A critique: first draft of SPJ Code of Ethics update

One of the major projects on SPJ’s agenda this year is a review – and possible update – of the SPJ Code of Ethics.

The code of ethics was last updated in 1996.

About four years ago, when I was chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee, Kevin Smith – SPJ’s president at the time – asked the committee to review the code of ethics. However, the committee soon realized that it wasn’t the right time.

SPJ was about to publish a new edition of a journalism textbook. Fred Brown, the committee’s vice chair, who edited the book, said the publisher would not want us to change the code of ethics, a prominent part of the book, right after the textbook came out. So, we waited.

The idea for a review returned last year. The Ethics Committee has moved ahead.

On March 27, Smith, who is now chairman of the Ethics Committee, posted a first draft of possible changes to the code, as suggested by the committee. (A version that tracks the changes was added more recently.)

The plan is to get wide feedback on the first draft, then have the committee return with a second draft for the national board and convention delegates to consider at Excellence in Journalism 2014 in Nashville in September.

The board and the delegates also could look at the proposed changes and decide that the code of ethics should remain as it is.

 

Below are some of my thoughts on the committee’s first draft.

 

Here is the current preamble:

Preamble
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. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility. Members of the Society share a dedication to ethical behavior and adopt this code to declare the Society’s principles and standards of practice.

The SPJ Code of Ethics is voluntarily embraced by thousands of journalists, regardless of place or platform, and is widely used in newsrooms and classrooms as a guide for ethical behavior. The code is intended not as a set of “rules” but as a resource for ethical decision-making. It is not — nor can it be under the First Amendment — legally enforceable. [We added the second paragraph during my time on the committee to counter attempts to use the code of ethics as a set of rules, especially as part of litigation.]

 

Here is what the committee proposed:

Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that justice and good government require an informed public. The journalist’s duty is to provide that information, accurately, fairly and fully. Responsible journalists from all media, including nontraditional providers of news to a broad audience, should strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Responsible journalists think ethically before acting, and make every effort to get the story right the first time.  Integrity is the foundation of a journalist’s credibility, and above all, responsible journalists must be accurate. The purpose of this code is to declare the Society’s principles and standards and to encourage their use in the practice of journalism in any and all media. [There is different language here, but it expresses pretty much the same thing. The paragraph about the voluntary nature of the code doesn’t show up on the committee’s draft, but I’m told that will remain.]

 

 

Here is the current “Seek Truth and Report It” section:
Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.

Journalists should:

— Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.
— Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.
— Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.
— Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.
— Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, 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.
— Avoid misleading re-enactments or staged news events. If re-enactment is necessary to tell a story, label it.
— Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story
— Never plagiarize.
— Tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so.
— Examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.
— Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.
— Support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.
— Give voice to the voiceless; official and unofficial sources of information can be equally valid.
— Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.
— Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.
— Recognize a special obligation to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection.

 

Here is what the committee proposed:

Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information. Journalists should:

Aggressively gather and update information as a story unfolds and work to avoid error. Deliberate distortion and reporting unconfirmed rumors are never permissible. [The “deliberate distortion” reference, from the current draft, is good. But I disagree with a declaration that it’s “impermissible” to report unconfirmed rumors. Naturally, confirmed information is more credible than unconfirmed reports, but that’s for a news organization to decide – as long as the context (“this has not been confirmed”) is given.]

Remember that neither speed nor brevity excuses inaccuracy or mitigates the damage of error. [Is “brevity” the right word here? (“concise and exact use of words in writing or speech”) This seems to be a reminder to get it right, no matter the pressure. Perhaps: “Getting it right should always trump reporting it first.”]

Journalists, not sources, are responsible for the accuracy of stories. Verify information from sources before publishing. Information taken from other news sources should be independently verified [and credited?]. [“Taken” might not be the right word; it connotes lifting information and using it. Perhaps: “Information from any source, including another news organization, should be independently verified before including it in your own report. Give credit to other news sources as you would attribute any information you collect.”]

Work to put every story in context. In promoting, previewing or reporting a story live, take care not to misrepresent or oversimplify it. [This appears to be a rewrite of a line in the current code: “Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.” I think this line still works fine, despite the claim I heard that it’s an example of language from olden days. The new version doesn’t capture the concern as fully – i.e., what about an exaggerated headline over a newspaper story?]

Clearly identify sources; the public is entitled to as much information as possible on source’s identity, reliability and possible motives.  Seek alternative sources before granting anonymity. Reveal conditions attached to any promises made in exchange for information. Keep promises. [should be “sources’ ” (plural) – not “source’s” (singular) – or make it “a source’s…” The “Reveal conditions” phrase is probably better than the existing “Clarify conditions” phrase, in that it points toward disclosure, not just mutual agreement.]

Seek sources whose views are seldom used. Official and unofficial sources can be equally valid. [The current reference is: “Give voice to the voiceless.” That’s stronger and better captures what we’re trying to say. It’s too simple to say “whose views are seldom used,” which sounds like everyone should get a chance, regardless of whether they deserve it. That’s probably not the intention.]

Diligently seek subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to criticism and to allegations of wrongdoing.

