Ethics code highlights: So, what changed?

Maybe the updated SPJ Ethics Code is no longer a front-burner issue six weeks after it was approved (Sept. 6, by a voice vote). But I think it’s still worth highlighting what was changed.

My past posts showing proposed changes to the code, draft by draft, line by line, and my thoughts on them, might have been too busy and overwhelming for the average person. For example, this.

Some people followed along intently with as much wonkiness as I had, but at this year’s convention in Nashville, more people wanted something more boiled down and digestible.

With that in mind, here are several of the most noticeable differences in the new version:

• The preamble was reworked, but the different wording doesn’t have any substantially different ideas.

• In a few places, “journalists” has been replaced by “journalism.” Presumably, the idea is to include anyone who practices journalism — which is more important than trying to define journalists.

• A new line: (Each line in the code is prefaced with “Journalists should”) “Take responsibility for their work.” You could call this “the anti-Judith Miller” line. Miller, formerly of The New York Times, once said: “W.M.D. – I got it totally wrong. The analysts, the experts and the journalists who covered them – we were all wrong. If your sources are wrong, you are wrong. I did the best job that I could.”

• A new line: “Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy.” This is worth emphasizing and absorbing. Too often, I’ve heard, “It’s no big deal. It’s for the web. We’ll fix it later.”

• An enhanced standard, added: “Reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere. Explain why anonymity was granted.” This is a commonly used test for granting anonymity, but is frequently ignored in Washington, D.C., where anonymity is an overused crutch. [Note: Steve Buttry argues, correctly, that sources are "confidential," not "anonymous," when we know their names but shield their identities.]

• Examples deleted: “Avoid stereotyping. Journalists should examine the ways their values and experiences may shape their reporting.” The code used to say “Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.” The argument for the cut was: Why the need for examples? And what if something is left out? I think the examples spark an inner review that can be illuminating. Prompts help us see stereotyping we didn’t realize we were doing.

• A watering down: The old code said: “Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or content.” The new code says: “Label advocacy and commentary.” The new, weaker language is hazier and less meaningful.

• A simple, concise, powerful addition: “Never plagiarize” is now followed by “Always attribute.”

• A smart addition: “Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.”

• An even smarter addition: “Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication. Provide updated and more complete information as appropriate.” Many newspapers print lists of arrests, and don’t have initiative, time or staff to follow up on adjudications. In the age of the Internet search engine, this presents a huge ethical problem.

• An excellent, more forceful rewording: Old – “avoid bidding for news.” New – “do not pay for access to news.” TV networks run roughshod over ethics by paying sources, then rationalizing it as “licensing fees” – which, coincidentally, always come with exclusive interviews. Under the old wording, this was acceptable, as long there was no competitor trying to pay that same source.

• An expanded heading, recognizing an important concept: Old – “Be Accountable.” New – “Be Accountable and Transparent.”

• Stronger language on corrections: From “Admit mistakes and correct them promptly” to “Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently. Explain corrections and clarifications carefully and clearly.” A cryptic correction buried in the back of the paper isn’t enough.

***

What’s not in the new code:

• Linking: It’s something I hadn’t thought about until I read Buttry’s convincing argument. He writes: “It’s the best way to attribute in digital content. It provides depth and context. A culture of linking is a strong measure to help prevent plagiarism and fabrication.” In Nashville, the arguments against linking were peculiar. One journalist talked about working in a dangerous setting, where she could be punished for showing where she got information. Others balked at forcing journalists to link. Actually, no one would be forced to do anything – the code is almost entirely “Journalists should…” Add “whenever possible or practical,” if tempering it makes you more comfortable.

• Suicide coverage. The Ethics Committee proposed: “Be cautious about reporting suicides that do not involve a public person or a public place.” I spoke out strongly against this reference when I read it. First, it singles out suicide, rather than calling for care in reporting on any death. Second, the subtext is that suicide remains a taboo topic to be avoided whenever possible. This is an outdated way of thinking, perpetuating the myth of stigma attached to suicide. Actually, suicide is a serious mental health problem that should be covered as much as possible, remaining sensitive while covering a person’s life and death. Finally, there was an unintended meaning as it was written: Private suicides require caution, but public suicides do not. The SPJ national board agreed it should be removed. After further objections in Nashville, it was cut before the code reached delegates for a final vote.

• Anonymous online comments: This is a particular peeve of mine, and I figured that, as part of the code update, it was worth trying to get SPJ to be a leader in ethical thinking. Anonymous online comments too often are corrosive and harmful to an atmosphere of thoughtful, civil debate. They turn the ethics of responsible comment (letters to the editor are edited in advance for libel; identities are almost always required and confirmed) on their head. So, I proposed adding: “Encourage a civil exchange of public opinions. Recognize the potential harm of allowing anonymous online comments.” There was some support within the national board and even more in Nashville, but unresolvable dissent on what to target and how to say it. I didn’t pursue the matter further before convention delegates, which might have prolonged debate. Maybe I’ll try again in the future.

***

Epilogue: It was particularly interesting to look back on the start and end of the code update process. A year ago (and even before that), some people clamored that the code – last updated in 1996 – was woefully out of date, largely because it didn’t address the new phenomenon of social media.

I was skeptical at the time about the need for any update, but especially one based on that reasoning. I thought the code’s principles of ethical decision-making work fine on any platform. Information’s distribution channels didn’t matter; the ethics that went into gathering, compiling and presenting the information did.

Still, the code update process moved ahead.

But, go figure. There’s one more thing missing from the new code: Any reference to social media.

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Soviet-style information control

Kathryn Foxhall, a member of the Washington, D.C., Pro chapter board and longtime freelance reporter, was one of two individuals and two groups to receive a Sunshine Award this month at this year’s SPJ national convention in Nashville.

Foxhall was the driving force behind a coalition of journalism groups, led by SPJ, joining to speak out against a pervasive problem: federal agencies’ public information officers who hamper or thwart journalists from getting information of public interest and value.

During the closing dinner at the convention, Foxhall gave a short, punchy acceptance speech promoting freedom of access to information. One of my tablemates — a former SPJ president — liked the speech as much as I did and said SPJ ought to make it available on the web.

Foxhall provided me a written copy a few days later. Here it is.

—-

Thank you, wonderful journalists.
If my work can somehow serve as a rallying point on this thing, I will take it and run with it.
But in reality, nothing would have happened without a number of strong SPJ people.
— Sonny Albarado who put it in a presidential column;
— Dave Cuillier who made it a major SPJ theme;
— Linda Petersen, former FOI chair, whose ferocious anger on the local level serves as a model;
— And Carolyn Carlson whose surveys have been foundational.
So thank you all.

