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Home > SPJ News > SPJ settles lawsuit over ethics handbook

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SPJ settles lawsuit over ethics handbook

FOR IMMEDIATE RELEASE
9/19/2000


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Contacts: Bruce Sanford, SPJ First Amendment counsel, 202/861-1500; Kyle Elyse Niederpruem, SPJ Board President, 317/444-6385, or kylespj@starnews.com; Fred Brown, SPJ Ethics Committee Chairman, 303/820-1663 or ethicalfred@aol.com.

INDIANAPOLIS - The Society of Professional Journalists settled a libel lawsuit filed against it by Mike Snyder, a news anchor at KXAS, Channel 5-TV, by agreeing to publish an apology for errors in the handbook titled “Doing Ethics in Journalism.”

The settlement statement can be found on SPJ’s web site here.

An offer for a correction was made in 1999 by authors Bob Steele at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and professors John Black of the University of South Florida and Ralph Barney of Brigham Young University.

“There was no need for this lawsuit to be filed since SPJ and the authors had already recognized and apologized for the errors of fact occurring in the case study,” said Bruce Sanford, SPJ's First Amendment counsel. “Anyone can make a mistake, and the Society and the authors have corrected their mistake. We are glad the matter is concluded.”

For some months prior to the lawsuit being filed, the Society and the authors attempted to resolve the objections of Snyder, based in Dallas, to certain descriptions in a case study focusing on him and offered to publish an errata sheet in the handbook, in the Society's magazine, Quill, and on the Society's Web site.

The Society also settled the case by agreeing to pay Snyder's legal costs of $17,884. The reimbursement is not a payment for damages.

The lawsuit was discussed with both the SPJ board and SDX board in April. Both boards insisted that there be no confidentiality clause to any settlement.

“The nature of this mistake is as public as any can be,” said SPJ Board President Kyle Elyse Niederpruem. “Our members have the right to know this information and the Society has been - and is - willing to own up to factual errors in the handbook.”

The Society's legal expenses in the case exceed $70,000, an amount that is covered by insurance.

Other defendents in the case - the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and its president James Naughton, Allyn & Bacon and Viacom - also signed the agreement. Members of the Society's executive committee approved the terms of the settlement agreement Aug. 11.

“Quite simply, and literally, it is wrong to make mistakes - even inadvertent ones. That's the first principle of journalism and the first principle of the SPJ Code of Ethics: ‘Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error,’” said Fred Brown, SPJ Ethics Committee chairman. “As an organization that has a long and proud history of promoting ethical, responsible journalism, we should admit our mistakes and, as our code says, abide by the same high standards to which we hold others.”

A complete copy of the General Release and Settlement Agreement in the Lawsuit can be found here.

General Release


This General Release and Settlement Agreement (the "Agreement") is hereby entered into between Plaintiff Mike Snyder ("Mr. Snyder" or "Plaintiff"), and Defendants Viacom, Inc. ("Viacom"), The Poynter Institute for Media Studies, Inc. ("The Poynter Institute"), Allyn and Bacon, Inc. ("Allyn and Bacon"), Robert M. Steele, John J. Black, and Ralph Barney (collectively, "the Authors"), James M. Naughton, and the Society of Professional Journalists ("the Society") (collectively "Defendants").

WHEREAS, on March 21, 2000, Plaintiff filed a lawsuit against the Defendants for defamation, infliction of emotional distress, and business disparagement in the District Court for Tarrant County, Texas, Cause No. 153-182398-00 (the "Lawsuit"); and

WHEREAS, no Court has determined the merits of Plaintiff’s claims or the defenses asserted by Defendants; and

WHEREAS, the Plaintiff and Defendants desire to resolve the claims out of court;

NOW, THEREFORE, in consideration of the mutual promises herein contained, together with other good and valuable consideration, the receipt and sufficiency of which are hereby acknowledged by Plaintiff and Defendants, the parties hereto, intending to be legally bound, hereby agree as follows:

