The Code and Juan Williams

The firing of NPR’s Juan Williams last week for his remarks about Muslims and the connection of his dismissal to SPJ’s Code of Ethics isn’t really a case that establishes precedence.

The fact that NPR executive Vivian Schiller said his behavior violated SPJ’s Code of Ethics and NPR’s code wasn’t surprising to me since our framework for professional ethical standards has long been considered the gold standard for the industry, here and abroad.

According to The New York Times, Schilller said: “We terminated his contract because of our news ethics guidelines. The guidelines are based on the same news ethics guidelines of the Society of Professional Journalists, and are very similar to that of The New York Times and many other news organizations.”

SPJ has known since its code revision in 1996 that the code would be weaved into the fabric of many newsroom policy manuals. Just last year, according to my Google Alert, our ethics code was repeated in part or wholly more than 3,500 times. People are not only reading the code, but also applying its principles on a gratifyingly regular basis.

The appropriate section of the code as it applies to William’s comment can be found under the heading Seek Truth and Report It: “Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.”

In Williams’ case his remarks … “I mean, look, Bill (O’Reilly) I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the Civil Rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.” suggest he not only stereotyped based on religion but on physical appearance.

I received an e-mail Monday morning following the incident from a woman whose son lives in Spain. A terrorist attack there was thwarted when Muslims reported suspicious activity by men hauling materials in and out of an apartment. She went on to say Muslims reporting against Muslims is common because most who embrace the religion realize that violence is not a component of their beliefs.

Then I found her next suggestion very provocative. Instead of punishing Williams for his insensitive remarks, someone needs to educate him, she said. You can’t stereotype people.

“But fanatics on both sides would rather not acknowledge this. Sarah Palin, Bin Laden, Glenn Beck and Al Qaeda all share one core belief — that every Muslim is a potential suicide bomber. Spreading this belief helps both camps keep up with recruitment needs, amassing their private armies of frightened sheep. The rest of us know better. The rest of us know that the world is full of good and bad people of all shapes, sizes, and religions. Juan Williams forgot this fact, but in a world where the bleating grows louder every day, you can hardly blame him.”

[Clarification: The above paragraph is from the previously referenced e-mailer, not the opinion of Kevin Smith or SPJ]

Let’s hope Williams’ lesson proves beneficial to journalists who provide news coverage and analysis on topics like this. Williams isn’t the first to violate ethical standards, nor will he be the last. The assurance to the American public is that there are ethical standards in journalism and people can be held to them. All of this creates a more reliable and responsible press.

Kevin Smith is chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee and immediate past national president.

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