Opinion: Detailed Ethics Code good for journalists, not journalism

Three weeks ago, I dove head first into SPJ’s Code of Ethics revision process, which began nearly a year ago. The project is spearheaded by SPJ Ethics Committee chairman Kevin Smith. Therefore, my involvement hasn’t been necessary until this point.

But with something this important, it’s inevitable SPJ staff will be called upon to provide support. Mine came in the form of building a home base” for the process and curating comments from blogs, feedback forms, social media, and anyplace else I can find them.


During the process, I quickly learned what the SPJ Ethics Committee has known for months: There is a fairly clear divide among journalists (including those on our own committee) about what the Code should look like.

One side believes the revised Code should be more detailed, providing specific guidance on how to deal with certain issues, such as suicides, bomb threats, social media activity and user-generated content.

The other side believes the revised Code should remain more like the Ten Commandments: a set of broad principles that guide individuals through the decision-making process.

I agree.

With both sides.

But if SPJ can’t do both, which path should it choose? (The reality is that SPJ could do both. But I don’t believe it should – and I’ll explain why near the end of this column).

Forcing myself to choose one path, I have come to the conclusion that SPJ’s can best reach its mission with a broad revised code.

I should be clear: I believe more detailed codes give better guidance for working journalists. They have the ability to provide more clarity in specific situations that each news provider is most likely to face.

In reality, this concept is not new. For years, news organizations have developed their own codes – often, using SPJ’s Code as a starting point. We encourage this.

If you conducted a poll of SPJ’s Ethics Committee members, I bet most would agree with the philosophy driving the Online News Assocaition’s DIY ethics code project: “No single ethics code can reflect the needs of everyone in our widely varied profession.”

So, why isn’t a detailed Code the right approach for SPJ?

Three reasons:

  1. Educating future journalists.
  2. Educating the public.
  3. Advocating within the profession.

Educating future journalists

Nearly every journalism student in the country takes some sort of ethics class. For many, it’s the first time they hear of SPJ. More importantly, this is often their first deep dive into the concept of ethical decision making.

SPJ’s web traffic is proof of this. Nearly every week, among our top hits are the Code of Ethics (2,500 last week) and our Ethics Case Studies (500 last week). Most likely, the majority of those visiting the case studies are educators and students.

When studying SPJ’s Code in class, students learn the basics of what’s acceptable and what’s not. More importantly, they learn how to decide what is and isn’t acceptable. They do this by weighing the different aspects of the Code – which are meant to serve as counter balances.

For example, it’s important for journalism students to learn how to weigh the concepts of “minimize harm” vs. “seek truth and report it.” In reporting a story about campus rape, for example, which principle outweighs the other? The public’s right to know so that it may protect itself or the victim’s desire for privacy? Understanding how to arrive at that decision is as important as the decision itself.

This understanding will become the basis for everything that follows regarding ethics. When they begin producing journalism professionally, it’s very possible they will work at a place that has a more detailed code. Hopefully, though, they will embark on their careers with a deeper understanding of that detailed code – and the instincts to weigh every situation with appropriate caution.

I don’t have my head buried in the sand. I realize many people practicing journalism don’t possess a journalism degree. They have never had an ethics class, and probably never will. In these instances, perhaps a more detailed list of “dos and don’ts” does work better – at least in the beginning. This is especially true of entrepreneurs and those producing journalism in other countries.

But, as I write this today, most outfits producing journalism in the U.S. are still hiring students with a journalism education. And until that changes, I believe a broad-based Code that can help develop a deeper understanding of journalism ethics and decision making is necessary.

Educating the public

Last year, 176,000 people visited SPJ’s Code of Ethics page. The vast majority of those visitors weren’t journalists. They were members of the general public. They came via search engines – most likely after keying in “journalism ethics.”

Judging by the calls we get, most want to know if their news provider is governed by set of industry standards – like lawyers and doctors. Many times, they want SPJ to censure and punish.

When these people visit our site, the first thing they read is the Code preamble, which states:

“Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues… ”

Intended or not, SPJ’s Code has become as much about media literacy for the public as it is about guidance for working journalists. One could argue, based on that first sentence, that SPJ’s Code exists mainly for the public’s understanding.

