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Home > Ethics > Ethics Code Revision Project > Code Revision Q&A

Ethics Code Revision Project
Code Revision Q&A

Q. Is this code really better than the current version? Why?

A. Undoubtedly, it’s better for a number of reasons.

Here are just the obvious ones. First we recognize the changes in journalism since the last time the code was written in 1996. Without being technologically specific, we were able to address trends and themes in journalism. This code is for all mediums and enunciates the foundational principles that we still hold fast to — truth, fairness, compassion, independence and accountability.

Language was changed to make sure it reflected that we weren’t tied to traditional forms of journalism.

Several concerns were also addressed, such as the new emphasis on transparency in reporting. Also, we employ tougher ethical standards on checkbook journalism, insist that advocacy journalism is labeled as such, spell out more precisely how anonymous sources are to be used and employ journalists to resist attempts to have others manage the news, from outside and inside the company. We further explain the ethics of reporting on suicides, why a legal right to act is different than an ethical obligation, and we place a special obligation on continuing the life of the story with updates and corrections and making sure that these corrections are noticeable and archived with the stories so the public can see them. We also impress upon journalists the need to hold the highest standards in all encounters with the public and realize that our private lives impact our journalistic ones, and our credibility.

This code is not tweaked. These are not minor edits. Easily, a third of this code has been revised from the current version.

— Kevin Z. Smith, Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism

Q. Is this code ready for enacting?

A. We hope so. The committee has spent almost a year working on this document and we think, after three edits, the last taking 10 hours of one day, we have something very valuable to share with the membership.

In September, at the national convention, delegates will vote on the code, and if a majority agrees with us, SPJ will officially unveil its first code in 18 years. That’s pretty exciting.

The committee has already begun preparing the supplemental resources for a repository of ethical material that will sit behind the code and provide an interactive component to it. We hope to have a web site prepared shortly after the convention to locate. The SPJ site already has case studies and position papers directed from the code. We will gradually increase those and update them.

We encourage every member to read the code, ask questions on the SPJ website, attend the town hall meeting at the national convention and support passage of this code.

People are free to like or disagree with the code; no code is going to make 100 percent of the people happy, and in SPJ, that’s almost 8,000. Still, we think we have created the best code we could, one that is aspirational and speaks to professional and emerging journalism models, across every platform. It’s worth approving.

— Kevin Z. Smith

Q: How have SPJ and the Code Revision Committee included the membership and the public in the revision process?

A. The Code Revision project started last fall after EIJ13 in Anaheim. President Dave Cuillier asked Ethics Committee Chair Kevin Smith, who also had overseen the 1996 revision effort, to be the leader.

For the 2014 revision, however, Smith reached beyond the committee and invited a number of current working journalists, including those whose work is online, and ethics educators to participate. For a complete list of the committee members and the additional project participants, click here.

Smith also contacted a number of digital ethicists, who provided a lengthy critique of the 1996 Code and suggestions for updating the Code to conform with the journalism of today.

Smith organized the work much the way the mid-1990s revision had worked: Four sub-groups were established, each handling one of the basic tenets stated in the Code.

The committee last fall established a portal on SPJ.org for interested members to provide comment or input on the process. The committee received and reviewed more than 300 comments in this fashion and through direct correspondence with the committee members.

The four groups worked through the winter and produced the first draft of the revised Code in late March.

After the debut of the first draft, some members asked questions about who had been involved and what the procedures for producing the draft had been.

The committee had operated much the way SPJ committees have worked and continue to work: Do the work, deliver the project and get feedback or comment.

But the drafting of the Ethics Code revision was intended to be an ongoing process, with member and public comment and interaction. The committee took the suggestions about increasing transparency to heart, using technology that wasn’t available to the 1996 revisers.

The roster of the committee and the additional participants was posted. The complete first draft was posted, along with a “what’s new” list and a mark-up comparing the draft to the 1996 version. At all times, members and the public continued to have the opportunity to participate by making comments.

The launch date of the first draft was timed to coincide with the first round of regional meetings, beginning the last weekend in March. Several regions took the opportunity to review and discuss the draft with members in attendance.

The committee continued to gather comment, to weigh changes and to consider language throughout the spring. The sub-groups were shuffled, allowing members to work on different sections, and a second draft was published at the end of June.

The revision process and the opportunity to participate were promoted heavily on the SPJ website, in SPJ Leads and on Facebook and Twitter.

Twelve members of the committee met in Columbus, Ohio, on July 12 to review all the work that had been done, along with all the member and public input received. This meeting followed yet again the pattern of the 1996 revision group, which had met in person in Philadelphia at the end of its drafting process.

The Columbus session was live-streamed, and the committee entertained a number of questions and comments made in real time during the day. The video of the entire meeting is available for viewing at spj.org.

Comments and input from the SPJ membership and the public have been critical in making the third draft as complete and as strong as it is. A comparison of the first and third drafts (which are quite different) will demonstrate that the Code revision committee has been listening carefully and making changes accordingly.

The ultimate decision on the Code revision will be in the hands of the delegates in Nashville.

The committee publicized the third draft, along with beta sections of the supplementary material to show how we envision it will be amplified and explain the Code for members and the public. There is still time to contribute thoughts and meaningful discussion before the vote in September.

— Paul Fletcher, Publisher & Editor-in-Chief, Virginia Lawyers Weekly

Q. What is this “Living Code” or supplemental appendix you speak of?

A. In addition to the code, SPJ’s Ethics Committee will embark on a project to create a repository of more informational material in support of the code. This will include case studies (already on the site), position papers (which the committee started four years ago), code language footnotes and interaction components with journalists and the public.

When someone contacts SPJ’s Ethics Hotline we will answer the question as we typically do, and then, if the caller agrees, we will preserve the question and our answer and share it online. As we answer these, more than 300 each year, we can create an archive of these questions and responses that will serve as a database for solving ethical dilemmas. Not every call is unique. The circumstances might be, but the fundamental issues are fairly common — conflicts of interest, source relationships, tragedy reporting, etc.

We believe that by developing these resources we are arming journalists with countless case studies and examples, real and common, they can use to resolve ethical questions. This is a valuable teaching tool for the public and all journalists, from the college student to the veteran.

— Kevin Z. Smith

Q: Why so little on social media?

A: The code is intended to cover journalism across all formats, including social media.

At the same time, the code singles out social media in saying journalists should weigh the consequences of publishing personal information singles. That is in recognition of the abundance of private information on social media.

Similarly, the revised code highlights points especially to online media when saying journalists should consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication.

— Carole Feldman, The Associated Press

Q: Why did you keep the same format and structure as the original code?

A: Just as "we the people" remains relevant two and a half centuries later, we believe the Ethic Code's four pillars stand today as they did in the past, (with the addition of "transparency.") What we believe has changed involves the behaviors within the pillars. That's where we addressed the verities of today's world. The addition of the "Living Code"(supplemental resources) will keep this document relevant through the coming years.

— Hagit Limor, Investigative reporter, Fox19, Cincinnati

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