Quill Flashback: The Current Code is Inclusive and Flexible

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

By Irwin Gratz

I realized I was becoming an old codger back in the mid-1990s, when SPJ was debating the current version of the Code of Ethics. The new Code was being discussed at a breakout session of the SPJ National Convention, and several speakers warned that the Code was, in its language, failing to take note of the budding age of computers.

Technological developments, they said, were giving journalists so many new tools that surely the Code had to make accommodations for them, be they the way photos could be enhanced, or the new ways digital audio could be edited. That’s when it hit me. I raised my hand and chimed in on the discussion, saying that rather than the Code having to be modified to fit the new technology-enabled practices, maybe people using the new technology should modify their practices to conform to the Code.

Journalism is a very, very old business, and over time its practitioners have learned a lot of important lessons the hard way. SPJ owes its very existence to the idealism of college students who believed — correctly, I think — that poor standards and loose ethics did a disservice to the public.

But ethical standards aren’t exactly like the Ten Commandments. They have evolved over the years as we’ve learned that while credibility and truth-telling are paramount, sometimes it’s OK if the truth comes from people who won’t be named (see Watergate). And even deception has its place when it serves to root out corruption (e.g. “Mirage Bar and Grill” set up by Chicago journalists in the 1970s who snagged city inspectors seeking bribes) or the public safety (e.g. when ABC had someone apply for a job at supermarket chain Food Lion in the 1990s, then use a hidden camera to record dangerous food handling practices). But we’ve also learned that a staple of the news business, crime reporting, really does affect real people — mothers, fathers, children of victims who can be hurt by what we write and helped if we exert some restraint in the gratuitous publishing of facts just because we have them.

The Code of Ethics SPJ adopted in 1996 reflects these lessons. It has very few absolutes (deliberate distortion of facts, distortion of news content and photos, and plagiarism to name the only three). The “shoulds” and “avoids” in our Code recognize the enormous range of situations journalists can find themselves in as they chronicle human behavior. The triumph of the 1996 Code over its predecessor is its ability to state ethical journalism principles without tying the hands of journalists as they go about their daily work.

More than anything, the Code is a road map journalists can follow when confronted with an ethical dilemma, framing the questions but ultimately leaving the difficult task of decision-making in the hands of the only people truly qualified to make those ethical decisions: the journalists who will have to live with them. And the Code points out that journalists should be accountable for their actions. When I discuss the Code with students, I tell them the goal in ethical decision-making is reaching a decision and being able to explain your justification for that decision. And, I add, you have to realize that after your explanation, some people will continue to disagree with you.

Since 1996, there have been additional calls to modify the Code. I initiated one such discussion in 2002 (“Does the SPJ code need a wartime update?” Quill, April 2002). At the time, I was asking whether we needed specific language to justify the convention that reporters don’t report on troop movements, or how do reporters “act independently” without being guilty of being un-patriotic? At that time, members of the Ethics Committee believed our Code language would enable those reporting war to answer such questions; no other SPJ members proposed a change in language, and none was adopted.

Now the update question is being asked again. Certainly new channels for journalism have formed in the past decade or so, and older forms appear to be in decline. But what does that mean for the Society’s Code of Ethics? I still insist: very little. Journalism, at least responsible journalism of the kind SPJ has long advocated for, is still a desirable goal, and you reach that goal through the traditional methods: viewing things for yourself, interviewing people, reading documents. In that process, all the old ethical dilemmas arise, such as when to report and when to hold back for more corroboration; how to balance the public right to know with individual privacy rights; and how far to go in offering individuals a right to respond to elements in a story.

It is suggested that the accelerated news cycle requires the Code to be more insistent about obtaining reaction from targets of news and more explicit about efforts made to contact individuals in any story that’s run.


– Update the Code? Yes, absolutely, says Steve Buttry

– Submit your thoughts: Update/no update

The Code addresses these matters, though not always specifically. It is a strength of the Code to speak in generalities, since the specifics of most cases are different, and ultimately individual reporters and editors, in whatever medium they do their journalism, will be held responsible for their decisions.

I am still waiting to hear what is so fundamentally different about Web journalism. Is it that news and opinion mix so freely online? That once happened in newspapers too, but journalists following our Code and others like it learned the value in “distinguishing” between advocacy and news reporting. The best Web journalists will do likewise and benefit from it. There is room for those who mix news with commentary so long as they follow the Code’s admonition to label it as such and not misrepresent facts or context. Many “alternative” newspapers have done this well for years.

One of our past national presidents, Fred Brown, recently argued that the Code contains evidence that the Society tried too hard in its last iteration to cater to the specifics of existing journalism technology. Specifically, he cites a passage where the Code urges “that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent.” Indeed, the Internet revolution is giving new meaning to the term “headline,” and “images” is probably more appropriate now than “video” or “photos.” Fred’s point is that when it comes to a document like the Code, simpler is often better.

I’m not averse to making changes to our Code of Ethics. But having worked with it and worked to explain it over these past 15 years, I’ve found it to be a most helpful, inclusive and flexible document. It speaks to great principles of journalism. The way news gets told in America, and around the world, is certainly changing, in ways few of us could have hardly imagined. But I have waited, so far in vain, for evidence that journalism itself is changing in fundamental ways that require us to make major changes to the Code.

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

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