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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.


Monica Guzman, vice chair
Email
@moniguzman
Bio (click to expand) Monica is a Sunday columnist for The Seattle Times and a weekly columnist for GeekWire, covering issues in digital life. She was a juror for the 2014 Pulitzer Prizes, serves on the National Advisory Board for the Poynter Institute and contributed the closing chapter, “Community As an End,” to the 2013 Poynter book “The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century.” From 2007 to 2010, Monica launched and ran the innovative Big Blog at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and seattlepi.com, complementing news and culture coverage with weekly reader meetups. From 2010 to 2012 she developed user communities for Seattle startups like Intersect, Trover and Glympse before kicking off her Times column.

A member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers community, Monica emcees the popular quarterly community speaker series Ignite Seattle and is assisting the American Press Institute with a newsroom innovation project. Monica served on the ethics code revision task force and is an active member of the Western Washington Pro chapter of SPJ. She is currently serving as chapter president.


SPJ Ethics
Committee Members


Lauren Bartlett
E-mail
Bio (click to expand) picture Lauren Bartlett is currently a Director at Large for the Society of Professional Journalists, chairs the national Communications Committee and is a member of the Ethics Committee and the Finance Committee.
Lauren was a three-time president of SPJ’s Greater Los Angeles chapter. Lauren works in media relations at Southern California Edison and previously worked in media relations at UCLA, her alma mater.

Before joining UCLA in 2000, Lauren was a reporter in Los Angeles for 12 years, the last 10 of which were at the Los Angeles Daily Journal, the country’s largest daily legal affairs newspaper.

Lauren’s professional career began when she was a junior in high school and wrote a weekly column for the Contra Costa Sun. In her senior year of high school she reported for the Contra Costa Times. While attending UCLA she interned at the Los Angeles Times, the Los Angeles Herald-Examiner and Copley News Service.

Upon graduation Lauren worked at the Los Angeles bureau of The Associated Press and City News Service, a regional wire service, before joining the Daily Journal.

Lauren was honored in 2011 with a President’s Award for distinguished service to the Society. In 2001, she was honored with the Howard S. Dubin Outstanding Pro Member Award for her contributions to the SPJ Greater Los Angeles chapter and Region 11. She has been a member of the SPJ/LA Board of Directors since 1996.


Fred Brown
2862 S. Oakland Ct.
Aurora, Colo., 80014
303/829-4647
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.


Elizabeth Donald
E-mail
Bio (click to expand) picture Elizabeth Donald has been a reporter with the News-Democrat for over a decade. She is a mobile reporter covering Madison County, with an emphasis on city government, education and the environment. She is the News-Democrat's liaison to the Latino Roundtable of Southwestern Illinois, author of several fiction novels and writes CultureGeek, the News-Democrat's pop-culture blog.

A graduate of the University of Tennessee, Donald is a frequent guest lecturer at local universities on the practical applications of journalism ethics and the changing nature of newspapers in the 21st century. She has won multiple awards and currently serves as vice president of the St. Louis Society of Professional Journalists.


Mike Farrell
E-mail
Bio (click to expand) picture Mike Farrell serves as director of the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center at the University of Kentucky and as an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications. He began teaching as an adjunct in 1980 at Northern Kentucky University, continued as a graduate teaching assistant at UK in 1996, and has been a full-time faculty member there since 2000. He won the college teaching award in 2006.

He teaches reporting, media ethics, media law, journalism history, editing, media law, covering religion news and column writing.

He was a reporter, city editor and managing editor during a 20-year career at The Kentucky Post.

A native of Northern Kentucky, he earned his undergraduate degree at Moody Bible Institute, Chicago. He earned his master's and doctoral degrees at UK, where he focused on media law. He is a member of the Bluegrass Chapter and co-adviser of the UK student chapter of SPJ.


Paul Fletcher
Publisher & Editor-in-Chief
Virginia Lawyers Media
E-mail
Bio (click to expand) Paul Fletcher has been publisher and editor-in-chief at Virginia Lawyers Weekly in Richmond, Va., since 1989.

He joined the newspaper the previous year as news editor, after practicing law in Southwest Virginia for three years.

A graduate of the Washington & Lee University law school, he earned his undergraduate degree at the College of William & Mary and an M.A. in English from Emory University.

Paul has been a member of SPJ for 20 years and currently serves as president of the Virginia Pro chapter, having won reelection to a second term in June 2012.

He has won a number of journalism awards, including honors for editorial and feature writing.

He has been serving as interim publisher of Michigan Lawyers Weekly, based in suburban Detroit, since August 2012.


