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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

Andrew Seaman
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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, co-vice chair
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@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.


Fred Brown, co-vice chair
303-829-4647
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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 > The bad and the ugly: An examination of ethical lapses of the past year

SPJ Reading Room

The bad and the ugly: An examination of ethical lapses of the past year

By Christine Tatum

It is in the spirit of educating the public and helping journalists make more ethical decisions that SPJ’s National Ethics Committee reviewed news accounts of ethical lapses that occurred since September 2006 and stirred some of the most passionate debate within the news industry.

The committee grouped the lapses into larger categories where journalists appear to have had the most trouble meeting ideals set forth by SPJ’s ethics code.

For the first time, the committee is publicizing its findings. The categories, supported here by specific examples, are listed in no particular order.

Political activism. A commendable MSNBC.com investigation revealed that at least 140 journalists contributed to political parties, movements or candidates. Many journalists explained why they felt they had done nothing wrong and nothing contrary to their news organization’s policies.

Ten Florida journalists accepted payment from the federal government in exchange for their contributions to television and radio stations that work to undermine Cuban President Fidel Castro’s regime.

SPJ’s ethics code states that journalists should “remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.” The code also encourages journalists to shun “... political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.”

Journalist/Source relationships. Journalists must maintain a healthy distance from people they cover.

A former Telemundo anchorwoman reported about Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa’s marital difficulties without mentioning that she was dating him. The station suspended and reassigned the anchor. When the anchor didn’t show up for her new assignment, the station announced that she had quit her job.

Getting too close to sources sorely compromises a journalist’s ability to “act independently,” as SPJ’s code instructs.

“Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived,” the code states. And “remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility,” the code instructs.”

A former Los Angeles Times editorial page editor selected a Hollywood producer to guest edit a section. At the time, the editorial page editor was dating the producer’s publicist.
The Times’ publisher, who was not aware of the relationship when the producer was invited to contribute to the paper, canceled the section. The publisher cited the appearance of a conflict of interest. The editorial page editor resigned.

A Chicago television reporter was caught on film socializing with a source whose wife was missing and might have been killed. The reporter took her children to the source’s house and was secretly caught on tape by a competing news organization, which later publicized the footage. The reporter, who ultimately lost her job, said she sometimes kept the police informed about the contents of her interviews with the source.

A former MarketWatch columnist resigned to pursue a start-up company. The columnist had not been allowed to write about the business she was starting or about any of the companies that had a relationship to her business. However, the columnist apparently wrote items about the companies doing business with her start-up — and about companies with ties to her start-ups main investor.

A former reporter with the (Riverside, Calif.) Press-Enterprise resigned after admitting that he had accepted gifts from people he covered, including $500 from a city councilman after his house burned down.

“Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment ...” the code dictates.

Plagiarism. It’s unclear whether the number of violations of this fundamental of responsible journalism is on the rise — or if technology is making plagiarism easier to find. CBS News anchor Katie Couric read an item that was posted on her blog — after it was ripped off from The Wall Street Journal. A CBS producer wrote the item for Couric, who read the piece as if sharing her personal thoughts. That’s worth questioning, too.

News/Advertising relationships. Times are tough economically for the news industry, and many organizations are responding with problematic news-advertising hybrids.

For example, the Philadelphia Inquirer runs a business column under a Citizens Bank label. Though the paper says the bank won’t have a say in the column’s content, the appearance suggests otherwise.

The news team at WGME in Portland, Maine, participated in a video segment that promotes a local movie theater and their newscast.

“Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived,” the code states.

Fairness. Last year, SPJ awarded several journalists at the Santa Barbara (Calif.) News-Press an ethics award for resigning in protest of co-publisher Wendy McCaw’s influence on news content. That battle reached a new low when the newspaper ran an unsigned front-page story implying that the paper’s former editor downloaded child pornography on his office computer. The story fell far short of an airtight case and appeared to be bent on attacking the former editor more than serving readers with truth. “Test the accuracy of information from all sources, and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error,” the code instructs.

Photo manipulation. After the shootings at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, news organizations, including People magazine and The New York Post, may have thought they were doing the right thing by altering photos that appeared to show a wounded student’s genitals. They weren’t. The image organizations edited out was actually a tourniquet. Photographs should be respected as a form of truth. “Never distort the content of news photos or video,” the code instructs. “Image enhancement for technical clarity is always permissible.”

The blur of news and entertainment. NBC’s “To Catch a Predator” series is fraught with ethical problems, such as the hiring of a crusading nonprofit group to set up stings. “Avoid ... staged news events,” the code states. It also urges journalists to “deny favored treatment to ... special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.”

Christine Tatum is national president of the Society of Professional Journalists and an assistant features editor at The Denver Post.

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More Articles
Main listing | Archive

News: SPJ President Walsh talks journalism ethics at Domestic Violence Summit
News: Cuillier receives SPJ's highest honor, the Wells Memorial Key
News: Lynn Walsh installed as 2016-17 SPJ President
News: SPJ Pro Chapter of the Year honorees named
News: SPJ Legal Defense Fund Roundup – July 2016
News: Professional Chapter of the Year finalists announced
 

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