1. GENERAL RELEASE: Plaintiff, on behalf of himself, his heirs, personal and legal representatives, successors, assigns, and anyone claiming through him, hereby releases, discharges and agrees to hold harmless each and every Defendant, their agents, assigns, employees, directors, successors, servants, heirs, and affiliated companies, for any and all existing or future claims, demands, costs, expenses, actions, and causes of action, both at law and in equity, stemming from or arising out of any actions of or any publication made by Defendants up to the date of this Agreement, including those that were contained or could have been contained in the Lawsuit filed herein or associated with the writing and publication of the Third Edition of the book Doing Ethics in Journalism ("the handbook"). Furthermore, Defendants, on behalf of themselves, their heirs, personal and legal representatives, successors, assigns, and anyone claiming through them, hereby release, discharge and agree to hold harmless Plaintiff, his agents, assigns, employees, directors, successors, servants, heirs, and affiliated companies, for any and all existing or future claims, demands, costs, expenses, actions, and causes of action, both at law and in equity, stemming from or arising out of any actions of or any publication made by Plaintiff up to the date of this Agreement, including those that were contained or could have been contained in the Lawsuit filed herein or associated with the writing and publication of the handbook.

2. FILING OF NOTICE OF DISMISSAL: Plaintiff agrees to dismiss the Lawsuit with prejudice as to all Defendants, with Plaintiff to bear his own fees and costs except as provided below. Plaintiff shall file with the Court a Notice of Dismissal with Prejudice as to all Defendants, along with any other papers required by the Court or otherwise necessary to effectuate dismissal with prejudice, within 15 days of the execution of this Agreement.

3. SETTLEMENT TERMS: Defendants agree to provide the following consideration to the Plaintiff:

On or before 30 calendar days following the filing of the Notice of Dismissal with Prejudice, the Society will cause a check made payable to Bush & Morrison, P.C., in the amount of $17,884.00, to be delivered to Donald Shelton, counsel for Plaintiff, as reimbursement for the legal fees and costs incurred by Plaintiff;

The Society and the Authors will have published in an upcoming issue of Quill magazine the statement that is attached hereto as Exhibit A ("the Authors’ statement");

The Society will devote a page on its website, spj.org, for the publication of the Authors’ statement for 120 days, and shall provide a link from the opening page of the Society’s website to the page containing the Authors’ statement, with the font size of the link being no smaller than the largest font size used for similar links;

After the Authors’ statement has been published on the Society’s website for 120 days, the Society will remove all references to the handbook from its website;

Allyn & Bacon and The Poynter Institute will provide a link from their respective websites to the page on the Society’s website containing the Authors’ statement;

After the Authors’ statement has been published on the Society’s website for 120 days, Allyn & Bacon and The Poynter Institute will remove all references to the handbook from their respective websites;

The Society will send the Authors’ statement to all colleges and universities known to be using the handbook, and will send the Authors’ statement to a reasonable list of colleges and universities provided by Plaintiff;

The Poynter Institute, under the signature of its President James M. Naughton, will issue a separate statement ("the Poynter statement"), attached hereto as Exhibit B, and post it on its website for the 120-day period that The Poynter Institute links to the Authors’ statement on the Society’s website;

The Poynter Institute will submit the Poynter statement for publication in an upcoming issue of Quill magazine and will publish the Poynter statement in the Poynter Institute newsletter (with a citation to the Authors’ statement on the Society’s website);

The Poynter Institute will send a notice of correction, including the Authors’ statement and the Poynter statement, to persons and institutions that purchased the handbook from The Poynter Institute or to persons who are believed to have received a copy of the handbook while attending a Poynter Institute program;

The Society, the Authors, and Allyn & Bacon will discontinue sales of the handbook in its current form upon execution of this Agreement, and The Poynter Institute will not resume any sales or distributions of the handbook with Case Study No. 12 included; and

l. The Society, the Authors, and Allyn & Bacon agree that any future editions or runs of the handbook will make no mention of Plaintiff.

4. NO ADMISSION: The Agreement shall not constitute an admission of liability by any of the Defendants, and Defendants expressly deny any liability whatsoever on account of the claims alleged by Plaintiff.

5. CHOICE OF LAW: This Agreement shall be governed by the laws of the State of Texas.

6. MODIFICATION: This Agreement shall not be modified except in writing approved by all parties hereto.

7. ENTIRE AGREEMENT: This Agreement represents the entire agreement between Plaintiff and the Defendants and there are no other written or oral terms other than what is stated here. However, this Agreement does not represent any current or future agreements between or among the Defendants relating to any obligations among themselves or claims they may have against each other concerning the Lawsuit or this Agreement with Plaintiff.