Irwin Gratz
207/874-6570
E-mail
Bio (click to expand) picture Irwin Gratz has been in radio news for nearly 30 years. He worked as a reporter, anchor and News Director for the number-one rated commercial station in Portland, Maine before going to work for public radio in 1992 as local anchor of “Morning Edition.”

A native of New York City, Irwin holds a Masters Degree in journalism from New York University. He has taught a college course on media ethics and has been a guest lecturer on journalism ethics and broadcast news writing.

Irwin has been a member of the Society of Professional Journalists since 1983 and has held positions as a state chapter president, a member of its national board and was the Society’s national President in 2004 and 2005.

Irwin lives outside of Portland, Maine with his wife and young son.


Hagit Limor
Investigative Reporter
WCPO-TV
E-mail
Bio (click to expand) picture Hagit Limor’s experience with SPJ includes stints as National President; National President-Elect; National Secretary-Treasurer; National Membership Committee; National Finance Committee Chair; current National Legal Defense Fund Committee chair; National Chair of Executive Director Search Committee; Board Member of the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation; and Greater Cincinnati Pro Chapter President, membership chairman and current chapter treasurer.

Outside of SPJ, she serves in dual roles as a professor at the University of Cincinnati's Electronic Media Department and as WXIX-TV's Emmy and national award-winning investigative reporter. Her abilities as a writer and reporter have garnered Hagit more than 100 national, state and local awards, including ten Emmy awards, a National Headliner Award, three national Sigma Delta Chi Awards and as a national finalist with the Investigative Reporters and Editors Association. Hagit received bachelor's and master's degrees in journalism from the Medill School of Journalism, Northwestern University.


Jim Pumarlo
Director of communications, Minnesota Chamber of Commerce
E-mail
Bio (click to expand) picture Jim Pumarlo spent 27 years working at small daily newspapers in International Falls and Red Wing, Minn. He served as editor of the Red Wing Republican Eagle for 21 years. He resigned in December 2003 and currently is director of communications at the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, the state’s largest business advocacy organization. He can be contacted at www.pumarlo.com.

He released a book in January 2005, “Bad News and Good Judgment: A Guide to Reporting on Sensitive Issues in a Small-Town Newspaper,” which was published by Marion Street Press in Chicago. His second book, Votes and Quotes: A Guide to Outstanding Election Campaign Coverage,” was released in May 2007.

He remains active in the newspaper industry through his consulting and speaking. He is involved in the Minnesota Newspaper Association as a member of its Journalism Education and Legislative committees. He is past president of the Minnesota Newspaper Foundation Board of Directors. He also is past chairman of the Premack Board which oversees the Frank Premack Public Affairs Journalism Award competition, one of Minnesota’s most coveted and celebrated journalism honors in public affairs reporting. He serves on the hearing panel for the Minnesota News Council, which promotes fair, vigorous and trusted journalism by engaging the news media and the public in examining standards of fairness.


Kevin Z. Smith
Deputy Director
Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism
E-mail
Bio (click to expand) Kevin Z. Smith has been a member of the SPJ ethics committee for 20 years. He is a contributing author to two of SPJ's Doing Ethics in Journalism case study books. He is the co-author of SPJ's 1993 Ethics Manual, a guide for developing better ethical discussions and practices in newsrooms. He served as chairman of the ethics committee from 1995-97 when the Code was revised by the committee. He is serving his fifth year as committee chairman. He is a former president of SPJ (09-10) and a former member of the national and executive boards (06-11). He has been a member of the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation since 2007. He has been a regular speaker, panelist and lecturer on journalism ethics and delivered talks around the United States and abroad since 1990.

Smith currently serves as a journalism lecturer at the University of Dayton (Ohio). He worked in community newspapers in West Virginia for 15 years before becoming a college professor. He has taught at West Virginia University, Miami Univeristy (Ohio), Fairmont State University (W.Va.) and James Madison University (Va.). In 2009 he was named a Distinguished Mountaineer by the governor of West Virginia, the highest honor bestow upon a citizen of the state. The award came largely from his work with SPJ and journalism ethics.

Home > Ethics > Ethics Case Studies > Who’s the “Predator”?

Ethics Case Studies
Who’s the “Predator”?

“To Catch a Predator,” the ratings-grabbing series on NBC’s Dateline, appeared to catch on with the public. But it also raised serious ethical questions for journalists.

The television newsmagazine, working “as a wall” with law enforcement, trolled for men to engage in sexually charged on-line chats with minors, then invited them to a face-to-face meeting, supposedly at the child’s home. Armed with liquor, condoms and little common sense, the men arrived at the front door. The kids weren’t home, but the suspects don’t know that when they walked into a kitchen and came face to face with reporter Chris Hansen.

The conversations were recorded by a bevy of hidden cameras, and the men were met by law enforcement officers once they left the house. The “suspects” were portrayed as sexual predators without any apparent constitutional protections.

