West Coast dissection: an ethics code critique

This morning, Peter Sussman, a former colleague of mine on the SPJ Ethics Committee, sent me his detailed critique of the latest draft of the proposed SPJ Code of Ethics.

Peter lives in Northern California. It looks like he was working on this shortly before an earthquake hit his part of the state.

I found his marked-up version useful, particularly with the reasoning he added to explain certain passages. As he told me after seeing my critique of the latest draft, he and I agreed on some ideas, but came about them in different ways.

I encourage anyone who is preparing for the debate at the national convention next month to read Peter’s ideas, which are below.


In response to a number of inquiries, I have written a critique of the disappointing draft code revision proposed for consideration at the upcoming convention. Here are a few general, prefatory observations:

Many of the proposed changes are unnecessary and the reasons for them inexplicable; many of the omissions are vital components of the current code.  Among the drafting problems are unnecessary repetition, lack of sequential flow and awkward phrasing and grammar.

The current code has bullet points, each with its own discrete example (or amplification) of a generalized principle; this draft is a melange of not-fully-related guidelines yoked together in paragraphs for no discernible reason and no clarifying bullet points showing graphically how they relate to the general principle under which they’re categorized.

For years the Ethics Committee was troubled that our current code had a major omission that led to its misapplication by attorneys, corporations and nonjournalism interest groups: the failure to make explicit that these are guidelines for journalists’ ethical decision-making, not a moralistic rulebook that could be “violated” or could have legal standing in defining a “real journalist.” (Two major examples of past disputes where this omission was consequential in the misapplication of the code are the Apple blogger case, for which I wrote a clarifying letter to the judge at the Electronic Frontier Foundation’s request, and the Coke shareholders resolution on NPR’s coverage of Israel, in response to which the Ethics Committee sent a letter on the intended application of the code.)

The fact that this balancing act of ethical guidelines — rather than a more authoritarian set of rules — was our intention in writing the current code is demonstrated by its very structure. The code is based on four primary ethical obligations that are, in effect, two sets of often-conflicting but equally important fundamental values: (1) Seeking truth vs. Minimizing harm and (2) Acting Independently vs. Being accountable. It is in the balancing of such often-contradictory core values that journalists should consider their ethical choices in individual circumstances that no one can predict.

We wrote a patch solution for this problem that was incorporated in a preface for the code on SPJ’s website. I would have expected that a permanent solution would be incorporated into any proposed code revision, but it isn’t there.

I am basing my critique on the third draft, copy-and-pasted directly from SPJ’s website. All my edits and comments below will be in brackets and/or bold-face. They’re detailed, so this might get a little confusing. I’d be willing to clarify for anyone asking. My email address is peter@psussman.com.
— Peter Sussman


Ethics Code Revision: Our Third Draft

By Kevin Smith | July 14th, 2014

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. [The current code says “comprehensive,” not “thorough,” but I’m not sure that either is an ethical principle. Accuracy and fairness are; thoroughness may be just good journalism, not essential ethically if stories are otherwise accurate and fair.] An ethical journalist acts with integrity. [This rewriting of the integrity sentence is essentially self-evident tautology. The current language makes a more nuanced point: “Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility.” This is one of many changes that led me to believe the language was rewritten for the sake of rewriting, not to clarify or update the code to apply in new circumstances.]

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. [Excess verbiage. What does “in its practice” add to the meaning? This preamble can also provide an opportunity to accomplish economically the language of our missing preface – something like “The Society declares these four principles as the foundation of ethical journalism and believes they provide useful guidelines for balancing often opposing ethical demands encountered by journalists in all media” Or something like that.]

Seek Truth and Report It

Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. [Redundant. That exact language, with the addition of “thorough” appears in the preamble immediately above.] Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.

Journalists should:

Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. [There’s accuracy again. Does this sentence add anything?] Verify information before its release.  Use original sources whenever possible.

Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy. [Is this an elaboration of the previous point? Should they be one paragraph? It seems a cautionary clarification, not truly an independent sub-principle.]