Most of the restrictions in public and private entities that prohibit staff and reporters from talking without notifying the authorities  – “going through the press office”— are new, historically, and they are radical.
We are moving toward something like the Soviet Union through cultural diffusion. Diffusion of the idea that silencing or controlling most people is appropriate.
It’s a huge ethical issue for journalism.
What is the quality of reporting done under guard at the behest of the powerful?  Are we, journalists, putting up with it? Or colluding with it?
We go through PIOs and talk to people and get stories that are interesting, accurate, possibly ahead of the pack.
The problem is that a staff person in the agency could blow our story out of the water, if they could talk freely. Or point to 10 bigger stories.
And we just never know it.
Millions of people can’t talk to us. How is it even responsible to assume we are making up for that with hard work and skills?
Some of the missed perspectives cause ongoing public misunderstanding.
Some are tragic.
No one will do anything about it if we don’t.
We need sustained determination from you all to re-create the culture where such restraints are unthinkable.
Thank you.

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And finally… more edits to ethics code draft

Do you remember this headline from a few days ago: “New ethics code draft is REALLY final, for now“?

It was mostly true, but not entirely.

The post was meant to highlight the last round of changes by the SPJ Ethics Committee to the proposed code of ethics. The post was based on a marked-up version that was distributed and posted on Aug. 28.

However, I noticed that some small changes were made, but weren’t marked up on that version.

In addition, the committee, for the first time, has shared two passages that have fairly significant changes — the code’s preamble and a disclaimer that was created about four years ago.

The easiest way way for me to show all of the proposed changes, to all parts of the code, was to update a previous critique that I did on Aug. 20. I updated it today (Sept. 1).

Hopefully, that’s it for proposed changes. Now, it’s up to delegates at the convention to make further edits.

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New ethics code draft is REALLY final, for now

On Aug. 20, the SPJ national board met by Skype to consider endorsing the Ethics Committee’s third and final proposal for updating the SPJ Code of Ethics.

The board voted 11-4, with one abstention, to endorse the draft, after agreeing that a newly added reference to coverage of suicide should be stricken.

The board also directed the Ethics Committee to go back over its latest draft and clean it up, eliminating typos and changing passive constructions to active.

On Aug. 28, the board got a copy of that reworked draft. A copy also was posted on the Ethics Committee’s blog.

However, unlike the document distributed to the national board on Thursday afternoon, the version posted on the blog doesn’t indicate what final changes were made.

The marked-up versions of each draft have made it much easier to follow what changes were made.

Since only a handful of passages were changed in this final editing process, I’ll paste them here, highlighting the changes that were made since the committee’s third draft was released. (On the other hand, some people might prefer seeing and absorbing the clean version.)

 

Here are the final edits (bold indicates additions, strike-through indicates deletions):

Under “Seek Truth and Report It”

• Question sources’ motives before promising anonymity, reserving it for those who may face danger, retribution or other harm.  Do not grant aAnonymity should not be granted merely as license to criticize. Pursue alternative sources before granting anonymity. Explain why anonymity was granted.

• Avoid undercover or other surreptitious reporting methods unless except when traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public.

• Provide access to source material when it is relevant and appropriate.

• Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience. Seek sources whose voices we are seldom heard.

• Never deliberately distort facts or context, including visual news content.  Clearly label illustrations and re-enactments.

Under “Minimize Harm”

• Consider the implications of identifying juvenile suspects, victims of sex crimes, and criminal suspects before they face are legal chargesd.  Balance a suspect’s right to a fair trial with the public’s right to know. be informed.

Under “Be Accountable and Transparent”

• Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently.  Explain Ccorrections and clarifications should be explained carefully and thoroughly.

 

For the first time in any of the Ethics Committee’s four drafts, a disclaimer has been added:

The SPJ Code of Ethics is a living document, a statement of principles supported by additional explanations and position papers (at spj.org) that address changing journalistic practices. It 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. The code should be read as a whole; individual principles should not be taken out of context. It is not, nor can it be under the First Amendment, legally enforceable.

This doesn’t exactly qualify as a minor edit for typos or verb construction, but it is not entirely new. It takes pieces of the current disclaimer:

The SPJ Code of Ethics is voluntarily embraced by thousands of journalists, regardless of place or platform, and is widely used in newsrooms and classrooms as a guide for ethical behavior. The code is intended not as a set of “rules” but as a resource for ethical decision-making. It is not — nor can it be under the First Amendment — legally enforceable.

About four years ago, the Ethics Committee wrote the current disclaimer to address frequent, inappropriate attempts, particularly by lawyers, to frame the code as “law” or “rules” that journalists had to follow. That distorts the code’s actual purpose, as a set of guidelines and considerations for journalists before they make decisions. I’ve seen the disclaimer cited many times; I think it has been effective.

On Thursday, when I saw the new version of the disclaimer added to the committee’s final draft, without any references to the current disclaimer, I asked that it be given the markup treatment like everything above it. I hope that’s done before delegates review it in Nashville next week.

Remember that everything in the final draft is subject to change at the convention, under scrutiny of the delegates (of which I am one). Here are suggestions I recently made for further edits.

 

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West Coast dissection: an ethics code critique

This morning, Peter Sussman, a former colleague of mine on the SPJ Ethics Committee, sent me his detailed critique of the latest draft of the proposed SPJ Code of Ethics.

Peter lives in Northern California. It looks like he was working on this shortly before an earthquake hit his part of the state.

I found his marked-up version useful, particularly with the reasoning he added to explain certain passages. As he told me after seeing my critique of the latest draft, he and I agreed on some ideas, but came about them in different ways.

I encourage anyone who is preparing for the debate at the national convention next month to read Peter’s ideas, which are below.

***

In response to a number of inquiries, I have written a critique of the disappointing draft code revision proposed for consideration at the upcoming convention. Here are a few general, prefatory observations:

Many of the proposed changes are unnecessary and the reasons for them inexplicable; many of the omissions are vital components of the current code.  Among the drafting problems are unnecessary repetition, lack of sequential flow and awkward phrasing and grammar.

The current code has bullet points, each with its own discrete example (or amplification) of a generalized principle; this draft is a melange of not-fully-related guidelines yoked together in paragraphs for no discernible reason and no clarifying bullet points showing graphically how they relate to the general principle under which they’re categorized.

