Posts Tagged ‘social media’


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• In a few places, “journalists” has been replaced by “journalism.”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.

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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.

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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.

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