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Ethics Committee

Code Words: SPJ’s Ethics Committee Blog
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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 > Deep Throat, and His Motive

Ethics Case Studies
Deep Throat, and His Motive

WHAT: The Watergate story is considered perhaps American journalism’s defining accomplishment. Two intrepid young reporters for The Washington Post, carefully verifying and expanding upon information given to them by sources they went to great lengths to protect, revealed brutally damaging information about one of the most powerful figures on Earth, the American president. They worked diligently on a story others were too indifferent, or too lazy, to pursue, and their reporting eventually forced Richard Nixon to resign, winning them a Pulitzer Prize as well.

The reporters, Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein, became icons. After their stories broke in the mid-1970s, enrollment increased at journalism schools. They continue to be celebrated decades later for their integrity in never revealing the name of their principal source, “Deep Throat.” It was not until that source broke his silence in 2005 that anyone knew “Deep Throat” was Mark Felt, a high-ranking official at the Federal Bureau of Investigation at the time he was talking to The Post. And, for some critics, that raised questions.

Question: Is protecting a source more important than revealing all the relevant information about a news story?

WHO: Woodward’s and Bernstein’s promise to protect “Deep Throat’s” identity was fully supported by their executive editor, Ben Bradlee. Together, the three are the major decision-making moral agents in this case.

It was a decision that ultimately affected many stakeholders, most notably Mark “Deep Throat” Felt himself, and of course Woodward and Bernstein, who had made a promise that journalists treat with the highest reverence. President Nixon clearly was a stakeholder, as were others in his administration.

And in this case it also can be argued that the public had a higher stake than it does in many news stories — because of the importance of the information revealed by a source who would not have revealed it had his identity not been kept secret.

WHY: Two major ethical principles are at issue in this very famous case. First is the journalistic credo that granting anonymity to a source is a vow that never should be broken. The other principle, at odds with the first, is that a journalist’s primary duty is to reveal information, not conceal it, and often the source of that information is an important part of the story, suggesting a motive or agenda for the leak.

In this case, some critics have held that Felt, who died in late 2008 at age 95, was manipulating The Post because he wanted to get even with the president for having passed him over for promotion to FBI director after the death of the legendary J. Edgar Hoover.

One analyst, George Friedman, wrote this for an intelligence and strategic consulting firm called stratfor.com: “This was not a lone whistle-blower being protected by a courageous news organization; rather, it was a news organization being used by the FBI against the president, and a news organization that knew perfectly well that it was being used against the president. Protecting Deep Throat concealed not only an individual, but also the story of the FBI’s role in destroying Nixon.”

HOW: Most journalists consider The Washington Post’s decision to protect Deep Throat an example of journalism at its finest. Working so hard for so long to keep the promise of anonymity allowed information to be revealed that was critically important to the survival of democracy and its need to correct its flaws. The role of a free press is to reveal those shortcomings, after which a responsive government can — or should — make the needed changes. In this case, the cover-up was perhaps more important than the crime itself, because it uncovered flaws in the presidential character. Nixon’s resignation became inevitable — a cathartic moment for the country.

And yet reporters must continue to be very careful about promising anonymity. In some settings — Washington, D.C., in particular — it’s almost impossible to get anyone to talk without making such a promise. But in other areas of the country, where bureaucracy and politics are not so entrenched, news executives insist that promising anonymity should be used only as a last resort, not to break the ice at the beginning of an interview. The source of a leak sometimes is even more interesting than the leaked information, because it may reveal a motive that is less than the epitome of integrity.

— by Fred Brown, 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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