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SPJ Ethics Committee Position Papers
Using the SPJ Code

The Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists is an open document. The more it’s distributed — and used — the better. The code is not intended to be arcane or cryptic. It is not like a secret handshake intended for use only by the members of some mystic order. If it were, we would put something at the bottom similar to what is run in television ads for zippy cars: “Professional Driver. Closed Course. Do Not Attempt.”

There is nothing in the code that prevents non-journalists from accessing it and using it. It’s readily available online. Members of the public are free to refer to the code when they want to call attention to what they perceive to be a news medium’s questionable ethics.

But this should be made clear: The code is entirely voluntary. It is not a legal document; it has no enforcement provisions or penalties for violations, and SPJ strongly discourages anyone from attempting to use it that way. The code’s only check on ethical misdeeds is expressed in the final of its four main principles: “Be Accountable.” There, journalists are told that they should “expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media.” We believe a free exchange of ideas — not any sort of sanction — is the best way of getting at the truth, at who is right and who is wrong.

The SPJ code is the “gold standard” of aspirational codes of ethics, and it has been used by many news outlets as the basis for more formal and detailed codes. Employers’ codes of ethics are much more specific, and there are penalties for violating them. Reporters have been fired for plagiarizing, for accepting gifts or for other ethical breaches. An employer can do that; an association of volunteers cannot. Many news media make their codes available to all, and they encourage the public to hold them accountable for the standards expressed in those codes. SPJ applauds that embrace of transparency.

At the end of the SPJ Code of Ethics, after the actual working principles, is this important explanatory caution: “The code is intended not as a set of ‘rules’ but as a resource for ethical decision-making. It is not — nor can it be under the First Amendment — legally enforceable.”

The SPJ Code of Ethics, in other words, is available for anyone to see and to refer to. But when it’s quoted, it should be properly attributed — and, we would hope, not taken out of context or misinterpreted. Such questionable uses of the code inevitably will be questioned — that’s the nature of free expression, and an extension of the principle of accountability.

Thousands of responsible, ethical journalists follow the SPJ Code of Ethics and adhere to it. The most important thing to remember is that it’s a set of principles that is open to interpretation and discussion, not a statute or a constitution or a set of regulations. There is nothing about it that can be or should be considered a legal or binding requirement.

This statement expresses the views of the SPJ Ethics Committee. It was written for the committee by its vice chairman, Fred Brown, who covered state and national politics and government for nearly 40 years for The Denver Post.

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