Revise and resubmit: Code of Ethics update

Now that we are halfway through the SPJ year, with less than five months until the national convention in Nashville, it is important we take stock of the progress we’ve made on the Code of Ethics update, and where we need to go from here.

We have got a lot done, but we have a lot of work left to do. And some rejiggering of the process is necessary, as well.

Progress So Far

Last fall I asked the Ethics Committee, led by Kevin Smith, to initiate a process for updating the code of ethics. It’s been nearly 20 years since the last update and a lot has changed in journalism since then. I know Kevin to be extremely knowledgeable about the code, and he was involved with the previous revision. He, along with Fred Brown and many other capable people on the committee, know their stuff.

Kevin solicited eight others outside of the committee to help in the revision process, including Kelly McBride from the Poynter Institute and awesome social media pros, such as Monica Guzman and Lynn Walsh. The group divided into four teams and each team took a whack at a code section (Seek Truth and Report It; Minimize Harm; Act Independently; Be Accountable). Then they handed off their proposed changes to another group for further suggestions.

We really wanted to have something for journalists to chew on at the regional conferences, so I pushed Kevin to get a draft ready by March 26. He gathered the groups’ suggestions and put them together in a draft that we could discuss. It was a lot of fun talking through the proposed changes with members at the Region 11 conference.

Check out the draft online. The idea was to then gather feedback from everyone (members and non-members), work through a second draft, and have something for delegates to discuss at EIJ14 in September.

Confusion and Questions

Since the release of the draft I’ve heard a variety of comments. Some people have questioned specific changes in the draft. Steve Buttry, for example, has made some excellent points. That is great – the whole point of the process. We need to debate the merits of the various proposed changes. There was a good article in AJR about some of the debates over particulars in the code, and the difficulty in updating such an important document.

Others have expressed confusion about the process, that it hasn’t appeared transparent or inclusive, that it’s just a bunch of old print guys hashing through it in a smoky backroom, over Scotch. Some people said the presentations at regional conferences were not well-organized. Some have wanted more discussion in the journalism community as a whole. And no doubt there are other valid concerns I have not heard yet.

All good points. Clearly, we can’t simply update the code the way we did nearly 20 years ago. A lot has changed, and frankly, I should have anticipated that last fall. I should have assigned a staffer to work with the committee to build a strong website with a detailed explanation of the process, timeline and who is involved. I should have ensured this was communicated more widely throughout journalism, not just within SPJ. The committee, led by Kevin Smith, has done wonderful work, and has put a lot of thought into the revision. I have not provided the support resources required to communicate that message. My bad.

A big part of the SPJ Code of Ethics is to “Be Accountable” and to “Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.” I’m here to admit the process in updating the SPJ Code of Ethics has not been as smooth as possible, and that falls squarely on my shoulders. I would like to correct that.

Looking Ahead

I’m still gathering input, but I think we are on our way to improve the process. Region 3 Director Michael Koretzky has proposed a lot of great ideas, and we have started implementing them. Kevin Smith reached out to Andrew Seaman and Lynn Walsh to ask them to take the lead on some improvements. I am thankful for the insights and suggestions from President-Elect Dana Neuts and Secretary-Treasurer Paul Fletcher. The staff, including Director Joe Skeel, also have been helpful and eager in improving the process.

Here are some of the tasks we are working on, and note that it is still evolving:

Improving the web presence. We are working to put more information online, including making it easier to view changes in the draft, linking to outside news coverage of the issue, posting a calendar and timeline, and seeing the bios of the 18 people working on the draft.

Reaching out. Andrew Seaman and Lynn Walsh are developing methods for gathering more input from people within and outside of SPJ, including emails to SPJ members, setting up a Tumblr page for discussion and feedback, engaging Twitter discussions with outside groups, and taking the code draft to other organizations for their suggestions.

Revise and resubmit. The first draft is just that – a draft. It’s a starting point. Next we need to further refine and come up with a second draft. The 18-member committee, for example, didn’t have the opportunity to work through the compilation, and that needs to be done. We need to create a second draft by mid-June, based on the feedback we have started to receive, and that we will continue to gather.

In-person meeting. There are so many changes that need to be discussed that we will have to have the committee do it in person. It’s just not possible via email or online conferencing. I would like to pull the group together in July to discuss the changes in a room, streamed live for anyone to watch and chime in online.

Member vote. Our online voting system is a great opportunity to get the pulse of the membership, at least part of it. Having some specific questions on the ballot would be useful this summer.

Delegate discussion. In September at EIJ14 the delegates, who represent members from across the country, will have the opportunity to discuss the draft revisions. They may choose to simply approve the changes. Or, perhaps they will be hung up on a few particular points and wish to consider alternative changes. There’s no predicting, but ultimately it is their call. It is possible they will want to continue the discussion into next year for final consideration at EIJ15. The last revision took two years, and there is nothing wrong with continuing the discussions if that is what it takes to arrive at the best possible code. The more talk about ethics the better!

Long-term communications. I think this process has really illustrated the need for a full-time communications director at SPJ to make sure all of our activities are well coordinated with members and non-members. The incredible power of SPJ is our volunteer members – it’s also where we run into problems when it comes to effective communications. Given the strength of our budget and the needs, I have proposed the hiring of such a person. The SPJ board will discuss this Saturday.

I want to thank everyone for their involvement in this process, particularly the committee volunteers, the staff, the elected officers with their valuable input, and those who have contributed their comments and suggestions to improve the code. I also encourage you to email me (, directly with your thoughts.

There is no way everyone will be in agreement on every point, but I am confident that the end result will be a code that reflects the long-standing values of SPJ, the realities of today’s changing media environment, and the diverse views within our noble profession of journalism.


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