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Home > Publications > Quill > New Code of Ethics Not Ready for Prime Time



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Wednesday, September 03, 2014
New Code of Ethics Not Ready for Prime Time

A good attempt, but Code still needs work

By Steve Buttry

NOTE: A version of this critique from Steve Buttry first appeared on his blog.

The rewrite of the SPJ Code of Ethics is moving in the right direction, just not far enough.

In three monstrously long posts in 2010 and earlier this year, I called for an update of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics and criticized the first draft of an update by the Ethics Committee.

In a July meeting in Columbus, Ohio, the Ethics Committee finished its latest draft. Mónica Guzmán, an Ethics Committee member who led a digital subcommittee I served on — she was the only committee member on the subcommittee — praised the progress made since the first draft (I missed a second draft published July 3):

I agree that the committee has made progress, but I’m still disappointed in this attempt to update what used to be journalism’s most important ethical guide.

In March, I wrote on my blog:

“I think I’d prefer no update to these tweaks. If the code remains obviously outdated, the need to update it will remain strong. And maybe they’ll take another try in a few years and get it right or closer to right. I’d rather do that than tweak it now and have the anti-change forces spend the next 18 years claiming they had already updated it.”

I’m not sure I’d go that far now. If SPJ wants to return to the days when it was a leading voice in journalism ethics, it certainly needs to go further than the current draft. For that reason, I might vote against this draft if I were an SPJ member (I let my membership lapse because of the lack of progress on updating the Code of Ethics). But I would not say this update is better than none at all. I’ll just be disappointed if SPJ doesn’t go further.

I will not go through the Code point by point as I did previously on my blog (which, reading now, I can see made for some long and perhaps confusing reading). I’ll just summarize the primary things that disappoint and please me.

Here’s what the Ethics Code still needs to do:

Address linking

I am absolutely flummoxed by the refusal of either SPJ’s Ethics Committee or Poynter’s Guiding Principles for the Journalist to address journalists’ reticence to link to digital sources of information they use. Refusal to link may be the most widespread ethical failure in journalism today, and what good is an ethics code that doesn’t address our failures?

In a response to my March post, Ethics Committee Vice Chairman Fred Brown said, “We stuck with basic, abiding principles and tried to avoid any mention of specific technologies.”

But that’s not true. The first and latest drafts both refer to “social media” and “online publication.” If specific technologies merited mention in those places (the social media one was unnecessary), then digital linking merits specific mention.

The current draft says “always attribute,” and to many journalists, that just means to add “so-and-so said” after material, not to link to sources. The latest draft also says, “Provide access to source material when relevant and appropriate.” I’m not even sure what “when relevant and appropriate” means. I guess “provide access” covers embeds as well as links. But it’s ridiculous to write around linking. Many, if not most, journalists and news organizations don’t link to sources. They should, and SPJ should tell them specifically that they should.

I sent a draft of this post before it first appeared on my blog to Guzmán and some others who have been involved in this process, inviting response. She said the committee is planning to hyperlink passages of the Code to deeper discussions of applying the principles in the code. I look forward to hearing more about those plans, which follow a suggestion I made last year. This doesn’t change anything I said above about the need to address linking in the principles, but it’s an improvement, and I welcome it.

Endorse accuracy checklists

Checklists save lives when doctors and pilots use them. They save errors when journalists use them. The current draft makes some strong statements about accuracy, but SPJ should go further and endorse a practice that can improve accuracy. Statements of broad principles are fine, but I think it’s an important principle to endorse best practices that are not widely practiced. Principles don’t lead to better journalism. Practices do.

Editing suggestions

The committee should restore the explicit statement that journalists, not sources, are responsible for accuracy. I was pleased to see that phrasing (which I suggested in 2010) make it into the first draft. Now the reference to sources has been removed. That section says journalists should “take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before its release.” Normally I think a positive statement about what you should do should suffice. But not here. As I noted in a recent post on corrections, too many journalists blame sources for their errors. The Code of Ethics should be explicit in saying that’s no excuse.

The committee also should restore this passage: “Be sensitive when seeking or using information, interviews and images of people affected by tragedy or grief.” I can’t figure why that was cut from the “Minimize Harm” section of the first draft.

Improvements in this draft

The biggest improvement is the pairing of transparency with accountability in the fourth basic principle in this latest draft, and a little strengthening of the transparency principles in the section. This would be a good place to address linking.

Other improvements included restoring the current Code’s call to “give voice to the voiceless” and adding, “Seek sources whose voices are seldom heard.”

Nashville conference

I have no idea whether the latest draft will be adopted when SPJ meets at the Excellence in Journalism conference in Nashville, Sept. 4 to 6. I suppose it could be revised further in debate, though I’m not familiar with the approval process. And certainly it could be rejected, either for going too far or not far enough, or perhaps for reasons not yet apparent to me.

Michael Koretzky, an SPJ board member, has been critical of how SPJ’s senior leaders have handled revision of the Code. I won’t pretend that I’ve studied his accusations enough to comment on their merit, but clearly the Code revision could face some dissent in Nashville.

I commend Guzmán for advocating persistently and effectively for a stronger update. And I appreciate the time and thought the Ethics Committee leaders and members have given to this important job.

I don’t think the SPJ Code of Ethics will regain its place as journalism’s most important guidance on ethics. Poynter’s “Guiding Principles” are stronger and more relevant. “Telling the Truth and Nothing But, Rules of the Road” (a summit in which SPJ had representation) and the “Verification Handbook” are much stronger, more detailed and more helpful, even though each addresses a narrow range of ethical issues. The Online News Association’s “Build Your Own Ethics Code” project also is more helpful, providing detailed guidance in multiple directions in the areas where journalists don’t agree. One of the two sessions I’m leading at the Nashville conference will place the SPJ revision on the context of this broader discussion.

The latest draft at least brings SPJ some relevance in the discussion of journalism ethics today, and that’s an improvement. I hope members push for more when it comes up for approval in September.

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