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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
Assistant Director
Trusting News Project
Email
@LWalsh
Bio (click to expand) Lynn Walsh is an Emmy award-winning journalist who has worked in investigative, data and TV journalism for more than 10 years. Currently, she is a freelance journalist and the Assistant Director for the Trusting News project, where she works to help rebuild trust between journalists and the public by working with newsrooms to be more transparent about how they do their jobs.

She is a past national president for the Society of Professional Journalists. During her term, she spoke out against threats to the First Amendment while working to protect and defend journalists and journalism. She also serves the journalism organization as a member of SPJ’s FOI committee and is the current Ethics Chair. Lynn was also selected to represent SPJ on the Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) Advisory Committee where she worked to recommend changes to help improve the national FOIA process.

Previously she led the NBC 7 Investigates and NBC 7 Responds teams in San Diego, California for KNSD-TV. Prior to working in California, 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, 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. Lynn travels around the country, teaching journalists and students about the latest innovative storytelling techniques and how to produce ethical content, no matter the medium.

Lynn is a proud Bobcat Alumna and graduated from the Ohio University’s E.W. Scripps School of Journalism. She loves the beach, sunsets, exploring the world and attempting new yoga poses. She believes the glass is half-full, the truth is always out there and that hard work, dedication and personality can make any dream come true.


SPJ Ethics
Committee Members


Lauren Bartlett
Email

Fred Brown
Email

David Cohn

Annie Culver

Elizabeth Donald
Email

Mike Farrell
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Paul Fletcher
Email

Michael Lear-Olimpi
Email

Chris Roberts
Email

Alex Veeneman
Email

Home > Ethics > Ethics Case Studies > A Suspect “Confession”

Ethics Case Studies
A Suspect “Confession”

WHAT: John Mark Karr, 41, was arrested in mid-August in Bangkok, Thailand, at the request of Colorado and U.S. officials. During questioning, he confessed to the murder of JonBenet Ramsey, who had been beaten and strangled to death in the basement of her Boulder, Colorado, home sometime during Christmas night 1996. (The murder was a media obsession for much of 1997, and video clips of the young beauty contestant competing in various costumes ran, it seems, every few hours.)

Karr was arrested after Michael Tracey, a journalism professor at the University of Colorado, alerted authorities to information he had drawn from e-mails Karr had sent him over the past four years. Karr had initiated the correspondence, apparently intrigued by Tracey’s argument, in documentaries and elsewhere, that John and Patsy Ramsey had been unfairly implicated in their daughter’s death. Karr was returned to Boulder for DNA testing and ultimately cleared. But he wasn’t freed; he also faced misdemeanor child pornography charges in California.

WHO: Put yourself in the shoes of a news director or managing editor. Could you resist this story, especially if you were in Colorado? In the first three weeks after Karr’s “confession,” the Rocky Mountain News ran 150 stories about him, including this first-day lead: “The decade-long search for JonBenet Ramsey’s killer came to a startling end in Thailand on Wednesday.” The Denver Post probably ran a similar number, but its web site list cuts off after 10 hits. In JonBenet’s home town of Boulder, the Daily Camera ran 120 stories during the same period.

Or imagine you’re Professor Tracey.

The Question: Do you break a confidence with your source if you think it can solve a murder — or protect children half a world away?

There are many stakeholders in this case, including the media, Tracey and, of course, Karr himself. Add Boulder law enforcement authorities, who had been criticized for bungling the original case 10 years previously, and now for spending $23,656, including two business-class airfares, to bring a delusional man back to face dubious charges. Ramsey family members are major stakeholders. Even the University of Colorado j-school is among many parties with a peripheral interest.

WHY: The principles involved in deciding what to do include the media’s obligations to their readers and viewers to present the news in full while maintaining a sense of responsibility and balance. For Professor Tracey, there’s a struggle between confidentiality and collaboration. And should the media be critical of authorities who, after all, pulled Karr away from the temptation of children in Thailand, where he was about to begin a teaching job?

HOW: We’ve seen how the media reacted to this story — at full throttle. Was it overkill? A bit more skepticism and proportionality would have been more professional. Was Professor Tracey’s role appropriate? He considers himself an academic, not a journalist. But even if he were a journalist, wrote Rocky Mountain News media columnist David Kopel, he should act like an ethical human being. Kopel’s argument is worth repeating.

“Some critics claim that if journalists cooperate with the police, they will lose the trust of their audience. But just imagine how much less most readers would trust the newspapers if readers learned that a reporter refused to reveal non-confidential information which could have led to the capture of a notorious murderer.”

ANALYSIS: Some principles (from the SPJ Code of Ethics), and comment:

— Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information. (Quantity, more than quality, is the question.)
— Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. (In a highly competitive rush, it’s difficult — but still necessary.)
— Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity. (Lurid curiosity is sometimes unavoidable.)
— Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.
— Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.
— Clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct. (There was plenty of explaining where the information came from, and a flood of letters to the editor.)

— SPJ Ethics Committee


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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