Archive for the ‘SPJ Code of Ethics’ Category

Bad communication, an apology: examining Koch sponsorship

Heading into this year’s national Excellence in Journalism convention, a few SPJ chapters criticized the national board and headquarters because the Charles Koch Institute was sponsoring a Freedom of Information Act session.

I didn’t mind the sponsorship, which appeared to mesh with an SPJ policy approved in 2003.

However, SPJ failed to give critics (and all SPJ members) accurate information — particularly about whether the Charles Koch Institute planned the session it sponsored. For that, I apologize. (Note: This piece reflects my views — not the SPJ board or anyone else.)

SPJ President J. Alex Tarquinio hinted at this in a column posted Oct. 24, writing that because of “a flurry of emails … some SPJ national board members became convinced that sponsors were not, in fact, involved in planning sessions.”

That characterization is technically true, but further explanation and context is in order.

In August, the Chicago Headline Club contacted SPJ Executive Director Alison Bethel McKenzie and then-President Rebecca Baker with concern about the Charles Koch Institute as an EIJ sponsor. This prompted thorough discussion by the SPJ and SDX boards and McKenzie of this and other sponsorships.

Tarquinio, as president-elect, agreed to form a task force to examine the issue and make recommendations by Dec. 1. That effort is underway. All SPJ members have been invited to take a survey on sponsorship questions. An online conversation will be held Nov. 26 from 6 to 7:30 p.m. Eastern.

Irwin Gratz, a past SPJ president and incoming president of the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation Board (now known as the Society of Professional Journalists Foundation Board), tracked down the approved 2003 policy and shared it with the boards during our discussion. Many of us weighed in on how the Koch sponsorship aligned with that policy.

Some key points:

  • “No money will be accepted from domestic or foreign governments, or from political organizations.”
  • “SPJ will control all aspects of the convention program. All convention programs will be on-the-record. People and organizations with positions directly opposed to those of any contributor may be invited to appear.”

This is the 2003 SPJ convention sponsorship policy

Since the policy was approved in 2003, SPJ has had plenty of turnover in its headquarters staff and on its board. As a result, it looks as if, when the Koch sponsorship was proposed and accepted, no one was aware of that policy.

(The task force has found that the SPJ board in 2008 approved an update to the policy. The two key points above did not change, but others did.)

A collective failure in communication compounded the problem. The SPJ and SDX boards reviewed the 2003 policy as if it governed the Koch agreement. Regional directors sent messages explaining and supporting the Koch agreement to all chapters, based on the same understanding.

Separately, though, our staff was proceeding differently with Koch and other sponsors, who were, indeed, allowed to plan sessions they sponsored.

It’s a legitimate question whether the 2003 policy applies now, since it was approved when SPJ held its own conventions, without partners (i.e., RTDNA) we have now. We can no longer say “SPJ will control all aspects of the convention program.”

Certainly, the policy needs to be re-examined and updated, which the task force is doing.

But the failure to provide accurate information was wrong, and we have ourselves to blame.

When I asked during the board’s Sept. 30 meeting if Koch planned the session it sponsored, Tarquinio said, “They did not plan it, but obviously we spoke with them and the process was a little [I’m not sure of the word she used here] this year because, as many of you know, Alison did have to step in for our program manager, who left in the middle of EIJ.”

(The sponsorship discussion during the Sept. 30 meeting is posted here, starting at about 45:40.)

McKenzie then told us that sponsors at that level picked from a choice of sessions. (McKenzie said that level was $25,000, but it actually was $20,000, according to the sponsorship task force.)

“They and any other sponsor at that level can plan their panel,” she said. “It’s their panel. It’s a sponsored panel.”

She said she chose the moderator, plus one panelist. Koch chose the other two panelists. “I reviewed their description and tweaked it, and sort of changed it a little bit,” McKenzie said. “So I was pretty heavy-handed in putting their panel together.”

She continued: “My understanding is, in the past, it hasn’t worked like that — that the sponsor pretty much picks, chooses the panel, chooses the description. I just was very involved in this particular panel.”

When I asked about the 2003 policy that said SPJ controls all aspects of the program, McKenzie said, “I was not aware of our policy at the time.”

Board member Lauren Bartlett mentioned “talking points” our headquarters staff gave the board on Sept. 24 about the Koch sponsorship, including this:

  • The institute doesn’t control anything about the session. It did not pick the topic or select the speakers, who are independent from the Koch foundation.

“No, that was inaccurate,” McKenzie told us.

Collectively, we failed and I understand the frustration of the Chicago Headline Club and others.

There is room for reasonable debate about appropriate sponsorship limits. But facts matter, too.

The Chicago Headline Club told its members that “the Charles Koch Institute, for example, is part of a secretive and complex family of groups whose goal is to advance the Koch brothers’ political ideologies.”

I note that as a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, the Charles Koch Institute is legally prohibited from political advocacy (although I was called “naïve” to think this limitation is meaningful or obeyed).

Also, the Charles Koch Institute has a record of funding journalism efforts — such as with The Poynter Institute and the Newseum — that align with SPJ’s mission.

For example, from the Charles Koch Institute’s website:

Civil debate and the free exchange of speech and ideas — on our college campuses, in the arts, and in the press — allow us to challenge both ourselves and the status quo. In order to protect good ideas and speech, we must protect all ideas and speech, so long as they do not violate the person, property, or liberty of others.


The Media and Journalism Fellowship program is for aspiring and entrepreneurial journalists and story tellers. Our program offers media and creative professionals the opportunity to refine their skills while learning about the crucial role of free speech and a free press in our society.

