Part three: critiquing the code of ethics [Updated 9/1/14]

This was updated on Sept. 1 to reflect a fourth version from the Ethics Committee, which was distributed and released on Aug. 28. The latest updates are denoted in bold italics, with an asterisk (*).

In its fourth draft, the committee has added changes it proposed to the preamble (which is almost entirely reworded) and a disclaimer.


The SPJ Ethics Committee has come up with its third and final draft for consideration at this year’s national convention in Nashville.

This is a summary of the changes. Here is the wording of the new draft.

On this site, I have critiqued the committee’s first draft in April. In July, I posted my thoughts on the second draft.

Now, we’re approaching the home stretch (perhaps).

The SPJ national board is holding a Skype call on Wednesday to discuss the third draft and consider endorsing it. The call will be at 7 p.m. Eastern.

Unfortunately, there will not be a way for the public to listen in live. But the call will be archived and available to anyone who wants to watch and listen to it afterward. We are trying to figure out a good way to let the public participate in electronic meetings of the SPJ national board (which are rare), but we’re not there yet.

From there, the proposal will come before convention delegates at Excellence in Journalism 2014 in Nashville. If you are a delegate, I strongly encourage you to read and think about the latest draft in advance. If you have any recommendations for changes, have them ready.


There is no easy way to post and respond to the third draft and show how it compares to the current SPJ Code of Ethics. A PDF has both strike-throughs and colors to represent changes. I will paste only the new wording here, with my edits and thoughts.



Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that [*democracy, a just society and good government require an informed public. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity.

The Society declares these four principles as the foundation of ethical journalism and encourages their use in its practice by all people in all media.]



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.



• Seek truth and report it

Ethical journalism should be [IS? can it be inaccurate and unfair and still be ethical?] accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous [FEARLESS? – There’s another “courageous” reference below.] in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.

Journalists should:

Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before its release [DISSEMINATING IT – “before its release” is passive and sounds like it’s outside of their control]. Use original sources whenever possible.

Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy. [I’m not sure what the “format” reference means. Does that refer to someone excusing an error by saying it’s “only the web”?]

Put information into [PROVIDE] context. Take special care not to [DO NOT] misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.

Gather, update and correct information throughout the life of a news story.

Be cautious when making promises, but keep the promises they make. [I prefer the current wording: “Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.” Without this context, the reference to “promises” becomes vague.]

Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the [THEIR] reliability and motivation of sources.

 [SUPPORT THE OPEN EXCHANGE OF VIEWS, EVEN VIEWS THEY FIND REPUGNANT. – This line was cut from the current version. I think it should be kept.]

Question sources’ motives before promising anonymity, reserving it [RESERVE ANONYMITY] for those [SOURCES] who may face danger, retribution or other harm [AND HAVE CRUCIAL INFORMATION THAT CAN’T BE OBTAINED ELSEWHERE]. [* DO NOT GRANT Aanonymity should not be granted] merely as license to criticize. Pursue alternative sources before granting anonymity.
Explain why anonymity was granted.

Diligently seek [GIVE] subjects of news coverage to allow them [THE CHANCE] to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.

Avoid undercover or other surreptitious reporting methods except when [* UNLESS] traditional, open methods will not yield [CAN’T PRODUCE] information vital to the public. [USE OF SUCH METHODS SHOULD BE EXPLAINED AS PART OF THE STORY. – This needs to be included; not sure why it was cut from current version.]

Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. Give coice [* VOICE] to the voiceless. [The “voice” line was struck from an earlier version. It’s good that it has been restored.] Recognize a special obligation to serve as watchdogs over government. [The committee has the “recognize” reference on its own line, but I moved it up here, where it fits.]

Provide access to source material when [* IT IS] relevant and appropriate. [WHERE BRIEF REPORTS CAN PRESENT ONLY LIMITED CONTEXT, USE LINKS TO PROVIDE FULL CONTEXT. IN PRINT EDITIONS, REFER READERS TO ONLINE LINKS PROVIDING GREATER CONTEXT. – This is from Steve Buttry, an advocate of having the code address linking.]

Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience. Seek sources whose voices [* WE are] seldom hear[d].

Avoid stereotyping [BY RACE, GENDER, AGE, RELIGION, ETHNICITY, GEOGRAPHY, SEXUAL ORIENTATION, DISABILITY, PHYSICAL APPEARANCE OR SOCIAL STATUS – This is in the current code, but was cut in the draft. I think having the examples makes people think more specifically]. Journalists should examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing [* them those values] on others.

Label advocacy and commentary [* news reporting]. [I’ve never heard of “commentary news reporting.” A better approach, if I understand it correctly, might be: “Keep advocacy out of news reporting.”] [Update: The committee struck “news reporting.”]

Never deliberately distort fact[* S] or context, including visual news content [IMAGES – I dislike the word “content” as a substitute for journalism]. Clearly label illustrations and re-enactments.

Never plagiarize. Always attribute. [“Never plagiarize” is the shortest, strongest line in the current code – the only “don’t.” “Always attribute” is a good addition.]


