Unveiling a New Code

We have a final ethics code to present to the membership.

 After a day of discussions, revisions and philosophizing, 10 hours in all, the Ethics Committee for the Society of Professional Journalists proudly finished its work on a code we believe should replace the 18-year-old document that has been serving the Society.

 Allow me this time to offer my personal thoughts before I get into the nuts and bolts of this proposed code in a later blog.

 I’d like to think I know my way around ethics codes. I’ve been on this committee for 23 years. I was there when we wrote the current SPJ code and I’ve been helping steer the rudder on this revision process since last convention. I’ve been outspoken about ethics those 23 years, and most of my presentations used SPJ’s code as the backbone. I’ve utilized this code in every college journalism ethics course I’ve taught over the last 13 years.  I hand delivered copies recently while in Sierra Leone helping journalists there work on an ethics code.

 Over that time I’ve come to see the growing flaws in the document. I never fell out of love with the code; its formative presence has traversed the globe, translated into 16 languages. It’s the structure of many more codes hanging in newsrooms all over the world.

 Even though I helped write it, I wouldn’t allow myself to fall in love with the words. Times change, words and phrases take on different meanings or fail to carry the intended message. Journalism has changed dramatically in 18 years. Ethics, not so much, but the way we want to address ethical issues needs to be reviewed from time to time or we grow irrelevant to newer generations.

This new code is one that SPJ can be proud of. I wouldn’t tell you this if I didn’t believe for a moment that this committee hadn’t crafted a document that better articulates the ethical concerns of today’s journalism and does so with a firm foundation for our unwavering principles of truth, fairness, compassion, independence, accountability, and now, transparency.

 The first draft of the code produced in the spring was a better code than the current version. The second draft even better as we wrestled with more contemporary issues. This final draft even elevates that work.

 Having 13 of the 16 committee members on hand over the weekend in Columbus, Ohio to hammer out the final product was invaluable. After months of discussion and revisions using an Internet-based forum, we knew that nothing was going to replace the face-to-face interaction between people in such a serious debate. And we were right.

Though painstakingly slow and methodical at times, inching though the code, line by line, it was the perfect way to create an energetic atmosphere in which to work.

As soon-to-be-president-elect Paul Fletcher said Saturday night, “There were no shrinking violets in the room and everyone made their voices heard.” Exactly the way it should be.

And, your voices were heard. We pooled the more than 300 comments from the online survey and personal correspondences and factored those in. We read some directly into the record and changed the code for those whose ideas and language made for the best phrasing.

In the end, the code is slight more than 40 words longer than the current version, much to Fred Brown’s chagrin. But, I think he’s pleased with the end result.

Dr. Stephen Ward, who has assisted about half a dozen groups in writing codes, offered this take.

“For the code you have chosen to write, one that is not medium specific, but tries to speak to all of journalism, I don’t think you can write a better code,” he said.

 My final words to the committee are ones I also want to share with you.

“Everyone who leaves here this weekend should be very proud of what we have accomplished as a group and what you’ve contributed personally to the success of this long effort. This code may not read the way everyone likes or wants, but what we have is a much better code than the current version and this one will serve us very well moving forward. The Society is better for the work we have done, and that is what really matters.”

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