Posts Tagged ‘SPJ Code of Ethics’

Lessons From Flynn’s Downfall

President Barack Obama departs the White House briefing room after a statement, Oct. 16, 2013. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

Pundits and some journalists called for a reinvention of the press after Donald Trump won the White House in November, but Michael Flynn’s resignation on Monday and additional stories published Tuesday show the United States benefits most when journalists rededicate themselves to their profession’s timeless standards.

Michael Flynn resigned Monday as President Donald Trump’s national security adviser after news stories suggested he misled administration officials about his conversations with a Russian diplomat. While people disagree about whether Flynn’s actions warranted his resignation, few can argue that comprehensive news reports didn’t led to his downfall.

Journalists, media critics and the public should allow Flynn’s short and turbulent stint in the Trump administration to serve as a reminder of some basic truths about the press.

1.) The press is still powerful.

The press is sometimes painted as irrelevant in a time when people get information directly from the internet, but journalists still play powerful roles in amplifying certain stories and guiding people through a sea of lies. News organizations and individual journalists perform their timeless roles as curators of the national conversation – whether people want to admit it or not.

2.) Traditional and ethical journalism still works.

The major revelations about the Trump administration come from journalists following their profession’s abiding principles – as outlined by the Society of Professional JournalistsCode of Ethics. Truthful, responsible and thorough news reports remain the most effective pathway to deliver information to the public. New forms of storytelling may pop up from time to time, but they do best when the underlying principles of journalism remain unchanged.

3.) The press is doing its job – not waging war.

“I have a running war with the media,” said Trump at a January 21 visit to the Central Intelligence Agency. The president’s disdain for the press is repeated often on his Twitter accounts and by people within his administration. Despite their perspective, the press is not at war with the White House. Reporting the truth, correcting inaccurate statements and lies, following the money and holding powerful people accountable are the basic missions of journalism. No presidential administration is supposed to be fans of the press. Perhaps the Trump administration feels like the press is the “opposition party,” because they are now on the receiving end of scrutiny.

4.) The press can tell people what is going on, but it can’t tell them what to do.

Journalists report information people should know about their world. Sometimes the information is about government officials. Other times it’s about faulty consumer products. Journalists can’t force officials to resign and can’t make people change their behaviors, but the hope is people receiving accurate information will use it to make good decisions. For example, people may call their representatives in Congress if they don’t like something happening in the government. Or, people may not buy certain products known to be dangerous.

5.) The press makes mistakes from time to time.

Journalists – like all humans – make mistakes. The profession’s standards aim to reduce mistakes and irresponsible behaviors, but they’re bound to occur from time to time. The goals are for mistakes to be quickly corrected and people behaving irresponsibly to be held accountable for their actions. If the press is going to fulfill its mission of holding powerful people’s feet to the fire, it must also hold itself accountable.

6.) The press will never be wholly non-partisan.

“The press” is an inexact term. Some people may use the term to describe non-partisan news organizations like The New York Times or NPR. Other people may include partisan media organizations like Breitbart and ThinkProgress. While non-partisan news organizations largely focused on whether Flynn lied about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., right-leaning media organizations largely focused on the government leaks that informed news reports about those conversations. The partisan press often does not adhere to most of journalism’s best practices, but those organizations are still entitled to the protection offered by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

7.) The press is here to stay.

History is littered with premature obituaries for the press. Journalists and news organization operate and fulfill their missions despite troubles adapting to new technology, less centralized information pathways and shakier financial foundations. These barriers – along with hostile presidential administrations – existed before and they will pop up again. The press survived those past challenges and it will survive to overcome those barriers in the future.

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

New Code of Ethics draft available

Not long after comments from the first revision began pouring in, the group working to revise SPJ’s Ethics Code attacked Round 2.

That draft is now available here, and we hope you will take time to provide input before July 9. This will give the group a few days to evaluate those comments before it meets July 12 in Columbus, Ohio. On that day, it will hammer out what I would define as the first fully-vetted draft of the updated Code.

