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Code Words: SPJ’s Ethics Committee Blog
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Journalists Should Tread Lightly When Projecting Election Results

Ethics Committee
This committee's purpose is to encourage the use of the Society's Code of Ethics, which promotes the highest professional standards for journalists of all disciplines. Public concerns are often answered by this committee. It also acts as a spotter for reporting trends in the nation, accumulating case studies of jobs well done under trying circumstances.

Ethics Committee chair

Andrew Seaman
Email
@andrewmseaman
Bio (click to expand) Andrew is a medical journalist for Reuters Health in New York. Before coming to Reuters Health, he was a Kaiser Media Fellow at Reuters’s Washington, D.C. bureau, where he covered the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

In 2011, Andrew graduated from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied investigative journalism as a Stabile Fellow and was named “Student of the Year.” Andrew also graduated with his B.A. from Wilkes University in 2011.

He’s won numerous awards throughout his short career, including being named a 2010 Tom Bigler Scholar for ethical standards in journalism, the 2009 Robert D.G. Lewis First Amendment Award, the 2009 and the Arthur H. Barlow National Student Journalist of the Year Award.


Fred Brown, vice chair
E-mail
Bio (click to expand) picture Fred Brown is a former national president of SPJ (1997-98) and is very active on its ethics committee. He writes a column on ethics for Quill magazine and served on the committee that wrote the Society’s 1996 code of ethics.

Brown officially retired from The Denver Post in early 2002, but continues to write a Sunday editorial page column for the newspaper. He also does analysis for Denver’s NBC television station, teaches communication ethics at the University of Denver, and is a principal in Hartman & Brown, LLP, a media training and consulting firm. He has won several awards for writing and community service, including a Sigma Delta Chi Award for editorial writing in 1988. He is an Honor Alumnus of Colorado State University, a member of the Denver Press Club Hall of Fame, and serves on the boards of directors of Colorado Public Radio, the Colorado Freedom of Information Council and the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation.




SPJ Ethics
Committee Members


Lauren Bartlett
E-mail

David Cohn

Elizabeth Donald
E-mail

Mike Farrell
E-mail

Carole Feldman

Paul Fletcher
E-mail

Hagit Limor
E-mail

Dana Neuts
E-mail


Chris Roberts

Alex Veeneman
E-mail

Home > Ethics > Ethics Case Studies > The Times and Jayson Blair

Ethics Case Studies
The Times and Jayson Blair

WHAT: Jayson Blair advanced quickly during his tenure at The New York Times, where he was hired as a full-time staff writer after his internship there and others at The Boston Globe and The Washington Post. Even accusations of inaccuracy and a series of corrections to his reports on Washington, D.C.-area sniper attacks did not stop Blair from moving on to national coverage of the war in Iraq. But when suspicions arose over his reports on military families, an internal review found that he was fabricating material and communicating with editors from his Brooklyn apartment — or within the Times building — rather than from outside New York.

Some Times staffers, opposed to what they viewed as favoritism by Executive Editor Howell Raines, blamed a star system that allowed Blair to advance unusually fast in an extremely competitive, mostly veteran environment. Blair's former boss, Jonathan Landman, said race played a large part in the African American writer's ascendancy.

The findings of a 25-member committee headed by Allan Siegal, an assistant managing editor, led to the appointment of a public editor and stricter editorial policies. But staffing changes and higher standards could not change what happened: The Times‘s reputation was deeply tarnished. Raines and Managing Editor Gerald Boyd resigned in a cloud of mismanagement. Journalism, in general, suffered perhaps the biggest blow to its credibility in U.S. history.

Question: How does the Times investigate problems and correct policies that allowed the Blair scandal to happen?

WHO: The consequences of Blair's actions are so broad that it is important to have representatives from all staff levels, as well as journalists outside the Times staff, weigh in on corrective steps. Leading this group should be one or several highly ethical consensus-builders who can solicit and synthesize ideas from throughout the profession.

In the case of the Times, stakeholders range from the humble retiree who simply reads his paper in the morning to the power-wielding diplomat who relies on foreign-policy reports to inform her decisions. Journalists, too, lose ground when a colleague lowers the public's value of their work. As a group, biggest stakeholders are citizens of democracies, which depend on journalists to grow trust in readers with accurate reporting.

WHY: The Blair case raises questions about hiring, management and overall editorial policy.

First, there is the issue of relative inexperience in a super-high-stakes newsroom. Is it fair to senior staffers to allow a fresh-out-of-college writer to step into the ranks? More importantly, is it fair to expect such an inexperienced writer, however talented, to produce reporting as sharp as that of a decorated correspondent? While a pure meritocracy allows an individual of any experience level to fill any role, talent in the absence of experience could lead to diminished professionalism: Blair's ability to impress editors with his writing may have led to him feeling that facts are less important than prose.

Second, there is the question of who is responsible for letting Blair go so far. Is it the editor who hired him straight from the University of Maryland? How bout successive editors, who, despite their mediocre evaluations, did not object loudly enough to Blair's promotions? Could the executive and managing editors, with their big-picture roles and busy days, truly be responsible for one staffer’s malfeasance?

Third, there must be a better way. Is it enough to know what went wrong and tighten the reigns on practices such as anonymous sources? Or does the Times need an auditor, someone it pays for a scolding? Why should an outsider be allowed to make recommendations on better internal practices? Then again, how could an insider, in earshot of the mess itself, lead the committee to fix things?

HOW: The Times decided that to remedy the nasty ramifications of the Blair scandal, it would commission an insider, along with others in and outside the Times newsroom, to investigate problems and suggest changes. The insider, Siegal, decided the Times should hire an outsider (who would be former Life magazine editor Daniel Okrent) to suggest further improvements. And Times editorial policy changed to reflect a much more cautious, conservative atmosphere concerning staff promotions and, especially, verification of reporting. A notable example of the latter aspect regards anonymous sources. In terms of staffing, the Times went so far as to require written evaluations for any candidates transferring between posts.

A particularly difficult aspect of the fallout, although one welcome by staffers who felt marginalized, was the dual resignation of Raines and Boyd. That development, at least in the view of Publisher Arthur Sulzberger, was for the greater good of the Times. Symbolically, their departures made it possible for observers to view the Times as a reformed institution.

— By Adrian Uribarri, SPJ Ethics Committee

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Ethics
Ethics Home
SPJ Code of Ethics
News/Articles
Case Studies
Committee Position Papers
Ethics Answers
Ethics Hotline
Resources
Ethics Committee

Code Words: SPJ’s Ethics Committee Blog
Words Matter: Alt Right Alternatives
TV Execs, Journos Fail Viewers With Off-the-record Meeting
Journalists Should Tread Lightly When Projecting Election Results

Ethics Committee
This committee's purpose is to encourage the use of the Society's Code of Ethics, which promotes the highest professional standards for journalists of all disciplines. Public concerns are often answered by this committee. It also acts as a spotter for reporting trends in the nation, accumulating case studies of jobs well done under trying circumstances.
 

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