For years the Ethics Committee was troubled that our current code had a major omission that led to its misapplication by attorneys, corporations and nonjournalism interest groups: the failure to make explicit that these are guidelines for journalists’ ethical decision-making, not a moralistic rulebook that could be “violated” or could have legal standing in defining a “real journalist.” (Two major examples of past disputes where this omission was consequential in the misapplication of the code are the Apple blogger case, for which I wrote a clarifying letter to the judge at the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s request, and the Coke shareholders resolution on NPR’s coverage of Israel, in response to which the Ethics Committee sent a letter on the intended application of the code.)

The fact that this balancing act of ethical guidelines — rather than a more authoritarian set of rules — was our intention in writing the current code is demonstrated by its very structure. The code is based on four primary ethical obligations that are, in effect, two sets of often-conflicting but equally important fundamental values: (1) Seeking truth vs. Minimizing harm and (2) Acting Independently vs. Being accountable. It is in the balancing of such often-contradictory core values that journalists should consider their ethical choices in individual circumstances that no one can predict.

We wrote a patch solution for this problem that was incorporated in a preface for the code on SPJ’s website. I would have expected that a permanent solution would be incorporated into any proposed code revision, but it isn’t there.

I am basing my critique on the third draft, copy-and-pasted directly from SPJ’s website. All my edits and comments below will be in brackets and/or bold-face. They’re detailed, so this might get a little confusing. I’d be willing to clarify for anyone asking. My email address is peter@psussman.com.
— Peter Sussman

***

Ethics Code Revision: Our Third Draft

By Kevin Smith | July 14th, 2014

Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that democracy, a just society and good government require an informed public.  Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. [The current code says “comprehensive,” not “thorough,” but I’m not sure that either is an ethical principle. Accuracy and fairness are; thoroughness may be just good journalism, not essential ethically if stories are otherwise accurate and fair.] An ethical journalist acts with integrity. [This rewriting of the integrity sentence is essentially self-evident tautology. The current language makes a more nuanced point: “Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist's credibility.” This is one of many changes that led me to believe the language was rewritten for the sake of rewriting, not to clarify or update the code to apply in new circumstances.]

The Society declares these four principles as the foundation of ethical journalism and encourages their use in its practice by all people in all media. [Excess verbiage. What does “in its practice” add to the meaning? This preamble can also provide an opportunity to accomplish economically the language of our missing preface – something like “The Society declares these four principles as the foundation of ethical journalism and believes they provide useful guidelines for balancing often opposing ethical demands encountered by journalists in all media” Or something like that.]

Seek Truth and Report It

Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. [Redundant. That exact language, with the addition of “thorough” appears in the preamble immediately above.] Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.

Journalists should:

Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. [There’s accuracy again. Does this sentence add anything?] Verify information before its release.  Use original sources whenever possible.

Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy. [Is this an elaboration of the previous point? Should they be one paragraph? It seems a cautionary clarification, not truly an independent sub-principle.]

Put information into context.  Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in [Eliminate the “oversimplify” clause – all headlines and blurbs are by definition oversimplifications; the ethical point is that they should not misrepresent the content. The current code uses the word in a more nuanced way: “They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.”] promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.

Gather, update and correct information throughout the life of a news story. [It’s unclear what “the life of a news story” is. I think the important element here concerns archived stories and on-the-fly online versions of later stories; the NYT calls them blogs until they’re definitive. I’d say something like “throughout the time it is publicly available.” Also … take note of this paragraph; you will read it again, later in the code.]

Be cautious when making promises, but keep the promises they make.

Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources. [Sloppy wording. Who’s judging? And I think there’s an important missing element that is essential to the so-called judging. The current code also uses the word “reliability,” but I think it sounds a bit absolutist and presumptuous, as if journalists can know or definitively make the decision on what’s reliable. I’d reword the last sentence to something like this: “Members of the public are entitled to enough information to evaluate for themselves the credibility they give to information provided by an anonymous source.”]

[I think this graph should precede the one before: question the sources in advance, THEN identify them clearly in the resulting news report. It’s but one example of my observation that this is a hodgepodge of points without logical progression when that seems necessary.] Question sources’ motives before promising anonymity, reserving it for those who may face danger, retribution or other harm.  Anonymity should not [I’d say “never”] be granted merely as license to criticize. Pursue alternative sources before granting anonymity. Explain why anonymity was granted.

Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.

Avoid undercover or other surreptitious reporting methods except when traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public. [Suggested addition: “The reasons for the use of such deception should be made clear in the resulting news reports.”]

Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. Give voice to the voiceless.

Recognize a special obligation to serve as watchdogs over government. [This seems to me like a subset of the previous paragraph, not an independent point. Perhaps combine the two graphs? Something like: “Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable, with a special obligation to act as the public’s watchdog on government.”]

Provide access to source material when relevant and appropriate. [I don’t know what “appropriate” means in this context. Perhaps “available” is a more precise word?]

Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience. Seek sources whose voices are seldom heard. [We’ve already used “voices” in “Give voice to the voiceless.” It can even be interpreted literally here, and it’s not necessary. I think the point is unchanged if you say, “Seek sources who are seldom represented.”]

Avoid stereotyping.  Journalists should examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing them on others.

Label advocacy and commentary. [I don’t think labeling itself is a primary ethical obligation, as in “This is commentary.” There are all sorts of columns, blogs, feature stories, editorials, advocacy journalism (e.g., in alternative press) and hybrids. The important ethical point, and I’d substitute this, is “Clearly distinguish fact from opinion. Any factual points presented in the service of commentary must be as accurate as they would be in a pure news story.”]

Never deliberately distort fact or context, including visual news content.  Clearly [I’d prefer “prominently” instead of or in addition to “clearly.” The Ethics Committee has had to deal with endless cases involving advertorials and video news releases where the graphics were labeled but flashed by on the screen too rapidly to register with the viewer.] label illustrations and re-enactments. [In this context, I miss the current code’s provision to “Never distort the content of news photos or video. Image enhancement for technical clarity is always permissible.” With all the photoshopping these days, we ought somewhere to distinguish between the kind of innocent processing and cropping that make a photo or video technically visible and the kind that changes the import of the photo, as was done when the photo of the Baghdad crowd that pulled down Hussein’s statue was cropped in a way that eliminated the rest of the nearly empty square.]

Never plagiarize.  Always attribute. [A case was brought to me for comment recently by a London-based reporter investigating a prominent website that lifted material wholesale from other sites, even providing social media links to its own illegal and unethical misappropriation, not the original. It went way beyond aggregating and became, in my mind, plagiarism. The stories were credited in tiny type. I think this case – which will be reported within days – emphasizes the importance of not simply attributing but attributing “prominently” – or some such additional requirement. P.S. It’s now gone online: http://www.dailydot.com/business/a-plus-ashton-kutcher-stolen-content/]

Minimize Harm

Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect. [“as human beings” is both unnecessary and archaic. I’d eliminate it and say instead “… members of the public with utmost respect.”]