• Minimize harm

Ethical journalism [JOURNALISTS] treats sources, subjects[,] and colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect. [This is part of the committee’s switch from “journalists” to “journalism,” but it doesn’t sound right. The people are behaving a certain way, not the product. Besides, “journalists” has been left intact elsewhere, such as the “stereotyping” passage above.]

Journalists should:

Balance the public’s need for information against any [POTENTIAL] harm or discomfort it may cause. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance, irreverence or undue intrusiveness.

[SHOW COMPASSION FOR THOSE WHO MAY BE AFFECTED ADVERSELY BY NEWS COVERAGE.] Use heightened sensitivity [BE SENSITIVE] when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects. Consider cultural differences in approach and treatment. [The committee dropped the “compassion” line, but I would keep it. It’s significant to have “compassion” in a code for journalists. The line applies more broadly than just interactions with sources.]

Recognize that legal access to information differs from ethical justification to publish. [This is a good addition.]

Realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Weigh the consequences of publishing [DISSEMINATING] personal information, including that from social media. [I don’t see the reference to social media adding anything here.]

Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity or following the lead of those who do [, EVEN IF OTHERS DO].

Consider the implications of identifying juvenile suspects, [* or] victims of sex crimes and criminal suspects before they [* face legal are chargesd]. Balance a suspect’s right to a fair trail [* TRIAL] with the public’s right to [* know be informed].

 Be cautious about reporting suicides that do not involve a public person or a public place. [For the committee’s reasoning on including this line, read Chairman Kevin Smith’s blog post. Even though the committee made this a “soft” warning, I disagree with the underlying message that suicide is generally taboo and shouldn’t be reported. Here is a column I wrote about reporting on reporting on suicide and why it should be done. Also read Ryan Horns’ comment after Smith’s blog post. Why single out suicide and not the sensitivity and privacy that might be attached to an accidental death? Regardless, this line sends a message that probably wasn’t intended: For public people and public places, caution is not as important. I would strike this line.] [UPDATE: The SPJ national board agreed that this line about suicide be stricken from the proposed code.]

Consider the long[*-]term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication, especially online. Provide updated and more complete information as appropriate. [This is important. The Internet’s reach and permanence should factor into our news judgment.]


[During an Aug. 20 meeting by Skype, the SPJ national board voted against the above line on anonymous comments. I softened it to this: “Encourage a civil exchange of public opinions. Recognize the potential harm of allowing anonymous online comments.” The board also voted down the second version, but I still urge that it be added.]


• Act independently

The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public..

Journalists should:

Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts. [It’s smart to combine these two lines in the current code.]

Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and avoid political and other outside activities that may conflict with an impartial approach to information gathering, compromise integrity or damage credibility.

[* B]e wary of [REJECT] sources offering information for favors or money; do not pay for access to news. Identify content provided by outside sources, whether paid or not. [The second sentence is a different topic. Either it’s referring to advertorial material, which was addressed above under “Seek truth” or to attribution, which is addressed in the “Never plagiarize” line.]

Deny favored treatment to advertisers[,] and donors, or any other special interests, and resist [THEIR] pressure to influence news coverage, even if it comes from inside the media organization. [The last phrase could be interpreted as ignoring a supervisor.]

Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two. Clearly label sponsored content [MATERIAL – I dislike the word “content.”]. [This has been moved down from the “Seek truth” section. It works fine here.]


• Be accountable and transparent [“Transparency” is another concept that Steve Buttry pushed for in his detailed critiques of the code. I agree with SPJ having it.]

Ethical J[*j]ournalists S[*s]hould take responsibility for their work and explain their decisions to the public. [Again, this sticks with “journalists” instead of switching to “journalism.” I think it reads better.]

Journalists should:

Explain ethical choices and processes to audiences. Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about [COVERAGE AND] journalistic practices and news content [Ugh to “content”].

Respond quickly to [ALL] questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness.

Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently. [* Explain cCorrections and clarifications should be explained] carefully and thoroughly, [SO THE ERROR IS CLEAR]. [The addition of “prominently” is very good. My extra phrase refers to the practice of running corrections that leave the public confused about what was wrong.]

Expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organizations.

Abide by the same high standards they expect of public persons [OTHERS].

Adhere to the values in this code in all interaction with the public. [This has now been dropped down to its own line.]


About four years ago, the Ethics Committee added a disclaimer to clarify and emphasize that the SPJ Code of Ethics is not a set of “rules.” In the fourth draft, the current committee has changed the disclaimer:


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.


The SPJ Code of Ethics is a living document, a statement of principles supported by additional explanations and position papers (at that address changing journalistic practices. It is not a set of rules, rather a guide that encourages all who engage in journalism to take responsibility for the information they provide, regardless of medium. The code should be read as a whole; individual principles should not be taken out of context. It is not, nor can it be under the First Amendment, legally enforceable. [I don’t like “living document,” which has  different connotation to me – that it will keep changing. I’d strike that phrase. The broader reference to journalism here is good.]

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