The Poynter Institute was in a similar situation when it accepted money from the Charles S. Koch Foundation (the same organization, despite the variation in the name) to strengthen student publications.

Kelly McBride wrote about why Poynter was comfortable with the arrangement:

We pick the schools. We set the curriculum. We hire the faculty. We occasionally update our contacts at the Koch Foundation about our progress. I can personally attest that over the last year our contacts at the Koch Foundation gave us complete independence to run the program the way we saw fit. …

As an ethics specialist, I’m confident that we will uphold journalism values if we engage in a process of vetting projects, rather than sorting potential donors along a continuum of acceptable and unacceptable, then drawing a line.

If SPJ has the same firewall, I am comfortable with the same approach.

I don’t agree with all of the points raised by SPJ chapters in Chicago, Los Angeles and San Diego. For example, Chicago insists that the SPJ Code of Ethics applies here. I disagree — the code is a set of guidelines for journalism, not deciding conference sponsorships.

Still, I apologize that we gave critics, and others, wrong information.

I couldn’t attend the FOIA session at EIJ because it conflicted with a national board meeting, but the Charles Koch Institute posted this about it:

At its 2018 Excellence in Journalism Conference last week, the Society of Professional Journalists held a panel discussion on use of the Freedom of Information Act, or FOIA. Panelists included National Public Radio science correspondent Nell Greenfieldboyce and Jesse Franzblau, a policy analyst at Open the Government (OTG) — an organization that works to promote government openness through the use of access to information laws.

Starting with the premise that FOIA has allowed journalists to shine a light on government for more than 50 years, panelists explained how journalists can navigate FOIA for their benefit; how to find the right information and to isolate good stories; and how to ensure that they get the timely and complete answers from state officials.

The discussion coincided with OTG’s release its citizen’s guide to “America’s Forever Wars and the Secrecy that Sustains Them.” The project, which OTG policy analyst Emily Manna describes as helping the public understand FOIA’s role in “bringing transparency to issues vital to the public’s understanding of military and national security programs,” is supported by Open Society Foundations and the Charles Koch Institute.

Chest-thumping + ignorance = fake legislating?

Indiana state Rep. Jim Lucas has to know that his bill proposing mandatory licenses for journalists isn’t worth the paper it’s printed on.

He doesn’t even need to read all of the way through the First Amendment to figure it out. About halfway through is enough.

“Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press…”

Ah, yes. The relevant freedom.

So, clearly a bill Lucas drafted calling for journalists to be fingerprinted and pay police $75 to get a lifetime journalism license is meaningless rhetoric.

He says he’s steamed about media coverage of his attempt to repeal an Indiana law that requires a permit to carry a handgun, according to a story by the Indianapolis Star.

“If you’re OK licensing my Second Amendment right, what’s wrong with licensing your First Amendment right?” he is quoted as asking.

Lucas can’t pick the constitutional amendments he will follow, ignoring others.

And he isn’t even original in his satire. South Carolina state Rep. Mike Pitts acted out an almost identical attention-seeking charade last year. He called his proposed “responsible journalism registry,” modeled after a concealed weapons permit law, an attempt to stimulate discussion on how the press covers Second Amendment issues, according to a Post and Courier story. Unregistered journalists would be fined.

Journalists could ignore these pranksters, but it’s bad to assume that silliness like this isn’t taken seriously somewhere, so it needs to be addressed. We need to speak up against real and faux attempts to impose arbitrary shackles on constitutionally protected news gathering.

It’s tempting to jab back by calling this #fakelegislating and to suggest that Lucas’s woeful ignorance of the First Amendment would cause him to fail a test for his legislator’s license.

It’s more important, though, to examine the grievance and dissect the motivation.

I encourage Lucas and Pitts to air specific complaints and criticism about journalism they’ve seen. It’s their right to challenge news coverage and present a case if they believe a story is wrong or inaccurate, or if they think a journalist was unethical or ignored context.

I’ll argue for their right to get answers to questions and responses to well-reasoned complaints. That type of accountability is enshrined in the SPJ Code of Ethics.

I have a hunch, though, that logic and debate don’t fit in with their plans for mischief.

Prison journalists

This is a long way away from Region 2, but it’s worth sharing.

Did you know there is a group of SPJ members inside a prison? San Quentin State Prison in Northern California.

I heard about this a few weeks ago, and read more details over the weekend at

In July 2015, two dozen inmates behind the walls of San Quentin State Prison
became the first journalists serving sentences inside a U.S. prison
to become members of the Society of Professional Journalists.
They’re members of the first professional association inside a
prison. The reporters with the San Quentin News and the
San Quentin Prison Report hold monthly meetings to discuss the ethics
and the craft of journalism with guests who are both news-makers and journalists.

Check out the copy of the (new) SPJ Code of Ethics in the group photo and read the inmates’ accounts of what journalism and SPJ mean to them.

There’s a lot to think about here.

(Cheers to Peter Sussman for sharing this link with me and for his advocacy on this topic)


Statements, honors, conventions: What the board did, and discussed

ICYMI, as the acronymists like to say…

Here is a recap of the April 18 national SPJ board meeting in Indianapolis. Not everyone has the time or patience to watch an hours-long meeting by livestream, but several of these topics will interest SPJ members.

Everything we discussed and voted on is part of a board packet with greater details on most topics.

1 – SPJ President Dana Neuts gave a report (p. 2 in the packet) on some of the things that have happened during her time in office or that are in the works. It’s worth a read. For example: the number of public statements SPJ has issued since improving its communications process, the number of communities (like chapters, but related to common interests) SPJ now has, translations of the new SPJ Code of Ethics into other languages and specific efforts to focus on diversity.