Journalists should:

Balance the public’s need for information against any harm or discomfort it may cause.  Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance, irreverence or undue intrusiveness. [Irreverence? Uh oh, I’m in trouble. Is irreverence really an ethical value? That word must be eliminated.]

[The following three graphs seem to me out of order. I’d put them in the following order, from most general to most specific: 1. “Recognize that …” followed by 2, “Realize that …” then 3, “Use heightened …”]

Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with children and [add the word “other”; that’s copyediting 1A] inexperienced sources or subjects. Consider cultural differences in approach and treatment.

Recognize that legal access to information differs from ethical justification to publish [Add “it” as the object of “publish.”].

Realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention. Weigh the consequences of publishing personal information, including that from social media.

Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity or following the lead of those who do.

Consider the implications of identifying juvenile suspects, victims of sex crimes, and criminal suspects before they are charged.  Balance a suspect’s right to a fair trial with the public’s right to be informed.

Be cautious about reporting suicides that do not involve a public person or a public place.

[Next sentence is awkward and unclear, and the word “especially” is unnecessary because I think the whole point of this graph is that things have changed with a news story’s perpetual access online. In addition, as noted earlier, this graph – especially the second sentence – duplicate an earlier provision: “Gather, update and correct information throughout the life of a news story.”] Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication, especially online. Provide updated and more complete information as appropriate.

Act Independently

The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.

Journalists should:

Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.[Disclosure is too often a pro forma gesture whose meaning isn’t clear to the reader, viewer of listener. I’d add a second sentence saying something like “Explain the implications of conflicts if they are not apparent.”]

Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment and avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity, damage credibility or otherwise conflict with an impartial approach to information-gathering., compromise integrity or damage credibility. [Reordering for what seems to me better clarity in sentence structure.]

Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; do not pay for access to news.  Prominently i[I]dentify content provided by outside sources, whether paid or not, in a manner that registers with the reader, listener or viewer. [We’ve got to keep drumming on prominence. The standard flash-by “Courtesy of the Defense Dept.” is not permissible if you don’t emphasize the prominence of the ID. VNRs are often identified with the source, but not in a way that registers with the viewers, and they’re a major factor in TV journalism.]

Deny favored treatment to advertisers and donors, or any other special interests, and resist pressure to influence coverage, even if it comes from inside the media organization.

Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two. Clearly label sponsored content. [This is the point I raised two paragraphs earlier, but here it’s applied solely to advertorials.]

Be Accountable and Transparent

Ethical journalists [Every other major subsection section says “journalism,” followed in the second graph with “Journalists should:” Changing the formula in the last section only is unexplained and seems like sloppy drafting.] should take responsibility for their work and explain their decisions to the public.

Journalists should:

Explain ethical choices and processes to readers, audiences and viewers.  Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices and news content.

Respond quickly to questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness.

Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently.  Corrections and clarifications should be explained carefully and thoroughly, in a manner that makes clear which misleading or erroneous information is being clarified or corrected. [This too is directed at what has become a common and misleading practice of giving a corrected fact and apologizing for the error without making explicit what precisely in the previous report was wrong. It sounds less culpable but often leaves the reader baffled … and still reflexively believing the previous, erroneous or misleading information.]

Expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within both their own and other news organizations, in a manner that clarifies the relevant ethical standards and the manner in which they are meant to apply.

Abide by the same high standards they expect of public persons.

Adhere to the values in this code in all interaction with the public.[The previous graph is a good conclusion, and it’s not clear what this graph adds or even what it means. I think this graph is the kind of dangerous, vague, “wild-card” standard that was used to label the respected, largely retired columnist Helen Thomas as an unethical journalist for her public expression of personal views in a way that wasn’t at all related to her journalism.]   

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SPJ board meets by Skype, debates code of ethics

“Transparency” is not just a principle to add to the SPJ Code of Ethics. It’s also a guide for how SPJ conducts its business, especially for the national board.

This week, SPJ took a small step forward as the national board held an electronic meeting.

In the past, remote meetings have been held by conference call, with no chance for the public to participate, listen or observe.

But SPJ has adopted an Openness and Accountability Best Practices Guide that acknowledges that meetings and official business are best done in the open, just as journalists expect of public bodies they cover.

On Wednesday at 7 p.m. Eastern, the SPJ national board used Skype to meet electronically for two topics.

I generally avoid Skype, but the meeting went pretty well. Here is a link to the archived broadcast.

I think we had about 20 people on the call at its peak. We kept from talking over each other by typing a message (“raises hand”) through Skype’s chat function. This is a transcript of that written discussion. In many places, the written comments won’t make sense without hearing the spoken comments.

We still need to do better.

It’s a great sign that links and a transcript of the discussion were posted shortly after the meeting, thanks to Tara Puckey at SPJ headquarters.

Hopefully, a summary of the board’s actions will be provided to all SPJ members soon, too. As the Openness Guide says: “Post a summary of the meeting at a chapter website promptly, preferably within five business days of the meeting, so members can keep abreast of chapter activities. Include any decisions or votes.”

***

We limited the agenda for the electronic meeting to two topics that needed to be discussed before the national convention in Nashville next month.

The first one was easy and quick. SPJ has created a “community” called SPJ Digital.

A community is a group of people with a common interest. It’s similar to a chapter, and can create a leadership structure and organize activities. But, unlike a chapter, it’s not based on geography.

SPJ Digital, led by Alex Veeneman, now has 80 members.

The national board approved the creation of this community by a unanimous voice vote.

***

The second topic — whether to endorse (a non-binding action) the newest draft of proposed changes to the SPJ Code of Ethics — took the bulk of our time.

The SPJ Ethics Committee has worked through three drafts, using public comments and collaboration by the committee last month at a meeting in Ohio.

The draft will go to delegates at the national convention in Nashville. It will be discussed at the opening business meeting Thursday, Sept. 4 (2 to 3:15 p.m.). Then, it will be debated, dissected and likely changed through amendments at the closing business session on Saturday, Sept. 6.

The closing business meeting is also when resolutions are introduced, debated and voted upon and when winning candidates for national SPJ offices are announced and sworn in.

The closing business session is scheduled for two hours – 3 to 5 p.m. Even if there are no controversial resolutions, I don’t expect two hours to be enough for scores of delegates to dissect more than 1,000 words of type and reach an agreement. The national board spent nearly that much time on Wednesday debating just two specific points.

