Maybe Cain’s “Code of Conduct,” But Not Ours

We appreciate the efforts of the Herman Cain PAC to publicize the standards and practices contained in the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics. The Cain PAC has been fighting back against allegations of sexual harassment circulating in the media. But we think it’s important to point out our code is not “the Journalists Code of Conduct,” rather SPJ’s attempt to model a Code of Ethics for journalism organizations. Many such organizations promulgate their own codes of ethics, a practice we heartily endorse.

Our code does indeed recommend journalists “Identify sources whenever feasible.” It goes on to say, “The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.” And it suggests journalists, “Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity.” And, “Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information.”

However, in this, as in many areas, SPJ’s code avoids taking absolutist positions against journalistic practice. We do so because we believe there are occasions when the public’s right to know must be paramount.

Whether journalism organizations have handled the allegations against Mr. Cain ethically can be a matter of debate. The SPJ code can help frame the terms of that debate. But nothing in the code should be used to pre-judge the outcome.

Irwin Gratz is a past national president of SPJ and current member of the Ethics Committee. He is “Morning Edition” host for Maine Public Broadcasting.

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