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Home > Publications > Quill > Ethics Toolbox

Current Issue | Browse Archive | About Quill | Advertising Info
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Tuesday, September 02, 2014
Ethics Toolbox

Code revision is ready for a vote

By Kevin Z. Smith

When delegates convene during the closing business session at the national convention this September, they will have an extraordinary vote before them: whether to support revisions to SPJ’s Code of Ethics. There have been three such revisions and two compete rewrites in the Society’s 105 years, so this is a big moment for SPJ.

When the votes are cast, up or down, it will be recorded in the history books as a decision that came on that Saturday, Sept. 6, 2014. The reality, however, is the genesis of these revisions started at least four years earlier. Like all issues that require careful thought with an eye toward posterity, the Code was not born out of a single moment. But everything has an origin.

In 2010, after my year as national president, then-president Hagit Limor asked me to take over chairmanship of the Ethics Committee, a group I had been associated with from 1988 to 2006. At first I declined. Even a second time I said no. But she persisted, and after more thought, I told her I would do it, the same chairmanship I held from 1994 to 1996 when we wrote the current Code of Ethics.


Read more here about the Code of Ethics update process, and how you can still offer input and feedback.

I did so under two conditions. First, the committee had to be reworked; it had grown too large. Second, I wanted to initiate discussions about changing the Code. A lot had happened in journalism since 1996, and I thought the Code was a bit lacking.

As president I asked the Ethics Committee to take up the discussion of revising the Code the year prior, but it never took off. I wanted Hagit to know that it should be a priority of the committee. My thought was even if we spend a year discussing changes and did nothing, it would still be a healthy process to reaffirm the current Code.

Nothing like this gets done in a single year. First it’s about selling the idea. I was delighted to know there was far more support for the revisions than I imagined, from the committee, from the board and within membership. These healthy discussions produced the first tangible result: The Code needed some reworking. The committee, leadership and many members were on board.

Every president since Hagit — John Ensslin, Sonny Albarado and current president Dave Cuillier — backed efforts to continue discussions on reworking our Code. Each one contributed support and resources to let the committee do its work. The national board of directors also deserves thanks for letting this priority makes its way through the system. And many thanks are due Executive Director Joe Skeel and headquarters staff for their assistance over this time. It has proven invaluable.

Committee members talked to a lot of people inside SPJ and in the journalism community before we got to the point this year when we put ink to paper for a draft. This has been a four-year process of exchanging ideas with scholars, journalists and our members. When Sonny, Dave and I talked last spring, they agreed it was time to host the first town hall meeting at our conference in Anaheim, Calif.

The groundwork of three years of Ethics Committee talks and research was over. We were where we wanted to be. It was time to present the plan to membership and turn the talking to reality.

It hasn’t been an easy process since last September. The core committee members and the eight others we added from outside SPJ didn’t have any expectations that this would be a simple procedure. In fact, I sold them on the opposite. But, we didn’t need to convene 23 people in a hotel boardroom, lock the doors and tell them they couldn’t leave until we produced a document.

There have been minor differences, and some glaring ones, that created lively debate. That’s been healthy and rewarding. We have heard from many members through surveys, through emails and in person at regional conferences. We’ve listened to feedback — positive, negative and critical.

The result is you can be assured this draft Code is better. (Read it at

You might not agree with all of the language, the changes or lack of changes, but I doubt many can argue that this Code is anything but a step forward to improving professional ethics. That doesn’t just say something about SPJ’s mission, but as one member said in an email to me: “You should know this is a significant accomplishment in journalism. The value will have such far-reaching impact, more than we might guess.”

SPJ did something right in 1996, and we continue to advocate for ethics in the right way. This draft Code, like the current one, secures our leadership role in the coming years. It might not be perfect, but it’s better. Given the mileage we’ve gained from an 18-year-old Code, just think how relevant ethics and SPJ will become after it’s approved in Nashville (which I’m optimistic will happen).

This long process was possible because of dedicated members and the input you’ve provided, with the best intentions for improving and protecting journalism. Thank you for being part of the journey.

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