I’m told that if needed, the closing business session can go longer, but not much. The next item on the schedule that day is the Legal Defense Fund Auction/Reception at 6:30 p.m., so the business meeting could run another 60 to 75 minutes or so.

Personally, I think debate over a code of ethics update is one of those extraordinary measures that calls for wiping clear a good chunk of the convention schedule. I’ll be disappointed if delegates’ debate is cut off just to follow a schedule and get to a reception.

***

To start discussion on the code of ethics on Wednesday, Secretary/Treasurer Paul Fletcher, who is on the Ethics Committee, moved that the board endorse the latest draft of the proposed code. Rebecca Tallent, a campus adviser at-large, seconded.

Several board members said they support the new version and it’s time for SPJ to move ahead. (The code of ethics was last updated in 1996.)

Immediate Past President Sonny Albarado agreed with some of the copyediting changes I pointed out in my critique of the third draft, especially fixing the typos. The Ethics Committee will be asked to correct any typos and change passive verb constructions to active.

There also was discussion about how the code of ethics will be turned into a “living document” — although that phrase doesn’t actually describe what would happen. It’s not that the code will be constantly updated. What the Ethics Committee has in mind is an “annotated code,” in which case studies are linked to certain principles for an expanded analysis.

***

Although there was little time or interest in doing a full-scale review of the latest draft during what was expected to be a relatively short board meeting, I recommended two changes.

The first concerned this line, which the Ethics Committee had recommended adding to the code: “Be cautious about reporting suicides that do not involve a public person or a public place.”

Ethics Committee Chairman Kevin Smith, in a blog post, wrote that the committee wanted to give a “gentle reminder” about the balance of private and public lives and whether their suicide deaths should become news, and in what detail.

However, I object to the subtext that suicide still should be seen as taboo and generally not a topic of news coverage. Actually, suicide is a serious national mental health concern and should be covered regularly and openly, whenever people are willing to talk. Those deaths should be handled with sensitivity, just like journalists should for deaths from any other causes, such as accidents.

Besides, the wording of this line, to my reading, has an inadvertent reverse message — that caution is not needed for suicide deaths involving a public person or public place. I don’t think that’s what the committee intended.

I moved that that line be removed from the draft of the code that the board endorsed. Student representative Lindsey Cook seconded.

After further discussion (see the transcript), the board voted in favor of my motion. Since the vote was oral, I’m not certain who voted which way, but I believe there were just three no votes.

***

The only other proposal for changing the draft also was mine.

I recommended that SPJ speak out in its code against anonymous online comments, or at least urge caution in allowing their use. Too many times, I see anonymous online comment threads turn into a cesspool of vicious, angry, racist and even libelous comments, all because people know they don’t have to attach their names to their thoughts.

For years, news organizations automatically allowed this free-for-all, but I’ve noticed that some are rethinking this and either shutting them down or more tightly monitoring them.

I moved that this passage be added in the “Minimize harm” section: “Encourage a civil exchange of public opinions, in which participants don’t mask their identities and poison the conversation. Recognize the potential harm of anonymous online comments.” Region 12 Director Tony Hernandez seconded.

Fletcher initially said he liked my suggestion and would accept it as a friendly amendment. However, there clearly was a difference of opinion (starting on p. 5 of the written transcript), so the board agreed to vote on that amendment.

It was voted down (we thought at the time that it was 11-4, but I now see that it was 10-5).

Yes (5): Schotz, Kopen Katcef, Hallenberg Christensen, Hernandez, Brett Hall

No (10): Corry, Neuts, Cook, Radske, Sheets, Matthew Hall, Fox, Tallent, Gallagher Newberry, Albarado

***

Region 4 Director Patti Gallagher Newberry moved for alternate wording: “Encourage online commenters to identify themselves so as to preserve civil discourse.” President-elect Dana Neuts seconded.

There was some support, but it didn’t acknowledge anonymous online comments; it was too subtle for me.

Matthew Hall proposed another alternate — “Encourage a civil exchange of public opinions” — but the board first had to vote on Gallagher Newberry’s motion.

Here, the discussion picked up and many people chimed in. Gallagher Newberry even recommended another version: “Encourage news consumers to identify themselves and offer civil exchanges when offering feedback to news coverage or issues of the day.” I think this is the version we voted on, although I’m not positive.

The board rejected Gallagher Newberry’s proposal by a voice vote.

***

I then put forward a simplified version of my earlier motion, striking the “poison” reference: “Encourage a civil exchange of public opinions. Recognize the potential harm of allowing anonymous online comments.” Hallenberg Christensen seconded.

There was more support this time, but this, too, was rejected — particularly as some board members were ambivalent about tinkering with the current draft. Again, the roll call vote was tough to monitor, as people’s votes scrolled by quickly, which is one reason we need a better system for an electronic meeting. It’s not good to be unsure of what you’re voting on or what the outcome is. Some people might have voted orally.

My final motion was rejected, 8-5.

Yes (5): Schotz, Gallagher Newberry, Hernandez, Kopen Katcef, Hallenberg Christensen

No (8): Matthew Hall, Cook, Albarado, Corry, Tallent, Fox, Sheets, Neuts

***

Finally, the board voted on whether to endorse the latest draft, as amended (without the reference to suicide).

The board voted 11-4 in favor. However, the transcript of the written comments, where we had been voting, show an incomplete total, missing more than half of the votes.

Here’s how it’s shown in the draft minutes compiled by SPJ headquarters, which are in the packet for the next board meeting:

Yes (11): Brett Hall, Neuts, Hernandez, Gallagher Newberry, Albarado, Hallenberg Christensen, Fox, Matthew Hall, Tallent, Kopen Katcef, Fletcher

No (4): Cook, Koretzky, Schotz, Corry

Abstain (1): Sheets

The meeting was adjourned at 8:54 p.m. Eastern.

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Part three: critiquing the code of ethics [Updated 9/1/14]

This was updated on Sept. 1 to reflect a fourth version from the Ethics Committee, which was distributed and released on Aug. 28. The latest updates are denoted in bold italics, with an asterisk (*).

In its fourth draft, the committee has added changes it proposed to the preamble (which is almost entirely reworded) and a disclaimer.

 

The SPJ Ethics Committee has come up with its third and final draft for consideration at this year’s national convention in Nashville.

This is a summary of the changes. Here is the wording of the new draft.

On this site, I have critiqued the committee’s first draft in April. In July, I posted my thoughts on the second draft.

Now, we’re approaching the home stretch (perhaps).

The SPJ national board is holding a Skype call on Wednesday to discuss the third draft and consider endorsing it. The call will be at 7 p.m. Eastern.

