Posts Tagged ‘SPJ Code of Ethics’


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.

Updated: A cover image

Update 2, Aug. 15:

SPJ Region 3 Director Michael Koretzky posted this today:

I LOVE BIG “BUTS”

 

*****

Update, Aug. 15:

SPJ Diversity Committee Chairwoman Dori Zinn wrote this piece about the Quill cover and Marie Baca’s objection to it:

Let’s Talk about the Cover SPJ Isn’t Talking about

*****

This is my original post:

On Saturday, SPJ member Marie C. Baca in New Mexico sent an open letter to the SPJ national board voicing her displeasure with the cover of the July/August 2017 issue of Quill.

Here’s what she wrote:

To the SPJ Board of Directors:

What does a woman’s butt have to do with a journalism conference? The answer is, of course, nothing, but that’s not what thousands of SPJ member were led to believe when they looked at the July/August issue of Quill.

I kind of understand how this happened. Someone was like, “Hey, we need art for a feature called ‘Training Day,’ which will connect the concept of boot camp to sessions offered for the 2017 Excellence in Journalism conference!” and someone else was like “Let’s do a woman running up a flight of stairs!” All of which is pretty problematic in and of itself, but the execution is completely inexcusable. We don’t get to see this woman’s face, she is simply an object, and the focal point of the cover photo is her butt.

I’m not alone in thinking this was a colossal screw-up. By the time I decided to take my concerns to Twitter, another journalist in Texas had tweeted about the same thing. After I posted my feelings about the cover, I received an overwhelming response from the New Mexico (where I’m based) journalism community expressing their outrage at the photo.

I tweeted this at the SPJ account to share my concerns:

‪@spj_tweets‪ I am FURIOUS. With all the “locker room talk” and sexism in tech discussion, you think THIS is an appropriate cover??.”

They gave me the following reply (the same reply that was given to the Texas journalist):

“Thank you for taking the time to share your opinions with us. We value your input. The photo was chosen several weeks ago to represent a story about training yourself. Our opinion, and that of others we have talked to, is that the photo is not sexist. Rather, it depicts a woman wearing typical workout clothing. We are sorry some readers find it offensive.”

This is—let’s be honest here—a pretty shitty explanation and an even shittier apology. The comment about “chosen several weeks ago” seems to imply that the same photo would not have been chosen in light of the Google manifesto story, which is a sort of tacit admission that the photo is, at the very least, insensitive. I don’t think I need to tell anyone on the board that sexism is a very long-standing issue in this country, not to mention in our profession.

And let’s talk about “depicts a woman wearing typical workout clothing.” Yeah, but, like, why? Why was it necessary to depict a faceless woman in spandex working out and not like, male and female journalists working out together? Or maybe, if you did use a woman for the photograph, a focal point that wasn’t her butt? Just spit-balling here.

I have a feeling that some of you think I am blowing this out of proportion, but I also have a feeling that some of you know that I’m not. Maybe some of you have had some of the same experiences that I’ve had in the journalism industry. You know, the ones that aren’t something worth filing a sexual harassment or discrimination lawsuit over, but the ones that very quietly tell you that you maybe you don’t deserve the same respect or opportunities as your older, whiter, male-r colleagues. And some of you know I’m right when I say that when a young woman at the beginning of her journalism career goes into her editor’s office and sees that picture on his desk, she’s going to be ever-so-slightly less likely to ask for that raise she knows she deserves.

The part of the SPJ Code of Ethics I hold most dear is the line that says, “Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.” I have a version of this statement written on a Post-It and stuck to my computer. It’s hard to imagine another time in our nation’s history when that idea has been more relevant, for all journalists, no matter what they cover. I primarily write about business, and I spend a lot of time thinking about how the actions of powerful companies—Facebook, Amazon, and the like—affect state- and local-level issues, particularly those related to marginalized communities. It’s about “giving a voice to the voiceless,” right? If we abandon our mission to “afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted,” we abandon our duties as the Fourth Estate.

