Posts Tagged ‘Ethics Week’


Why a Code of Ethics is Important

No one can split a hair like a journalist. You can fill an entire after-work happy hour with debates about the proper use of the verb “claimed” and whether a suspect should be a subject or a person of interest.

We are, after all, the profession that will go to war over the Oxford comma and whether or not “internet” should be capitalized.

As journalists, we spend a lot of time interpreting the Society of Professional Journalists‘ Code of Ethics for particular situations and debating the fine points of the Code as it applies to our work. That is an important discussion, one to which the Ethics Committee is dedicated and that will help shape and inform our work to come.

The changes in our profession have created new realms of ethical controversy, from the appropriate and compassionate treatment of subjects online to managing comment sections to the ethical use of social media for reporting and investigation to the questions of unpublishing, original source documents, and the wild world of online news video.

Still there is a common belief that journalism ethics should simply be innate, that if you’ve been a reporter or editor for a certain amount of time, you should be aware of the ethical constraints of our profession and follow the rules, whether or not they’re written down.

But the problem we find is that the real ethical quandaries are not the big yes-or-no questions that comprise the “duh” section of Journalism 101. They come in those little gray areas, the moments when the rush to get the news online fast washes away the perspective of ethical journalism.

This is why a code written down on paper is important. We must have clear boundaries to help us guide our decisions on deadline, a list of rules of the road to give us a framework for those decisions – and sometimes, to provide reporters with some cover when the editor is out of the office.

But I’d like to add another consideration: Ethics codes are not just for journalists.

Creating and following an ethics code is vitally important for our work, but almost as important is the public’s trust in us. As we all know, that trust has eroded greatly, whether deserved or undeserved. I know that I have grown weary of arguing against the latest idiotic meme alleging that we are all part of some vast corporate conspiracy and cover the news based on dictates from anonymous masters who are in the pocket of one party or another.

The problem is: people believe the memes more than they believe us.

And I feel we are partly to blame for that. Not because they are correct, but because we do a terrible job of publicizing the structures and ethical guidelines of our profession. So much of the news-reading population has no idea that ethics codes even exist or are adhered to by any newsrooms.

By writing our ethics codes down on paper, using them, revising them, and sharing them as much as possible, we educate the public about the work that we do. It provides the same transparency that we demand of our public officials, that the “how” and “why” of a story is as important as the story itself.

We must stop assuming that the readers know how a newsroom works, that they understand the strictures of the profession. They don’t know unless we tell them. They don’t trust us anymore, and we need to show them, by word and example, that they can.

And that means our Code of Ethics cannot stay stagnant. Our understanding of ethical values might not change over the years, but the practical application of those values can and will change as the world changes. Any code is only as good as the people locked in a room to write it, and the people who continue to interpret it and share it with colleagues and the public.

That means we aren’t done, and the conversation will have to continue – with or without happy hour. That conversation needs to be public, so that the readers can see that this is important, that we care, that talking heads on TV are not the sole representatives of the news media.

There are a lot of us doing this job. We care about what we do. And we have a code.


Elizabeth Donald is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee.

The Ethics of Looking Away

President Barack Obama departs the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House after he delivers a statement on the federal government shutdown, Oct. 16, 2013. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

Pretend for a moment that a building inspector is assigned to inspect a building. He tells the facility’s management. The very helpful building manager escorts him into one room that has been carefully arranged beforehand. The manager stays with the inspector as he inspects that pre-arranged room. Then he escorts him out of the facility. They part on great terms and the inspector writes a report accurately describing what he has seen. But, as is customary, he says nothing about being blocked from seeing any other part of the facility or about the manager escorting him at every step.

What do you call that, other than astounding? Can it be anything but corruption? Doesn’t it go beyond being horribly dangerous to all but ensuring public harm?

But aren’t those controls parallel to what journalists do when they always or almost always go through public information officers or other management to get a comment or interview someone, whether at a government office, a business, nonprofit or other entity? And don’t those similarities hold true whether journalists do it voluntarily or involuntarily?

