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Ethics
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Ethics Committee

Quill: Stories About Journalism Ethics
– 10 lessons in journalism ethics
– Journalism’s complicated relationship with transparency
– Sinclair’s ‘teachable moment’ raises even more questions

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

Lynn Walsh
Project Manager
Trusting News Project
E-mail
@LWalsh
Bio (click to expand) Lynn Walsh is an Emmy award-winning journalist who has been working in investigative journalism at the national level as well as locally in California, Ohio, Texas and Florida. Currently she leads the KNSD investigative team at the NBC TV station in San Diego, California, where she is the Investigative Executive Producer.

Most recently, she was working as data producer and investigative reporter for the E.W. Scripps National Desk producing stories for the 30+ Scripps news organizations across the country. Before moving to the national desk, she worked as the Investigative Producer at WPTV, NewsChannel 5, the Scripps owned TV station in West Palm Beach, Florida. She has won state and local awards as well as multiple Emmy’s for her stories. She loves holding the powerful accountable and spends more time than she would like fighting for access to public information.

Her passion lies in telling multimedia stories that deliver hard hitting facts across multiple platforms. She describes herself as a "data-viz nerd" who is obsessed with new online tools to share information on the web and mobile applications.

She is a contributor to the Radio Television Digital News Association blog and serves as Secretary-Treasurer for SPJ and is a member of SPJ’s FOI, Generation J and Ethics committees.

Lynn is always interested in new projects surrounding FOI, public information access, mobile reporting tools, social media and interactive journalism. She is a proud Bobcat Alumna and graduated from the Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism.


SPJ Ethics
Committee Members


Lauren Bartlett
E-mail

David Cohn

Elizabeth Donald
E-mail

Mike Farrell
E-mail

Carole Feldman

Paul Fletcher
E-mail

Fred Brown
E-mail

Chris Roberts

Alex Veeneman
E-mail

Home > Ethics > Ethics Case Studies > Using this Process to Craft a Policy

Ethics Case Studies
Using this Process to Craft a Policy

WHAT: Think of all the types of situations in which you might need a policy to help you decide, for instance, whether to use an anonymous source, or whether to let a source review what you’re planning to write. List all the angles. Enlist other people in your discussion, including — if you can — people who aren’t journalists. In policy decisions, the question usually comes up front.

Let’s say you want to write a policy for your newspaper or magazine about pre-publication review, or that you as a free-lancer want to have a policy for yourself that’s well thought-out. Here you start with the question: Do we let sources see what we’re planning to write? And if we do, when?

It used to be that a reporter would absolutely NEVER let a source check out a story before it appeared. But there has been growing acceptance of the idea that it’s more important to be accurate than to be independent. Attitudes have changed because of the importance of credibility. And there are some very complicated topics where it is probably a good idea to go back to your source and say something like: “Here’s what I understood you to say about down pillows and bird flu. Do I have it right?” Stories involving figures — budgets, taxes, business reports — are ripe for errors. Sometimes you’re unsure whether a source said “an important thing” or “unimportant thing.”

WHO: This is the sort of decision that should involve a large and representative sample of the people who will have to follow it. Ultimately, the decision may be made by the highest level of management, but it should be an informed and collaborative decision.
Consider, too, the people outside the media organization who will be affected by what policy you decide to follow.

Even if you’re a lone free-lancer, you’d be wise to consult a few others in arriving at your personal policy for pre-publication review. Discuss. Argue. Test your ideas. Pre-publication review may give a source confidence that the reporter cares about getting it right. It could enhance your credibility and reputation. Offering to let them check what you’ve written may get them to open up. On the other side of the argument are tradition, and the worry that sources will want to take control of your story. They’ll try to change what you’ve written, to put themselves in the best light. They, and your colleagues, will think you have no backbone or professional pride.

WHY: These are principles (standards) you will use in deciding what to do. In most cases, it comes down to a balance between telling the truth and minimizing possible harms. Identify these and other moral responsibilities. The best decision is the one that does the greatest good for the greatest number of stakeholders.

You might want to consider what others have done, and what standards they used. Steve Weinberg, former head of Investigative Reporters and Editors, is quoted in one journalism ethics textbook as saying, “I have practiced PPR as a newspaper staff writer, a magazine free-lancer and a book author. Never have I regretted my practice. What I do regret is failing to do it during the first decade of my mindless adherence to tradition.”

Jay Mathews, a veteran education reporter for The Washington Post, shows whole stories to sources, even though it makes his editors uneasy. He wrote about that in The Post’s May 31, 2003, edition.
“I have shown every story I have written to all the sources I could find,” he said. “... They are welcome to argue about the tone, the analysis or anything else that bothers them, but I change only the things that I am convinced are inaccurate.”

The balance here is between being as accurate as possible in truth-telling, and maintaining your independence as a journalist.

HOW: How do you achieve the outcome you’ve identified as the best? This is definitely a situation where you want to write it down, and consider sharing it with your readers and audience.

Here’s one possible policy for pre-publication review:
1. Make it clear to your source that only you or your editor can change what you’ve written.
2. The review is for accuracy only. Just the facts, not context, tone or organization.
3. Don’t change direct quotes. You should have them on tape. But it’s OK to negotiate if the source says his first quote was wrong.
4. The best time to double-check is during the interview.
5. It’s best to review specific passages; not the entire story.
6. Remember: YOU DON’T HAVE TO CHANGE ANYTHING! But if it’s wrong, you certainly should.


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

Quill: Stories About Journalism Ethics
– 10 lessons in journalism ethics
– Journalism’s complicated relationship with transparency
– Sinclair’s ‘teachable moment’ raises even more questions

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.

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