In this situation, you are the powerful, the comfortable. You are the oldest organization representing journalists in the United States. Quill is sent to thousands of your members, who then throw the publication on their desks, the cover visible to anyone who walks by. Here’s my big ask from you:

  1. Acknowledge that the photo was sexist.
  2. Figure out the chain of command that allowed such a photo to appear on the cover of Quill.
  3. Have a meeting where everyone is in agreement about how to make sure this will never happen again.
  4. Share #1 through #3 in a very public way.

Thank you for your time and I look forward to hearing from you soon.

Sincerely,

Marie C. Baca

*****

Initially, Baca tagged several members of the board on Twitter, which led to a discussion among board members throughout the day. She followed up later by email with her letter.

This was another complaint we received through Twitter:

 

SPJ headquarters, which publishes Quill, responded to the two tweets:

 

Since Baca asked for board members’ thoughts, I’ll share mine (speaking only for myself — not the board or SPJ).

In recent years, Quill has been the subject of scrutiny. What type of magazine should it be? What topics should it cover? And the biggest question: Should it become online only?

I enjoy it, finding something worthwhile in every issue.

When the latest issue arrived in the mail, I glanced at it and put it aside until I had time to read it. I saw that the theme was training, illustrated by a running woman. But I also briefly hesitated over the photo choice.

Baca says a photo of a woman running on the cover of a journalism magazine is “problematic.” I disagree. Magazine covers have leeway for art or representation (Quill has long done this) and physical activity is a visceral way to connote “training.”

I also disagree with her assertion that a picture of someone from the back should not be considered.

The most famous photo of the most famous baseball player (Babe Ruth) shows him from the back as he said farewell at Yankee Stadium. It won the Pulitzer Prize for Nat Fein. (Yes, I realize the attention to the human form in these two photos is different.)

But I, too, wondered why the Quill cover photo couldn’t show running or working out in a different way, which I took as Baca’s main point. Some people see a woman in workout clothes in action. Others see the woman’s butt as a focal point.

I’ve been part of numerous newsroom discussions on deadline about photo choices, including some involving girls and women in competition. Is the image unflattering? Revealing? Is the expression embarrassing? Sometimes, the importance of an athletic moment matters most.

Then, there are times we in the newsroom either didn’t have the right conversation or didn’t have one at all. This might be one of those times. Based on the tweeted reply, no one working on the magazine saw this photo through the eyes of someone who would perceive it differently, in a negative way.

The debate in this case is not over a significant news photo. So, there was no reason to go to the wall to use it; another image of exercise would have sufficed. But that debate would have been had only if we were more attuned to the possible drawbacks of using it.

I don’t think “sexist” is a fair label, implying prejudice or discrimination. But I think it’s valid that we redouble our commitment to be sensitive and thoughtful and to get a variety of input when making journalistic decisions. Baca has helped remind us.

She cited a favorite part of the SPJ Code of Ethics upon which she relies: “Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.”

I am glad she wrote, if only to start a discussion. As always, I welcome her feedback.

*****

Update, Aug 13:

Marie Baca left this response to my post:

mariecbaca
mariecbaca@gmail.com
67.164.129.50
Hi Andy,

Thanks for continuing the dialogue. A few things I want to respond to here:

1. I’d like to clarify my comment about a photo of a running woman being in and of itself “problematic.” I’m sure there’s a feature topic for which an image of a running woman would be an appropriate cover choice (a story about women running, for example), but it’s not for a story that is essentially an advertisement for the SPJ conference. Even if the subject had been photographed in a way that emphasized something other than her butt, the fact that a faceless woman in tight workout clothing was used to tease a conference story makes SPJ no better than the advertisers we criticize in other contexts.