If you can’t provide input before the meeting, join us at on July 12. We will be live streaming the meeting, and I’ll be hosting a daylong Twitter chat (#spjethics) while the process unfolds. This will, in part, allow the group to consider real-time input from around the globe.

Moving forward, the draft that comes out of that meeting will be shared with members, the larger journalism community, the SPJ Board of Directors and, eventually, SPJ’s voting delegates during EIJ14 in Nashville. Before the delegates receive the draft, however, members will have the opportunity to cast an advisory vote during SPJ’s annual elections. The board will also make a recommendation to the delegates. Armed with board and member input, the delegates (which are the supreme legislative body of SPJ) will make the decision to accept the latest version, or send it back to the drawing board.

It’s entirely possible SPJ could have an updated Code of Ethics before October. It’s also entirely possible this process could continue for another year. Case in point, it took two years to adopt the current code.

But, back to the current draft:

Similar to version 1.0, subcommittees tackled each of the Code’s four sections: Seek Truth, Minimize Harm, Act Independently, Be Accountable.

Ethics Committee Chairman Kevin Smith opened discussion of Round 2 with the idea of moving away from the four guiding principles. Although the group felt the current structure of the Code remains important and relevant, the latest version does contain an updated principle: Be Accountable and Transparent.

In order to gain fresh perspectives on each section, Smith reassigned the subcommittees, and tasked them with sections different from what they worked on during the initial draft. Furthermore, he appointed different people within the group to lead each subcommittee. Smith, meanwhile, refrained from participating on any subcommittee – freeing himself to oversee the process and jump in as a reserve if needed.

The assignments for the latest revision were:

Seek Truth
Chris Robert, chairman
Fred Brown
Lauren Bartlett
Kelly McBride

Minimize Harm
Hagit Limor, chairwoman
Elizabeth Donald
Lynn Walsh
Irwin Gratz

Be Independent
Monica Guzman, chairwoman
Stephen Ward
Jim Pumarlo
Andrew Seaman

Be Accountable
Mike Farrell, chairman
Carole Feldman
Paul Fletcher
Jan Leach

On Monday, the subcommittees submitted their work. Smith compiled that into one document – the latest revision.

Since August 2013, SPJ has conducted a session at its national convention and sessions at several regional conferences around the country. It has accepted comments online (which actually started prior to Aug. 2013), and engaged the larger community via Twitter chats and other social media engagement. Many chapters have conducted their own programs, and passed along their findings.

This has resulted in hundreds of comments, which have been considered by the group to formulate the latest version. So, please keep those comments coming. We aren’t at the finish line yet.

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. 

In Herman Cain story, being flip about journalism ethics is not an appropriate response


By Kevin Z. Smith

When presidential candidate Herman Cain decided to challenge the press coverage of the sexual harassment charges surrounding his campaign, he reached for an interesting source of support: the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.

Last week his camp handed out copies to members of the media and mailed copies to the Los Angeles Times among others. He asked the press corps to evaluate how the Politico/Washington Post coverage violated specific tenets of the code. He also took his fight to the airwaves, touting the code on Fox News. Never mind that he blundered on the name and called it the “Journalists’ Code of Conduct.”

Our initial assessment of his claims are articulated in a previous post by Ethics Committee member Irwin Gratz. While we haven’t seen anything that would suggest that the reporting violated ethical standards, there is never a bad time to raise ethical questions. Journalists have standards of professional conduct and often put themselves through the steps of evaluating their behavior and work before it reaches the public sphere. That is precisely what sound ethical decision making is about. Questioning those decisions is fair and legitimate, generally because it creates healthy debate that is usually beneficial to our profession.

What has transpired from some people, however, has been something of a panning of Cain’s efforts, not just because he dared to challenge the press’ handling of the reports, but because he suggested that journalists need to follow “codes of conduct.” Silly, right?

On Monday the defense of the media started, and what’s transpired has proved to be more problematic for the fight for journalistic ethics than anything Cain alleged.

Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus went after Cain, defending the paper but admitting she wasn’t familiar with the SPJ Code of Ethics. She wrote: “I suffer from the instinctive journalistic aversion to official codes of conduct.” Meaning that most journalists avoid such tripe, contrived codes in favor of what, flipping a coin to make an ethical decision? Consulting the Magic 8 ball on her desk?

