Quill Flashback: 21st-Century Journalism Requires 21st-Century Code

The following opinion piece originally appeared in Quill Magazine in April 2011. To read the counterpoint that appeared in the same issue, follow this link: Quill Flashback: The Current Code is Inclusive and Flexible

By Steve Buttry

The SPJ Code of Ethics absolutely needs an update.

The Code, adopted in 1973, was revised three times between then and 1996 but not since. Why would SPJ stop keeping its ethics code current when new tools, new opportunities, media restructuring and current events continue presenting journalists with new ethical decisions?

I have always liked the SPJ Code, because it combines simplicity with detailed guidance. Three of the Code’s four basic principles — seek truth and report it; minimize harm; be accountable — are clear, direct and seldom disputed. They remain the heart of good journalism ethics and widely accepted by journalists. The fourth principle — act independently — is not as universally accepted and is at the heart of some recent controversies. The update process should include a discussion of whether this principle needs revision.

The SPJ Code doesn’t address journalists’ opinions at all. Of course, opinions have never been regarded as unethical per se. Editorial writers and columnists were allowed to have opinions and voices, but many have advocated “objectivity” (a word that never appears in the Code, another thing I like) for editors and reporters.

In controversies over Dave WeigelJuan Williams and Keith Olbermann, you seldom hear the SPJ Code cited. In the debate over whether journalists should attempt to be objective or whether that is a charade resulting in what Jay Rosen criticizes as the “view from nowhere,” no one can cite guidance from SPJ because the Code is silent on the whole matter.

The Code’s elaboration on the principle of independence focuses mostly on keeping our distance from advertisers. Perhaps it’s time that SPJ take up the messy issue of independence from sources, interests, and our own opinions and personal lives.

The SPJ Code isn’t helpful in guiding journalists in the use of social media. When The Wall Street Journal and The Washington Post released guidelines discouraging staff members from expressing opinions in social media, the resulting discussions did not cite SPJ because the Code offers no guidance on whether or how journalists should separate private and professional emails and social media.

The Code is more than those four simple principles. It elaborates on each principle in a way that is helpful for journalists trying to make decisions in a variety of situations. “Seek truth and report it,” for instance, is followed by 17 related specific pieces of advice. These explanations need updating to fit today’s context rather than when they were last updated in 1996. If 17 provided helpful guidance 15 years ago, would 20 or 23 points be excessive today?

On my blog in November, I went through the entire code, suggesting issues and, in some cases, language to consider in updating. I’ll do that here just for the points in the first section (on seeking and reporting the truth) that I think need the heaviest revision. The actual language of the Code of Ethics is in italics.

I’ll start with a suggested addition: The heart of seeking the truth is accuracy. I would like to see SPJ advocate that journalists use an accuracy checklist, as Craig Silverman suggests. Silverman notes thatchecklists are proven to reduce errors in crucial professions such as surgery and pilots. If we want to uphold the truth as a core principle, why shouldn’t we advocate a proven system to improve accuracy?

I used my own checklist, inspired by Silveman’s, in checking facts and links for this article. SPJ should adopt a sample checklist as a supplement to the updated Code of Ethics, encouraging journalists to adapt and use it and journalism professors to teach it.

I also think the obligation to report the truth entails an obligation to encourage reporting of errors. SPJ’s Code should endorse the Report an Error approach.

Journalists should: Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.

This needs rewriting and expansion to apply to the way journalists cover unfolding news stories. I’d suggest something like: “Diligently seek out subjects of news coverage to give them the opportunity to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing. In unfolding coverage of breaking news, criticism or allegations may need to be published before a journalist can get a response. In these cases, the initial coverage should reflect the effort to get a response, and the response should receive prominent play whenever it comes.”

The update needs to go beyond the technology-driven changes to how we cover breaking news. It also should recognize and address journalism’s widespread practice of he-said-she-said stories that don’t get to the truth. The mere effort to report a “balanced” story with charge and response does not satisfy the obligation to report the truth.

Perhaps the Code should say something like: “The journalist should fact-check, seeking documentation, videos, eyewitnesses and people with first-hand experience (always remaining aware of individual biases and the weakness of human memory) to come as close to the truth as possible.”

SPJ needs to advocate fact-checking of sources as central to ethical reporting, helping journalists move beyond the balanced reporting of competing lies or especially reporting lies and facts with equal weight.

Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.

I don’t like the word “anonymity” here. Truly anonymous sources — people who won’t disclose their names even to the journalist — should never be used as anything more than tipsters.

It would be better to reword this: “Journalists should always question motives and know a source’s identity and background before promising confidentiality.” And I would add: “Don’t accept the condition that you would never publish the information; you must remain free to seek other sources of the information, while protecting a source’s identity.”

Remember Judith Miller’s absurd dismissal of responsibility for her inaccurate reporting about intelligence on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq: “If your sources are wrong, you are wrong.” I think the SPJ Code of Ethics needs to state unequivocally: “Journalists, not sources, are responsible for the accuracy of the stories; you should verify thoroughly enough to refute false information from sources.”

I also think the Code should provide more explicit guidance on what to use from confidential sources and what to consider in granting confidentiality, something along these lines: “Do not publish critical opinions from people seeking confidentiality. People who wish to express opinions in the media should stand behind their opinions. Confidentiality should be granted only to gather important facts that could not otherwise be learned.”


– Update the Code? No. The current version works, says Irwin Gratz

– Submit your thoughts: Update/no update

Journalists should consider power and eagerness in deciding whether to grant confidentiality. A powerful source volunteering information is trying to use a journalist and should be held accountable for what he or she says. A vulnerable source being approached by a journalist may express reluctance to talk at all without confidentiality. You still should examine motives, seek to get the source on the record and verify information provided, but this source is in a more acceptable position for granting confidentiality.

The Code should encourage journalists to use confidentiality as a means to find on-the-record sources and documentation that can be quoted. Quote the confidential sources only as a last resort.

Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.

I would add: “Where brief reports can present only limited context, use links to provide full context. In print editions, refer readers to online sources providing greater context.”

Never plagiarize.

Much as I love the direct simplicity of this passage, it’s no longer enough. I would add: “Be diligent in identifying sources of information clearly in notes, whether digital or paper. Sloppiness is never an excuse for plagiarism.”

But journalists’ responsibility to attribute goes deeper than cut-and-dried plagiarism. The Code needs to tell journalists to credit sources by name, not by vague descriptions such as “press reports,” “critics,” “a blog,” or by indirect references such as “was reported” or “reportedly.” SPJ also needs to note that ethical journalists should link to original sources in digital content.

Support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.


I would add: “The responsibility to support this open exchange does not override the responsibility to report the truth. When sources are giving false information in support of their views, the journalist should fact-check and report the truth.”

Recognize a special obligation to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection. 

I would add: “When reporting information from public documents, journalists should link to them or publish them online in pdf or other formats, so users can examine the documents themselves.”

An updated SPJ Code should start where the current Code does: Seek truth and report it. But the Code should address the 21st-century decisions that principle presents.

Steve Buttry has spent 40 years working in print, digital and television newsrooms. He presented more than 30 ethics seminars for the American Press Institute, focusing largely on the challenges of digital journalism. Contact stephenbuttry@gmail.com or @stevebuttry on Twitter. In 2010 he was named one of Quill’s 20 “Journalists to Follow.”

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