2. Yes, there are famous photos of people shot from behind, but the Babe Ruth image you refer to in your post creates a dangerous false equivalence. When readers saw that Babe Ruth photo, they knew exactly who they were looking at. If, for some reason, they didn’t know it was Babe Ruth, or didn’t recognize his jersey number, the rest of the photograph indicates that this is a man in a position of power who is being honored by thousands of people. The SPJ photo could not be more different. We have no idea who this woman is, because we can’t see her face and we have no other contextual clues. She isn’t a person here; she’s an object, and her butt is the central focus of the image. Combine that with our industry’s long history of sexism and complacency even today, the photo is in my mind, incredibly sexist.

3. I appreciate your comment about this possibly being one of those “times we in the newsroom either didn’t have the right conversation or didn’t have one at all.” To me, this is the crux of the issue.

Lastly, I want to talk about your comment that “sexist” isn’t a fair label for this photo, “as it implies prejudice or discrimination.” But that’s exactly what’s going on here. Not all sexism in our industry is overt, Mad Men-era ideas that women should only write about fashion lest they bleed all over the news page. In this day and age, it is more likely to be subtler, but just as insidious. This photo is discriminatory because it treats the woman as an object and uses her butt as the central focal point despite their being no real reason to do so. It is a lazy choice for a feature package that is essentially an advertisement. While I appreciate this post, I stand by my claims that the SPJ should investigate this issue, apologize, and assure their members this will never happen again.

Best,

Marie

 

From the spring SPJ board meeting

Better late than never…

Here are highlights of the actions and discussions from last month’s SPJ national board meeting in New Orleans:

Membership

• The big topic of the day was membership. I’m not sure how long ago it was that SPJ had at least 10,000 members, but the number has been dwindling and is now less than 7,000.

One of SPJ President Paul Fletcher”s top priorities has been to address this decline, which is why a group of SPJers convened in Scottsdale, Arizona, in January and brainstormed some ideas and strategies.

The plan last month in New Orleans was for the national board to go into executive session to hear about the ideas and discuss them. But several board members (including me) preferred to have the discussion in public, which we did.

We then did some brainstorming of our own, looking at the Arizona group’s outline — appealing in one sense to “fighters” (in the advocacy sense) and in another sense to those seeking a “lifetime connection” (helping journos young and old).

Many good ideas came out of this session — too many to list here. (Plus, our session was free form, writing suggestions on sticky notes on walls, and I wasn’t taking notes.) I’ll share more specifics as our discussion advances.

The rest of the agenda

• The board talked about a rough proposal by the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation board for a new SPJ position — someone who could be a central resource for journos in need. The person might travel to hotspots for national coverage (i.e., Ferguson, Mo., or Baltimore), particularly when issues of press freedom or access arrive. This is still just an idea that’s being molded.

It’s not up to the SPJ board to approve the position, but board members had ideas about the pros and cons. Region 3 Director Michael Koretzky suggested starting it with a one-year fellowship to see how well it works, rather than having a multi-year commitment, which is what the SDX board prefers to attract a top-notch person.

The SPJ board voted in favor of a motion to support the concept of the position. There were two votes against – from Koretzky and At-Large Director Bill McCloskey.

• The board went into executive session to discuss recommendations for this year’s Fellows of the Society.

• In his president’s report, Fletcher talked about efforts to improve the federal Freedom of Information Act, a new SPJ “choose your own adventure” SPJ program, and a meeting at the White House with Press Secretary Josh Earnest on concerns about limitations on gathering information from government officials.

Fletcher said the resolutions process will be different this year. Resolutions Committee Chairman Sonny Albarado will put out a call on May 1 for resolutions to be submitted before the national convention, so there’s more time to draft them and SPJ members to review them.

• Fletcher talked about the newest — and possibly youngest — SPJ member: 9-year-old Hilde Kate Lysiak of Pennsylvania. Hilde got national publicity for her dogged reporting for the newspaper she publishes, including a scoop she got about a homicide. The SPJ board chipped in to give Hilde a four-year SPJ membership.