What about all those other “rooms” — or the people who are prohibited from talking or prohibited from talking without PIO oversight?  Don’t such controls almost guarantee the story will be skewed (or partially skewed) in the way management wishes? What would members of the public think if they understood how such journalistic “inspections” work?

And then, when the building later burns down due to faulty wiring –or, say, the Veterans’ Administration is found to have all kinds of problems–aren’t those highly controlled “inspections,” by an inspector or journalist, a basic and foreseeable part of the dysfunction?

Aren’t journalists arbitrarily waiving the public’s right to understand how government and other institutions are working?

The Society of Professional Journalists has taken an historic step over the last several years in leading other journalism groups in saying these controls through public information officers or others are wrong and dangerous.

It may be time to look closely at what working under these restrictions does to the ethics of journalism itself.

The SPJ Code of Ethics says journalists should, “Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work.” Reporting that’s accurate but misleading due to the controls of the powerful represents poor accuracy indeed.

The code also says, “Verify information before releasing it.”  Please take it from some veteran reporters: when staff people can’t talk without the oversight done for the bosses, some among them might very well be able to blow your story out of the water.

Indeed, the best guess is always that if you were able to talk to several people fluidly, without the controls, the story would be different and better.

The SPJ code says, “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.”  But the PIO controls are constructed of conflicts of interest. People in management who want to maintain a good image, their jobs and their agenda use the PIO controls to manage what the public is allowed to hear. Reporters are conflicted by the fact they can have their access cut off if they don’t submit to the controls or they otherwise do or write the wrong thing.

How could people not perceive conflict of interest, if we told them about the controls? Actually, the process would look to many people like public relations being sold as journalism.

For the journalists’ who don’t want to fight these intense restrictions, the reasons generally come in two categories. The first is, “We can’t do anything about them.”

One thing to consider there is that we can’t do anything about them probably because journalists keep saying we can’t do anything about them.

But more basically: what kind of journalistic ethics is that? Massive systems are constructed to control what the public hears—a hazard to the public, one might say—and journalists decide it’s best not to talk about it?

The second reason journalists give for not fighting these controls is that “good” reporters get the story anyway.

Notice, first off, that it is just not happening very often. Many stories are initiated by the offices or agencies themselves and there is little more in the news coverage than what the officials say and (maybe) some outside opinion. How is it possible there is nothing happening other what the centers of power announce?

But also, how can journalists ethically assume they have the whole story when millions of people are specifically silenced?

Those many, many closed doors behind PIO controls are in government, schools, universities, police forces and elsewhere, across the culture, as we know from surveys sponsored by SPJ and done by Carolyn Carlson for Kennesaw State University.

They regularly conceal much education and perspective that journalists need. But given the vast numbers of those doors, some of them also hide some of the most astoundingly evil things in our society. Think, for instance, about the institutions that hid child abuse for years and, then, about the rules against school personnel talking to reporters.


Kathryn Foxhall is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Freedom of Information Committee.

A Day of Giving for Ethics Week!

SPJ’s Ethics Week takes over Times Square in New York City on Monday, April 24.

We need ethical journalism now more than ever. That is why the Society of Professional Journalists and the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation support programming that encourages truthful, compassionate, independent, transparent journalism.


The SDX Foundation and our donors have supported:

  • JournCamp and the Excellence in Journalism annual conference, have delivered practical training to more than 15,000 journalists. Ethical, credible journalism is a constant theme.
  • “Journalism Ethics,” the pre-eminent textbook exploring the theory and real world applications practicing ethical journalism. It’s now in its fourth edition.
  • Movie licenses for SPJ chapters to screen the film, “Spotlight,” and engage the public in a discussion of what makes for ethical journalism.
  • Efforts to extend traditional ethical guidelines to new technology. For instance, the Foundation supported this program, which showed journalists how to use drones ethically in their news coverage.

This is on top of funding for skills training, support for freedom-of-information issues and signature programs such as the Pulliam Editorial Fellowship, all of which seek to improve journalism and add to the democratic conversation.

But we can’t do it alone. SPJ and the SDX Foundation rely on donations from members and supporters. Today is Day of Giving. Show you are PROUD to be part of an organization that promotes ethical journalism. Make a contribution TODAY.