Put information into context.  Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in [Eliminate the “oversimplify” clause – all headlines and blurbs are by definition oversimplifications; the ethical point is that they should not misrepresent the content. The current code uses the word in a more nuanced way: “They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.”] promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.

Gather, update and correct information throughout the life of a news story. [It’s unclear what “the life of a news story” is. I think the important element here concerns archived stories and on-the-fly online versions of later stories; the NYT calls them blogs until they’re definitive. I’d say something like “throughout the time it is publicly available.” Also … take note of this paragraph; you will read it again, later in the code.]

Be cautious when making promises, but keep the promises they make.

Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources. [Sloppy wording. Who’s judging? And I think there’s an important missing element that is essential to the so-called judging. The current code also uses the word “reliability,” but I think it sounds a bit absolutist and presumptuous, as if journalists can know or definitively make the decision on what’s reliable. I’d reword the last sentence to something like this: “Members of the public are entitled to enough information to evaluate for themselves the credibility they give to information provided by an anonymous source.”]

[I think this graph should precede the one before: question the sources in advance, THEN identify them clearly in the resulting news report. It’s but one example of my observation that this is a hodgepodge of points without logical progression when that seems necessary.] Question sources’ motives before promising anonymity, reserving it for those who may face danger, retribution or other harm.  Anonymity should not [I’d say “never”] be granted merely as license to criticize. Pursue alternative sources before granting anonymity. Explain why anonymity was granted.

Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.

Avoid undercover or other surreptitious reporting methods except when traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public. [Suggested addition: “The reasons for the use of such deception should be made clear in the resulting news reports.”]

Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. Give voice to the voiceless.

Recognize a special obligation to serve as watchdogs over government. [This seems to me like a subset of the previous paragraph, not an independent point. Perhaps combine the two graphs? Something like: “Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable, with a special obligation to act as the public’s watchdog on government.”]

Provide access to source material when relevant and appropriate. [I don’t know what “appropriate” means in this context. Perhaps “available” is a more precise word?]

Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience. Seek sources whose voices are seldom heard. [We’ve already used “voices” in “Give voice to the voiceless.” It can even be interpreted literally here, and it’s not necessary. I think the point is unchanged if you say, “Seek sources who are seldom represented.”]

Avoid stereotyping.  Journalists should examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing them on others.

Label advocacy and commentary. [I don’t think labeling itself is a primary ethical obligation, as in “This is commentary.” There are all sorts of columns, blogs, feature stories, editorials, advocacy journalism (e.g., in alternative press) and hybrids. The important ethical point, and I’d substitute this, is “Clearly distinguish fact from opinion. Any factual points presented in the service of commentary must be as accurate as they would be in a pure news story.”]

Never deliberately distort fact or context, including visual news content.  Clearly [I’d prefer “prominently” instead of or in addition to “clearly.” The Ethics Committee has had to deal with endless cases involving advertorials and video news releases where the graphics were labeled but flashed by on the screen too rapidly to register with the viewer.] label illustrations and re-enactments. [In this context, I miss the current code’s provision to “Never distort the content of news photos or video. Image enhancement for technical clarity is always permissible.” With all the photoshopping these days, we ought somewhere to distinguish between the kind of innocent processing and cropping that make a photo or video technically visible and the kind that changes the import of the photo, as was done when the photo of the Baghdad crowd that pulled down Hussein’s statue was cropped in a way that eliminated the rest of the nearly empty square.]

Never plagiarize.  Always attribute. [A case was brought to me for comment recently by a London-based reporter investigating a prominent website that lifted material wholesale from other sites, even providing social media links to its own illegal and unethical misappropriation, not the original. It went way beyond aggregating and became, in my mind, plagiarism. The stories were credited in tiny type. I think this case – which will be reported within days – emphasizes the importance of not simply attributing but attributing “prominently” – or some such additional requirement. P.S. It’s now gone online: http://www.dailydot.com/business/a-plus-ashton-kutcher-stolen-content/]

Minimize Harm

Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect. [“as human beings” is both unnecessary and archaic. I’d eliminate it and say instead “… members of the public with utmost respect.”]