• The board approved a $1,202,230 budget for fiscal year 2017 expenses, up about 1.2 percent from $1,187,905 in the current fiscal year. In a memo, Executive Director Joe Skeel called it “the most aggressive” SPJ budget he has prepared. “In the past, I only included revenue I was confident we would get,” he wrote. “This year, we are going to have to work hard to hit those projections.”

The budget includes $20,000 in new revenue for association management, which is the work SPJ does to help other journalism organizations operate. Usually, the budget includes merit-based raises of up to 4 percent, but this year, that was cut to 3 percent. Skeel noted that SPJ has about $600,000 in unrestricted cash reserves.

For a look at the full budget and the rest of the board meeting packet, go to https://www.spj.org/board-meeting.asp.

• The board approved three new SPJ student chapters — Samford University in Alabama, the University of Chicago, and Utah Valley University.

• We had a lengthy debate about a proposal for a new level of SPJ membership. It was proposed as “associate,” but it might be called “supporter” or something else (since there already is an “associate” membership category). These would be people who support journalism, but aren’t doing journalism. They would pay $20 a year to show their support, without getting the benefits of membership.

I cast one of the two votes against the proposal. I agree with the concept, but I had concerns about the possible confusion of creating a category that seems to duplicate something that already exists. Still, I look forward to seeing how this is carried out and how much outside financial support we get.

• There was another long debate about a recent membership drive by the SPJ Florida chapter. Chapter leaders used an “opt out” drive to sign up new members, particularly those who belong to Florida’s two other pro chapters, which are mostly inactive. This practice diverged from the philosophy at the national level, which was to stop assigning members to chapters based on geography, not on whether they asked to belong. For the Florida membership drive, if the person opened the email and didn’t write back with a refusal, he or she was signed up for the chapter.

I had another objection, too. I am strongly against anything “opt out,” in which someone has to expressly say no to avoid being enrolled in a group or added to a list. I don’t understand how “opt in,” in which a person is only enrolled or added by making a request, is insufficient. SPJ Florida is an excellent chapter and doesn’t charge dues. My objection was philosophical, and had nothing to do with the efforts or work of the chapter.

I made a motion that SPJ, at the national or local level, never use “opt out” marketing. Secretary-Treasurer Rebecca Baker seconded my motion, then withdrew her second, so the motion died.

• The board approved a recommendation by a task force that studied how to fix a gap in representation. About 41 percent of SPJ members do not belong to a chapter, so they don’t have delegates representing them on business matters at national conventions. The task force considered a few options, and settled on one — having an at-large delegate system. Unaffiliated members would choose delegates to represent them.

This is more complicated than the “one member, one vote” system that allows every member to vote electronically in national SPJ elections, but I don’t see another way. It’s impractical to have remote electronic voting on matters (such as a new SPJ Code of Ethics) that can and will be amended on the floor. We haven’t come up with a practical way to have national votes after a proposal has changed.

Three national board members voted against the at-large delegate proposal: President-Elect Lynn Walsh, Region 9 Director Tom Johnson, and Koretzky.

• In a related discussion, the board approved a protocol for making sure that convention delegates know they can call for a referendum. This topic was part of the review done by the 41 percent task force (on which I served). There was some concern that even though a referendum is allowed under SPJ’s bylaws, delegates have been told in the past that they could not call for a referendum. The 41 percent task force asked for a specific reference to a referendum in SPJ’s bylaws. The national board, however, rejected that idea and instead called for a specific reference in the instructions read aloud to delegates at the business session. I was the only board member to vote no on this idea, preferring to have the bylaws change.

Sigma Delta Chi Foundation board

• One noteworthy item on the agenda when the SDX board met the next day was whether to accept a $26,273 donation from Stephen Glass, a serial fabricator while working at the New Republic and other publications. Glass, who is trying to receive a law license in California, sent money back to publications he harmed. One of those publications folded, so Glass sent money to the SDX Foundation instead.

