Posts Tagged ‘journalism ethics’


Graduating from stereotypes: A marriage proposal

Leave it to me to learn the hard way about the importance of shedding cultural stereotypes.

I nearly made an embarrassing mistake earlier this month while covering the graduation ceremony of Bergen Community College.

The commencement exercises took place inside a large area that once had been used for professional hockey and basketball.

With over 2,100 graduates to chose from, it was not hard to find one interesting student on whom to focus .

The valedictorian, an aspiring art therapist, had a great story to tell when she pointed out that her graduation came exactly 10 years to the day that her mom left Ecuador to find a life of better opportunity for her two young children in northern New Jersey.

The student gave a very heartfelt, emotional speech, and I hustled into the audience to interview her mom.

So I was feeling pretty good when I returned to the floor of the arena where a publicist for the college pointed out another story: One graduate had proposed marriage to another while picking up their diplomas.

A volunteer helped me locate the couple in a sea of blue caps and gowns, and I did a quick interview.

The student was named Jess, who wore a nice red tie, told me in a husky voice about getting down on one knee. That was the signal for a group of friends to unfurl a banner that read “Will you marry me?”

The other student, named Melissa, said yes.

That was pretty nervy in front of all these people, I suggested.

“You have no idea,” Jess replied.

So I wrote the story feeling pretty good about how it turned out. But then several hours later, my editor called.

The photographer — a much better observer then me — noticed that Jess, who I identified as a guy, was a woman. Jess was short for Jessica, not Jesse.

Fortunately we fixed it before publication. But afterward, it made me realize the extent to which my cultural blinders were in place.

Granted the interview was brief, and they were both wearing gowns. But in an era where marriage equality is a hot-button topic, I should know better than to assume that “couple”  and “marriage proposal” means a man and a woman.

It drove home the point to me how important it is to consider one’s own cultural assumptions and be more observant.

Next time I’ll know better. Plus, I owe the photographer a beer.

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Ethics questions are a way of life

Note: A version of this column also appears in the March/April issue of Quill magazine.

A journalist friend who also is commissioner in a fantasy baseball league to which I belong recently sent an email to all the team owners who also are journalists.

Does playing in a league that features modest fees and prize money constitute a form of sports betting? he inquired. And if so, does that constitute an ethical violation?

After all, he noted, there have been cases where sports columnists have been disciplined and even fired following disclosures that they had placed some rather large bets with gambling bookies.

Ultimately, we decided to go ahead with our league this spring because none of us are sports reporters, the money is nominal and winning requires a lot more strategy and skill than a simple bet.

But I bring up this matter not just because it raised an interesting question but I loved the mere fact that we were having that conversation.

It also illustrates a belief that I’ve long held when it came to journalism ethics.

I’ve never thought of ethics as a high-brow concept or something that we ponder during the occasional panel or classroom discussion. It’s not a code of conduct written in stone or parsed in a textbook.

To me, it’s more like a daily meditation and a way of looking at the world. It’s part of the fabric of everyday life as a reporter, not just on big stories where there are tough decisions and close judgement calls.

I think of it more as a practice that requires some thoughtful behavior on matters as large as a front page story or as small a cup of coffee that we insist on paying for or whether we can place can place a small bet on a sporting event.

Ethical decision making is also something that grows more difficult the harder we work at our craft.

When I’ve talked to student journalists on this topic, I explain that one way they can avoid an ethical dilemma is to not work very hard and not dig very deep.

But then I quickly add that they’ll be lousy journalists if they don’t dig deeper into news stories and willingly put themselves into situations where ethical questions grow more frequent and complex.

That’s also one reason why I like the SPJ Code of Ethics, particularly in the way we apply it not as an immutable set of rules but rather a tool to help working journalists work though those problems.

The latest  issue of Quill is the one we devote each year to stories on journalism ethics. It comes out at a time of year when many of our chapters will be holding ethics events ranging from panel discussions to the popular ethics poker games.

But our preoccupation with this topic is year round and day-by-day.

Small wonder then that journalism ethics is the one area where SPJ is viewed as the industry leader and where our code is seen as the gold standard.

We do a lot of great and important work each year in other areas such as freedom of information, diversity, professional training and defending the public’s right to know.

But our ethics code — as one longtime SPJ member once told me — is our franchise. It’s the area where people both inside and outside our profession turn to us first.

Just within this past year we’ve had a would-be presidential candidate and a school board in New Jersey try to use our code to their own purpose.

In both instances, we’ve had to remind people that one of the strengths of our code and the reason for its durability  is because it is a voluntary set of guidelines that call for balancing competing interests in order to do what is right.

But the fact that they held up our code as something of value is a testament to its strength and utility.

I also love the fact that we’re never done with this work. Last year, SPJ and SDX published the fourth edition of our book “Journalism Ethics – a Casebook of Professional Conduct for News Media.”

And this year, our Ethics Committee has undertaken an ambitious project of issuing a series of white papers that elaborate on such topics as political activity and checkbook journalism.

I’d urge you go out and buy the book and read those white papers on our website and thumb through the stories in Quill.

I think you’ll find as I do that not a working day goes by when these guideposts are not useful tools in negotiating and resolving ethical questions, be they large or small.

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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.

 

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Staying true to your brand

My brand

I had a great trip to Fort Worth recently to visit our SPJ folks there.

The weekend was in keeping with a long-standing tradition that a newly elected SPJ president’s first trip is to Fort Worth.

They also have a nice tradition of presenting the president with a branding iron with his or her initials. Getting through the airport screening was a bit tricky, but I managed.

The branding iron got me to thinking about the value of having one’s own brand, or as the saying goes, “to thy own self be true.”

For some people in this Internet age, that doesn’t seem to be a value anymore.

Consider the curious case of Mike Winder, the mayor of West Valley City, Utah, who recently admitted to writing a series of “good news” stories about his community under the fake name of “Richard Burwash.”

The mayor wrote several stories for the Deseret News and other outlets. He even went so far as to create a fictitious e-mail account and talk to an editor over the phone under his assumed identity according to a story in the Deseret News.

Let’s leave the mayor’s dual identity for a moment though and consider the Deseret News’ role in this story.

The “Burwash” stories flowed into the paper after the News decided a year ago to lay off a significant number of reporters and turn instead to filling its pages with what some outlets call “user-generated” copy.

Editors at the News claim they had safeguards in place to prevent this kind of hoodwinking.

But the fact remains the mayor/Burwash got away with his deception for more than a year. And according to the paper, editors only became aware of  the mayor’s ruse after he voluntarily told them about it.

What’s troubling to me about this story is how a paper that gave up of having some of its “branded” writers — people who were authentic and accountable for what they wrote —  to other folks for whom such concepts were foreign.

True, journalism has had a few ethically challenged practitioners in recent years. Jayson Blair and Stephen Glass come to mind.

But we’re not taking about them here. I’m talking about hard-working Utah journalists who lost their jobs because of an economic decision, not an ethical lapse.

I’m not against the idea of engaging your audience or fostering citizen journalists and community input. But sometimes, you need a professional journalist. Accept no substitutes.

To me, the incident with the mayor highlights what may be the lasting value of professional journalism, especially in an Internet era where others have taken to hiding behind fake personas or fictitious Twitter and Facebook names.

In the frontier era, a brand had real meaning. It signified who a person was and what belonged to him.

I would argue that in the Internet era, there’s a similar value in being true to your own brand, of being authentic and accountable and ethical.

Being true to yourself has meaning and value that will endure.

That’s my opinion, and this is my brand.

JCE

 

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