Society of Professional Journalists
Improving and protecting journalism since 1909


— ADVERTISEMENT —
Advertise with SPJ
2

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

News: SPJ updates Code of Ethics
Quill: Code of Ethics Revision: What's Up and What Has Changed
Quill: Codifying A New Code of Ethics
Quill: New Code of Ethics Not Ready for Prime Time
Quill: Ten with Kara Swisher
Quill: Ethics Toolbox


Ethics
Ethics Home
SPJ Code of Ethics
News/Articles
Case Studies
Committee Position Papers
Ethics Answers
Ethics Hotline
Resources
Ethics Committee

Code Words: SPJ’s Ethics Committee Blog
– The Road Ahead
– Ethics Code Revision: Final Draft
– Ethics of covering suicides

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

Andrew Seaman
Email
@andrewmseaman
Bio (click to expand) Andrew is a medical journalist for Reuters Health in New York. Before coming to Reuters Health, he was a Kaiser Media Fellow at Reuters’s Washington, D.C. bureau, where he covered the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

In 2011, Andrew graduated from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied investigative journalism as a Stabile Fellow and was named “Student of the Year.” Andrew also graduated with his B.A. from Wilkes University in 2011.

He’s won numerous awards throughout his short career, including being named a 2010 Tom Bigler Scholar for ethical standards in journalism, the 2009 Robert D.G. Lewis First Amendment Award, the 2009 and the Arthur H. Barlow National Student Journalist of the Year Award.


Monica Guzman, vice chair
Email
@moniguzman
Bio (click to expand) Monica is a Sunday columnist for The Seattle Times and a weekly columnist for GeekWire, covering issues in digital life. She was a juror for the 2014 Pulitzer Prizes, serves on the National Advisory Board for the Poynter Institute and contributed the closing chapter, “Community As an End,” to the 2013 Poynter book “The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century.” From 2007 to 2010, Monica launched and ran the innovative Big Blog at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer and seattlepi.com, complementing news and culture coverage with weekly reader meetups. From 2010 to 2012 she developed user communities for Seattle startups like Intersect, Trover and Glympse before kicking off her Times column.

A member of the World Economic Forum’s Global Shapers community, Monica emcees the popular quarterly community speaker series Ignite Seattle and is assisting the American Press Institute with a newsroom innovation project. Monica served on the ethics code revision task force and is an active member of the Western Washington Pro chapter of SPJ. She is currently serving as chapter president.



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


Articles for...
Freelancers
Students
Young Journalists
International Journalists
Educators

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 EthicalFred@aol.com.

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