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By Julie F. Grimes
Associate Executive Director
Sigma Delta Chi Foundation
ETHICS WEEK EVERY WEEK. Chapters and newsrooms around the country are taking part in thoughtful discussions in celebration of this week’s fifth annual Ethics in Journalism Week, sponsored by SPJ. Read more about some of the activities below, and consider hosting a discussion in your newsroom.
KEEP YOUR BALANCE. In Columbus, Ohio, members of the Central Ohio Pro Chapter gathered for a discussion about the impact of news coverage on the sources and the communities being covered. Editors shared real stories about the public response to their coverage of difficult situations. They talked about the discussions that took place as they decided what and how to report, and the editors shared the comments — both good and bad — they received in response. Moderator Kevin Smith, a member of SPJ’s board of directors and former chairman of the national Ethics Committee, offered this advice when covering situations involving victims of tragedy:
• Strike a balance between the principles of “minimizing harm” and “seeking truth and reporting it.” You can’t go into it thinking all you have to do is get the news, said Smith. “You have to temper that with your responsibility for how you treat people. If you pay attention strictly to getting the information at all costs, you’re going about it the wrong way.”
• Remember that in cases of tragic incidents, many of the individuals involved have no prior experience with the media. Approach them with a genuine sense of sympathy.
• In the newsroom, talk about how to cover tragic situations before you’re in the midst of one.
Some of the other programs scheduled for this week:
• At Ithaca College, collegiate journalists hosted a forum on the pitfalls of Internet journalism and how to harness properly the impact that journalism can have.
• In Minnesota, the SPJ chapter partnered with the Silha Center for the Study of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota to produce a program on the media’s role in covering tragedies. The panel discussion examined how the media cover high-profile criminal incidents and the impact their coverage has on victims and their families.
• At the University of Missouri, two programs were scheduled. First, on April 23, students learned about the role of an ombudsman from George Solomon, outgoing ombudsman for ESPN. Yesterday, the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication (AEJMC) and Bill Moyers Journal hosted a program about war coverage, including a preview of Moyers’ 90-minute documentary “Buying the War.” The documentary examines the role of the press in the lead up to the war in Iraq.
STILL TO COME. On May 10, the Washington, D.C. Pro chapter will host a discussion about “Crime, Mass Media and The Virginia Tech Explosion.” NPR’s Robert Siegel will moderate the panel featuring Ted Gest, president of D.C.-based Criminal Justice Journalists; John Broder of The New York Times, who covered the V-Tech tragedy: and Roberta Roper and Gail Seaton, suburban Washington mothers whose young daughters were murdered in separate crimes. Roper and her husband, Vincent, founded the Maryland Crime Victims Resource Center, Inc. after their daughter, 19, was murdered in 1982. Seaton’s daughter, 15, was slain in 2005. Please RSVP by May 7 to Robert Webb at firstname.lastname@example.org.
AN UNCONVENTIONAL APPROACH. Proving that ethics discussions can also be fun, South Florida journalists will mix gambling and ethics discussions this weekend during an Ethics Hold’em Tournament sponsored by the South Florida Pro Chapter. Playing cards include guidelines from the SPJ Code of Ethics, and players will gain rewards throughout the tournament for spotting specifics on the cards. Program organizer Michael Koretzky had this to say about his unconventional approach to ethics, “I believe SPJ needs to think more creatively about its programming if it wants to attract the next generation of journalists.” Good work, Michael. We’re looking forward to hearing from the winner of this contest — and to seeing more creative ideas that make learning fun.
PUBLIC CONFIDANTS. On April 28, the Colorado Pro Chapter will reflect on the role of the ombudsman or public editor in minimizing harm in reporting. Tim McNulty, public editor of the Chicago Tribune, will lead off the program, which will be followed by a panel discussion with local editors.
COMPASSIONATE JOURNALISM? SPJ Ethics Committee vice chairman Fred Brown offers this commentary on balancing the duty to report the news and the reporter’s responsibility to consider the consequences of that reporting. Brown’s advice: “‘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 a once-in-a-lifetime experience. They live with the consequences of what you’ve written long after you’ve moved on to other stories.”
A phone call from a hurting mom was a moving reminder that a journalist’s words have the power to bring people and communities together and to tear them apart. Read about one person’s experience talking with a mother who was hurt by news coverage of her daughter’s death. Then, share your own encounters with those affected by your stories.
NEWS YOU CAN USE. News U takes ethical decision-making seriously — and so does SPJ. Together with the Radio Television News Directors Foundation, the three organizations partnered to create an online course — Introduction to Ethical Decision-Making. The three-hour course is available at no charge and can be worked at your own pace. The best time to confront ethical issues is before your deadline, so take advantage of this resource now.
J-ETHICS IN THE NEWS. In observation of Ethics In Journalism Week, President Christine Tatum wrote Help Us Help You, a column on the importance of journalism ethics. More than 50 publications across the country will run this piece in the coming days.
ETHICS CHECKLISTS. The Journalism Ethics Project is a resource of the Radio Television News Directors Foundation. The program exists to reinforce core journalism values and ethical practices among news professionals. Here are just a few of the guides they offer for news coverage:
• What to consider before airing 911 calls
• Questions to ask when covering funerals
• Considerations for airing graphic images
• Balancing the public’s need to know and the individual’s right to privacy
• Interviewing juveniles
• Covering hostage-taking crises, police raids, prison uprisings and terrorist actions
ON THE MARK. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma is a global resource for journalists who cover violence. The center is based at the University of Washington and offers training, publications and online resources.
• Personal stories from reporters on the front lines of journalism
• A guide to “best practices” in trauma reporting
• Covering the Virginia Tech Shootings: Advice from reporters who have covered other mass murders
CHECK YOUR COMPASS. SPJ’s Code of Ethics is voluntarily embraced by thousands of writers, editors and other news professionals. It offers these guiding principles for journalists:
• Seek truth and report it.
• Act independently.
• Minimize harm.
• Be accountable.
If you’re struggling with an ethics-related decision, contact SPJ’s Ethics Hotline at (317) 927-8000 ext. 208. A member of SPJ’s Ethics Committee will return your call.
POP QUIZ! Several sharp high school students in Louisville, Ky., asked President Christine Tatum some tough questions about various aspects of journalism. Take a look at her
replies, and add your own thoughts.