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Ethics
SPJ Ethics Committee Position Papers

This collection of position papers, produced by the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee, is intended to clarify SPJ’s position on specific ethical themes that frequently arise in journalism, and also to provide better guidance for journalists, academics, students and the public when consulting the SPJ Code of Ethics.

The following papers are available for reference, with more — on using anonymous sources, undercover reporting, dealing with victims of tragedy, handling diversity coverage, privacy and news media accountability — to release over the coming months.


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.” Continue reading Using the SPJ Code


Reporting on Grief, Tragedy and Victims

A city truck collides with a motorcycle, killing the cyclist immediately and tying up traffic for a half hour. The local newspaper’s photographer, by happenstance, is at the scene minutes afterward. A man holds two individuals hostage. Police surround the house in the standoff for nearly two hours before the man takes his life. A reporter/photographer is at the scene. What do these incidents have in common? They are being talked about in the community. They have an impact on people. Continue reading Reporting on Grief, Tragedy and Victims


Anonymous Sources

Few ethical issues in journalism are more entangled with the law than the use of anonymous sources. Keep your promise not to identify a source of information and it’s possible to find yourself facing a grand jury, a judge and a jail cell. On the other hand, break your promise of confidentiality to that source and it’s just possible you might find yourself on the receiving end of a lawsuit. Continue reading Anonymous Sources


Accountability

The SPJ Ethics Committee gets a significant number of questions about whether journalists should engage in political activity. The simplest answer is “No.” Don’t do it. Don’t get involved. Don’t contribute money, don’t work in a campaign, don’t lobby, and especially, don’t run for office yourself. Continue reading Accountability


Plagiarism

The digital age we’re currently in offers both the most opportunities to verify the authenticity of original work and also misuse it without giving credit to the original reporting source. With databases, Web searches and other online research, it has never been easier to research the source of a story or other original material. On college campuses, for example, students who choose to plagiarize and buy a term paper or have someone else write it for them (the same work also submitted by others), can be caught much more easily than 30 years ago. Continue reading Plagiarism


Checkbook Journalism

Money can corrupt almost anything it touches, and that certainly includes the news. The practice of paying for information, known as checkbook journalism, threatens to corrupt journalism. Paying for interviews, directly or indirectly through so-called licensing fees, is now accepted practice in Great Britain and has been used by tabloid publications in the United States. Recently, broadcast networks also engaged in the practice. Continue reading Checkbook Journalism


Political Involvement

The SPJ Ethics Committee gets a significant number of questions about whether journalists should engage in political activity. The simplest answer is “No.” Don’t do it. Don’t get involved. Don’t contribute money, don’t work in a campaign, don’t lobby, and especially, don’t run for office yourself. But it’s a bit more nuanced than that. Continue reading Political Involvement


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