Posts Tagged ‘SPJ’


Lessons From Flynn’s Downfall

President Barack Obama departs the White House briefing room after a statement, Oct. 16, 2013. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

Pundits and some journalists called for a reinvention of the press after Donald Trump won the White House in November, but Michael Flynn’s resignation on Monday and additional stories published Tuesday show the United States benefits most when journalists rededicate themselves to their profession’s timeless standards.

Michael Flynn resigned Monday as President Donald Trump’s national security adviser after news stories suggested he misled administration officials about his conversations with a Russian diplomat. While people disagree about whether Flynn’s actions warranted his resignation, few can argue that comprehensive news reports didn’t led to his downfall.

Journalists, media critics and the public should allow Flynn’s short and turbulent stint in the Trump administration to serve as a reminder of some basic truths about the press.

1.) The press is still powerful.

The press is sometimes painted as irrelevant in a time when people get information directly from the internet, but journalists still play powerful roles in amplifying certain stories and guiding people through a sea of lies. News organizations and individual journalists perform their timeless roles as curators of the national conversation – whether people want to admit it or not.

2.) Traditional and ethical journalism still works.

The major revelations about the Trump administration come from journalists following their profession’s abiding principles – as outlined by the Society of Professional JournalistsCode of Ethics. Truthful, responsible and thorough news reports remain the most effective pathway to deliver information to the public. New forms of storytelling may pop up from time to time, but they do best when the underlying principles of journalism remain unchanged.

3.) The press is doing its job – not waging war.

“I have a running war with the media,” said Trump at a January 21 visit to the Central Intelligence Agency. The president’s disdain for the press is repeated often on his Twitter accounts and by people within his administration. Despite their perspective, the press is not at war with the White House. Reporting the truth, correcting inaccurate statements and lies, following the money and holding powerful people accountable are the basic missions of journalism. No presidential administration is supposed to be fans of the press. Perhaps the Trump administration feels like the press is the “opposition party,” because they are now on the receiving end of scrutiny.

4.) The press can tell people what is going on, but it can’t tell them what to do.

Journalists report information people should know about their world. Sometimes the information is about government officials. Other times it’s about faulty consumer products. Journalists can’t force officials to resign and can’t make people change their behaviors, but the hope is people receiving accurate information will use it to make good decisions. For example, people may call their representatives in Congress if they don’t like something happening in the government. Or, people may not buy certain products known to be dangerous.

5.) The press makes mistakes from time to time.

Journalists – like all humans – make mistakes. The profession’s standards aim to reduce mistakes and irresponsible behaviors, but they’re bound to occur from time to time. The goals are for mistakes to be quickly corrected and people behaving irresponsibly to be held accountable for their actions. If the press is going to fulfill its mission of holding powerful people’s feet to the fire, it must also hold itself accountable.

6.) The press will never be wholly non-partisan.

“The press” is an inexact term. Some people may use the term to describe non-partisan news organizations like The New York Times or NPR. Other people may include partisan media organizations like Breitbart and ThinkProgress. While non-partisan news organizations largely focused on whether Flynn lied about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., right-leaning media organizations largely focused on the government leaks that informed news reports about those conversations. The partisan press often does not adhere to most of journalism’s best practices, but those organizations are still entitled to the protection offered by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

7.) The press is here to stay.

History is littered with premature obituaries for the press. Journalists and news organization operate and fulfill their missions despite troubles adapting to new technology, less centralized information pathways and shakier financial foundations. These barriers – along with hostile presidential administrations – existed before and they will pop up again. The press survived those past challenges and it will survive to overcome those barriers in the future.


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

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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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What Should Journalists Learn From Gawker’s Demise?

image1Gawker launched in 2003, but didn’t come into my orbit until three years later during my first year of college. I don’t remember the first Gawker post I read, but the website quickly became one of my daily sources of entertainment and – yes – information.

Now, Gawker is closing up shop after its sale to Univision, which purchased the website’s parent company at a bankruptcy auction earlier this week. The company’s downfall was instigated by a judgment that awarded $140 million to Terry Bollea, who is better known as Hulk Hogan.

Gawker posted secretly recorded video in 2012 of Bollea having sex with a friend’s wife. Tech billionaire Peter Thiel, who Gawker reported as gay in 2007, bankrolled Bollea’s lawsuit as revenge. He openly offered to do the same for other people wronged by Gawker.

A quick Google search will show that the Society of Professional Journalists had an interesting and strained relationship with Gawker during its existence. Last year, the Society stood with the website as it battled a $79,000 bill to fulfill a Public Information Act request. Less than two weeks later, I wrote a post for this blog criticizing Gawker for publicly outing a married man with children for no specific reason.