Journalists should:

Balance the public’s need for information against any harm or discomfort it may cause.  Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance, irreverence or undue intrusiveness. [Irreverence? Uh oh, I’m in trouble. Is irreverence really an ethical value? That word must be eliminated.]

[The following three graphs seem to me out of order. I’d put them in the following order, from most general to most specific: 1. “Recognize that …” followed by 2, “Realize that …” then 3, “Use heightened …”]

Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with children and [add the word “other”; that’s copyediting 1A] inexperienced sources or subjects. Consider cultural differences in approach and treatment.

Recognize that legal access to information differs from ethical justification to publish [Add “it” as the object of “publish.”].

Realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention. Weigh the consequences of publishing personal information, including that from social media.

Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity or following the lead of those who do.

Consider the implications of identifying juvenile suspects, victims of sex crimes, and criminal suspects before they are charged.  Balance a suspect’s right to a fair trial with the public’s right to be informed.

Be cautious about reporting suicides that do not involve a public person or a public place.

[Next sentence is awkward and unclear, and the word “especially” is unnecessary because I think the whole point of this graph is that things have changed with a news story’s perpetual access online. In addition, as noted earlier, this graph – especially the second sentence – duplicate an earlier provision: “Gather, update and correct information throughout the life of a news story.”] Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication, especially online. Provide updated and more complete information as appropriate.

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.[Disclosure is too often a pro forma gesture whose meaning isn’t clear to the reader, viewer of listener. I’d add a second sentence saying something like “Explain the implications of conflicts if they are not apparent.”]

Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment and avoid political and other outside activities that may compromise integrity, damage credibility or otherwise conflict with an impartial approach to information-gathering., compromise integrity or damage credibility. [Reordering for what seems to me better clarity in sentence structure.]

Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; do not pay for access to news.  Prominently i[I]dentify content provided by outside sources, whether paid or not, in a manner that registers with the reader, listener or viewer. [We’ve got to keep drumming on prominence. The standard flash-by “Courtesy of the Defense Dept.” is not permissible if you don’t emphasize the prominence of the ID. VNRs are often identified with the source, but not in a way that registers with the viewers, and they’re a major factor in TV journalism.]

Deny favored treatment to advertisers and donors, or any other special interests, and resist pressure to influence coverage, even if it comes from inside the media organization.

Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two. Clearly label sponsored content. [This is the point I raised two paragraphs earlier, but here it’s applied solely to advertorials.]

Be Accountable and Transparent

Ethical journalists [Every other major subsection section says “journalism,” followed in the second graph with “Journalists should:” Changing the formula in the last section only is unexplained and seems like sloppy drafting.] should take responsibility for their work and explain their decisions to the public.

Journalists should:

Explain ethical choices and processes to readers, audiences and viewers.  Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices and news content.

Respond quickly to questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness.

Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently.  Corrections and clarifications should be explained carefully and thoroughly, in a manner that makes clear which misleading or erroneous information is being clarified or corrected. [This too is directed at what has become a common and misleading practice of giving a corrected fact and apologizing for the error without making explicit what precisely in the previous report was wrong. It sounds less culpable but often leaves the reader baffled … and still reflexively believing the previous, erroneous or misleading information.]

Expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within both their own and other news organizations, in a manner that clarifies the relevant ethical standards and the manner in which they are meant to apply.

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

Adhere to the values in this code in all interaction with the public.[The previous graph is a good conclusion, and it’s not clear what this graph adds or even what it means. I think this graph is the kind of dangerous, vague, “wild-card” standard that was used to label the respected, largely retired columnist Helen Thomas as an unethical journalist for her public expression of personal views in a way that wasn’t at all related to her journalism.]   

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