2 – An update on what SPJ is doing to improve its technology. It’s spelled out in a memo from the fall (p. 17) and an update memo from April (p. 58).

3 – SPJ is doing pretty well financially (an explanation by Executive Director Joe Skeel, with specifics, is on p. 21). The board unanimously approved a $1.18 million spending plan for fiscal year 2016 — up 9.7 percent from the current year. Revenue is expected to be $1.21 million, up 2 percent from the current year.

4 – Four new chapters were chartered (p. 36): American University in Bulgaria, University of Massachusetts, Nova Southeastern and California State Polytechnic University. That’s right – there is now an SPJ chapter in Bulgaria.  It joins two other SPJ international chapters — one in Qatar and one in the United Arab Emirates. There is also one virtual chapter – at Ashford University.

5 – The ballot is filling up for SPJ national offices. As it stands now, there will be a contested election for secretary-treasurer (p. 37), which is usually a stepping stone toward becoming president. [I plan to run again for Region 2 director. Anyone else who would like to run for this or any other office should email Sonny Albarado at]

6 – If you’re interested in a brief status report from the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation board: p. 38.

7 – For a status report from SPJ staff at headquarters: p. 40. Some highlights: SPJ is hiring new employees as we are hired to help run other journalism organizations (p. 42); SPJ has developed a good relationship with Google for training activities (p. 45); there will be more training to help delegates understand what happens at the national convention (p. 50).

8 – Why is SPJ’s national convention almost always in September? Executive Director Joe Skeel has laid out the various factors (p. 51). It’s hard to balance the competing interests, such as school calendars and the season for the best hotel rates. Skeel noted that certain cities fill the criteria we want (appeal, food options, geography, meeting space, airport proximity) much better than others. The board agreed to have HQ staff investigate options with higher room rates (i.e., $225 instead of $175). That might add places such as New York City back into the mix, adding benefits that could outweigh costs. Stay tuned.

9 – The staff looked into the idea of extending the postgraduate discount membership rate ($37.50 instead of $75 a year) from three years to four years (p. 54). There was no strong feeling either way, so the board left it alone.

10 – Speaking of communications… When should SPJ speak (p. 59)? Should we issue statements about the deaths of journalists? If they’re prominent? If they’re killed while working? Should we comment on acts of terrorism involving journalists or newsrooms? This was a lengthy, lively debate, but there were no clear answers. My suggestion was for us to start with one question: When can we make a difference? At other times, we can be part of the discussion through social media, which might serve the same purpose.

11 – And speaking of statements… SPJ’s First Amendment advocacy usually is limited to matters of a free press and sometimes free speech. But we ended up weighing in on a freedom of religion issue, with a statement, when Indiana passed its Religious Freedom Restoration Act. In this case, SPJ spoke as an Indiana entity and employer, stating our opposition to discrimination. (Read President Dana Neuts’ very transparent blog post about the internal SPJ debate and dissent.) This sparked more board discussion about when we should speak, and, in particular, how we should handle a comparable situation that might lie ahead. Louisiana has its own Religious Freedom Restoration Act in the works. This could become an SPJ matter again because our 2016 national convention will be in New Orleans. Also, the national board might meet there in the spring before the convention. Moving the convention could put SPJ out hundreds of thousands of dollars, which would hurt the organization greatly. But we are thinking of moving the board meeting, and telling leaders in Louisiana what we would do and why. Again, stay tuned.

12 – 41 percent of SPJ members have no representation in votes taken at the national convention. That’s because they don’t belong to chapters, which send delegates to vote on matters such as the SPJ Code of Ethics update last year or bylaws changes, or the occasional other weighty topic, such as whether to stop giving a Helen Thomas Lifetime Achievement Award. In 2012, the system changed to allow all SPJ members to vote on elections for national officers, but the system has not changed on business items – which are difficult to put out to vote in advance, since they are often amended on the floor. Anyway, a committee (including me) is going to look at how to address the imbalance (p. 62). Feedback on this thorny issue is welcome.

13 – The national board agreed to add $30,000 into a new advocacy (“Legal Offense”) fund (p. 69).

14 – As mentioned above, a new policy says that convention delegates will get more training. It also sets guidelines for transparency in convention business and election. For example, vote totals must be given after a vote, which didn’t always happen (p. 75).

15 – Another contentious topic was whether to change the procedure for selecting the Wells Memorial Key, SPJ’s highest honor. A committee recommended giving the full 23-member national board the final say, but past winners and some other opponents objected. A compromise is that it will become a function of the Executive Committee (with seven members), rather than just the officers (five people). Also, the full board will get the list of nominees to review each year, as well as a running list of 10 years’ worth of nominations. Part of the debate was about how to broaden the pool of nominations and honor diversity. The full board will decide the winners of other SPJ awards. (p. 76)

That’s not a full account of the meeting, but it’s pretty close. Also check out President Neuts’ more timely and concise recap.


As Buzzfeed might say: 23 things from the SPJ board packet for this weekend

Items in the packet for Saturday’s SPJ national board meeting include (watch from home via livestream starting at 9 a.m.; the pages note where to find the item in the packet):

1 – There will be five Ted Scripps Leadership Institute sessions in SPJ’s next fiscal year (p. 24). The places and dates haven’t been announced yet, other than: Region 10 in July, Region 5 in August and Region 6 in November.

2 – SPJ expects to have a $1.2 million budget for the coming year (p. 25).

