GUEST POST: SPJ’s San Bernardino statement still doesn’t state much

While I am typically the only person who posts to this blog, I’m always happy to entertain guest posts and analyses. In this case, SPJ D.C. Pro Board Member Gideon Grudo took issue with the Society’s response to journalists’ behavior following this month’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. After his initial post on the Region 2 blog, I offered him an opportunity to share his thoughts here. – Andrew M. Seaman, SPJ’s ethics chair


By Gideon Grudo

Before anything else: Andrew Seaman has graciously let me use this ethics blog to post a critique of this ethics blog (in so many words, anyway—you’ll see). That’s awesome and so is he.

Twelve days after the San Bernardino apartment crawl on MSNBC, this is still all SPJ has said about it

Journalists should feel free to investigate stories when and where possible. They need to minimize harm in their reporting, however. Walking into a building and live broadcasting the pictures, addresses and other identifying information of children or other people who may have no involvement in the story does not represent best and ethical practices.

…kinda. That’s not even SPJ’s statement (if you want to call it that). It’s SPJ’s ethics chair’s statement. His name is Andrew Seaman. In an email, Seaman told me that—before his time—“SPJ started using blogs and other types of statements to respond to things like San Bernardino.”

“In this case, it’s a Friday afternoon when a lot of people were out of contact. I can’t summon the SPJ board, but I can use my voice as its ethics chair. So, I do not speak for the entire organization, but I can express my opinion,” he wrote me in a later email. “So, as the headline says: Statement from SPJ Ethics chair…”

Okay. But does the public know all this? Cutting red tape is always a good idea. Who really cares whether SPJ the institution speaks out or someone SPJ’s president chose to chair its ethics committee speaks out?

However, no one knows the difference if we’re not clear about it. It’s confusing, too.

Last Tuesday, when Seaman (who’s a volunteer putting lots of hours into this, by the by) released his analysis of the apartment crawl broadcast, a former Florida chapter president asked me on Facebook if I was “appeased.”

Nope, I replied. Why? Because an analysis isn’t a statement (or a follow up to a statement, or anything related to a statement), and an ethics blog isn’t a place where SPJ says whatever official thing it needs to say.

That is, unless it says so in big bold letters, like this: HOLLER: THIS BLOG IS HOW WE SAY WHATEVER OFFICIAL THING WE NEED TO SAY. SIGNED, SPJ. Or something like that.

So what do I want? I’m not looking for some San Bernardino coverage justice. That’s just an example I’ve almost definitely overused at this point. I’m more focused on the next instance, which will inevitably and unfortunately come knocking: I want us to say what we mean.

Maybe we don’t want to say anything, in which case we shouldn’t issue pseudo-statements.

How do we issue statements about which we may know little but also about which the public is curious and confused? Easy, we (a chair or a regional director or whoever we trust) tell the truth in three simple steps:

  1. This is what we know (journalism is good/journalism is bad)
    1. MSNBC done effed up
  2. This is what we don’t know
    1. Other outlets may have been involved
  3. This is what we’re going to do about it (an analysis, an angry letter, a sit-in, a peaceful protest, a boycott, maybe nothing)
    1. We’re going to analyze the s$%^ out of this and tell you all about it in the coming days so you’re more aware.

Seaman’s analysis is great at telling us that what happened was ethical or unethical. It doesn’t tell us what should be done about it.

Well, except this:

The best advice would be for the offenders to implement new editorial strategies to prevent these kinds of mistakes in the future, but I can only write that advice so many times. Instead, it’s imperative that other journalists call out unethical journalism whenever and wherever possible.

Nice. Whenever possible is now. Wherever possible is here.

 

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