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Home > SPJ News > SPJ Ethics Code misapplied by shareholder

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SPJ Ethics Code misapplied by shareholder

SPJ NEWS
4/7/2003


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CONTACT:
Robert Leger, SPJ President, 417/836-1113 or cell 417/425-9140 or rleger@spj.org
Gary Hill, SPJ Ethics Committee Chairman, 651/642-4437 or ghill@kstp.com

INDIANAPOLIS -- The Society of Professional Journalists disavows what it considers to be a misapplication of its Code of Ethics as part of a shareholder proposal submitted to Coca-Cola’s annual meeting.

The proposal would compel Coca-Cola to withhold contributions to National Public Radio and its affiliates because of objections to NPR’s news coverage of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. SPJ’s name and ethics code have been specifically referenced in the shareholder resolution. SPJ has not endorsed this use of its code, and has serious objections to the code’s use in this instance.

The share-owner proposal submitted for action at the company’s annual meeting on April 16 directs that the board of Coca-Cola “should discontinue any support, direct or indirect, for National Public Radio and any associated entities, until such time as NPR broadcasts on the Middle East can be certified as meeting the standards set forth in the SPJ Code of Ethics.” The argument for the proposal cites several instances of what are called errors in coverage and failures to correct them.

Coca-Cola, in response, has said that its only involvement with NPR has been matching the personal contributions of its employees through its Matching Gifts Program.

In a letter to Coca-Cola, SPJ President Robert Leger and Ethics Committee Chairman Gary Hill note that the Society encourages citizens to use the Code of Ethics as a reference point to stimulate discussion on the ethics of news coverage. However, they note that the code is voluntary by design and was never intended for use in judicial or quasi-judicial ways. The code does not provide any enforcement or fact-finding mechanism for assessing the validity of contested interpretations of news coverage.

SPJ does not “certify” news coverage and opposes any attempt by others to use the Code of Ethics for that purpose.

“Our strong belief in ethical journalism is balanced by an equally strong belief in a free and unfettered press,” Leger and Hill wrote. “Attempts to ‘certify’ any news coverage as in compliance with the ethics code chill the free and responsible exchange of ideas. The shareholder resolution seeks to use our code to economically punish a news organization that is actively engaged in covering one of the most controversial topics of our time. We wish to make clear SPJ sees this as an abuse of its code and repudiates the use of its name in that effort.”

SPJ’s Code of Ethics can be found at www.spj.org/ethics_code.asp.

A copy of the letter follows.

The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. SPJ is dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, and based in Indianapolis, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed public, works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists, and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.

-30-

SPJ Letter to the Coca-Cola Company


April 4, 2003

Douglas N. Daft
Chairman of the Board and CEO
The Coca-Cola Company
One Coca-Cola Plaza
Atlanta, GA 30313

Dear Mr. Daft:

It recently came to our attention that a Coca-Cola shareholder, Carol
Greenwald, is sponsoring a resolution calling on the company to end any form of support, “direct or indirect,” to National Public Radio and its affiliates. The resolution says that “in its coverage of the Middle East, National Public Radio (NPR) routinely violates the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists.”

SPJ welcomes the use of our code by any and all to help make judgments about the ethical performances of journalists and news organizations. We feel adherence to the code by journalists and public criticism of those not following the code elevates the professional standards of all journalists.

However, by design the code is voluntary and should remain so.

The Coca-Cola resolution goes on to discuss a process to “certify” NPR's compliance with the code. It even discusses having an advocacy group as the certifying agency. SPJ opposes this misapplication of its code.

Our strong belief in ethical journalism is balanced by an equally strong belief in a free and unfettered press. Attempts to “certify” any news coverage as in compliance with the ethics code chill the free and responsible exchange of ideas. The shareholder resolution seeks to use our code to economically punish a news organization that is actively engaged in covering one of the most controversial topics of our time. We wish to make clear SPJ sees this as an abuse of its code and repudiates the use of its name in that effort.

Sincerely,
Robert Leger, SPJ President
Editorial Page Editor, Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader

Gary Hill
Ethics Committee Chairman
Director of Investigations
KTSP-TV, Minneapolis

Cc:
Carol Greenwald, shareholder
Deval L. Patrick, executive vice president, general counsel and secretary, Coca Cola
Kevin Klose, president and CEO, National Public Radio
Jeffrey Dvorkin, Ombudsman, National Public Radio
Neal Jackson, vice president for legal affairs, general counsel and secretary, National Public Radio

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