There are three ways to give:

  • Go to spj.org/426 and fill out our online form.
  • Call 317-920-4785
  • Text ENCOURAGE to 243-725 to donate to the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation.

No amount is too small. Please help us ensure that a vibrant, ethical press continues for generations to come. Contribute to SPJ Day of Giving now!


Robert Leger is the board president of the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation.

Broadway’s Latest Star: SPJ’s Code of Ethics

SPJ’s Ethics Week takes over Times Square in New York City on Monday, April 24.

After endorsing an ethical code for almost a century, SPJ’s Code of Ethics finally gets its time in the spotlight.


The Society of Professional Journalists works every day to improve and protect journalism through its advocacy and education efforts. A big part of that work centers on SPJ’s Code of Ethics, which outlines what the profession views as ethical and responsible journalism.

As the President of the United States continues to attack the press and people’s trust in the information it provides continues to wane, SPJ wanted to do something BIG to launch its annual Ethics Week, which runs from April 24 to 28.

Nothing is bigger than New York City’s Times Square. Also, no lights shine brighter than those along Broadway.

So, the SPJ Code of Ethics and its messages are being displayed this week on nearly 7,724 square feet of digital billboard space in Times Square in New York City. The billboards sit at the intersection of 43rd Street and Seventh Avenue and soar hundreds of feet into the air.

The images will periodically pop up on the billboards throughout Ethics Week. In addition to promoting the tenets of the SPJ Code of Ethics, the billboards promote the Ethics Week hashtag #PressForEthics.

The hashtag works on several levels. The press is encouraging and advocating the use of SPJ’s Code of Ethics. The press is standing by ethical journalism. Additionally, the hashtag encourages the public to call for responsible and ethical journalism.

One of the main goals of SPJ and its ethics committee is to bridge the gap between journalists and the public. The hashtag #PressForEthics creates an opportunity for people to engage with journalists, discuss issues and build relationships.

The billboards shining bright over Times Square is just the first big surprise for Ethics Week. Stay tuned to this blog and SPJ’s Twitter and Facebook accounts for more.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee.

Ethics Week: Drone Details

Flickr Creative Commons

Flickr Creative Commons

Using drones  to report the news has its advantages, but those advantages come with the added burden of some ethical issues specific to the unmanned aircrafts.

As of right now, the scope of newsgathering by drone – known as drone journalism or aerojournalism – is severely limited by the Federal Aviation Administration, which largely bans the commercial use of drones. The federal agency is expected to announce rules for commercial use later this year, however.

While journalists wait for the rules to be announced, it’s a good idea to start thinking about the potential uses and limitations of the technology while there is time to do so.

For example, just like any other form of journalism, journalists want to make sure they’re not unnecessarily violating people’s privacy with drones. The technology provides unprecedented access.

With a drone, one has the ability to fly over homes, see into backyards and possibly get views inside homes through windows. While TV cameras could get some footage like this, drones make it easier to obtain. As suggested by the Society’s Code of Ethics, just because journalists can obtain information doesn’t mean they should publish or broadcast that information.

Journalists can identify situations needing extra caution by asking themselves some questions:

  • Is the information newsworthy?
  • Is what you’re seeing from your drone what you could see from the sidewalk if you were just walking by?
  • Does the individual(s) you are capturing on video know you are there? Can they see you?
  • Do the people likely have an expectation of privacy in that location?

In addition to privacy concerns, journalists using drones should consider the public’s safety.

  • Is the drone interfering with an active police or fire response?
  • Is the drone’s use putting any members of the public in harms way? Is it distracting to drivers?
  • Is the drone in an area that may disrupt public utilities, like power lines?
  • Are weather conditions safe for the use of drones?

Since most professional journalists can’t use drones for newsgathering at this moment, they’ll likely first encounter footage from amateur drone operators. Like any piece of journalism submitted by a member of the public, journalists should approach with caution and be inquisitive about its origins.

