see small boxes and arrows next to specific principles. Those small boxes link to pages with resources that provide additional guidance related to that principle.

For example, a new page pops up when people click on the principle that says ethical journalists should “never plagiarize” and “always attribute.” The links on that new page include a position paper from the Society’s Ethics Committee about plagiarism and attribution, and a blog post from Steve Buttry about the importance of linking.

By the end of next week, each principle within the Society’s Code of Ethics will have supporting documents to aid people looking for guidance. The library of documents will never be complete. Instead, these lists will change as more resources are found, or as resources become obsolete.

Also, it’s important to note that these documents are not part of the Society’s Code of Ethics, which is found here.

SPJ's Code of Ethics in Arabic

SPJ’s Code of Ethics in Arabic

What’s more, people around the world will be able to begin using the Code thanks to months of work by the members of the Society’s International Journalism Community. The community’s members graciously volunteered their time to translate the Code into several languages.

Currently, the new version of the Code is available in Arabic, English, Chinese, French, German and Spanish. Soon, more languages will be added, including Russian.

As always, people with recommendations and thoughts on the supporting documents or translations should contact the Ethics Hotline at ethics@spj.org.

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Transparency, Civility and Respect in Ethical Debates

Photo courtesy Flickr Creative Commons (http://bit.ly/1GRn5wn)

Photo courtesy Flickr Creative Commons (http://bit.ly/1GRn5wn)

Journalists who joined the Society’s conversations about ethics last week noticed some interesting posts popping up on Twitter.


Many of the posts were links to articles about gaming, some were links to graphics and some posts were links to other Twitter posts.

The posts were from an online community known as GamerGate, which generally claims to be people interested in game culture concerned about ethics in journalism that covers the gaming industry. Others often point to the movement’s history and notoriety as a roving gang that engages in sexist, homophobic and threatening online attacks.

I – along with some other people in the Society’s leadership – decided to abandon the Twitter hashtag #SPJEthicsWeek, which we planned to use throughout the week, to minimize noise for people who wanted to engage in a broader conversation about journalism ethics.

I also urged people not to address the chorus of posts for the protection of the Society, its leaders and its members who would engage with each other over the Internet throughout the week. After all, the week’s theme was “minimize harm.” I did not want to take the risk of exposing anyone within the organization to harassment or threats. All other Ethics Week activities and engagements went on as planned.

This post is not meant to legitimize or endorse GamerGate, but I’d like to address the people who posted to the Twitter hashtag with engaging and lucid thoughts. I don’t want those people to think their contributions to our conversations about journalism ethics went unnoticed.

In fact,  some of those people were the most active and contributive during the Society’s two Twitter chats last week.

Abandoning the Twitter hashtag was simply the best course of action once the posts became sexist, homophobic, threatening, pornographic and – frankly – disgusting. I received some concerning messages, which were mostly deleted within a few hours. One person told me on Twitter, “man have you seen the giant mudslide of reckage[sic] we know as your (expletive) wake?”

As the chair of the Society’s ethics committee, I hate shutting out any people who want to have a discussion about journalism ethics. The point of the committee I lead is to teach people about the Society’s Code of Ethics.

Over the past year, I received several emails about the GamerGate movement. In fact, I’m quoted in a Nieman Reports story sparked by the movement about handling so-called “Twitter storms.”

Most of the emails I received dealt with getting permission to use the Society’s Code of Ethics to “score” gaming journalists on their ethics. In each case, I responded that it’s not possible to score a person’s ethics.

Some emails – and Twitter posts – called for gaming journalists to be fired. The Society is a professional organization that supports journalists and journalism. It does not have the power to fire journalists. Also, I do not comment on whether people should be fired.

Many of the emails – and Twitter posts – were also from anonymous accounts. In general, calls for transparency in journalism are not effective when they come from people who are anonymous.

This is not limited to GamerGate. I receive emails every now and then from people who – according to Google searches – do not exist. Sometimes I also receive emails from people who appear to misrepresent themselves. I’m very cautious and hesitant about responding to those emails.

People – journalists and non-journalists – who want to interact with others about the topic of journalism ethics should be transparent, courteous and civilized. One person should never harass, threaten or demean another.

Also, people in the U.S. are not forced to read, view or listen to stories from news organizations. If a person believes the information from a certain organization is inaccurate, they’re free to find other sources. People can support and encourage good and ethical journalism with subscriptions, views and listens – not harassment or threats.

The Society and its ethics committee will continue to work toward educating journalists about the Code of Ethics. We will also encourage its use. As is the tradition in U.S. journalism, I hope readers, viewers and listeners hold journalists to those standards, but through a transparent and civil dialogue.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee.

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Ethics Week 2015: Like a surgeon

Photo Credit/Salim Fadhley

Photo Credit/Salim Fadhley

Like doctors, journalists often inflict some level of harm to serve the greater good.


A surgeon may slice through flesh to remove a diseased organ. A primary care doctor may prescribe medicine that causes side effects to control an even worse condition. Likewise, journalists may cause disruption in families, communities or countries to achieve their mission.

Throughout the past week, the Society of Professional Journalists asked its members and the public to think about the harm journalism may create. The focus of minimizing harm is not meant to convince journalists to shy away from important stories. Instead, it should serve as a reminder about the responsibility journalists hold.

When I first started presenting sessions or talks on the Society’s Code of Ethics, a question that was often asked is: How much harm is acceptable?

It’s a difficult question to answer, because acceptable levels of harm are relative and subjective.