As the Society’s ethics committee chairperson, I shouldn’t like Gawker. Many of its actions stood in direct opposition to what the Society considers ethical and moral behavior for people in the media. Yet, I rooted for Gawker and that made its missteps all the more painful.

Gawker was bold and brave, but it wasn’t smart enough to save it from itself.

Over the past few months, I gave a lot of thought to what lessons people should take away from Gawker’s legal troubles. Now, I wonder what people should learn from its demise.

Looking back on the events that led to the shuttering of the website, I think the message is that responsible journalism is a good investment.

While people can place blame with Bollea and Thiel for dealing the deadly blow to the website, the truth is that Gawker died from a thousand self-inflicted cuts.

The website shrugged and recoiled time and time again at journalism’s best practices. Time is the only thing that stood in the way of Gawker acting outside the bounds of the law, too.

For example, anyone taking a basic journalism ethics course could see it was an unacceptable act for Gawker to out Thiel in 2007. The post was not illegal, however.

As a jury decided earlier this year, its posting of Bollea’s sex tape in 2012 was illegal. Obviously, posting a sex tape irrelevant to the public is unethical in the eyes of the Society’s Code of Ethics, too.

The bottom line is that Gawker likely would still be publishing next week if it adhered to at least some basic journalistic principles.

Those principles are not meant to make media organizations play it safe. Instead, they’re to show which fights are worth the battle. When journalists follow those principles, the journalism community will rally around their cause. Publishing irrelevant rumors and sex tapes fall outside that realm, however.

This post is not meant to kick Gawker or its employees while they’re down. Instead, it’s to remind other media organizations to use Gawker’s rise and fall as an education. Being bold and brave is not enough. Media organizations need to be responsible, too.


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

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Daily Beast’s Apology Falls Far Short of Gold

image1 (8)The editors of The Daily Beast removed its unethical and dangerous attempt at an investigation into the sex lives of athletes at the Olympics in Brazil.

“We were wrong,” said a note published on the publication’s website. “We will do better.”

While the note offers an apology to the athletes “who may have been inadvertently compromised” by their story, the editors’ note falls far short of what those Olympians and readers deserve.

First, the athletes who were possibly reported as gay or bisexual were not “inadvertently compromised.” The Daily Beast and its reporter Nico Hines deliberately set up fake dates with athletes in the Olympic village for the story.

Second, news consumers are getting tired of news organizations failing, shrugging and saying they’ll do better next time. Instead of offering empty words and promises, news organizations need to explain what went wrong with the initial story and how editors plan to prevent similar mistakes in the future.

Over a year ago, the Columbia Journalism School published a comprehensive report of the actions that led to Rolling Stone’s now-infamous investigation into campus rape. The authors of the report offered several suggestions to improve coverage, including confronting subjects with evidence and reducing the use of pseudonyms.

While the editors of Rolling Stone at the time committed to learning from their mistakes, such as not relying on the word of a single source, they then turned over editorial control of a cover story to its sole subject less than a year later.

Readers need to know what happened leading up to the publication of The Daily Beast’s report. They also need to know what will happen within the news organization to make sure something similar doesn’t happen again at a later date.

Journalism is built on trust. Mistakes like these harm not only the reputations and livelihoods of good journalists and editors at The Daily Beast, but every other journalist.

The Daily Beast and all news organizations that commit serious breaches of professional standards owe their sources, readers and colleagues a better and more concrete explanation than they’ll “do better.”


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

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SPJ is Not Behind a Mass Media Conspiracy to Skew Coverage of Terrorism

The Society’s Twitter mentions periodically get inundated by people who believe the organization is orchestrating a plot among major media organizations – for unknown reasons – to spin news about acts of terrorism.

In its latest iteration, a popular Twitter user with the name Amy Mek posted Sunday that a Society memo “teaching media how to spin Muslim terrorism” leaked.

Some Twitter users assumed the memo was part of the hack involving the Democratic National Committee.

The truth is that the memo is not a memo. There is no conspiracy or plot. Also, it wasn’t leaked online.

The poorly edited graphic that accompanies all these Twitter posts is from a resolution passed by the Society in October 2001 at its national convention in Seattle. The resolution – as far as I can tell – has been available on the Society’s website since at least July 2006.

While I was only in middle school when the resolution was passed by the Society, I glean from the information that it was created in response to the September 11 attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

Since this graphic appears to show up on Twitter every few months, I think it’s important to clarify its origin – even if some people won’t believe the explanation.

As for the text, the heart of its message is still relevant today as journalists report on an evolving world of terrorism.

