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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 > A Suspect “Confession”

Ethics Case Studies
A Suspect “Confession”

WHAT: John Mark Karr, 41, was arrested in mid-August in Bangkok, Thailand, at the request of Colorado and U.S. officials. During questioning, he confessed to the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, who had been beaten and strangled to death in the basement of her Boulder, Colorado, home sometime during Christmas night 1996. (The murder was a media obsession for much of 1997, and video clips of the young beauty contestant competing in various costumes ran, it seems, every few hours.)

Karr was arrested after Michael Tracey, a journalism professor at the University of Colorado, alerted authorities to information he had drawn from e-mails Karr had sent him over the past four years. Karr had initiated the correspondence, apparently intrigued by Tracey’s argument, in documentaries and elsewhere, that John and Patsy Ramsey had been unfairly implicated in their daughter’s death. Karr was returned to Boulder for DNA testing and ultimately cleared. But he wasn’t freed; he also faced misdemeanor child pornography charges in California.

WHO: Put yourself in the shoes of a news director or managing editor. Could you resist this story, especially if you were in Colorado? In the first three weeks after Karr’s “confession,” the Rocky Mountain News ran 150 stories about him, including this first-day lead: “The decade-long search for JonBenet Ramsey’s killer came to a startling end in Thailand on Wednesday.” The Denver Post probably ran a similar number, but its web site list cuts off after 10 hits. In JonBenet’s home town of Boulder, the Daily Camera ran 120 stories during the same period.

Or imagine you’re Professor Tracey.

The Question: Do you break a confidence with your source if you think it can solve a murder — or protect children half a world away?

There are many stakeholders in this case, including the media, Tracey and, of course, Karr himself. Add Boulder law enforcement authorities, who had been criticized for bungling the original case 10 years previously, and now for spending $23,656, including two business-class airfares, to bring a delusional man back to face dubious charges. Ramsey family members are major stakeholders. Even the University of Colorado j-school is among many parties with a peripheral interest.

WHY: The principles involved in deciding what to do include the media’s obligations to their readers and viewers to present the news in full while maintaining a sense of responsibility and balance. For Professor Tracey, there’s a struggle between confidentiality and collaboration. And should the media be critical of authorities who, after all, pulled Karr away from the temptation of children in Thailand, where he was about to begin a teaching job?

HOW: We’ve seen how the media reacted to this story — at full throttle. Was it overkill? A bit more skepticism and proportionality would have been more professional. Was Professor Tracey’s role appropriate? He considers himself an academic, not a journalist. But even if he were a journalist, wrote Rocky Mountain News media columnist David Kopel, he should act like an ethical human being. Kopel’s argument is worth repeating.

“Some critics claim that if journalists cooperate with the police, they will lose the trust of their audience. But just imagine how much less most readers would trust the newspapers if readers learned that a reporter refused to reveal non-confidential information which could have led to the capture of a notorious murderer.”

ANALYSIS: Some principles (from the SPJ Code of Ethics), and comment:

— Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information. (Quantity, more than quality, is the question.)
— Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. (In a highly competitive rush, it’s difficult — but still necessary.)
— Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity. (Lurid curiosity is sometimes unavoidable.)
— Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.
— Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.
— Clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct. (There was plenty of explaining where the information came from, and a flood of letters to the editor.)

— 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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