Later Monday, MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell showed her relative lack of ethical knowledge by snarking to Politico reporter Jonathan Martin, the reporter who broke the original story, “I assume you’ve read the journalistic code of conduct, whatever that is.” His response was equally flippant: “I have my copy well thumbed.”

This dismissive attitude only bothers me in that these people have presumably elevated their journalistic game to the level that they’ve landed employment with major national media outlets and have secured a visibility and reputation for being among the elite press corps in this country.

Well, not with knowledge of ethical standards, it appears.

First, to suggest that most journalists have an instinctive aversion to codes of ethics is wrong. In fact, it’s the minority, as in any profession, who seems to be devoid of knowledge about ethical standards. Second, to treat this code as if you’ve just come across a treasure map and have reservations about its validity shows more of a lack of comprehension on your part than it says about the legitimacy of the document.

The irony to all this, of course, is that every day some journalist or citizen visits the SPJ website and reviews our code. Aside from the home page, the Code of Ethics is the most visited page on our website. And, judging by the number of times “SPJ” and “code of ethics” appear in Google searches, it’s been well noted that our code is cited more than 300 times a year in making arguments for better ethical behavior.

That people like Martin, Mitchell and Marcus haven’t heard of the code shouldn’t be a badge of honor. That they scoff at the notion of a code of conduct should be an indictment about their work, not that of the Society’s for upholding ethical standards for so long. And, it’s likely that the Post, MSNBC and Politico have internal codes of ethics that guide their journalists’ work. Are they unaware of those as well?

Our code has been translated into 16 different languages and has long been the gold standard for ethical conduct in the profession. It has been copied, emulated and revised by news organizations for internal use here in the U.S. and around the world.

This summer a copy of SPJ’s new ethics book and the code made its way into the hands of British Prime Minister David Cameron. Cameron is creating a committee to evaluate the ethical standards of the British press after the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. The code could play a helpful role in establishing or reaffirming standards in that country.

And, the same day Mitchell and company were joking about this code, I received an email from a Knight International Journalism Fellow who is going to Haiti to work with journalists. She asked if SPJ could give her a copy of its new ethics book and some codes of ethics. I’m mailing those to her this week. That very shortly Haitian journalists will learn professional ethics using our code while certain Washington press members sit back and joke about it shouldn’t be lost on the thousands of journalists who have it posted in their newsrooms, or the thousands of college students who are taught professional ethics with the code as the backdrop.

Cain’s allegations aside, the last thing the press in this country needs are self-inflicted wounds over ethical standards.

Kevin Z. Smith is a past SPJ national president and current chairman of the Ethics Committee

Is it time to update the SPJ Code of Ethics?

It’s not a new conversation. But with the spring comes renewed interest in examining the SPJ Code of Ethics and its usefulness in addressing the many facets of contemporary journalism.

The March/April issue of Quill addresses the question in a cover story. There are two perspectives:

– Yes, says Steve Buttry, a longtime editor and digital news evangelist. By his account, 21st century journalism requires a 21st century code.

– On the other hand, past SPJ president Irwin Gratz says the Code, as adopted in 1996, is inclusive and flexible. It’s structured to address the many considerations journalists and outlets make daily – considerations that were present in 1996 and remain present today.

But those aren’t the only perspectives. What do you think? The SPJ Ethics Committee wants to know. Tell committee members what you think. Comment below and/or submit a letter to the editor. If emailing a letter, please include a phone number for verification.

Let the reasonable discourse begin!

– Scott Leadingham

When the good guys take center stage

It’s not often we give credit to journalists who do the right thing when it comes to ethics. That’s too bad.

Most of the 18 years I’ve spent on SPJ’s Ethics Committee has been used admonishing journalists when their professional conduct falls short. Every day I get Google Alerts on my cell phone telling me when SPJ’s name is used. Many times it occurs when ethics are involved. SPJ isn’t the only one chiding media types for their ethical lapses. According to these Google Alerts, about three times a day someone is citing our ethics code and taking someone to task.