Unfortunately, there will not be a way for the public to listen in live. But the call will be archived and available to anyone who wants to watch and listen to it afterward. We are trying to figure out a good way to let the public participate in electronic meetings of the SPJ national board (which are rare), but we’re not there yet.

From there, the proposal will come before convention delegates at Excellence in Journalism 2014 in Nashville. If you are a delegate, I strongly encourage you to read and think about the latest draft in advance. If you have any recommendations for changes, have them ready.

 

There is no easy way to post and respond to the third draft and show how it compares to the current SPJ Code of Ethics. A PDF has both strike-throughs and colors to represent changes. I will paste only the new wording here, with my edits and thoughts.

 

Preamble

Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that [*democracy, a just society and good government require an informed public. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity.

The Society declares these four principles as the foundation of ethical journalism and encourages their use in its practice by all people in all media.]

 

(replaces:)

Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility. Members of the Society share a dedication to ethical behavior and adopt this code to declare the Society’s principles and standards of practice.

 

 

• Seek truth and report it

Ethical journalism should be [IS? can it be inaccurate and unfair and still be ethical?] accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous [FEARLESS? - There's another "courageous" reference below.] in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.

Journalists should:

Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before its release [DISSEMINATING IT - "before its release" is passive and sounds like it's outside of their control]. Use original sources whenever possible.

Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy. [I'm not sure what the "format" reference means. Does that refer to someone excusing an error by saying it's "only the web"?]

Put information into [PROVIDE] context. Take special care not to [DO NOT] misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.

Gather, update and correct information throughout the life of a news story.

Be cautious when making promises, but keep the promises they make. [I prefer the current wording: "Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises." Without this context, the reference to "promises" becomes vague.]

Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the [THEIR] reliability and motivation of sources.

 [SUPPORT THE OPEN EXCHANGE OF VIEWS, EVEN VIEWS THEY FIND REPUGNANT. - This line was cut from the current version. I think it should be kept.]

Question sources’ motives before promising anonymity, reserving it [RESERVE ANONYMITY] for those [SOURCES] who may face danger, retribution or other harm [AND HAVE CRUCIAL INFORMATION THAT CAN'T BE OBTAINED ELSEWHERE]. [* DO NOT GRANT Aanonymity should not be granted] merely as license to criticize. Pursue alternative sources before granting anonymity.
Explain why anonymity was granted.

Diligently seek [GIVE] subjects of news coverage to allow them [THE CHANCE] to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.

Avoid undercover or other surreptitious reporting methods except when [* UNLESS] traditional, open methods will not yield [CAN'T PRODUCE] information vital to the public. [USE OF SUCH METHODS SHOULD BE EXPLAINED AS PART OF THE STORY. - This needs to be included; not sure why it was cut from current version.]

Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. Give coice [* VOICE] to the voiceless. [The "voice" line was struck from an earlier version. It's good that it has been restored.] Recognize a special obligation to serve as watchdogs over government. [The committee has the "recognize" reference on its own line, but I moved it up here, where it fits.]

Provide access to source material when [* IT IS] relevant and appropriate. [WHERE BRIEF REPORTS CAN PRESENT ONLY LIMITED CONTEXT, USE LINKS TO PROVIDE FULL CONTEXT. IN PRINT EDITIONS, REFER READERS TO ONLINE LINKS PROVIDING GREATER CONTEXT. - This is from Steve Buttry, an advocate of having the code address linking.]

Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience. Seek sources whose voices [* WE are] seldom hear[d].

Avoid stereotyping [BY RACE, GENDER, AGE, RELIGION, ETHNICITY, GEOGRAPHY, SEXUAL ORIENTATION, DISABILITY, PHYSICAL APPEARANCE OR SOCIAL STATUS - This is in the current code, but was cut in the draft. I think having the examples makes people think more specifically]. Journalists should examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing [* them those values] on others.

Label advocacy and commentary [* news reporting]. [I've never heard of "commentary news reporting." A better approach, if I understand it correctly, might be: "Keep advocacy out of news reporting."] [Update: The committee struck "news reporting."]

Never deliberately distort fact[* S] or context, including visual news content [IMAGES - I dislike the word "content" as a substitute for journalism]. Clearly label illustrations and re-enactments.

Never plagiarize. Always attribute. ["Never plagiarize" is the shortest, strongest line in the current code - the only "don't." "Always attribute" is a good addition.]

 

• Minimize harm

Ethical journalism [JOURNALISTS] treats sources, subjects[,] and colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect. [This is part of the committee's switch from "journalists" to "journalism," but it doesn't sound right. The people are behaving a certain way, not the product. Besides, "journalists" has been left intact elsewhere, such as the "stereotyping" passage above.]

Journalists should:

Balance the public’s need for information against any [POTENTIAL] harm or discomfort it may cause. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance, irreverence or undue intrusiveness.

[SHOW COMPASSION FOR THOSE WHO MAY BE AFFECTED ADVERSELY BY NEWS COVERAGE.] Use heightened sensitivity [BE SENSITIVE] when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects. Consider cultural differences in approach and treatment. [The committee dropped the "compassion" line, but I would keep it. It's significant to have "compassion" in a code for journalists. The line applies more broadly than just interactions with sources.]

Recognize that legal access to information differs from ethical justification to publish. [This is a good addition.]

Realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Weigh the consequences of publishing [DISSEMINATING] personal information, including that from social media. [I don't see the reference to social media adding anything here.]

Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity or following the lead of those who do [, EVEN IF OTHERS DO].

Consider the implications of identifying juvenile suspects, [* or] victims of sex crimes and criminal suspects before they [* face legal are chargesd]. Balance a suspect’s right to a fair trail [* TRIAL] with the public’s right to [* know be informed].

 Be cautious about reporting suicides that do not involve a public person or a public place. [For the committee's reasoning on including this line, read Chairman Kevin Smith's blog post. Even though the committee made this a "soft" warning, I disagree with the underlying message that suicide is generally taboo and shouldn't be reported. Here is a column I wrote about reporting on reporting on suicide and why it should be done. Also read Ryan Horns' comment after Smith's blog post. Why single out suicide and not the sensitivity and privacy that might be attached to an accidental death? Regardless, this line sends a message that probably wasn't intended: For public people and public places, caution is not as important. I would strike this line.] [UPDATE: The SPJ national board agreed that this line about suicide be stricken from the proposed code.]

Consider the long[*-]term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication, especially online. Provide updated and more complete information as appropriate. [This is important. The Internet's reach and permanence should factor into our news judgment.]