For more information on the responsible use of drones in journalism, the Professional Society of Drone Journalism has some information on its website: http://www.dronejournalism.org/learn/


Lynn Walsh is president-elect for SPJ and also serves on the ethics and FOI committees. She works in San Diego for NBC 7 Investigates where she is the executive producer for the investigative unit. You can follow her on Twitter, @LWalsh.

Transparency, Civility and Respect in Ethical Debates

Photo courtesy Flickr Creative Commons (http://bit.ly/1GRn5wn)

Photo courtesy Flickr Creative Commons (http://bit.ly/1GRn5wn)

Journalists who joined the Society’s conversations about ethics last week noticed some interesting posts popping up on Twitter.


Many of the posts were links to articles about gaming, some were links to graphics and some posts were links to other Twitter posts.

The posts were from an online community known as GamerGate, which generally claims to be people interested in game culture concerned about ethics in journalism that covers the gaming industry. Others often point to the movement’s history and notoriety as a roving gang that engages in sexist, homophobic and threatening online attacks.

I – along with some other people in the Society’s leadership – decided to abandon the Twitter hashtag #SPJEthicsWeek, which we planned to use throughout the week, to minimize noise for people who wanted to engage in a broader conversation about journalism ethics.

I also urged people not to address the chorus of posts for the protection of the Society, its leaders and its members who would engage with each other over the Internet throughout the week. After all, the week’s theme was “minimize harm.” I did not want to take the risk of exposing anyone within the organization to harassment or threats. All other Ethics Week activities and engagements went on as planned.

This post is not meant to legitimize or endorse GamerGate, but I’d like to address the people who posted to the Twitter hashtag with engaging and lucid thoughts. I don’t want those people to think their contributions to our conversations about journalism ethics went unnoticed.

In fact,  some of those people were the most active and contributive during the Society’s two Twitter chats last week.

Abandoning the Twitter hashtag was simply the best course of action once the posts became sexist, homophobic, threatening, pornographic and – frankly – disgusting. I received some concerning messages, which were mostly deleted within a few hours. One person told me on Twitter, “man have you seen the giant mudslide of reckage[sic] we know as your (expletive) wake?”

As the chair of the Society’s ethics committee, I hate shutting out any people who want to have a discussion about journalism ethics. The point of the committee I lead is to teach people about the Society’s Code of Ethics.

Over the past year, I received several emails about the GamerGate movement. In fact, I’m quoted in a Nieman Reports story sparked by the movement about handling so-called “Twitter storms.”

Most of the emails I received dealt with getting permission to use the Society’s Code of Ethics to “score” gaming journalists on their ethics. In each case, I responded that it’s not possible to score a person’s ethics.

Some emails – and Twitter posts – called for gaming journalists to be fired. The Society is a professional organization that supports journalists and journalism. It does not have the power to fire journalists. Also, I do not comment on whether people should be fired.

Many of the emails – and Twitter posts – were also from anonymous accounts. In general, calls for transparency in journalism are not effective when they come from people who are anonymous.

This is not limited to GamerGate. I receive emails every now and then from people who – according to Google searches – do not exist. Sometimes I also receive emails from people who appear to misrepresent themselves. I’m very cautious and hesitant about responding to those emails.

People – journalists and non-journalists – who want to interact with others about the topic of journalism ethics should be transparent, courteous and civilized. One person should never harass, threaten or demean another.

Also, people in the U.S. are not forced to read, view or listen to stories from news organizations. If a person believes the information from a certain organization is inaccurate, they’re free to find other sources. People can support and encourage good and ethical journalism with subscriptions, views and listens – not harassment or threats.

The Society and its ethics committee will continue to work toward educating journalists about the Code of Ethics. We will also encourage its use. As is the tradition in U.S. journalism, I hope readers, viewers and listeners hold journalists to those standards, but through a transparent and civil dialogue.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee.

Ethics Week 2015: Like a surgeon

Photo Credit/Salim Fadhley

Photo Credit/Salim Fadhley

Like doctors, journalists often inflict some level of harm to serve the greater good.