3 – There are four new chapters seeking to be chartered, including American University in Bulgaria (p. 36). Only one chapter is being considered for inactivation (the number might grow when this year’s annual reports come in – or don’t come in).

4 – At least 14 people have committed to run for positions on the national board – including two for secretary/treasurer (p. 37). A few others who are considering running are named here, too. [Editor’s note: I am planning to run for re-election as Region 2 director. If anyone who would like to run for that or any other national SPJ position, contact Nominations Committee Chairman Sonny Albarado at]

5 – The Sigma Delta Chi Foundation had $12.3 million in holdings as of Jan. 31, 2015 (p. 38). Also, SPJ and SDX are working on a transition of a new division of duties and responsibilities.

6 – Did you know SPJ is helping to manage other journalism associations? Read the list. (p. 42) SPJ Executive Director Joe Skeel says this “further cement[s] SPJ’s role in the journalism landscape: to be the ‘umbrella’ organization that helps other groups better reach their mission.”

7 – SPJ and other journalism organizations are talking about ways to make it easy for people to join multiple groups at once (p. 43).

8 – The next SPJ JournCamp – a day of professional training – will be June 13 in New York City (p. 45). Other cities being considered: San Francisco, Seattle, Denver, Houston or Dallas, New Orleans and Boston.

9 – “Since September, SPJ has distributed 48 news releases and statements…. The topics that have garnered the most traditional and social media attention are SPJ’s statement on the Charlie Hebdo attack; our statement and other Tweets regarding the FOI Improvement Act; our statement regarding the Columbia Journalism Review’s Rolling Stone report; and our statements regarding Indiana Gov. Mike Pence’s attempt at creating a state-run news service.” (p. 46)

10 – For the first time, SPJ collaborated with several other journalism organizations in judging SPJ’s New America Award. Our partners included: the Asian American Journalists Association, Radio Television Digital News Association, the National Association of Black Journalists, the Native American Journalists Association and National Association of Hispanic Journalists (p. 48).

11 – There will be a stronger effort this year to train delegates to the national convention, so they’re familiar with procedures and protocol (p. 50).

12 – Why is the national convention in September every year? It’s complicated – but not mandatory (p. 51).

13 – The post-graduate membership rate is available for three years. There is talk of extending it to four (p. 54).

14 – SPJ now has five communities, which are groups related by a common thread, other than geography (p. 56).

15 – When should SPJ issue a statement about the death of a journalist? (p. 59)

16 – About 41 percent of SPJ’s members do not belong to a chapter (including 38 percent in Region 2), which means they aren’t represented by a delegate on business matters at the national convention. A group is going to look at ways of giving that 41 percent representation. Again, it’s complex and there are no easy answers (p. 62).

17 – The pro/student membership breakdown for Region 2 is 597 pro (78 percent) and 172 student (22 percent). The largest chapter in the region is Washington, D.C., Pro, with 146 members (p. 67).

18 – The method for deciding on SPJ awards (Distinguished Teaching, Ethics, Fellows of the Society, and others) might change this year (p. 76).

19 – The SPJ Awards and Honors Committee studied whether any SDX awards given to NBC Nightly News with Brian Williams should be revoked, in light of his six-month suspension (p. 103)

20 – The SPJ Diversity Committee is working on a way to pay tribute to former SPJ President Reggie Stuart through a minority management training program (p. 111).

21 – The SPJ Ethics Committee and the International Community have worked together to translate the new SPJ Code of Ethics into several foreign languages (p. 112).

22 – Since November, the SPJ Legal Defense Fund Committee has considered six cases of legal action, but didn’t award any grants (p. 121).

23 – The SPJ Student Community is gathering information and feedback about internships, which are becoming rarer because of concerns about labor law (p. 123).






Ethics code highlights: So, what changed?

Maybe the updated SPJ Ethics Code is no longer a front-burner issue six weeks after it was approved (Sept. 6, by a voice vote). But I think it’s still worth highlighting what was changed.

My past posts showing proposed changes to the code, draft by draft, line by line, and my thoughts on them, might have been too busy and overwhelming for the average person. For example, this.

Some people followed along intently with as much wonkiness as I had, but at this year’s convention in Nashville, more people wanted something more boiled down and digestible.

With that in mind, here are several of the most noticeable differences in the new version:

• The preamble was reworked, but the different wording doesn’t have any substantially different ideas.

• In a few places, “journalists” has been replaced by “journalism.” Presumably, the idea is to include anyone who practices journalism — which is more important than trying to define journalists.

• A new line: (Each line in the code is prefaced with “Journalists should”) “Take responsibility for their work.” You could call this “the anti-Judith Miller” line. Miller, formerly of The New York Times, once said: “W.M.D. – I got it totally wrong. The analysts, the experts and the journalists who covered them – we were all wrong. If your sources are wrong, you are wrong. I did the best job that I could.”

• A new line: “Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy.” This is worth emphasizing and absorbing. Too often, I’ve heard, “It’s no big deal. It’s for the web. We’ll fix it later.”

• An enhanced standard, added: “Reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere. Explain why anonymity was granted.” This is a commonly used test for granting anonymity, but is frequently ignored in Washington, D.C., where anonymity is an overused crutch. [Note: Steve Buttry argues, correctly, that sources are “confidential,” not “anonymous,” when we know their names but shield their identities.]

• Examples deleted: “Avoid stereotyping. Journalists should examine the ways their values and experiences may shape their reporting.” The code used to say “Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.” The argument for the cut was: Why the need for examples? And what if something is left out? I think the examples spark an inner review that can be illuminating. Prompts help us see stereotyping we didn’t realize we were doing.

