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Home > Publications > Quill > Code of Ethics Revision: What's Up and What Has Changed

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Wednesday, September 03, 2014
Code of Ethics Revision: What's Up and What Has Changed


Kevin Z. Smith and SPJ Ethics Committee

The SPJ Ethics Committee met the weekend of July 11 to 13 in Columbus, Ohio, to put the finishing touches on a Code that will be presented to delegates at the national convention in Nashville, Sept. 4 to 6.

Members of the SPJ Ethics Committee in Columbus for the in-person meeting were Kevin Z. Smith, chairman; Fred Brown, vice chairman; Irwin Gratz; Hagit Limor; Michael Farrell; Elizabeth Donald; Paul Fletcher; Lauren Bartlett; Andrew Seaman; Chris Roberts; Stephen Ward; Monica Guzman; Carole Feldman; and SPJ Executive Director

Joe Skeel.

You can read much more about the process up to now and going forward, as well as give more input, at the Code revision page.

As you make your way through the latest revision (see latest version here), here are some guidelines that can help explain the significant changes.

Living, interactive support for the Code

This will represent the biggest change to the Code without actually appearing in it.

When the committee met in Columbus, the first question we wanted to answer was: What do we want this Code to look like?

After reviewing some of the options unveiled in the town hall meeting during SPJ’s convention in 2013, there was consensus that the Code should be vastly supported by current case studies, position papers, detailed explanations and an interactive component where journalists and the public could pose questions to the committee. These interactions and the answers would be archived, allowing the committee to create a database that would provide a wealth of ethical materials in support of the Code.

All of this will sit on SPJ’s website under our growing ethics page and will be directly linked from the Code. As people review the Code, they can see there are supporting materials on other pages. The fundamental purpose of this is to establish a series of living documents that can support the language of the ethics code and give it purpose, value and vitality.

We consider this Code an aspirational starting point that will stand the test of time and technology change. These links will be open to the public so it indeed becomes a living place where people can ask questions about the Code and get opinions on its application as technology evolves.

Before the Code reaches the convention for a vote by delegates, the committee will create some examples of the detailed explanations. For example, the proposed Code update says to “Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.” We will explain in greater detail what we mean by that. The committee has already begun to identify more than two dozen footnotes for the new version.

“All media, all people” reference

The preamble was greatly shortened in the rewrite, and a significant notation was added that is relevant to understanding the tenor of this new document.

“Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that democracy, a just society and good government require an informed public. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity.

“The Society declares these four principles as the foundation of ethical journalism and encourages their use in its practice by all people in all media.”

The Code isn’t filled with specific references to social or digital media or specific forms of emerging media such as entrepreneurial, point-of-view and citizen journalism. Instead, it is made clear that we hold these tenets as applicable to all forms of journalism, and the people who work within them, professional or otherwise. That’s an acknowledgement that journalism isn’t practiced just in the traditional forms when the last Code was presented in 1996.


The idea of transparency makes a debut in this Code. Although this Code does not abdicate the principle of being independent of conflicts that may compromise integrity or damage credibility, it does note more strongly that when these conflicts can’t be avoided, it is imperative that journalists make every effort to be transparent about their actions. It acknowledges the importance of corrections and engaging the public in discourse over journalism issues, and it tells journalists they should uphold the highest ethical standards in all engagements with the public.

Other changes of note

• “Journalism” replaces “journalists.” Again, giving nod to the idea that journalism is an endeavor that transcends that of the professional workers and encompasses many people and many forms, the idea of speaking to the act of journalism over the actors.

• The Code inserts language that tells journalists that a legal right to publish is not the same as a moral obligation to do so. It attempts to separate the legal vs. ethical arguments that arise often in ethical debates.

• The Code encourages the verification of information not only from sources but also from other media. This was inserted to address the growing trend to repeat information without independent verification, even when that initial source is another news outlet.

• The Code has always encouraged journalists to resist outside pressures to alter or direct news coverage. This Code includes the need to resist internal pressures as well, which speaks to corporation boards and executives trying to exert pressure from the highest levels.

• It speaks to the components of speed or medium over accuracy, and notes that neither of those two reasons excuses the lack of the effort in getting the information correct.

• It’s important to gather information throughout the life of the story and to update and correct it, a growing concern due to online storytelling and social media use.

• It spells out more precisely the reasons for granting anonymity.

• It talks of provided access to resources used in the story and says all advocacy journalism and commentary should be labeled such to properly alert the reader.

• For the first time, the Code speaks to the ethical handling of suicides when it happens to a public person or in a public place. The policy has been widely accepted by professional journalists, but this explains it to others, including the general public.

• The Code brings a more hardline approach to checkbook journalism. Before, it merely said “Avoid bidding for news.” Now it says “... do not pay for access to news. Identify content provided by outside sources, whether paid or not.”

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