I encourage everyone to read the whole document to understand that its goal – like the Society’s Code of Ethics – is to encourage responsible reporting of all people and events.

You can read the whole document here.


Andrew Seaman is the chairperson of the Society’s ethics committee.

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Ethics Week: Drone Details

Flickr Creative Commons

Flickr Creative Commons

Using drones  to report the news has its advantages, but those advantages come with the added burden of some ethical issues specific to the unmanned aircrafts.

As of right now, the scope of newsgathering by drone – known as drone journalism or aerojournalism – is severely limited by the Federal Aviation Administration, which largely bans the commercial use of drones. The federal agency is expected to announce rules for commercial use later this year, however.

While journalists wait for the rules to be announced, it’s a good idea to start thinking about the potential uses and limitations of the technology while there is time to do so.

For example, just like any other form of journalism, journalists want to make sure they’re not unnecessarily violating people’s privacy with drones. The technology provides unprecedented access.

With a drone, one has the ability to fly over homes, see into backyards and possibly get views inside homes through windows. While TV cameras could get some footage like this, drones make it easier to obtain. As suggested by the Society’s Code of Ethics, just because journalists can obtain information doesn’t mean they should publish or broadcast that information.

Journalists can identify situations needing extra caution by asking themselves some questions:

  • Is the information newsworthy?
  • Is what you’re seeing from your drone what you could see from the sidewalk if you were just walking by?
  • Does the individual(s) you are capturing on video know you are there? Can they see you?
  • Do the people likely have an expectation of privacy in that location?

In addition to privacy concerns, journalists using drones should consider the public’s safety.

  • Is the drone interfering with an active police or fire response?
  • Is the drone’s use putting any members of the public in harms way? Is it distracting to drivers?
  • Is the drone in an area that may disrupt public utilities, like power lines?
  • Are weather conditions safe for the use of drones?

Since most professional journalists can’t use drones for newsgathering at this moment, they’ll likely first encounter footage from amateur drone operators. Like any piece of journalism submitted by a member of the public, journalists should approach with caution and be inquisitive about its origins.

For more information on the responsible use of drones in journalism, the Professional Society of Drone Journalism has some information on its website: http://www.dronejournalism.org/learn/


Lynn Walsh is president-elect for SPJ and also serves on the ethics and FOI committees. She works in San Diego for NBC 7 Investigates where she is the executive producer for the investigative unit. You can follow her on Twitter, @LWalsh.

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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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Learning from Gawker’s Attempt to Erase the Past

Visit SPJ.org for information on its Code of Ethics.

Visit SPJ.org for information on its Code of Ethics.

Journalism is a high-risk profession. While the work is rewarding, one mistake may lead to a very public downfall.


Journalists and journalism organizations sometimes think one click helps erase the past.

Gawker.com’s Jordan Sargent published a story on Thursday night alleging an executive at a publishing company mailed money to an escort for a rendezvous in Chicago. In terms of journalism ethics, the story is garbage. By Friday night, Gawker Media’s Founder and CEO Nick Denton removed the story.

Denton acknowledges that removing the story won’t turn back the clock and erase the embarrassment the subject feels, but “this decision will establish a clear standard for future stories.”

A statement from Gawker Media’s staff, which recently unionized, revealed the decision to remove the story was made by the executive arm of the company. The staff said it was an example of the management breaching the divide between the company’s business and editorial units.

Putting aside the apparent conflict within Gawker, both Denton and Gawker Media’s staff ignore the question of whether removing the story from the website was the right decision.

Denton’s reasoning to remove the story is that it doesn’t align with the website’s values, which appear to evolve within his post. The Gawker Media staff appears more concerned about the business arm of the company making editorial decisions.

As a general rule, stories should not be removed once they are published – online or in physical archives. Removing or “unpublishing” stories undermines the public’s trust in journalism. Also, stories – especially those archived on the Internet – don’t completely disappear. Journalists should remain in control of the information they publish.

In Gawker’s case, the story became so widely circulated and cited that unpublishing likely had little impact on correcting the wrongs it caused. After all, the story is still available through Internet archive websites.

Instead of unpublishing stories, Mallary Tenore suggests some alternative actions on Poynter.org that may be more acceptable to readers and sources. For example, the news organization can add an addendum to the archived story. Or, write another story about the situation.

There are a few exceptions to the general rule, however. For example, stories may be removed or “unpublished” when there are legal concerns and the potential for significant harm.

All newsrooms should have a policy on when to remove stories from its archives, but less than half had such a policy as of 2009, according to a report by Kathy English, the public editor of The Toronto Star. English looked at the topic as part of the Online Journalism Credibility Projects of the Associated Press Managing Editors, which is now known as the Associated Press Media Editors.

