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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
E-mail
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
303/829-4647
E-mail
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.



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Home > Ethics > Reading Room > Did sexual abuse story cross the line of fairness?

SPJ Reading Room

Did sexual abuse story cross the line of fairness?

By Fred Brown

When it comes to training, ethics is different from other newsroom workshops. It is a more esoteric subject than, say, using numbers in reporting, or writing without bias.

In ethics, there are no pat answers. The trick is to ask the right questions, to hash it out so you’re able to justify your decision to yourself and the public.

But most of an ethics workshop consists of looking at case studies. The best sessions focus on ethical issues that have surfaced locally. The case studies eventually go on the SPJ Web site for use in ethics discussions by teachers, students and professionals.

Here’s a case study from a session in Portland, Ore., last year. In addition to this brief summary, participants had copies of stories to guide their discussion.

Three weeks before the 2004 election, The (Portland) Oregonian published a sensational story. David Wu, a Democratic congressman seeking a fourth term, had been accused by an ex-girlfriend of a sexual assault some 28 years previously. But criminal charges never were filed, and neither Wu nor the woman involved wanted to discuss the case now.

The Oregonian spent months trying to discover the truth about this persistent rumor. On Oct. 12, 2004, it published an article of more than 3,000 words explaining what it found out.

On that same day, Congressman Wu held a news conference to say he did something regrettable in his youth, but he didn’t think it was relevant now. Other media picked up the story, of course, and his Republican opponent used it in her campaign.

Here’s a quick summary:

Wu and his ex-girlfriend were science majors at Stanford University. She broke up with him in spring of 1976. That summer, Wu was questioned by Stanford campus police after his ex-girlfriend said he tried to force her to have sex with him.

Wu told police it was consensual. He was not arrested. The woman declined to pursue criminal prosecution and didn’t file a formal disciplinary complaint.

Wu refused to be interviewed or to answer written questions about the incident when The Oregonian asked him about it 28 years later. Wu’s ex-girlfriend also declined to comment, either in person or through a representative. Stanford officials wouldn’t discuss it either, citing university policy and student confidentiality laws.

So how did The Oregonian get its story? Here’s the newspaper’s explanation, included as part of the first story:

“Reporters contacted scores of former Stanford students, current and retired university officials and professors, law associates, and former campaign staffers and friends of Wu to determine what occurred.

“The account that follows is based on recollections of the Stanford patrol commander, the woman’s counselor, two professors who supervised dormitories at the time and several classmates who were on campus that year.”

Despite the story, Wu won re-election by a decisive 3-to-2 margin.

Workshop participants were asked to consider what questions the newspaper should have asked — and answered — before it decided to publish.

One question participants raised was whether The Oregonian was looking for its own sex scandal because an alternative newspaper had finally run down a similar long-ago sex story involving a former governor.

There were other, perhaps more obvious questions. Was the story relevant to voters today? Certainly it’s interesting — sex always is — but was it useful? Fair? And if you were a competing news outlet in Portland, what would you have done after The Oregonian broke the story?

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

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