A surgeon may slice through flesh to remove a diseased organ. A primary care doctor may prescribe medicine that causes side effects to control an even worse condition. Likewise, journalists may cause disruption in families, communities or countries to achieve their mission.

Throughout the past week, the Society of Professional Journalists asked its members and the public to think about the harm journalism may create. The focus of minimizing harm is not meant to convince journalists to shy away from important stories. Instead, it should serve as a reminder about the responsibility journalists hold.

When I first started presenting sessions or talks on the Society’s Code of Ethics, a question that was often asked is: How much harm is acceptable?

It’s a difficult question to answer, because acceptable levels of harm are relative and subjective.

In medicine, screenings or tests for diseases or conditions are not recommended until their benefits outweigh the risks. While it does not explicitly say it, the Society’s Code suggests a similar balancing act.

In the Code’s preamble, the Society states that its members “believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy.” Journalists support that by ensuring “the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough.”

Elsewhere in the Code, journalists are told that even reporting practices that some people would never consider – undercover and surreptitious information gathering methods – may be acceptable if the result is “information vital to the public.” Even then, those methods should be a last resort, the Code says.

Basically, is the harm created by a reporting practice or story outweighed by the usefulness of the information it yields or presents? It’s not a perfect answer, but it’s the best advice that can be offered for such a subjective question.

The balancing act between usefulness of information and harm is supported elsewhere in the Code, too.

For example, the Code says to “recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.” Also, “avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.”

I often tell people that the words legal and ethical are not synonyms. Just because a journalist is legally allowed to do something doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

Of course, even properly evaluating the benefits and harms of a reporting practice or story may leave some – and in some cases a significant – amount of harm. Journalists must live with the consequences of their work. Being a responsible and ethical journalist should provide some  comfort.

Ethics Week 2015: #ACESchat with David Cohn

SPJ_ETHICS_WEEKThe first Twitter chat of the Society’s Ethics Week happened Wednesday afternoon with Ethics Committee Member David Cohn, who is an executive producer at AJ+.

The American Society of Copy Editors hosted the discussion as part of its #ACESchat on Twitter.

Check out a Storify of the discussion, which focused on minimizing harm in digital editing, below:

Ethics Week 2015: Reporting from the Internet

Illustration Credit Sean MacEntee

Illustration Credit Sean MacEntee

In today’s journalism world, obtaining and sharing information can be instantaneous. 


Especially in breaking news situations we can find ourselves, as journalists, scrambling to collect, verify and publish the latest news we have.

In a lot of cases, this is when we turn to social media and the Internet. Whether you are looking at tweets, photos or posts online to use in your story, it’s important to carefully think about what and how you are publishing and producing this content.

Ethical issues pop up all the time when it comes to social media. Below are some points to consider if you’re going to use information or content from these sites.

Access. Asking yourself, what type of access you have to the information posted, is very important.

If you can only see the photo of John Doe because you are friends with him, is it OK to show that photo on TV in your story? I would argue it is not. But, if the same photo can be seen by anyone, so it was posted on his profile publicly, I would argue it is OK.

This is all about a person’s privacy and expectation of privacy. If the person posted it and made it so that only his friends can view it, is it ethical to share with the world because you have access as an insider or friend? I don’t think it is and wouldn’t do it unless I had permission from the individual or someone speaking on their behalf.

Self-verification. Just because someone claims to be Mary Sue online, doesn’t mean they are. Just because someone claims to be associated with a particular organization or individual online doesn’t make it true.

We have a responsibility as journalists to do our due diligence to verify the identity of the online profile and what is said on it. Use public records to help with this. Pick up the phone and call people or the organization to verify the association.

This goes for photos, posts and videos. Just because someone posted a photo or has it as their profile photo doesn’t mean it is them or even associated with them.

Always attribute. If you are pulling the information from someone’s Twitter feed or a Facebook post, say so in your story. Don’t just say an individual said this and leave out that it was said on social media.

Each social media site had its own lingo and culture. This can be important when telling your users John Doe did or said something. It also provides more insight for your audience into where and how you gathered the information.

