By John Ensslin, 2011-12 SPJ President | December 15th, 2011
We’re justifiably proud of the SPJ Code of Ethics.
It’s a well-written document that has become the gold standard of our industry. Plus it’s a useful framework for individual journalists who are trying to sort through the ethical dilemmas that seem to come our way each day.
We’re also glad when people outside of journalism take note of our code. But sometimes their admiration for the code goes a bit too far. That appears to be the case with a school board in southern New Jersey.
The Jackson School Board is contemplating a policy that would seek to enforce our code by shunning journalists whom the school board decides have acted in an unethical manner.
When I spoke to School Board President Sharon Dey last week, she told me that the proposed policy is not aimed at anyone in particular. Nor was it prompted by any recent stories about the district, she said.
I got the feeling though that the policy is aimed mostly at online journalists and bloggers. In a letter to the Asbury Park Press, she wrote about “protecting our students and our district from what could happen in the ever changing world of journalism media.”
SPJ has some concerns and objections to the policy, which we spelled out to the board in a letter that we mailed to the board earlier this week.
First, our code is a voluntary set of guidelines. It is not something that needs to be codified by any branch of government. That would be a misuse of our code, not to mention a First Amendment problem.
We are all for the school board and any member of the public expecting and demanding the kind of ethical behavior that the code spells out.
And certainly board members and the public have the right not to speak to anyone whose behavior is unethical. But you don’t need a policy to do that.
So we’ve asked the school board not to adopt the policy when it comes up for a vote on Dec. 20. Based upon a story this week in the Asbury Park Press, it appears we may have made some progress.
While we strongly disagree with the proposed policy, the people on the board seem to be earnest and well-intentioned.
So perhaps what is needed here is some honest and open dialogue between school officials and members of the local media – all media.
SPJ has offered to facilitate such a discussion. It’s my belief that it might provide a teachable moment. I hope the school board takes us up on this offer. Stay tuned.