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Code Words: SPJ’s Ethics Committee Blog
– Ethics Code Revision: Final Draft
– Ethics of covering suicides
– Social Media’s Place in the Society’s Ethics Code

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

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.


Fred Brown, vice chair
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.



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.


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 other 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. Hagit also chaired the Online Voting Committee, which led to the vote to go from delegate to One Member, One Vote.

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.


Andrew Seaman
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.


Home > Ethics > Ethics Answers > Putting “Predator” Under the Microscope

Ethics Answers
Putting “Predator” Under the Microscope

Dear SPJ,

My name is Taylor Smith. I am a third-year print journalism at the University of South Carolina free-lance writer for The State newspaper here in Columbia. As president of SPJ here on campus, I have helped organize a members meeting this month, which will examine the ethical issues of NBC Dateline's "To catch a predator" shows. I am not sure if you have seen the shows but apparently since 2004, NBC has aired shows that feature a an on-line predator watchdog group called "Perverted Justice," who poses as a young lady on-line that is trying to meet a much older man to meet her at her home. After agreeing to meet at her (the young actress's) home, the girl meets the man, who is almost always a registered sex offender and abruptly leaves the room. This is where the NBC reporter enters the room and grills the man about why he is at the teenage girl's home and what he expected from the rendezvous. Shortly after the exchange, police enter the room and arrest the man.

According the to Nielsen ratings, the "Catch" shows have performed better than any other show in the time block they air, which is why NBC has made the shows a permanent fixture on Dateline programming. I realize this is a lot to swallow if you have not seen what I am talking about, but the NBC Dateline Website and a portion of an episode we will likely use at our meeting. Obviously the ethical questions arise: 1) What does "ambush journalism" do for the media's role as a watchdog over police, when they are cooperating so closely and 2) What do episodes like this do for the presumption of innocence of the accused? I'm sure I have missed an ethical qualm or two, so if you care to weigh in that would be appreciated, but my main question is: What is SPJ's stance on this new breed of journalism?

Sincerely,
Taylor Smith
President, USC SPJ


Dear Taylor,

First off, I should disclose that a couple of years ago my newsroom did a similar project to what Dateline is doing and I helped supervise. The entire thing made me anxious because I knew many of the ethical pitfalls inherent in doing this. We did our best to navigate our way through what is both a legal and ethical maze, and I think we did so fairly well. I'm sure there are other journalists who would say we should not have undertaken the project in the first place, but that wasn't my decision to make.

In our case, we knew that similar projects had been undertaken in Kansas City, Philadelphia and, I think, Detroit if memory serves. In a couple of those cities, the outrage was directed at the broadcasters rather than the sex offenders. The stations had rented homes to lure the would-be predators. People who lived near the homes felt the stations may have endangered the community by luring the sex offenders. In one case, a church was nearby and called on authorities to prosecute the station. In another case, authorities said the project had the potential to undermine active investigations or to drive potential predators underground before authorities could deal with them.

We were sensitive to all of this and more. I've always tried to follow the SPJ Code of Ethics, even while running a very aggressive investigative unit. One relevant part of the code to this project is this:

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.

At the time, the use of chat rooms by sexual predators to locate their victims was a relatively new topic. One that could be considered to be of vital public importance because it could help inform parents about the dangers and allow them to take steps to protect their children. We decided to work with PervertedJustice.com, but in a limited way to try and get the story. They agreed to do what they usually do in terms of luring predators, but in this case, the purported young girl would be from the Twin Cities. We also decided to arrange for the meetings to be in a public place rather than a private home. PJ.com also agreed not to post their chat until we had time to do additional research and reporting. In this way we would only be slightly altering what PJ.com was going to do anyway rather than arranging an elaborate "sting" and also risk the criticism of bringing predators into a neighborhood. We could spend some more time trying to figure out who these potential predators actually are rather than ambushing them with cameras rolling.

After we had recorded PJ.com's chat with the predators, we did our best to determine if these people were real. We located three. One actually came to what he thought would be a meeting with a young girl at a public mall. Another turned out to be doing his sexual chat while he was at his job as an FAA controller. We shared some of our findings with the Metro Sexual Crimes Task Force to get their reaction. The material about the flight controller caused the local authorities to get a search warrant and question the man. He was taken into custody and charged with a felony. He was later found guilty and sent to prison.

All of this is background for you to understand that my take on these kind of stories might not be as "pure" from an ethical standpoint as others. We did our best to expose what we thought was a very real public safety issue in a powerful way while trying to not too closely align ourselves with either an advocacy group or public authorities. At the same time, we were mindful of the fact that once we knew of potential predators we could also be criticized for failing to do something that would reduce the risk to society.

I believe Dateline has taken a less thoughtful and more problematic approach. To begin with, the problem that is being exposed is no longer new. Even we were not pioneering when we did our stories, but at least those stories hadn't yet been done in our market. Now they've been done to the point of being a cliché. They may be great television, but it's growing hard to argue that they are news and therefore harder to argue the information is "vital to the public."

In addition, published reports indicate Dateline is now paying Perverted Justice for its services. Perhaps the deal has some sort of insulation to reduce all of the potential and actual conflicts of interest inherent in this, but if so, I don't know what those safeguards may be. Most would agree with the goals of getting sexual predators off the street, but many do object to PJ.com's methods. Dateline is now aligned with the methods through not only a news, but also a financial arrangement.

The deal gets even stickier in those instances where local authorities have "deputized" some of the PJ.com personnel. Dateline finds itself in a financial arrangement with people who are working directly with law enforcement for the apprehension and prosecution of individuals who are caught in a sting that is orchestrated by Dateline, PJ.com and local authorities. As these individuals go to trial, I don't see how Dateline can be anything other than an active part of the prosecution. It is a little late to be asserting they will "Act Independently."

In the end, I find myself questioning whether this program is actually a news program or a regularly scheduled entertainment program that has some of the trappings of news, but doesn't operate under the usual standards.

Sincerely,
Gary Hill
Chairman SPJ Ethics Committee


For more information about SPJ’s Code of Ethics, write to ethics@spj.org.

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