Impact of sharing. This example always sticks with me. While at a social media seminar, the presenter (former SPJ Ethics Chair, Kevin Smith) showed a photo of car crash scene on the interstate.

A reporter had just arrived on scene, snapped a photo and posted it to Twitter. Great instant reporting.

Well, what the reporter probably didn’t think about was this: in the photo you could see the very badly damaged car and it looks like a really terrible accident. It was a powerful image for the story and really made you hope the people inside made it out alive. But, what you also saw was the vehicles license plate number.

That number identified the car, the owner and possibly family and friends. When you are just arriving on the scene of situations like this, family probably hasn’t been notified yet. How awful would it be for them to find out from your tweet?

Think about this as you share photos and videos. Try to remember to look at the whole photo before posting and consider things like license plates.

Context. If you are pulling information from social media you really have to give it complete context. If a post you are sharing from Twitter was from two years ago, mention that. I would go further to say, I think you should consider whether or not to use it at all.

Just because it was said at one point, doesn’t make it fair game in my eyes. Also, was it posted as part of a series of tweets or posts? Was it part of a response to someone else’s tweet? Was the photo taken at a theme party of some sort and that may be why the individual is dressed that way.

You really have to think about whether or not the information or photos make sense to use in the context of the story you are working on. You don’t want to misrepresent what you are presenting to the public.


This post is authored by Lynn Walsh, who is the Society’s secretary-treasurer and a member of it ethics committee. She also serves on the SPJ FOI and Generation J committees. She leads the investigative team at the NBC affiliate, KNSD Channel 7, in San Diego, California. Tweet to her, @LWalsh, or send her an email: Lynn.K.Walsh@gmail.com.

SPJ_ETHICS_WEEKThis is one of a series of posts for Ethics Week, which spans April 19-25. Click here to read more about the week and how you can celebrate. You can read the complete and new version of the SPJ Code of Ethics by clicking here.

Ethics Week 2015: Minimizing Harm

SPJ_ETHICS_WEEK

(This post was updated on April 27, 2015 at 11:10 a.m. EDT)

The Society’s Ethics Week is focusing on minimizing harm, which is a key tenet of the Code of Ethics.


The Society’s Code of Ethics is composed of four key tenets and almost three dozen underlying principles. While all four tenets are crucial to the Code, one tends to be at the heart of more Ethics Hotline queries than the others: Minimize Harm.

When the staff at the Society’s headquarters asked for an Ethics Week 2015 theme, it was obvious that “Minimize Harm” should be the highlight.

The Society’s social media will focus throughout the week on content that helps journalists minimize harm in their work. This blog will host guest posts on several days about the subject. The Code’s supporting documents will be introduced in the coming days. The Society will host Twitter chats related to the topic of harm, too.

We also hope that journalists and non-journalists will contribute to the conversation by interacting with the Society’s Twitter and Facebook accounts. As someone who often receives emails and calls about various journalism missteps, I know people have a lot to contribute to the discussion.

While the emphasis of the week is on minimizing harm, journalists should not simply shy away from sensitive or uncomfortable subjects to achieve that goal. Instead, they should be reminded after this week that all stories need to be responsibly executed.

As I often tell people when I speak, journalists are invited into people’s homes and personal lives throughout the day in print, digital and broadcast form. Journalists should not abuse that privilege. They should be like any other guest and be respectful of their hosts.

To get started, I’d like to invite you to read the latest Quill cover story by ethics committee co-vice chair Mónica Guzmán here: http://bit.ly/1EWGYjL. In the story, Monica tackles some of the emerging ethical issues journalists should watch for when reporting stories.

Also, check out the latest “From The President” by Dana Neuts, and my “Ethics Toolbox.”


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee. He is a journalist in New York City.

Connect

Twitter Facebook Google Plus RSS Instagram Pinterest Pinterest LinkedIn


© Society of Professional Journalists. All rights reserved. Legal

Society of Professional Journalists
Eugene S. Pulliam National Journalism Center, 3909 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, IN 46208
317/927-8000 | Fax: 317/920-4789 | Contact SPJ Headquarters | Employment Opportunities | Advertise with SPJ