Society of Professional Journalists
Improving and protecting journalism since 1909

Advertise with SPJ

News and More
Click to Expand Instantly

SPJ News
Events and Deadlines
SPJ Blogs
Quill Online
SPJ on Tumblr
Journalist's Toolbox

Stay in Touch
Twitter Tumblr Facebook Google Plus
RSS Pinterest Pinterest Storify

More Articles
Main listing | Archive

Quill: Ethics Toolbox
News: SPJ statement about alleged execution of American photojournalist James Foley
News: Associated Press journalists win SPJ ethics award
Quill: Ethics Toolbox
Quill: Citizen Code
Quill: From the President

Ethics Home
SPJ Code of Ethics
Case Studies
Committee Position Papers
Ethics Answers
Ethics Hotline
Ethics Committee

Code Words: SPJ’s Ethics Committee Blog
– Ethics Code Revision: Final Draft
– Ethics of covering suicides
– Social Media’s Place in the Society’s Ethics Code

Ethics Committee
This committee's purpose is to encourage the use of the Society's Code of Ethics, which promotes the highest professional standards for journalists of all disciplines. Public concerns are often answered by this committee. It also acts as a spotter for reporting trends in the nation, accumulating case studies of jobs well done under trying circumstances.

Ethics Committee chair

Kevin Z. Smith
Deputy Director
Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism
Bio (click to expand) Kevin Z. Smith has been a member of the SPJ ethics committee for 20 years. He is a contributing author to two of SPJ's Doing Ethics in Journalism case study books. He is the co-author of SPJ's 1993 Ethics Manual, a guide for developing better ethical discussions and practices in newsrooms. He served as chairman of the ethics committee from 1995-97 when the Code was revised by the committee. He is serving his fifth year as committee chairman. He is a former president of SPJ (09-10) and a former member of the national and executive boards (06-11). He has been a member of the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation since 2007. He has been a regular speaker, panelist and lecturer on journalism ethics and delivered talks around the United States and abroad since 1990.

Smith currently serves as a journalism lecturer at the University of Dayton (Ohio). He worked in community newspapers in West Virginia for 15 years before becoming a college professor. He has taught at West Virginia University, Miami Univeristy (Ohio), Fairmont State University (W.Va.) and James Madison University (Va.). In 2009 he was named a Distinguished Mountaineer by the governor of West Virginia, the highest honor bestow upon a citizen of the state. The award came largely from his work with SPJ and journalism ethics.

Fred Brown, vice chair
2862 S. Oakland Ct.
Aurora, Colo., 80014
Bio (click to expand) picture Fred Brown is a former national president of SPJ (1997-98) and is very active on its ethics committee. He writes a column on ethics for Quill magazine and served on the committee that wrote the Society’s 1996 code of ethics.

Brown officially retired from The Denver Post in early 2002, but continues to write a Sunday editorial page column for the newspaper. He also does analysis for Denver’s NBC television station, teaches communication ethics at the University of Denver, and is a principal in Hartman & Brown, LLP, a media training and consulting firm. He has won several awards for writing and community service, including a Sigma Delta Chi Award for editorial writing in 1988. He is an Honor Alumnus of Colorado State University, a member of the Denver Press Club Hall of Fame, and serves on the boards of directors of Colorado Public Radio, the Colorado Freedom of Information Council and the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation.

Reading Room
Freedom of Information
First Amendment/
Public & the Press

Articles for...
Young Journalists
International Journalists

Home > Ethics > Reading Room > Asking right questions a key to minimizing harm

SPJ Reading Room

Asking right questions a key to minimizing harm

By Fred Brown

Minimize Harm. It’s one of the four major sections of the SPJ Code of Ethics. It’s also a major factor in moral reasoning and ethical decision-making.

Many ethical decisions, in journalism and elsewhere, are a struggle between doing one’s duty and being responsible about the consequences of that action.

The important thing is to have that debate — either with yourself or preferably with colleagues — and to ask the right questions. A key pair of those questions is this: Who gets hurt if we tell this story? And does the benefit to the public of knowing that truth outweigh that harm?

The heavyweight in this balancing act is the truth. Telling the truth is a journalist’s overriding duty. Considering the consequences is a tempering element — a smaller element, but nonetheless an important one.

In the simplest terms, minimizing harm requires being sensitive to the consequences of what you do as a journalist.

“Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort,” the Code of Ethics says, and remember that “pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.”

Before the Code of Ethics was revised in 1996, it didn’t say much about minimizing harm. Years ago, we were more confident in our righteousness. But while the older SPJ codes of ethics don’t actually use the words “minimize harm,” they do include some evidence of sensitivity.

The 1984 version is an interesting document. This Code of Ethics has one section, out of six, labeled “ethics.” It’s all about conflicts of interest — the principles that are now part of the Code’s “Act Independently” section. Of course, there’s much, much more to ethics than merely avoiding conflicts of interest.

There’s another section in that 1984 Code called “fair play.” Parts of it correspond to the “Minimize Harm” and “Be Accountable” sections of today’s Code. It says “Journalists at all times will show respect for the dignity, privacy, rights and well-being of people encountered in the course of gathering and presenting the news.” Journalists shouldn’t “pander to morbid curiosity,” it says, but should “make prompt and complete correction of their errors.”

The “Fair Play” section represents about one-sixth of that 1984 Code. By contrast, “Minimize Harm” is nearly a quarter of today’s Code. Add the “Be Accountable” provisions, and you’ve got close to a third of the whole thing.

There is some sentiment in the profession that journalists shouldn’t fret about consequences. It makes them timid. Throw it all out there and let come what may. Tell the story and run.

That attitude gives ammunition to journalism’s critics, and it helps to explain dwindling trust. Civic journalism’s response was to try to show the public that journalists do care, and to pay more attention to readers’ and viewers’ wants. The 1996 Code revision, with its inclusion of “Minimize Harm,” and “Be Accountable,” was in part an effort to recognize that new sensitivity.

“Minimizing harm” means letting your humanity show through. Show a little compassion for the people who are affected by what you write. Remember that, for many people, being part of a story is a rare, even once-in-a-lifetime experience. They live with the consequences of what you’ve written long after you’ve moved on to other stories.

Fred Brown, an SPJ past president, is co-chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee and a newspaper columnist and television analyst in Denver. He can be reached at

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

Society of Professional Journalists
Eugene S. Pulliam National Journalism Center
3909 N. Meridian St.
Indianapolis, IN 46208
317/927-8000 | Fax: 317/920-4789

Contact SPJ Headquarters
Employment Opportunities
Advertise with SPJ