After an excellent, stimulating debate (one of the best I’ve heard in my SPJ time), the board decided to reject the money and return it to Glass, as it explained in this letter.

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 http://www.lifeofthelaw.org/2015/12/san-quentin-journalists:

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.
San-Quentin-Chapter-of-the-Society-of-Professional-Journalists-1140x760

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)

 

Guest post: Be Vigilant and Courageous, SPJ

Regional director’s note: The following piece is by Gideon Grudo, a board member of the Washington, D.C., Pro chapter of SPJ. I offered this space as a platform for his opinion.

Gideon is reacting to this:

On Friday, SPJ posted this statement from Ethics Committee Chairman Andrew Seaman about journalists entering the home of suspected San Bernardino killers Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik:
“Journalists should feel free to investigate stories when and where possible. They need to minimize harm in their reporting, however. Walking into a building and live broadcasting the pictures, addresses and other identifying information of children or other people who may have no involvement in the story does not represent best and ethical practices.”

Gideon’s response (from himself, and not representing the D.C. Pro board):

BE VIGILANT AND COURAGEOUS, SPJ

When I read SPJ’s reaction to the now infamous live-broadcast shooters’ apartment ransack, it pissed me off.

Why? Because when SPJ fails to stomp its foot and slam its fist at unethical journalism, it violates its own code of ethics and it loses more relevance.

Here’s a clause from the very first plank of that code: Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. Give voice to the voiceless.

Absent are these traits in the statement SPJ’s ethics chair, Andrew Seaman, delivered about CNN’s and MSNBC’s unethical blunder. It is not vigilant and it is not courageous. It is weak and it is cowardly. It is indirect and it is fragile. It’s not a statement. It’s a friendly reminder that SPJ’s code exists, directed at no one and avoiding eye contact.

So let’s get courageous…

Seaman writes: Journalists should feel free to investigate stories when and where possible. They need to minimize harm in their reporting, however.

Don’t be afraid to call spades and write something like this: CNN and MSNBC journalists violated journalistic ethics in their apartment crawl coverage. If you get access to a suspected shooter’s apartment, be responsible.

And vigilant…

Seaman writes: Walking into a building and live broadcasting the pictures, addresses and other identifying information of children or other people who may have no involvement in the story does not represent best and ethical practices.”

What the hell does “does not represent best and ethical practices” mean? Say what you mean, like this: Don’t walk into a building and live broadcast identifying information of people who might have nothing to do with killing people. You could be endangering lives with this unethical drivel. It’s irresponsible and has no place on your platform.

Get angry. Get loud. Stand up. Get red in the face. Stop being so damn polished. When you’re this clean, no one can hear you. When no one can hear you, SPJ’s membership keeps falling. It’s all connected.

If SPJ wants folks to respect its code, it should show the code some respect, too (and itself some respect while we’re at it).

To its credit, SPJ now links to material that expounds on its ethics clauses (an effort Seaman adamantly and successfully championed). Here’s backup for the clause I quoted from the likes of Poynter and Harvard. CNN and MSNBC don’t make policy like those at whom the clause is historically targeted, but they do very much set an example of what to do or not do to media across the world. They are largely influential, or as I see it, “with power.”

We know SPJ’s Code of Ethics and we belabor its importance in an effort to elevate our stature. But when shit hits the fan and smears the lot of us, we subtly forget about Strunk & White. We force our words through turnstiles of passivity and placidity. The result? No one notices. No one cares. If change is realized, it won’t be by our hand.

In an age saturated with aggregate filler, direct and deliberate speech is the currency of relevance.

Here’s my likely quixotic advice to this society I hold very dear: Be who you are or don’t be at all.

To respond, either post a comment here or contact Gideon at ggrudo@gmail.com.

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 salbarado@spj.org.]

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.

 

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 spj.org) 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@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.]   

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.

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