[ENCOURAGE A CIVIL EXCHANGE OF PUBLIC OPINIONS, IN WHICH PARTICIPANTS DON'T MASK THEIR IDENTITIES AND POISON THE CONVERSATION. RECOGNIZE THE POTENTIAL HARM OF ANONYMOUS ONLINE COMMENTS. - This is my idea. Suggestions for edits are welcome.]

[During an Aug. 20 meeting by Skype, the SPJ national board voted against the above line on anonymous comments. I softened it to this: “Encourage a civil exchange of public opinions. Recognize the potential harm of allowing anonymous online comments." The board also voted down the second version, but I still urge that it be added.]

 

• Act independently

The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public..

Journalists should:

Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts. [It's smart to combine these two lines in the current code.]

Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and avoid political and other outside activities that may conflict with an impartial approach to information gathering, compromise integrity or damage credibility.

[* B]e wary of [REJECT] sources offering information for favors or money; do not pay for access to news. Identify content provided by outside sources, whether paid or not. [The second sentence is a different topic. Either it's referring to advertorial material, which was addressed above under "Seek truth" or to attribution, which is addressed in the "Never plagiarize" line.]

Deny favored treatment to advertisers[,] and donors, or any other special interests, and resist [THEIR] pressure to influence news coverage, even if it comes from inside the media organization. [The last phrase could be interpreted as ignoring a supervisor.]

Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two. Clearly label sponsored content [MATERIAL - I dislike the word "content."]. [This has been moved down from the "Seek truth" section. It works fine here.]

 

• Be accountable and transparent ["Transparency" is another concept that Steve Buttry pushed for in his detailed critiques of the code. I agree with SPJ having it.]

Ethical J[*j]ournalists S[*s]hould take responsibility for their work and explain their decisions to the public. [Again, this sticks with "journalists" instead of switching to "journalism." I think it reads better.]

Journalists should:

Explain ethical choices and processes to audiences. Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about [COVERAGE AND] journalistic practices and news content [Ugh to "content"].

Respond quickly to [ALL] questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness.

Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently. [* Explain cCorrections and clarifications should be explained] carefully and thoroughly, [SO THE ERROR IS CLEAR]. [The addition of "prominently" is very good. My extra phrase refers to the practice of running corrections that leave the public confused about what was wrong.]

Expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organizations.

Abide by the same high standards they expect of public persons [OTHERS].

Adhere to the values in this code in all interaction with the public. [This has now been dropped down to its own line.]

 

About four years ago, the Ethics Committee added a disclaimer to clarify and emphasize that the SPJ Code of Ethics is not a set of “rules.” In the fourth draft, the current committee has changed the disclaimer:

current:

The SPJ Code of Ethics is voluntarily embraced by thousands of journalists, regardless of place or platform, and is widely used in newsrooms and classrooms as a guide for ethical behavior. The code is intended not as a set of “rules” but as a resource for ethical decision-making. It is not — nor can it be under the First Amendment — legally enforceable.

proposed:

The SPJ Code of Ethics is a living document, a statement of principles supported by additional explanations and position papers (at spj.org) that address changing journalistic practices. It 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. The code should be read as a whole; individual principles should not be taken out of context. It is not, nor can it be under the First Amendment, legally enforceable. [I don't like "living document," which has  different connotation to me - that it will keep changing. I'd strike that phrase. The broader reference to journalism here is good.]

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The teeth sink in, and don’t let go

I’ve worked with and gotten to know Amy Cherry a little through SPJ. She’s the president of the Delaware Pro chapter, and seems pleasant.

Then, I caught this July 29 clip of her on the job, reporting for WDEL radio and my impression of her changed dramatically.

Wow. You must watch this. It’s about 5 minutes long.

Amy Cherry confronts councilman

I was riveted as I watched this confrontation. Most of all, it’s rare to see a reporter so coolly clobber an elected official (who deserved it) into submission, for so long. This was part watchdog, part bulldog.

I enjoy reading when the Poynter Institute interviews journalists to dissect their accomplishments, so I asked Amy if she would do something similar by email. Here’s the story behind the story, including an FOI component that is impressive and important, too.

 

What did this councilman do? This confrontation appears to be about whether he returned to Delaware for a special meeting from Maryland, as he claimed, or from Florida, as you discovered. What was the significance either way?

Councilman At-Large Mike Brown lied about his whereabouts when I asked whether he would be present for a special veto override vote that would cut funding for eight vacant positions in the Wilmington Fire Department. Brown told me, of course, he would be present for the vote since it was his original bill and that he was out-of-state in neighboring Maryland. Brown was actually in Florida when he told me that and when I asked him again whether he was in Florida at all this past week, he lied and said, “No.” This lie is significant because Brown was trying to cover up that the City of Wilmington paid $1,000 for him to fly first class on U.S. Airways from Orlando to Philadelphia to return for the veto override vote.

 

How did you find out the truth? What did you do to find and question him when he came back for the meeting? Talk about the chase.

I found out the truth by digging to obtain Brown’s flight ticket, which since the city paid for it, it’s a public document. Because time was of the essence and FOIA would take weeks, I used my contacts to get that flight receipt in my hand to prove Brown was lying and that the city paid $1,000 for him to return for a vote that would cut the Fire Department’s budget. Instead of meeting him at the airport, I decided to camp outside his home, thinking it was logical for Brown to return home from the airport since he had several hours in between his flight and the override vote.

After waiting about an hour, a black Lexus pulled up, and Mike Brown began to get out of the car. I got out of my car with my microphone in my hand and my photog and Brown quickly jumped back in the car and his driver took off. I jumped back in my car with my photog, and we quickly raced after him. Brown’s driver led us on a chase through city streets around the block. Though traffic laws were largely obeyed, it was clear he was trying to lose me. After about five minutes, we ended up back in front of his home, where I confronted him.

 

You aggressively confronted him about what he said and did, not willing to let him off the hook. Were you surprised he confessed so quickly? Or did you know you could get him to talk?

I wasn’t sure Brown would talk, especially after trying to lose me in a chase. The man knew he had been caught, and at first, after he responded “no comment,” I thought to myself, ‘OK this is going to end here,’ but I still have the proof and some video, so the story can stand. But I was surprised he continued to talk not only admitting to the lie, but admitting to it several times and digging his grave deeper. He went so far as to say another city councilman was the driver who led us on the chase. What was even more surprising was when he told me to get off his property (note: my photog stayed on the street the ENTIRE time), that Brown then called me back to talk more.

One of my favorite moments of the video is where he said, “I didn’t do anything wrong wrong.” Traveling first class on the city’s dime may not have been illegal or against policy in these circumstances, but you did lie, and you did spend a lot of city money to come back to cut another department’s budget.