8. SEVERABILITY: If any part of this Agreement is held by any court to be illegal, void, unenforceable or against public policy for any reason, the remainder of this Agreement will remain in full force and effect.

9. REPRESENTATION: The Plaintiff and Defendants were adequately represented

by counsel at all times during the underlying dispute and the negotiation of this Agreement. Further, the parties acknowledge that each party, individually or through counsel, participated in the drafting of this Agreement.

10. COUNTERPARTS: This Agreement may be executed in any number of counterparts, each of which shall be an original and all of which together shall constitute a single instrument.



EXHIBIT A

The authors of Doing Ethics in Journalism, Jay Black, Bob Steele and Ralph Barney, regret that a case study in the Third Edition of the Society of Professional Journalists ethics handbook contains an inaccurate story based in part on facts that do not exist. They acknowledge that the handbook mischaracterizes the actions of Mike Snyder, a news anchor at KXAS-TV (NBC 5) in Dallas, Texas, one of the subjects of the case study, and regret the harm it has caused him.

The chapter on Conflicts of Interest, Case Study No. 12, discussed several incidents in which journalists were publicly criticized or reprimanded by their employers for supporting politicians. Among those cited was Mr. Snyder. Mr. Snyder was disciplined by his television station because of his involvement at a Republican Women’s function in August 1994, and he apologized at the time for presenting the perception of partisanship and a lapse of good judgment.

However, even given Mr. Snyder’s immediate acknowledgment of his actions, the case study does not accurately reflect the true events. The case study misstates the event in the following ways:

The case study states that Mr. Snyder "acted as master of ceremonies during rallies for Bush at several campaign stops" and "often introduced Bush as ‘the next Governor of Texas.’" The case study further stated that Mr. Snyder was a "volunteer" for the Bush campaign. The authors now acknowledge that these statements are not correct. There is no evidence to show that Mr. Snyder acted as master of ceremonies for Bush, participated in any rally for Bush, worked as a volunteer for the Bush campaign, or introduced Bush. Rather, Mr. Snyder accepted an invitation from a friend to emcee a local Republican Women’s picnic, where his official comments were limited to thanking the organizers of the event and introducing House Majority Leader Dick Armey. After the event, Mr. Snyder, on his way to the parking lot, helped stop a small child running away from his mother straight toward Bush’s security detail, and comforted the woman by saying, "He just wanted to get close to the next governor." The authors acknowledge that Mr. Snyder’s comment was not meant as an endorsement of Mr. Bush.


The case study, relying on an initial newspaper account, also reported that KXAS-TV suspended Mr. Snyder for two weeks with pay. That statement is untrue. Mr. Snyder, in fact, was suspended without pay and benefits.
More importantly, the case study states, "In interviews, Snyder said since he’s an anchor who doesn’t actively report on campaign issues, he should be allowed to do as he pleases during his time off. Snyder also said the Bush campaign never paid him for his work. He was a volunteer." The case study does not specify the interviews from which these paraphrased quotes were drawn. No such interviews exist, and the paraphrased quotes were never spoken by Mr. Snyder. The researcher for this case study, Rebecca Tallent, inaccurately listed a summary of comments made by individuals responding to a Fort Worth Star Telegram reader poll published September 1, 1994, and mistakenly attributed those comments to Mr. Snyder. The poll showed that the majority of readers believed Mr. Snyder’s suspension was not justified.
The authors understand that Mr. Snyder actively covers political news, and has done so for the duration of his 29-year reporting career. The authors further understand that Mr. Snyder believes he represents his television station at all times, and that he measures his actions and words accordingly. The researcher was not able to reach Mr. Snyder to interview him before publication of the book.

The authors acknowledge that the research for this case study was incomplete and inaccurate. After Mr. Snyder called to the authors’ attention the errors in the case study in April of 1999, the authors apologized to Mr. Snyder for the mistakes and the absence of an interview with him prior to publication.

The Society of Professional Journalists and the authors regret the significant factual errors that have injured Mr. Snyder’s reputation and caused him public embarrassment. They apologize to Mr. Snyder and his family.

Jay Black
Bob Steele
Ralph Barney

Copyright © 1996-2014 Society of Professional Journalists. All Rights Reserved. Legal

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