Critics questioned this blending of reporters, “watchdog” groups and police, arguing that the men caught in the sting were entrapped at worst and faced public ridicule and humiliation at best. One target of the sting, a Texas district attorney who made contact on-line, but never ventured out for a personal meeting, committed suicide before facing the cameras. When police, armed with a search warrant — and a Dateline camera crew — showed up at prosecutor Louis Conradt Jr.'s home in Terrell, Texas, no one answered the door, according to the police who took part in the attempted arrest. After forcing their way into his home, police found the 56-year-old prosecutor in a hallway holding a semiautomatic handgun. "I'm not going to hurt anybody," he told police before firing a bullet into his own head.

Dateline isn’t the only media organization that has been involved in these stings. They date back to at least 2003, and what they have in common is a Web site called Perverted-Justice.com. It’s a highly motivated advocacy group, committed to finding perverts and removing them from circulation.

Perverted-Justice.com scans chat rooms looking for men who can be lured into sexually explicit conversations with correspondents pretending to be underage boys and girls. It works with police and news media to entice the unsuspecting marks to set-up trysting places where the cops — and the cameras — are waiting.

Judging from the ratings, the public loves this. Perverts who would harm children are exposed and made to account for their perversion.

But the media should be more questioning. Is it ethically defensible to take part in the deceit that is a sting? Should a journalist buy into the agenda of an advocacy group, even if it’s a worthy agenda? Is it ethical to work with law enforcement authorities in this manner?

Question: If your newspaper or television station were approached by Perverted Justice to participate in a “sting” designed to identify real and potential perverts, should you go along, or say, “No thanks”? Was NBC reporting the news or creating it?

Once Perverted-Justice.com had an alliance with a national network, the smaller local stations that first cooperated with the group probably will no longer face the decision of whether to join forces in similar “stings.” NBC aired the last new episode of “To Catch a Predator” in December 2007, but episodes are still available on MSNBC.com.

The biggest stakeholders in this ethical decision clearly were the men lured before the cameras. Their wives and families also faced major consequences from what NBC did. Law enforcement officers provided plenty of “perp walks,” arrests and bookings in clear view of cameras for additional video footage of the suspects, in return for coverage of their cleaning up the community of predators. Perverted Justice got airtime for its cause and financial reward for its efforts. NBC had a primetime audience of more than 8 million viewers.

The public had a stake, too. There is no question that law-abiding citizens want to bring sexual predators to justice. Even one communication ethics student, a young mother, said she could find no reasonable arguments against using a sting to trap potential perverts.

“I do not see in any way that a news station would be looked down upon for giving society what I would consider this service,” she wrote. “... If one child can be saved from this horrific event, then by all means do it. I think if you were to take a poll the majority of society would agree.”

That’s most likely true. But responsible media shouldn’t base their ethical standards on what’s popular.

Enticing (the term Hansen prefers to use, as posted on his blog) or entrapping subjects holds many legal and ethical issues. Should reporters seek out criminals? Is this indeed a public service as NBC contends? There is also an evidentiary problem when law enforcement and media join forces to prosecute criminals. Are outtakes, notes and other reporting tools now part of a criminal investigation?

In one case a district attorney’s office announced it would not prosecute cases during one of NBC’s stings, citing a lack of evidence. The office claimed Perverted Justice members refused to testify and turn over records (they deny these accusations) and NBC needed to provide additional footage to help build a case. Running the on-line trolling and sting house in two different counties caused a jurisdictional dispute, creating another legal issue.

Media critics and ethicists question the reporting methods and standards of running this type of “undercover” operation. Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute said, “The project, from the very beginning, had lawsuit written all over it,” a competing network reported.

Critics cite the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics as a guideline for fair and accurate reporting, including:

— Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story.
— Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
— Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money, avoid bidding for news.
— Avoid misleading re-enactments or staged news events. If re-enactment is necessary to tell a story, label it.
— Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.
— Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
— Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
— Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.

NBC engaged the services of Perverted Justice, inviting scrutiny of creating of a news story. By paying actors to pose as minors and engage in sexual chat, did the newsmagazine become the story? NBC surrounded the criminals with law enforcement waiting patiently outside to record the outcome. This was the reverse of most crime scenes. Justice and the media were both perverted throughout this predatory process.

The important thing is to have a discussion, and to ask the right questions. Among them: Is this a justifiable, ethically defensible use of deception? Should you buy into the agenda of an advocacy group? How ethical is the group itself? Do you compromise your “watchdog” role by cooperating with law enforcement authorities?

DECISION: Let law enforcement conduct sting operations and the media report on the arrests.

— By Robbie Rogers and Sara Stone, Baylor University

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