Archive for December, 2011

SPJ objects to school board’s proposed use of ethics code

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.


Facebook: A cure for mosh-pit commenting?

There are some alarming trends in the news business these days.

Every day seems to bring fresh news of layoffs and buyouts of valued colleagues. Years of experience and institutional knowledge are walking out newsroom doors.

So, when there’s something cheerful about our industry to report, I tend to pounce on it.

What I find encouraging this week is that more news organizations are trying a different approach to shut down the vicious mosh pits of anonymous commentary following news stories.

For years, news organizations have grappled with the management of online reader comments, which often revolve around the same few people trading increasingly angry invective that has little relationship to the story above it.

The clean-up solution more newsrooms are deploying? Facebook.

Those of you who attended SPJ’s 2010 national convention in Las Vegas may remember Rob Curley, executive editor of the Las Vegas Sun’s new-media division, discussing this.

Curley and the Sun long have been on the cutting edge of technology to expand the boundaries of what news organizations can do to improve coverage of local communities.

“Being yourself online is the new black,” Curley said, going on to explain how his paper’s website was using Facebook to improve the quality of discourse in comment sections following news stories.

At the Sun, folks wanting to post comments anonymously could still do so — but the paper devised a system giving more prominence to people who used their Facebook accounts to post comments under their real names.

What Curley and his colleagues found was that by giving priority to actual people as opposed to anonymous posters, the quality of the conversation improved and became somewhat more civil. A wider range of people were also taking part.

This trend of using Facebook continued this spring, when the Los Angeles Times conducted a similar experiment. The paper solicited comments both through anonymous posters and Facebook. Lo and behold, the conversations grew more civil. And perhaps just as importantly, Web traffic increased. Click here to see more.

Other papers have followed suit. My former employer, The Gazette in Colorado Springs, switched to Facebook comments. Click here for a humorous column on the changeover by my friend Barry Noreen.

Recently, the Indianapolis Star made the change, and so did The Arizona Republic.

I realize Facebook is not a cure-all for this situation. Some anonymous posters have simply switched to creating fictitious Facebook pages. Critics have questioned the wisdom of outsourcing reader commentary to a social media network with its own set of rules.

But many news outlets lack the resources to moderate comments at the bottom of stories. That they’re  deploying solutions aimed at elevating civic discourse is admirable.

I’ll take it as a sign of hope in these tough times.






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