• A watering down: The old code said: “Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or content.” The new code says: “Label advocacy and commentary.” The new, weaker language is hazier and less meaningful.

• A simple, concise, powerful addition: “Never plagiarize” is now followed by “Always attribute.”

• A smart addition: “Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.”

• An even smarter addition: “Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication. Provide updated and more complete information as appropriate.” Many newspapers print lists of arrests, and don’t have initiative, time or staff to follow up on adjudications. In the age of the Internet search engine, this presents a huge ethical problem.

• An excellent, more forceful rewording: Old – “avoid bidding for news.” New – “do not pay for access to news.” TV networks run roughshod over ethics by paying sources, then rationalizing it as “licensing fees” – which, coincidentally, always come with exclusive interviews. Under the old wording, this was acceptable, as long there was no competitor trying to pay that same source.

• An expanded heading, recognizing an important concept: Old – “Be Accountable.” New – “Be Accountable and Transparent.”

• Stronger language on corrections: From “Admit mistakes and correct them promptly” to “Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently. Explain corrections and clarifications carefully and clearly.” A cryptic correction buried in the back of the paper isn’t enough.


What’s not in the new code:

• Linking: It’s something I hadn’t thought about until I read Buttry’s convincing argument. He writes: “It’s the best way to attribute in digital content. It provides depth and context. A culture of linking is a strong measure to help prevent plagiarism and fabrication.” In Nashville, the arguments against linking were peculiar. One journalist talked about working in a dangerous setting, where she could be punished for showing where she got information. Others balked at forcing journalists to link. Actually, no one would be forced to do anything – the code is almost entirely “Journalists should…” Add “whenever possible or practical,” if tempering it makes you more comfortable.

• Suicide coverage. The Ethics Committee proposed: “Be cautious about reporting suicides that do not involve a public person or a public place.” I spoke out strongly against this reference when I read it. First, it singles out suicide, rather than calling for care in reporting on any death. Second, the subtext is that suicide remains a taboo topic to be avoided whenever possible. This is an outdated way of thinking, perpetuating the myth of stigma attached to suicide. Actually, suicide is a serious mental health problem that should be covered as much as possible, remaining sensitive while covering a person’s life and death. Finally, there was an unintended meaning as it was written: Private suicides require caution, but public suicides do not. The SPJ national board agreed it should be removed. After further objections in Nashville, it was cut before the code reached delegates for a final vote.

• Anonymous online comments: This is a particular peeve of mine, and I figured that, as part of the code update, it was worth trying to get SPJ to be a leader in ethical thinking. Anonymous online comments too often are corrosive and harmful to an atmosphere of thoughtful, civil debate. They turn the ethics of responsible comment (letters to the editor are edited in advance for libel; identities are almost always required and confirmed) on their head. So, I proposed adding: “Encourage a civil exchange of public opinions. Recognize the potential harm of allowing anonymous online comments.” There was some support within the national board and even more in Nashville, but unresolvable dissent on what to target and how to say it. I didn’t pursue the matter further before convention delegates, which might have prolonged debate. Maybe I’ll try again in the future.


Epilogue: It was particularly interesting to look back on the start and end of the code update process. A year ago (and even before that), some people clamored that the code – last updated in 1996 – was woefully out of date, largely because it didn’t address the new phenomenon of social media.

I was skeptical at the time about the need for any update, but especially one based on that reasoning. I thought the code’s principles of ethical decision-making work fine on any platform. Information’s distribution channels didn’t matter; the ethics that went into gathering, compiling and presenting the information did.

Still, the code update process moved ahead.

But, go figure. There’s one more thing missing from the new code: Any reference to social media.

New ethics code draft is REALLY final, for now

On Aug. 20, the SPJ national board met by Skype to consider endorsing the Ethics Committee’s third and final proposal for updating the SPJ Code of Ethics.

The board voted 11-4, with one abstention, to endorse the draft, after agreeing that a newly added reference to coverage of suicide should be stricken.

The board also directed the Ethics Committee to go back over its latest draft and clean it up, eliminating typos and changing passive constructions to active.

On Aug. 28, the board got a copy of that reworked draft. A copy also was posted on the Ethics Committee’s blog.

However, unlike the document distributed to the national board on Thursday afternoon, the version posted on the blog doesn’t indicate what final changes were made.

The marked-up versions of each draft have made it much easier to follow what changes were made.

Since only a handful of passages were changed in this final editing process, I’ll paste them here, highlighting the changes that were made since the committee’s third draft was released. (On the other hand, some people might prefer seeing and absorbing the clean version.)


Here are the final edits (bold indicates additions, strike-through indicates deletions):

Under “Seek Truth and Report It”

• Question sources’ motives before promising anonymity, reserving it for those who may face danger, retribution or other harm.  Do not grant aAnonymity should not be granted merely as license to criticize. Pursue alternative sources before granting anonymity. Explain why anonymity was granted.

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

• Provide access to source material when it is relevant and appropriate.

• Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience. Seek sources whose voices we are seldom heard.

• Never deliberately distort facts or context, including visual news content.  Clearly label illustrations and re-enactments.

Under “Minimize Harm”

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

Under “Be Accountable and Transparent”

• Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently.  Explain Ccorrections and clarifications should be explained carefully and thoroughly.


For the first time in any of the Ethics Committee’s four drafts, a disclaimer has been added:

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.

This doesn’t exactly qualify as a minor edit for typos or verb construction, but it is not entirely new. It takes pieces of the current 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.