Just for the record, those of us at SPJ would rather see proactive discussions using our ethics code instead of using it as a tool for punishment. Talk ethics all the time and the code becomes a living organism and not a bludgeoning device.

So, in my book, when there’s an opportunity to say congratulations for standing up and doing the right thing, we need to hear that as well.

Two cases to mention.

The first involves the leaders of an Alaskan TV station who took a bold step to suspend their newscasts for an evening so they could gather staff  to talk ethics. Here’s the Associated Press’ account:

A TV station took the unusual step of canceling its evening
newscasts Wednesday so the staff could discuss ethics after the flap
over a voicemail two producers accidentally left for a GOP Senate
candidate’s spokesman.

The Oct. 28 recorded message by the KTVA producers involved possible
scenarios for covering a rally for Republican Joe Miller, who had
been endorsed by Sarah Palin.

Miller’s camp says producers were discussing making up stories about
the candidate. Palin said the recording showed media bias.

Station general manager Jerry Bever wrote on the KTVA website that
Wednesday’s 5 and 6 p.m. broadcasts were canceled for the internal

The station instead aired reruns of “The New Adventures of Old
Christine,” the Anchorage Daily News reported Thursday.

The two producers involved in the recording are no longer with the
station, a CBS affiliate.

“Events over the last week and a half have been challenging for our
station,” Bever wrote. “As the result of a conversation within our
newsroom that was accidentally recorded and released to the public,
our newsroom credibility has been called into question, and the
public’s trust in us has been tested.

“Our job as journalists carry a far greater responsibility than that
of media personalities and pundits,” Bever wrote. “We have been
given the public’s trust … now we must keep it.”

Let me say this is a bold initiative. It’s one thing to bring staff together and talk, but to make a statement that says “we’re not doing another newscast, showing our faces on the air until we make sure our ethics house is in order” takes courage and commitment. Nice job.

The second incident involves an online publication, North by Northwestern, at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

A story published online featured a student’s comments about finances and college life that resulted in a harsh backlash from other students who logged onto the site and commented. The student took a beating. So the story was taken off the site.

Here’s what editor Nick Castele said about his decision to remove the story from publication:

Now, North by Northwestern cannot hold itself responsible for every reaction of every reader. Readers must be responsible for themselves. In an Internet environment where anyone may attack others while remaining anonymous, readers must consider their own responsibility to the Web community.

But we do hold ourselves responsible for minimizing the harm caused in the process of making public the lives of real people. The Society of Professional Journalists, in its Code of Ethics, calls for media to uphold that responsibility.

That is why I removed the story from the Web when I became aware of the attacks. Until I could better assess the reporting and effect of the story, I wanted to minimize what seemed to be undue personal harm to one of our sources.

After carefully reviewing the reporting process and verifying it was done in accordance with the best reporting practices, Castele decided the story should be reposted but wanted to stick to his conviction of minimizing harm.

Consider this line from the SPJ Code of Ethics: “Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention.”

Only one source quoted in this story is a public official within the Northwestern community. All others are private students. The story is not really about them as individuals. They appear in the story to give voice to the very different financial backgrounds and experiences found among students at this university. This piece is not about four students. It’s about all of us.

I have therefore decided to republish the story with sources’ names withheld. None of the sources requested anonymity — and, upon the story’s initial publication, it was not the reporter’s or the editors’ responsibility to conceal identities.

But it seems important to consider the degree of personal harm one of our sources experienced as a result of publication. I believe that granting anonymity is an appropriate step toward minimizing that harm.

This is another bold move by a journalist, fairly unprecedented in my time in the field, but certainly a decision that seems to come with a lot of careful deliberation. And, in the end, that’s what we want from ethics — sound moral decisions though deliberation allowing all perspectives that are ultimately defendable.

In both cases these bold moves, albeit unorthodox, showed initiative, courage, conviction and resulted in defendable decisions.

And,  for that they deserve our admiration.

Kevin Z. Smith is the chairman of SPJ’s Ethics Committee and the immediate past president of the Society.

