Archive for February, 2010

Ethics award nominations wanted

One award SPJ annually gives out (or tries to) is for Ethics in Journalism.
Sometimes, we only get a few nominations (or none), which is unfortunate, since journalists and news organizations make many exemplary ethical decisions throughout the year that deserve recognition.

The definition of the award has been modified slightly this year. It now says:
The Ethics in Journalism Award honors journalists or news organizations that perform in an outstanding ethical manner demonstrating the ideals of the SPJ Code of Ethics. It also honors especially notable efforts to educate the public on principles embodied in the code or hold journalists ethically accountable for their behavior. Nominations are open. Self-nomination is permitted.

A link to a nomination form is available at SPJ’s Web site.
The nomination deadline is March 18. Please send us your ideas.


Andy Schotz
SPJ Ethics Committee

Media embeds – alive and well

If you think the practice of embedding “experts” into TV news programs is over, think again.

In a story for an upcoming edition of The Nation, Sebastian Jones takes a fresh look at how frequently pundits’ other roles – as paid lobbyists for companies highly invested on those very topics of discussion – go unreported on the air. (I talked to Jones for his story and was briefly quoted.)

Jones’ story follows the Pulitzer-Prize-winning work of David Barstow of The New York Times, who thoroughly detailed a deep-rooted propaganda-like effort by the Pentagon to secretly sway public opinion about the war in Iraq. Here are Barstow’s stories about the program in general and focusing on retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey.

News programs fail to disclose analysts’ financial connections to the topics of  which they speak, a blatant conflict of interest that rages on because networks enable the masquerade.

SPJ’s Ethics Committee has criticized the lack of disclosure about these conflicts (see statements here and here), but the networks continue to thumb their noses at the public.

-Andy Schotz, chairman, SPJ Ethics Committee

Trading one role for another

This does not fit perfectly into the “report vs. help” discussion about coverage of Haiti, but it reflects an understanding of the separation of roles.

Minnesota TV anchor Julie Pearce, who is also a nurse, decided that she wanted to help Haiti earthquake victims more than she wanted to report the news from afar.

An SPJ statement cautioned against trying to be both a rescuer and a reporter at the same time.

-Andy Schotz, chairman, SPJ Ethics Committee

Trying to stomp out the student press

As much as I dislike the nastiness of anonymous comments, trying to shut down a school newspaper that allows them is a whole new level of harm.

The staff of Virginia Tech’s Collegiate Times must be allowed the freedom to practice and learn journalism and the difficult decisions inherent to the craft. One of those decisions is taste and decorum in opinion – choosing where to draw the line in comments in print and online.

The Foundation for Indvidual Rights in Education is correct. The standards of civility, sensitivity and respect in expression are ideal, but should be aspirational.

Silencing a student newspaper is a drastic step, beyond disrespectful. It’s Draconian.

Educate the Public

This column in Broadcasting & Cable is right on about Fox News. Fox sells, and that’s the big ethical problem news media face today – making money. Fox can sell its soul and rake in the bucks from the conservative public, MSNBC seems to be doing the opposite on the left, and CNN is somewhere in the middle. It’s not news, but the viewing public does not know that it’s not news. The cable news channels have gone to shouting heads, tweets, Facebook, etc., and constant injection of opinion. It’s entertainment and not news.

What’s needed is massive public education, which is not going to happen anytime soon. The pressure is on news media, and it’s all about money.

Somehow, SPJ, ASNE, APME, RTDNA, etc., must rise above the dollars and educate the public that real news has standards and is necessary to an effective democracy.

The changes we are seeing today in information distribution are similar in nature, if not format, to the changes seen in the advance of the penny press in the early 19th century. The printing press enabled mass distribution of information and hucksters, fakes, and politicians took advantage of it. Anyone with access to paper, ink, and a press could publish just about anything. Today, anyone with access to a computer – a much larger base – can publish just about anything. It took decades and organizations such as SPJ to bring sanity to news reporting.

We are in a period of change, and we will be for decades. We can’t throw up our hands, saying we’re better than they are. We have to educate the public and show that we are. And right now, the public does not have a very high opinion of news media. What are needed are a news media coalition and a grassroots campaign. Excuse the expression, but we need a giant public relations effort. The public does not care about checkbook journalism or doctors working for news media. It wants reliable information – the truth. And someone has to show the public the difference between noise and information. It will take decades, but it won’t happen unless we start now. Think big and be persistent.

A ghoulish fight

Why would a news organization fight to get tapes a rapist made of his attacks?

It’s not clear, but two Minnesota TV stations fought that battle – and lost.

Three SPJ Ethics Committee members make good points in this story about the TV stations’ pursuit.

What they did in Haiti

The Associated Press’s “Ask AP” feature recently had a short item (second question down) on the news cooperative’s exploits in Haiti while covering the earthquake.

This tied in with a statement SPJ issued about the fine line between reporting and trying to help people you cover.

Where do you see that line?

It’s good to see AP acknowledging the aid it gave. But I wonder how many journalists and news organizations are explaining their dual roles (when they happen) as part of their reports, when it’s necessary.

-Andy  Schotz, chairman, SPJ Ethics Committee

The ‘First’ Amendment

News people shall make no claim to be “First” on a story or to have an “Exclusive” unless it honestly, truly, 100 percent is.

Which is a tough proposition, sometimes. I recently read about a journo excited to have gotten the scoop on the field online by roughly 90 seconds.

An SPJer recently e-mailed me, steamed over a Nancy Grace segment that was inappropriately billed as an “Exclusive.”

The “exclusive” claim might have referred to HLN’s jump on its broadcast competitors, but who knows?

Perhaps HLN should stick to promos easier to defend. I suggest “Interesting!” or “Jaw-dropping!” or “We’re first on this story*! (don’t pay attention to the asterisk)”

Andy Schotz, chairman, SPJ Ethics Committee

Social boundaries

Social media tools (especially Facebook and Twitter) have found a niche in the practice of journalism.

But is this an example of technology moving faster than careful thought?

There are pitfalls in sending out a knee-jerk tweet or stepping into someone else’s Facebook network to cultivate sources on deadline.

Here are new guidelines issued by the Radio Television Digital News Association.

I’ve been asked a few times whether SPJ has updated its code of ethics to keep up with social media.

I’m not sure we need to. The ethical principles in the code, for the most part, don’t pertain only to one form of communication. Fairness, accuracy, context and other fundamentals certainly can apply to BlackBerry or cell-phone texters, too.

But my position isn’t immutable, and the rest of SPJ’s Ethics Committee has a wide range of views, which might lead to some degree of change. The committee will talk about this soon as part of a broad review of the code of ethics, which hasn’t changed in 14 years.

(I’m not sure about this reference in The Washington Times, which seems to suggest SPJ recently updated the code to address social media.)

Does the SPJ Code of Ethics need new language to guide journalists on the ethical use of social media as part of their work? Please tell us what you think.

-Andy Schotz, chairman, SPJ Ethics Committee


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