The arguments I hear for a more detailed code come from the journalism echo chamber – in a sincere effort to help journalists make better journalistic decisions. But, what about the public? Who explains our journalism world in broad context to the public? Would a different code for every news provider help the public better understand the basics of acceptable journalistic behavior? I would argue it does the opposite. It could give the appearance that individual news providers make up rules to suit their specific needs. Frankly, that’s the opinion the public has of us now.

This is why I think it’s incredibly important to have a broad-based Code – a baseline if you will – that is accepted by those in the profession.

This is the best way for SPJ (and others) to explain to the public – in the simplest of terms – why  journalists make certain decisions, especially those that are unpopular. My idea is no different than a corporate customer-service model. Customers may know the overarching philosophies of a store, but employees follow detailed guidelines that ensure those overarching philosophies are attained.

Of course, a broad Code without action is pointless. It’s time for SPJ to become a stronger voice in the area of news literacy. We need to engage the public in tough conversations. We need to help it understand our role. And, we need to drop any elitist attitudes and embrace what people expect from us. A perfect example is the ongoing debate of whether to identify killers in mass shootings. When these stories break, journalists decide what’s best for the public. But shootings aren’t new. This debate has raged for years. Yet, as a group we have no more clarity today than we did three years ago. Maybe it’s time to let the public decide – or at the very least make a case.

To that end, SPJ should serve actively as a go-between with the public and all those practicing journalism. To do that, we must have a Code that is universally accepted. That means, inherently, it must be broad in scope.

Taking back our credibility

One of the best ways to help restore credibility in our profession is to call out those operating contrary to widely acceptable standards. We must show the public that we hold ourselves to a higher standard.

For SPJ to do this, it must be armed with a broad Code that addresses underlying principles.

With this Code in hand, SPJ could more easily call out the unethical journalism that gives the rest of us a bad name. I envision a day when news providers actually care what SPJ says about its actions. Perhaps they think before they act, lest they face the wrath of the unified profession speaking out against their poor decision making.

As I said before, however, a Code without action is pointless. It’s time for SPJ to speak louder (and more often) against unethical behavior. A broad Code would be our hammer.

SPJ can’t do it all

As I wrote earlier, SPJ could develop a broad set of principles and also provide more detailed guidelines to help journalists. But, I don’t think we should. Frankly, others are already doing it – and have been for some time.

Just like every other journalism association, we have limited resources. For too long, SPJ has tried to be everything for everyone. It’s neither sustainable nor realistic. We need tighter focus for maximum impact.  SPJ’s focus should be on journalism as a whole.

Many other journalism groups already have detailed guidelines for their specialties, such as the Education Writers Association and Radio Television Digital News Association. There are many more.

SPJ should embrace these codes, and make them more visible to all journalists. For those specialties that don’t have existing guidelines, we should encourage and help the appropriate journalism organization develop them. There are about 60 journalism associations in the United States. It’s time we work together to make ethics stronger.

In the end, I envision a “networked Code” with SPJ’s broad principles as a pseudo preamble. It would be supported by various guidelines from other journalism associations.

Here are perfect examples from the Association of Health Care Journalists and the Center for Investigative Reporting. Regarding ONA’s DIY concept, I think it will be an amazing resource for those looking to create an in-house manual – specifically entrepreneurs and those new to journalism. As a side note, I have been asked why so many groups have seemingly competing ethics codes – and specifically why ONA, RTDNA and SPJ are revising their Codes at the same time. It’s confusing for many. But I don’t see these codes as competing. I see them all working in conjunction.

Under a collective approach, with a broad Code, SPJ could carry the torch on behalf of journalism and media credibility. Our partners would provide the detailed guidance so critical to a journalist’s work.

SPJ would educate future journalists and the public. We would call out the ethically challenged. In essence, SPJ would use the Code to begin the long process of restoring America’s faith in the press.

It’s a lofty goal. Perhaps unattainable in my lifetime. But if we want to be better tomorrow than we are today, SPJ needs a broad Code in its arsenal. And it must put that Code into action.

Joe Skeel is Executive Director for the Society of Professional Journalists. His opinion does not represent that of the Ethics Committee or those working on the current Code revision. Email him or interact on Twitter: @jskeel. 

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