The Code and Juan Williams

The firing of NPR’s Juan Williams last week for his remarks about Muslims and the connection of his dismissal to SPJ’s Code of Ethics isn’t really a case that establishes precedence.

The fact that NPR executive Vivian Schiller said his behavior violated SPJ’s Code of Ethics and NPR’s code wasn’t surprising to me since our framework for professional ethical standards has long been considered the gold standard for the industry, here and abroad.

According to The New York Times, Schilller said: “We terminated his contract because of our news ethics guidelines. The guidelines are based on the same news ethics guidelines of the Society of Professional Journalists, and are very similar to that of The New York Times and many other news organizations.”

SPJ has known since its code revision in 1996 that the code would be weaved into the fabric of many newsroom policy manuals. Just last year, according to my Google Alert, our ethics code was repeated in part or wholly more than 3,500 times. People are not only reading the code, but also applying its principles on a gratifyingly regular basis.

The appropriate section of the code as it applies to William’s comment can be found under the heading Seek Truth and Report It: “Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.”

In Williams’ case his remarks … “I mean, look, Bill (O’Reilly) I’m not a bigot. You know the kind of books I’ve written about the Civil Rights movement in this country. But when I get on the plane, I got to tell you, if I see people who are in Muslim garb and I think, you know, they are identifying themselves first and foremost as Muslims, I get worried. I get nervous.” suggest he not only stereotyped based on religion but on physical appearance.

I received an e-mail Monday morning following the incident from a woman whose son lives in Spain. A terrorist attack there was thwarted when Muslims reported suspicious activity by men hauling materials in and out of an apartment. She went on to say Muslims reporting against Muslims is common because most who embrace the religion realize that violence is not a component of their beliefs.

Then I found her next suggestion very provocative. Instead of punishing Williams for his insensitive remarks, someone needs to educate him, she said. You can’t stereotype people.

“But fanatics on both sides would rather not acknowledge this. Sarah Palin, Bin Laden, Glenn Beck and Al Qaeda all share one core belief — that every Muslim is a potential suicide bomber. Spreading this belief helps both camps keep up with recruitment needs, amassing their private armies of frightened sheep. The rest of us know better. The rest of us know that the world is full of good and bad people of all shapes, sizes, and religions. Juan Williams forgot this fact, but in a world where the bleating grows louder every day, you can hardly blame him.”

[Clarification: The above paragraph is from the previously referenced e-mailer, not the opinion of Kevin Smith or SPJ]

Let’s hope Williams’ lesson proves beneficial to journalists who provide news coverage and analysis on topics like this. Williams isn’t the first to violate ethical standards, nor will he be the last. The assurance to the American public is that there are ethical standards in journalism and people can be held to them. All of this creates a more reliable and responsible press.

Kevin Smith is chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee and immediate past national president.

Code before crisis

There’s no need to wait for a crisis to follow a code of ethics.

And how do we define crisis? Here’s one way, courtesy of Bernstein Crisis Management.

What’s the connection? This post by Jonathan Bernstein, the president of Bernstein Crisis Management, at the Huffington Post.

He talks about why journalists should use the SPJ Code of Ethics and suggests how someone can counteract unethical actions of journalists.

Paying for information

In today’s changing information market, it’s sometimes difficult to tell what is news and what is entertainment.

With the recent, rapid changes in gathering and reporting information, the mainstream news media no longer are the exclusive sources of “news.” The public gets its information from many sources: cable and network television, newspapers and magazine, blogs, web sites on home and laptop computers, and on a multitude of hand-held devices. Information is everywhere.

The mixture is such that the lines between news/information and entertainment are sometimes blurred. In the confusion that this blurring has caused, the ethical issue of “checkbook journalism” has stirred complaints and excuse

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics and mainstream news media say news should not be purchased. However, entertainment media frequently pay for exclusive interviews and stories. Sometimes such payment is called a “licensing fee.”