Journalism organizations need a policy on unpublishing in place. Throughout Europe, people may bypass news organizations and request that search engines like Google remove links about them from search results. In fact, over a quarter million people in Europe asked Google to remove information about them from search results, according to FiveThirtyEight.com’s Mona Chalabi on NPR.

In the U.S., people need to go directly to the person or entity – like news organizations – who own the original content, however.

Based on her report, English offers some best practices for newsroom. Those include having a policy in place, explaining the newsroom’s unpublishing policy to readers and considering the implications of a story before publishing. She also suggests questions journalists in newsrooms should ask themselves about unpublishing.

When a news organization makes the decision to unpublish a story, it must also realize that action is not the final step in the process. Readers deserve to be informed about the reason and decision to unpublish a story.

Kelly McBride writes on Poynter.org how news organizations can maintain credibility when they unpublish stories. For example, a news organization can write a precisely worded explanation about why the story was removed. Or, redirect people to accurate information if the original story was inaccurate.

Gawker.com later added a note to the story’s original link, which explains that the story was removed from the website. The addendum also links to a Gawker.com story about the decision, Denton’s note and the statement from the editorial staff.

While mistakes can never be completely avoided, errors can be minimized when journalism organizations subscribe to the profession’s best practices and implement editorial policies that ensure only true, accurate and fair stories make it to publication. When that fails, the process to remove a story should be open and explained in detail to readers.

As always, good journalism is the best defense for journalists, sources, readers and democracy.


Andrew Seaman is the ethics chair for the Society of Professional Journalists.

 

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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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#SPJ4ALL

Andrew M. Seaman standing in Times Square.

Seaman standing in Times Square.

After days of deliberation, I sent off a $350 check to the small private college that I thought would be my home for the four years following high school.


A large envelope from the college arrived a few weeks later in the mail. Inside were the usual forms about financial aid and housing, but there was also a form I didn’t expect – a “covenant.”

The school required students to sign a document that forbid several activities, including “homosexual behavior.” The joy I felt as a soon-to-be undergraduate quickly evaporated. My “behavior” wasn’t welcome there. The folder was tucked away, and I sent a check to another school.

While I wasn’t open about being gay at the time, attending a school where lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people are accepted was important to me. Fortunately, I found that place. The school – and myself – are better, because of that accepting environment.

In the wake of Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” and several similar bills pending in U.S. state legislatures, the Society is making it known today that it is also a welcoming place for all.

As the Society’s Membership Committee Chair Robyn Davis Sekula writes on her committee’s blog, “SPJ is open for everyone, no matter the person’s race, gender, sexual orientation or any other factor. If you’re a journalist, you’re welcome here, and always will be.”

To show the Society’s acceptance of all journalists, it’s asking members to post selfies on social media with the hashtag #SPJ4ALL.

As someone who is gay and involved in a fair amount of the Society’s activities, I can attest that Robyn’s words are very true. I also support the #SPJ4ALL campaign, but it brings me back to a personal struggle I endured when I first entered journalism. Specifically, is it OK to be openly gay in a newsroom?

The question may sound silly at a time when the majority of states allow same-sex marriage and public support for legal recognition of those unions are at an all-time high, but it’s one that I – and I assume many other people – struggled or struggle with from time to time.

I’d sometimes avoid writing about LGBTQ issues out of fear that people would claim those stories were biased or driven by an agenda. The words of the Society’s Code of Ethics echoed through my head: “Journalists should avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.”

After a couple years, I realized that I was doing a disservice to myself, peers and readers. Also, to focus on that specific principle within the Society’s Code misrepresents the entire document.

Openly LGBTQ journalists enrich stories with unique perspectives. For example, LGBTQ journalists may pay special attention to issues often unconsciously ignored or overlooked by others. They are also resources to their colleagues, who may not understand certain concerns, topics or terminology.

As for the Society’s Code, focusing on the principle regarding conflicts of interest results in people losing the proverbial forest for the trees. “The code should be read as a whole,” it says. “Individual principles should not be taken out of context.”

When someone takes a broader look at the Code, it says that ethical journalism treats “sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.” What’s more, it says that journalists should “consider cultural differences in approach and treatment.”

The Society and its Code don’t tell people to hide who they are in newsrooms or while reporting. More than anything, the spirit and words of the Code tell journalists to be themselves while understanding and accounting for their personal beliefs and biases.

While it may not always be easy – or safe in some places, being open about being LGBTQ will add to newsroom diversity and ultimately benefit everyone.

#SPJ4ALL


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

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