About four years ago, the Ethics Committee wrote the current disclaimer to address frequent, inappropriate attempts, particularly by lawyers, to frame the code as “law” or “rules” that journalists had to follow. That distorts the code’s actual purpose, as a set of guidelines and considerations for journalists before they make decisions. I’ve seen the disclaimer cited many times; I think it has been effective.

On Thursday, when I saw the new version of the disclaimer added to the committee’s final draft, without any references to the current disclaimer, I asked that it be given the markup treatment like everything above it. I hope that’s done before delegates review it in Nashville next week.

Remember that everything in the final draft is subject to change at the convention, under scrutiny of the delegates (of which I am one). Here are suggestions I recently made for further edits.


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 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:]

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.]   

SPJ board meets by Skype, debates code of ethics

“Transparency” is not just a principle to add to the SPJ Code of Ethics. It’s also a guide for how SPJ conducts its business, especially for the national board.

This week, SPJ took a small step forward as the national board held an electronic meeting.

In the past, remote meetings have been held by conference call, with no chance for the public to participate, listen or observe.

But SPJ has adopted an Openness and Accountability Best Practices Guide that acknowledges that meetings and official business are best done in the open, just as journalists expect of public bodies they cover.

On Wednesday at 7 p.m. Eastern, the SPJ national board used Skype to meet electronically for two topics.

I generally avoid Skype, but the meeting went pretty well. Here is a link to the archived broadcast.

I think we had about 20 people on the call at its peak. We kept from talking over each other by typing a message (“raises hand”) through Skype’s chat function. This is a transcript of that written discussion. In many places, the written comments won’t make sense without hearing the spoken comments.

We still need to do better.

It’s a great sign that links and a transcript of the discussion were posted shortly after the meeting, thanks to Tara Puckey at SPJ headquarters.

Hopefully, a summary of the board’s actions will be provided to all SPJ members soon, too. As the Openness Guide says: “Post a summary of the meeting at a chapter website promptly, preferably within five business days of the meeting, so members can keep abreast of chapter activities. Include any decisions or votes.”


We limited the agenda for the electronic meeting to two topics that needed to be discussed before the national convention in Nashville next month.

The first one was easy and quick. SPJ has created a “community” called SPJ Digital.

A community is a group of people with a common interest. It’s similar to a chapter, and can create a leadership structure and organize activities. But, unlike a chapter, it’s not based on geography.

SPJ Digital, led by Alex Veeneman, now has 80 members.

The national board approved the creation of this community by a unanimous voice vote.


The second topic — whether to endorse (a non-binding action) the newest draft of proposed changes to the SPJ Code of Ethics — took the bulk of our time.

The SPJ Ethics Committee has worked through three drafts, using public comments and collaboration by the committee last month at a meeting in Ohio.

The draft will go to delegates at the national convention in Nashville. It will be discussed at the opening business meeting Thursday, Sept. 4 (2 to 3:15 p.m.). Then, it will be debated, dissected and likely changed through amendments at the closing business session on Saturday, Sept. 6.

The closing business meeting is also when resolutions are introduced, debated and voted upon and when winning candidates for national SPJ offices are announced and sworn in.

The closing business session is scheduled for two hours – 3 to 5 p.m. Even if there are no controversial resolutions, I don’t expect two hours to be enough for scores of delegates to dissect more than 1,000 words of type and reach an agreement. The national board spent nearly that much time on Wednesday debating just two specific points.

I’m told that if needed, the closing business session can go longer, but not much. The next item on the schedule that day is the Legal Defense Fund Auction/Reception at 6:30 p.m., so the business meeting could run another 60 to 75 minutes or so.

Personally, I think debate over a code of ethics update is one of those extraordinary measures that calls for wiping clear a good chunk of the convention schedule. I’ll be disappointed if delegates’ debate is cut off just to follow a schedule and get to a reception.


To start discussion on the code of ethics on Wednesday, Secretary/Treasurer Paul Fletcher, who is on the Ethics Committee, moved that the board endorse the latest draft of the proposed code. Rebecca Tallent, a campus adviser at-large, seconded.

Several board members said they support the new version and it’s time for SPJ to move ahead. (The code of ethics was last updated in 1996.)

Immediate Past President Sonny Albarado agreed with some of the copyediting changes I pointed out in my critique of the third draft, especially fixing the typos. The Ethics Committee will be asked to correct any typos and change passive verb constructions to active.

There also was discussion about how the code of ethics will be turned into a “living document” — although that phrase doesn’t actually describe what would happen. It’s not that the code will be constantly updated. What the Ethics Committee has in mind is an “annotated code,” in which case studies are linked to certain principles for an expanded analysis.


Although there was little time or interest in doing a full-scale review of the latest draft during what was expected to be a relatively short board meeting, I recommended two changes.

The first concerned this line, which the Ethics Committee had recommended adding to the code: “Be cautious about reporting suicides that do not involve a public person or a public place.”

Ethics Committee Chairman Kevin Smith, in a blog post, wrote that the committee wanted to give a “gentle reminder” about the balance of private and public lives and whether their suicide deaths should become news, and in what detail.

However, I object to the subtext that suicide still should be seen as taboo and generally not a topic of news coverage. Actually, suicide is a serious national mental health concern and should be covered regularly and openly, whenever people are willing to talk. Those deaths should be handled with sensitivity, just like journalists should for deaths from any other causes, such as accidents.

Besides, the wording of this line, to my reading, has an inadvertent reverse message — that caution is not needed for suicide deaths involving a public person or public place. I don’t think that’s what the committee intended.