In medicine, screenings or tests for diseases or conditions are not recommended until their benefits outweigh the risks. While it does not explicitly say it, the Society’s Code suggests a similar balancing act.

In the Code’s preamble, the Society states that its members “believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy.” Journalists support that by ensuring “the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough.”

Elsewhere in the Code, journalists are told that even reporting practices that some people would never consider – undercover and surreptitious information gathering methods – may be acceptable if the result is “information vital to the public.” Even then, those methods should be a last resort, the Code says.

Basically, is the harm created by a reporting practice or story outweighed by the usefulness of the information it yields or presents? It’s not a perfect answer, but it’s the best advice that can be offered for such a subjective question.

The balancing act between usefulness of information and harm is supported elsewhere in the Code, too.

For example, the Code says to “recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.” Also, “avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.”

I often tell people that the words legal and ethical are not synonyms. Just because a journalist is legally allowed to do something doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

Of course, even properly evaluating the benefits and harms of a reporting practice or story may leave some – and in some cases a significant – amount of harm. Journalists must live with the consequences of their work. Being a responsible and ethical journalist should provide some  comfort.

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Ethics Week 2015: Minimizing Harm in Times of Conflict

Photo Credit/Robert Kuykendall

Photo Credit/Robert Kuykendall

Freshman journalism students are often asked to define the word journalist.


The lesson at the end of the exercise is that the definition varies from person to person. Some words make repeat appearances – like truth and bias, but the most obvious word tends to be overlooked.

In my mind, journalists are humans.

Once again, a large U.S. city is being thrust into the national spotlight as people destroy neighborhoods in the wake of a person’s death. Freddie Gray died one week after being arrested by the Baltimore police department. Sometime during the arrest, he suffered a catastrophic injury, according to CNN.

As humans, journalists should understand that they must take care of themselves when covering unpredictable situations, like street protests.

The Columbia Journalism School’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma is an invaluable tool for journalists covering traumatic and possibly dangerous events. During similar events in Ferguson, Missouri, the Dart Center republished a January 2011 tip sheet on covering volatile street protests.

“A press pass by itself is no protection against the probability of being caught in a barrage of rocks, police batons, gunfire, shrapnel or drifts of tear gas,” according to the document.

Several experienced journalists share lessons they learned while covering volatile street protests in the document. Some tips include:

  • Be mindful of crowds and know their moods before “diving in.”
  • Have a quick exit route.
  • Interview leaders on both sides to show you’re just doing your job.
  • Bring a gas mask. Or, bandannas soaked in vinegar, and possibly a pair of swimming goggles.
  • Get enough sleep and food.
  • Bring water.
  • “When in doubt, don’t take the risk.”

Once journalists feel secure, their attention must turn to their jobs. They must hold on to their principles – even in unpredictable situations – to act with integrity and “ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough,” according to the Society’s Code of Ethics.

A rapidly evolving and unstable situation is no excuse for carelessness in reporting. While text, images and audio pour into a newsroom, it’s crucial that journalists continue to act as gatekeepers to serve the public good.

For example, a journalist must weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting unverified reports. They must also determine whether the good of broadcasting graphic images or audio outweighs the potential harm to the people on the receiving end of the media.

While journalists and their organizations may feel social media is the competitor to scoop, “neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy,” according to the Society’s Code.

Journalists should always take time to review the Code before major events or marathon reporting sessions. Especially in a frantic event, those few moments of reflection may lead to more responsible reporting and ultimately less harm to journalists and to the people on the receiving end of news reports.

“Scrutinize the guidelines, and a common theme emerges,” says the Ethics Committee’s position paper on covering grief, tragedy and victims. “Most important, journalists have a responsibility to report these stories in a careful – not careless – fashion.”

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Ethics Week 2015: Minimizing Harm

SPJ_ETHICS_WEEK

(This post was updated on April 27, 2015 at 11:10 a.m. EDT)

The Society’s Ethics Week is focusing on minimizing harm, which is a key tenet of the Code of Ethics.


The Society’s Code of Ethics is composed of four key tenets and almost three dozen underlying principles. While all four tenets are crucial to the Code, one tends to be at the heart of more Ethics Hotline queries than the others: Minimize Harm.

When the staff at the Society’s headquarters asked for an Ethics Week 2015 theme, it was obvious that “Minimize Harm” should be the highlight.

The Society’s social media will focus throughout the week on content that helps journalists minimize harm in their work. This blog will host guest posts on several days about the subject. The Code’s supporting documents will be introduced in the coming days. The Society will host Twitter chats related to the topic of harm, too.

We also hope that journalists and non-journalists will contribute to the conversation by interacting with the Society’s Twitter and Facebook accounts. As someone who often receives emails and calls about various journalism missteps, I know people have a lot to contribute to the discussion.

While the emphasis of the week is on minimizing harm, journalists should not simply shy away from sensitive or uncomfortable subjects to achieve that goal. Instead, they should be reminded after this week that all stories need to be responsibly executed.

As I often tell people when I speak, journalists are invited into people’s homes and personal lives throughout the day in print, digital and broadcast form. Journalists should not abuse that privilege. They should be like any other guest and be respectful of their hosts.

To get started, I’d like to invite you to read the latest Quill cover story by ethics committee co-vice chair Mónica Guzmán here: http://bit.ly/1EWGYjL. In the story, Monica tackles some of the emerging ethical issues journalists should watch for when reporting stories.

Also, check out the latest “From The President” by Dana Neuts, and my “Ethics Toolbox.”


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee. He is a journalist in New York City.

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