Avoid publishing critical opinions by those seeking confidentiality. [What this says and what it probably means to say are two different things. This falls under the “clearly identify sources” clause above. The addendum could be: “Anonymity should be reserved for sources who could face danger, retribution or other legitimate hardships for sharing information they know. Anonymity should not be granted freely as merely a license to criticize.”]

Never alter or distort news images. Clearly label illustrations.

Avoid re-enactments or staged news events. [I don’t understand why “misleading” was removed from this clause, as it’s written in the current code (“Avoid misleading re-enactments…”). Why prohibit a re-enactment that’s clearly presented as one?]

Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional, open methods will not yield vital information to the public.

Never plagiarize. Always attribute information not independently gathered. [I like this addition. Plagiarism is clearly wrong, but I think there’s no consensus of what it is, so urging attribution is worthwhile.]

Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience.

Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be clearly labeled.

Avoid stereotyping. Examine your own cultural values and avoid imposing those on others. [By cutting the examples of stereotyping in the current clause – “by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status” – it tightens the line considerably. But those examples might prompt people to consider the types of stereotyping they might have done, unwittingly.]

Recognize a special obligation to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection. Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.

 

This is the current “Minimize Harm” section:

Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.

Journalists should:

— Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.
— Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.
— Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
— 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 an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone’s privacy.
— Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
— Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.
— Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.
— Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed.

 

This is the committee’s draft:

Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect. Journalists should:

Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort.  Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance, irreverence or an invasive behavior. [The current draft stops at “arrogance.” That isn’t the only behavior to avoid, but there are too many to continue listing them. Or at least shorten “an invasive behavior” to “invasiveness” for parallel construction.]

Be sensitive when seeking or using information, interviews and images of people affected by tragedy or grief. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.

Recognize the harm in using photos or information, including any photos and data from social media forums, for which the source is unknown, or where there is uncertainty regarding the authenticity of the images or information. [This is a good addition for today’s times and practices. It could use some tweaking, though.]

Recognize that legal access to information differs from ethical justification to publish. Journalists should balance the importance of information and potential effects on subjects and the public before publication. [This also is a good addition, but it should be limited to the first sentence. The second sentence doesn’t add anything.]

Realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention. [“Public figures” is a little better than the current reference to “public officials.”]

Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity. Avoid following the lead of others who violate this tenet. [The third sentence was added to the current version, but isn’t needed. The first two sentences are clear on their own.]

Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects, criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges, and victims of sex crimes. Balance a criminal suspect’s fair trial rights with the public’s right to be informed. [This line in the current version sticks to juvenile suspects and victims of sex crimes. I don’t think the “criminal suspects” reference belongs here – it’s a different issue. Publishing a name at all vs. when to publish a name. However, I think it’s reasonable to have a separate reference to using care when publishing a suspect’s name before there are formal charges.]

Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of online publication. Provide updated and more complete information when appropriate. [This is an excellent addition.]

 

This is the current “Act Independently” section:

Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know.

Journalists should:

—Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
— Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
— Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
— Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
— Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.
— Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.
— Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news.

 

This is the committee’s draft:

A journalist’s highest and primary obligation is to the public’s right to know. Journalists should:

 Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts. [These are two different lines in the current version. They are correctly grouped on one line here.]

Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations that may conflict with an impartial approach to information-gathering. [“…that may conflict…” replaces “if they compromise journalistic integrity” in the current version. Either is fine, although the new draft is a little more specific, which is good.]

Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; do not pay for news or access. [This is one of the best changes in the new draft. “Do not pay for news or access” is much stronger and clearer than “Avoid bidding for news,” which made “bidding” (as in, competition) the problem rather than payment.]

Deny favored treatment to advertisers and donors, or any other special interests, and resist pressure to influence coverage. [This appears to be an acknowledgment that modern nonprofit news organizations might be getting outside money, but I don’t know if the reference is clear. “Donors” might conjure a political campaign.]

Identify content provided by outside sources, whether paid or not. Distinguish news from advertising and marketing material. Shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two. [I hate the word “content,” which, in my opinion, minimizes what news is. That’s a personal peeve. Also, this lists three categories – news, advertising, marketing material – but cautions about blurred lines “between the two.”]

Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.

 

This is the current “Be Accountable” section:

Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.

Journalists should:

— Clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct.
— Encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media.
— Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.
— Expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media.
— Abide by the same high standards to which they hold others.

 

This is the committee’s draft:

Journalists should be open in their actions and accept responsibility for them. Journalists should:

Clarify and explain news coverage and encourage a civil dialogue with the public over journalistic practices. [“Civil” was a good addition here, but I prefer “journalistic conduct,” which I think refers to individual cases, over “journalistic practices,” which makes me think about the profession and its traditions. A small change, either way.]

Admit mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently wherever they appeared, including in archived material. [Excellent. This is another strong, important addition – correcting archived material. It could be expanded to include current material, not just archived material. For example: A story was posted on a news website in the morning, then corrected in the evening.]

Expose unethical conduct in journalism.

Disclose sources of funding and relationships that might influence, or appear to influence, reporting.

Abide by the same high standards they expect of others.

[Why cut: “Encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media”?]

 

 

Finally: I’d like to see one of my biggest pet peeves addressed – anonymous comments posted after stories.

Perhaps: “Consider the dangers of mean, unfair and potentially libelous feedback posted anonymously online after news stories.”

 

 

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