I moved that that line be removed from the draft of the code that the board endorsed. Student representative Lindsey Cook seconded.

After further discussion (see the transcript), the board voted in favor of my motion. Since the vote was oral, I’m not certain who voted which way, but I believe there were just three no votes.


The only other proposal for changing the draft also was mine.

I recommended that SPJ speak out in its code against anonymous online comments, or at least urge caution in allowing their use. Too many times, I see anonymous online comment threads turn into a cesspool of vicious, angry, racist and even libelous comments, all because people know they don’t have to attach their names to their thoughts.

For years, news organizations automatically allowed this free-for-all, but I’ve noticed that some are rethinking this and either shutting them down or more tightly monitoring them.

I moved that this passage be added in the “Minimize harm” section: “Encourage a civil exchange of public opinions, in which participants don’t mask their identities and poison the conversation. Recognize the potential harm of anonymous online comments.” Region 12 Director Tony Hernandez seconded.

Fletcher initially said he liked my suggestion and would accept it as a friendly amendment. However, there clearly was a difference of opinion (starting on p. 5 of the written transcript), so the board agreed to vote on that amendment.

It was voted down (we thought at the time that it was 11-4, but I now see that it was 10-5).

Yes (5): Schotz, Kopen Katcef, Hallenberg Christensen, Hernandez, Brett Hall

No (10): Corry, Neuts, Cook, Radske, Sheets, Matthew Hall, Fox, Tallent, Gallagher Newberry, Albarado


Region 4 Director Patti Gallagher Newberry moved for alternate wording: “Encourage online commenters to identify themselves so as to preserve civil discourse.” President-elect Dana Neuts seconded.

There was some support, but it didn’t acknowledge anonymous online comments; it was too subtle for me.

Matthew Hall proposed another alternate — “Encourage a civil exchange of public opinions” — but the board first had to vote on Gallagher Newberry’s motion.

Here, the discussion picked up and many people chimed in. Gallagher Newberry even recommended another version: “Encourage news consumers to identify themselves and offer civil exchanges when offering feedback to news coverage or issues of the day.” I think this is the version we voted on, although I’m not positive.

The board rejected Gallagher Newberry’s proposal by a voice vote.


I then put forward a simplified version of my earlier motion, striking the “poison” reference: “Encourage a civil exchange of public opinions. Recognize the potential harm of allowing anonymous online comments.” Hallenberg Christensen seconded.

There was more support this time, but this, too, was rejected — particularly as some board members were ambivalent about tinkering with the current draft. Again, the roll call vote was tough to monitor, as people’s votes scrolled by quickly, which is one reason we need a better system for an electronic meeting. It’s not good to be unsure of what you’re voting on or what the outcome is. Some people might have voted orally.

My final motion was rejected, 8-5.

Yes (5): Schotz, Gallagher Newberry, Hernandez, Kopen Katcef, Hallenberg Christensen

No (8): Matthew Hall, Cook, Albarado, Corry, Tallent, Fox, Sheets, Neuts


Finally, the board voted on whether to endorse the latest draft, as amended (without the reference to suicide).

The board voted 11-4 in favor. However, the transcript of the written comments, where we had been voting, show an incomplete total, missing more than half of the votes.

Here’s how it’s shown in the draft minutes compiled by SPJ headquarters, which are in the packet for the next board meeting:

Yes (11): Brett Hall, Neuts, Hernandez, Gallagher Newberry, Albarado, Hallenberg Christensen, Fox, Matthew Hall, Tallent, Kopen Katcef, Fletcher

No (4): Cook, Koretzky, Schotz, Corry

Abstain (1): Sheets

The meeting was adjourned at 8:54 p.m. Eastern.

So far/still to come – SPJ Code of Ethics review

In response to a discussion at last month’s SPJ national board meeting, some officers, staff members and Ethics Committee members created the following overview of the process for possibly updating the code of ethics.

There are plenty of ways to participate up to (and including) this year’s national convention in Nashville in September. One way that’s not listed, but I believe will happen, is a session to discussion the changes during the conference.

Please look at the first draft of proposed changes to the code, if you haven’t already. This is a mark-through version that’s probably easier to follow than comparing the original to the draft.



SPJ Code of Ethics Revision Process
Version 2.0 (May 6, 2014)

Process Overview
This memo outlines the process for revising the SPJ Code of Ethics, which was last updated in 1996. Ultimately, only the SPJ delegates have the authority make changes to the code. Any delegate can propose changes at the national convention, but typically changes have been made through a process that solicits suggestions from members, non-members and leaders in journalism ethics. This revision process mirrors previous revisions, but adds more opportunities for input based on the technology available today. The Ethics Committee has been tasked with gathering input, crafting a revised code (likely several drafts), bounce it off other groups, such as the SPJ Board, and offer it to the delegates at EIJ14 Sept. 4-7 for their consideration. The delegates may adopt it, adopt it with modifications, reject it, or ask for more information and further consideration at EIJ15.