 

This is a great example of a reporter controlling an interview and staying poised. Did that come natural for you?

Staying poised did come naturally for me. I’ve undergone professional vocal training and performed in several plays in high school, so I’ve always been comfortable in front of an audience and interviewing others. But it helped that I was running off adrenaline, especially after the car chase. I knew I had the proof and that he had been caught. It angered me that someone in a position of trust would lie to me, especially if like he said, “he knew I was going to find out anyway.” It angered me that he would try to run from it. Don’t lie to a reporter, you will get caught.

Also, I must add, I was grateful to have a photog (a rarity in the radio business – I probably have a photog twice a year!) so that I could focus on questioning him and really listen to his responses. The whole confrontation took about 5-6 minutes, but it felt a lot longer.

 

What reaction have you gotten to this piece?

The story and video were among the highest viewed in WDEL history. The video/story received a mention on Romenesko and was aired on the NBC10 Philadelphia 11 p.m. news that night.

Since the story aired, I have received so many phone calls and emails from Delaware politicians and citizens, congratulating me for an investigative job well done and hoping they never get on my “bad side.”
But the best part was walking into the City Council chambers ahead of the veto override vote to a round of applause from city fireman and women. I got so many “thank you’s” and hugs, including from the Wilmington Fire Chief. After the veto override failed, I got more hugs, with many truly believing my story caused the veto override to fail and some councilmen/women to change their minds, saving the Wilmington Fire Department from being cut. I hear the new word around town is, “Don’t lie to Amy Cherry.”
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Annual reports – campus chapters

Last week, I posted some thoughts about the Region 2 pro chapters as I read their annual reports.

This week, I looked at the campus chapter reports. There was plenty of good stuff. There also was more variation between the largest, most vibrant chapters and the smallest ones trying to get some traction.

To start, just by filling out the annual report, as instructed, chapter leaders accomplished something and showed commitment. Some chapters did not, and I’m still trying to reach a few of them to find out why.

Campus chapters have inherent challenges, particularly as students come and go in a relatively short time. I salute every student chapter that digs in and works (and remembers to have fun, too).

Here are a few observations as I read the reports that came in from eight Region 2 college chapters:

Elon University: “Covering the Vatican” is a nice program idea. For a dinner event on freelance writing, Elon connected with the High Point University chapter and the North Carolina Pro chapter. (This is not on the report or even related, but Elon made an impression at this year’s Region 2 conference because it was very well represented in the Mark of Excellence Awards.)

Georgetown University: How’s this for a successful turnout: Georgetown hosted a job fair cosponsored by five other local journalism chapters (including the D.C. Pro SPJ chapter) – 175 people and 14 recruiters were there. Organizers plan to make this an annual event Georgetown had a nice FOI panel program, on a public-records audit of the Baltimore Police Department, and did outstanding work in hosting this year’s Region 2 conference.

High Point University: Good choice in picking the popular First Amendment Free Food Festival for one of the programs. In the “service” category, the chapter judged entries in the SPJ high school essay contest.

James Madison University: There were several good programs in this report, with variety. Twice, the chapter turned to Skype to virtually bring in an interesting speaker. I love the idea of watching “The Newsroom” and dissecting the ethics of the storyline. Two interesting tidbits in the chapter constitution: Students must be in “good standing” (at least a 2.0 GPA) to be eligible for the chapter. And hazing is explicitly forbidden.

Salisbury University: The chapter made good strides in the “service” category and in fundraising. During a food drive, it collected the most canned goods of any organization on campus. Through a series of fundraising events at local restaurants, the chapter took in $300. It has connected well with the Maryland Pro chapter on a few activities.

University of Maryland: The list of activities kept going and going … and going. What a fantastic year, with numerous professional development and social events. A few other things that stood out: Meetings to discuss important national SPJ issues (a proposed name change, code of ethics update), a journalism-heavy trip to New York City, three blood drives, and an impressive mentor program with sixth- and seventh-graders who are learning journalism.

Virginia Commonwealth University: Another chapter with a good number and range of activities. A resume workshop is worthwhile; Ethics Hold ‘Em and media movie night are fun. One event was a little different: Moderating a gubernatorial mock debate that involved campus political groups.

Western Carolina: The chapter is in just its second semester and still gathering steam. It connected with the North Carolina Pro chapter through Skype, attended the Ted Scripps Leadership Institute and – showing resourcefulness – held two bake sales to help raise money to attend the national convention.

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Annual reports – the pros

Who likes reading SPJ chapter annual reports? Me. There’s always something interesting or enlightening as chapters summarize their year.

Here are some tidbits I noticed as I read the annual reports of Region 2’s pro chapters this week:

- D.C. Pro: I didn’t expect to learn anything new, since I’m on the board. But I was glad to read that two new members, who have been getting more involved in the chapter, have taken on an important role: contacting our existing members as their memberships were about to lapse. There’s a nice symmetry in that. A job fair jointly held by five journalism organizations and Georgetown University was a hit.

- Delaware Pro: For a young, small chapter, it had a pretty good year in programming. It stood out in FOI, with a nice session with the state attorney general, then three separate programs at three college campuses.

- Greater Charlotte Pro: The chapter didn’t just talk about open government – it fought for it by challenging a closed-door government meeting on whether to spend public money on a privately owned NFL stadium. SPJ’s Legal Defense Fund provided $5,000 for court costs.

- Maryland Pro: A model of financial transparency in its report. The chapter uploaded 95(ish) pages showing bank statements, receipts, registrations, deposit slips and more. And I noticed that the chapter adopted a policy of requiring two signatures when it issues checks, a good safeguard.

- North Carolina Pro: Was good on social activities, which help lure people to a growing chapter. I like that “homemade SPJ ornaments” were given out at the holiday party.

- Virginia Pro: Made great connections with local college students through its College Media Day, covering a range of topics (jobs, internships, social media, FOI, column writing, entering contests) and with resume critiques. Did something good for its financial audit: None of the three people who reviewed the records were board members.

 

Miscellaneous: I liked this section in the Delaware and North Carolina pro chapters’ bylaws (yes, I’m reading those, too): “Section 7 — All membership meetings and programs of the (Delaware/North Carolina) Pro Chapter shall be on the record and open to coverage by any or all communications media on an equal basis.”

Virginia Pro had a different, but also good, statement of openness in its bylaws: “Section 5. Guest speakers will be on the record and will be so informed in advance.”

 

All six pro chapters in Region 2 produced good annual reports and recognized areas that they can do better. Keep up the good work.

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