SPJ is revising its Code of Ethics in a most unethical way.

I’m a three-term member of SPJ’s national board of directors. I recently learned this by accident…

Sometime in the next few weeks (I don’t know when), SPJ will pay up to $11,000 for a group of people (I don’t know how many) to spend several days (I don’t know the number) in Columbus, Ohio.

Those people (who the board of directors didn’t approve) will revise SPJ’s vaunted Code of Ethics. They’ll work off a first draft (written in secret by unknown authors) and submit their shiny new Code at SPJ’s annual convention in September – where 200 SPJers in attendance (out of 8,000 members) will endorse it in a single meeting at the end of the last day of the convention.

And then the SPJ Code of Ethics will officially change.

As a board member who knew none of this – and never voted on any of it – I complained. (It’s what I do best.)

The reply from SPJ’s senior leaders? Sorry, pal, that’s the way we’ve always done things.

Which is true. SPJ’s rules are literally 100 years old. They predate not only the Internet but also commercial radio.

(SPJ was founded in 1909, before refrigerators and zippers and crossword puzzles and women being allowed to vote.)

So I want to change SPJ’s rules before we change its Code of Ethics. Not surprisingly, SPJ leaders have told me I’m being “melodramatic.” You decide…

SPJ doesn’t want to hear it.

I asked SPJ’s president and his inner circle why the board of directors didn’t get to vote on – and wasn’t even informed of – the $11,000 meeting of the so-called Ethics Committee “working group” we didn’t know about.

The answer: It was a “management decision.”

So who decided that? Apparently, I did.

Without a hint of doubt or irony, and totally on the record, a senior SPJ leader told me I couldn’t complain – because I had approved the organization’s entire fiscal year budget…

“By voting to approve the budget, you lost the right to say the board did not have a say.”

…which, by the way, didn’t contain a line item for this $11,000 meeting. SPJ’s executive director admitted to me, “This wasn’t budgeted.”

But SPJ wasn’t budging. This is happening, SPJ top leaders tell me, and there’s nothing I can do about it.

So here’s what I’m doing about it…

I’m going to lead a probably futile attempt to convince SPJ’s delegates to oppose whatever this “working group” comes up with in Columbus.

Then I’ll ask those delegates to do two things…

1. Start over again, and do it openly

This $11,000 meeting is just the latest episode in a ridiculously secretive process I graphically illustrated in April. Coincidentally, ONA and SPJ are both working on ethics codes. But they’re going in opposite directions.

2. Vote to let everyone else vote

SPJ’s arcane rules only allow delegates to vote on changes to the Code of Ethics. These delegates are appointed according to century-old bylaws and represent a fraction of SPJ’s membership. Before the Internet and even fax machines, this was the only way to efficiently conduct business. In this century, all SPJ members should vote on a new code.

Times have changed – that’s why SPJ says it wants to update its code. But how silly is it to modernize a Code of Ethics using 100-year-old rules?

Email me if you want to join my quest or complain about it.

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  • Dana Gower

    This kind of thing is why I resigned from SDX decades ago. Thank you so much for continuing to fight the good fight.

  • Colin

    I’d like to hear a response from Kevin Smith or David Cuillier on these claims. What is the justification for spending $11,000 on revising this code? And who are the people that will be doing it? Will they be charged with incorporating the input sent in by members?

    I believe Joe Skeel should absolutely be part of the revision process. I agree with many of the points on a recent blog he wrote on the issue. He makes a sound argument. Here’s that blog: http://blogs.spjnetwork.org/ethics/2014/06/12/detailed-code-is-better-for-journalists-but-not-journalism/

    Thanks for letting us know about this, Michael. You are an asset on the board, whether the senior leadership likes it or not.

  • Barry Hollander

    To save SPJ money, I’ll do it for 10 grand.

  • Michael, You are being melodramatic … and hyperbolic. But that’s partly why I love you.

    SPJ’s bylaws aren’t 100 years old. They’ve been amended as recently as 2011. But that’s a minor point.

    The issue, if I read you correctly, is whether SPJ should spend money to allow the committee assigned to recommend changes to the Ethics Code to meet face-to-face to finalize its recommendations to the delegates, who in convention with the board of directors, comprise the “supreme legislative body” of the organization.

    Large organizations, even ONA, work through committees. For all its vaunted transparency and “crowd-sourcing” its ethics code and its convention programming, some group of people at ONA still has to wrassle all that input and make decisions.

    I’ve endured two Ethics Code revision debates at national conventions. They were hardly rubber stamps. In fact, they involved some bitter, at times acrimonious, discussions. I expect something similar in Nashville. In fact, I’ll be surprised if a final revised Code even gets adopted this year.

    But on your specific point about the money. The SDX Board rejected a request for funds from the Ethics Committee for this meeting and suggested that if SPJ wanted to fund it, it should.

    Should the SPJ Board have voted on spending this money? That’s debatable. The president and the executive committee have some discretion in certain spending issues, and obviously leadership felt it important to fund the Ethics Committee’s activities.

  • Koretzky

    I’m confused, Sonny. (Not unusual for me.)

    You say I’m being “melodramatic” and “hyperbolic,” but you admit it’s at least “debatable’ that the board should’ve voted on, or at least known about, the $11,000 meeting.

    Since that was the whole point of my post, how does “debatable” become a synonym for “melodramatic” and “hyperbolic”? And if it’s debatable, how come you didn’t let the board debate it?

    I’m glad you partly love me, Sonny. I’d prefer it if you’d partly listen to me.

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