Phase 1: Initial Draft (August 2013-April 2014)
The first phase focused on gathering input from inside and outside SPJ and crafting an initial draft:
•    Big-picture discussion: After hearing from journalists inside and outside of SPJ regarding the need for a code update, then-incoming-President David Cuillier scheduled a town hall meeting at the EIJ13 convention in Anaheim in August 2014. The gathering was led by Ethics Committee Chairman Kevin Smith and various views were expressed.
•    Task assigned: Following the open discussion, Cuillier directed the Ethics Committee to solicit feedback and craft an update that delegates could consider at EIJ14 in Nashville.
•    Working group formed: Smith created a working group consisting of the 10-member committee, as well as eight ethics experts from outside the committee, including Kelly McBride from the Poynter Institute, social media pro Monica Guzman, and others (Chris Roberts, Carole Feldman, Tom Kent, Jan Leach, Stephen Ward, Lynn Walsh). The group also solicited feedback from the members and the public via e-mail, social media and  other SPJ communication tools. In addition, a digital subcommittee was formed to provide input on new ethical challenges resulting from emerging technology.
•    Four-section assignment: In late January, the ethics group was divided into four groups, each responsible for taking first crack at each section in the code: Seek Truth and Report It, Minimize Harm, Act Independently, and Be Accountable. The public comments and the digital subcommittee report were shared with the groups before they crafted their respective sections. When the groups were done, they gave their drafts to one of the other groups for editing.
•    The work groups were as follows (*denotes core ethics committee member):
•    Seek Truth — *Irwin Gratz, *Mike Farrell, Monica Guzman, Jan Leach
•    Minimize Harm — *Kevin Smith, *Andrew Seaman, Chris Roberts, Carole Feldman
•    Act Independently — *Paul Fletcher, *Lauren Bartlett, Lynn Walsh, Stephen Ward
•    Be Accountable — *Fred Brown, *Hagit Limor, Kelly McBride
•    First draft compilation: Smith then compiled all the drafts into one version and distributed it in late March for discussion at SPJ spring regional conferences. It was posted on the SPJ website ( and more than 600 suggestions were gathered via the blog, an online form at, conferences, and email sent directly to Smith.

Phase 2: Public Outreach and Revision (May-July 2014)
The next phase is to gather as much feedback as possible from members, non-member journalists, the public, ethics scholars and other constituencies, and work through two more drafts. Starting in May, a steering group of Smith, Walsh and Andrew Seaman, aided by SPJ Executive Director Joe Skeel, will coordinate outreach and communications efforts. Also, the new SPJ communications strategist will likely be assigned to assist with outreach. They include:

•    Website update: A new webpage just for the code revision will be created, rather than relying on the blog format. Information about the revision process will be posted as it progresses, including various efforts to collect input, and a time line for what is ahead in the process. Also, bios and headshots for the working group will be added to the website, as well as news coverage about the ethics code revision. The target launch date for the site is May 19.
•    Comment aggregation: Seaman is setting up an online comment aggregation tool so that the hundreds, perhaps thousands, of comments can be aggregated and assimilated in some relative order. The comments will be available online for anyone to see and should help the committee make sense of the prevailing thoughts.
•    Online solicitations: With the conclusion of the final SPJ Spring Conference, the committee will send an email to all SPJ members and other interested parties outlining the rest of the drafting process. Within that email, there will be a link for people to submit comments, suggestions and questions.
•    Tumblr page: Lynn Walsh created a Tumblr page ( that could also be used to curate comments and spark discussion.
•    Twitter chats: In an effort to bring in people outside SPJ, the committee is planning to organize Twitter chats with well-known groups. Those included so far are MuckRack (Tuesday, May 13) and #WJchat.
•    Newsroom outreach: Walsh will reach out to newsrooms. People can forward copies of the draft to their colleagues for feedback, or they can hold small focus group within their own newsrooms to submit the recommendations.
•    Other publicity: In addition to the previous ways of communicating about the Code, the steering committee is looking at other possibilities proposed by Michael Koretzky, including:
•    Interested board members and other SPJ leaders personally contacting industry thought leaders to make suggestions.
•    SPJ polling every journalism ethics professor in the country.
•    SPJ leaders asking to present at other organizations’ conventions.
•    Consider spending a few hundred dollars on PPC and leveraging SEO on the page, maybe installing Yoast on all Ethics-related material.
•    Asking candidates for SPJ office to comment on the Code revamp.
•    Membership emails linking directly to curated, interactive pages.
•    Second draft: The revision work group will continue revising the draft, based on the feedback gathered. Comments must be received by June 30, and then a second draft will be finished by the committee in July, along with an explanation of why certain types comments were included and others were not. Realistically, we will have hundreds, if not thousands of comments, so every suggestion cannot be incorporated, but a general discussion of thinking in the revision with comment themes will be provided. The second draft will be posted online and distributed through the communication channels described above.

Phase 3: Final Revisions (July-September 2014)
The final phase will involve polishing the third draft and bouncing it off select audiences before presentation to the delegates for a September vote.
•    Third draft: The working group will meet in person in July to hash out the final points of contention and produce a polished third draft. The meeting will be streamed live and viewers may post comments as it happens.
•    Sounding boards: Ideally, a panel discussion with ombudsmen and standards editors will be set up to discuss the third draft and to gather outside viewpoints. Also, in August the SPJ Board will discuss the draft in a conference call and consider making its advisory recommendation to the delegates on whether to approve the draft.
•    Membership vote: A question will be put on the membership ballot this fall so members can vote on their level of support or non-support for the revisions. This vote will be advisory to the delegates, and non-binding
•    Delegate discussion: At EIJ14 in Nashville in September, the delegates will have the opportunity to approve the final draft, not approve it, approve it with amended changes, consider other versions, or postpone consideration for further review and discussion. The board and president will take direction from the delegates if further discussion or action is necessary.
•    Code promotion: If the code updates are approved, SPJ’s communications strategist will develop a plan for distributing and promoting the revised Code to all of the appropriate stakeholders including but not limited to SPJ members, non-members, journalism schools, other journalism organizations and the media.


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