Cable and network television present many “shows” that may be news and may be entertainment. Note that TV calls such programs “shows”:  the Rick Sanchez Show, the Dylan Ratigan Show, the Sean Hannity Show, the Today show, Good Morning America, etc. They are called shows, but they also are sources of news/information.

If, for example, the Today show pays a “licensing fee” for an exclusive interview with a person in the news, is that checkbook journalism or merely a standard practice in the entertainment business of “licensing” an exclusive television presentation?

Does paying for an interview or story diminish its credibility?

When is information news and when is it entertainment?

Here’s a brief quiz involving a hypothetical news/information situation:
A woman is lost for several days in a wilderness and is rescued by a search party in a helicopter. Which of the following different situations would you say are not ethical and why?
• A freelance journalist is at the scene when the rescued woman steps from the helicopter. An area newspaper buys her exclusive story and pictures.
• Several area news media buy the freelance journalist’s story and pictures.
• The freelance journalist invites the rescued woman to stay with her while waiting for family to arrive. In her home, the journalist interviews the woman and an area TV station buys the video.
• An area newspaper pays a freelance journalist to report on and take pictures at a press conference by the rescued woman.
• An area television station buys an exclusive story and video from a member of the rescue crew.
• An area television station pays for travel and accommodations for the rescued woman to appear in an exclusive interview on its morning talk show.
• A national magazine buys a story written by the rescued woman.
• A national network TV show flies the woman to New York for an exclusive appearance on its morning show. It pays all the woman’s expenses – hotel, meals, etc. It also broadcasts excerpts from the interview on its network newscasts.
• A national book publisher buys exclusive rights to the rescued woman’s story.
• A major studio buys movie rights to the rescued woman’s story.
• A national newspaper offers to pay the rescued woman for an exclusive interview.
• A national supermarket publication bids for and wins exclusive rights to the rescued woman’s story.

All the above involve some type of financial transaction. Are there ethical differences, and if so, what are they? What would you do in each of the above situations? Ask your friends – what they would do? And remember, ethics does not always result in black or white solutions.

Paul R. LaRocque, Ethics Committee member

Photo manipulation is a big deal

Outside magazine’s July issue is the latest example of using digitally altered photography to distort reality and to mislead readers. The cover shows Lance Armstrong, who is 38, wearing a T-shirt that says, “38. BFD.”

The point the magazine apparently is attempting to convey is that Armstrong, winner of seven consecutive Tours de France and a survivor of testicular cancer, is unconcerned about his age. “BFD” is a vernacular acronym meaning “big fucking deal.”

The problem is, Armstrong’s T-shirt did not say that; it was digitally added later, without his knowledge.

The magazine defended its use of digital manipulation as creative license, and pointed out that it carried a disclaimer that says: “Note: Not Armstrong’s real T-shirt.” But the disclaimer is in such small type that it is unreadable in the online version.

The magazine acknowledged the controversy in a statement that says, “We wanted to create a provocative image and make a bold statement about the fact that, because of Armstrong’s age, many cycling fans are skeptical of his chances in this year’s Tour de France.”

But it did not acknowledge that digital manipulation is wrong or apologize to Armstrong or to its readers.

Armstrong rightfully reacted with fury against Outside. He sent a Twitter message saying, “Just saw the cover of the new Outside mag w/ yours truly on it. Nice photoshop on a plain t-shirt guys. That’s some lame bullshit.”

The “message” on the T-shirt would make a legitimate teaser for the story if it had not been emblazoned on the shirt, creating the erroneous impression that it was Armstrong himself who was conveying the idea that he is unconcerned about his age.

The SPJ Code of Ethics says journalists should:
• Make certain that headlines, news teases, promotional material, photos, videos, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.
• Never distort the content of news photos or video. Image enhancement for technical clarity is always permissible. Label montages and photo illustrations.

Outside skirts the spirit if not the letter of the Code of Ethics with its virtually unreadable disclaimer. This altered photo clearly does misrepresent and highlights something out of context.

The SPJ Ethics Committee has dealt with several recent cases of digital manipulation of images. Just because something is now technically feasible to do does not make it journalistically ethical.

An earlier version of this post incorrectly said it was the June issue instead of the July issue


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