SPJ asks Massachusetts DOC to drop proposed inmate interview restrictions
SPJ wrote to Massachusetts Department of Correction Commissioner Michael T. Maloney asking him to drop a series of proposed restrictions that would greatly limit the ability of journalists to interview inmates at state prisons.
The changes proposed by the DOC would prohibit interviews with inmates in segregation units, deny the use of cameras or tape recorders at medium- and maximum-security prisons, and require that a guard or prison official be present for all inmate interviews. Also, telephone interviews could be severely limited, and interviews with inmates in solitary confinement would be eliminated outright.
In addition, the policy calls for the Department of Correction to approve requests based on a set of factors, including whether " ... access would result in a significant benefit to law enforcement agencies." Such content-based qualifications on access are completely unwarranted, and quite possibly unconstitutional, and clearly signal an unwillingness to embrace the public scrutiny that is part of the process.
The Society wrote, "The department's proposed rules stifle media coverage of prisons and prisoners at a time when the public more than ever needs the information journalists often garner from interviews with prisoners." SPJ encouraged Commissioner Maloney to "remain mindful of the importance of public scrutiny of the corrections department and the thousands of inmates in its charge," and to " ... put the needs of the public first, and to grant access to [corrections] facilities for any bona fide news event."
"Prison policies such as these are designed to shut out the public and press," said Charles N. Davis, SPJ Freedom of Information co-chairman. "The correctional industry is the only functional unit of state governance free from the scrutiny of an active press, and it is at our peril that we allow prisons to run in the dark."
SPJ Ethics Committee issues statement on publication of Pearl photos
In June, SPJ's Ethics Committee issued a statement regarding the Boston Phoenix's printing of graphic photographs of journalist Daniel Pearl's death.
In part, the statement read, "The Ethics Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists believes the Boston Phoenix crossed an ethical line when it printed a photograph of Daniel Pearl's severed head.
"The committee deplores the newspaper's decision to place the grisly photo in a way in which readers had no choice but to view it. While the paper had the legal right to do what it did, the question is not one of legality, but of ethics.
"Granted, there is a certain awful truth that the photo represents. The hatred his murderers have for Jews and Americans is crystallized in the image, but that truth does not outweigh the harmful shock to readers and to Pearl's family. It seems difficult to arrive at any other conclusion than that the newspaper decided to not follow the advice of the SPJ Code of Ethics: `Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.' That is part of the code's tenet calling on journalists to `Minimize harm,' which says `Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.'
"The images were taken from a propaganda video made by Pearl's captors. The newspaper originally placed a link to the video on its Web site, which made viewing of the images optional for readers, who were warned that the material was `extremely graphic.' While publishing the link may also be objectionable to many people, the Ethics Committee addressed this issue only after the paper printed two black-and-white images on the paper's editorial page, one showing Pearl's severed head. The pictures accompanied an editorial that said the video should galvanize opposition to `the perpetrators and supporters of those who committed this unspeakable murder.'
"The paper's publisher, Stephen Mindich, told the Ethics Committee that the pictures where printed after much deliberation. He said it would have been unethical not to bring the information to the attention of the American public, which has not felt the full weight of the event or fully understood that Pearl was killed because he was Jewish. As for not giving readers the option of viewing the images, he cited widespread publication of pictures showing victims of the Holocaust, the dead American soldier being dragged down a Somalian street and the Zapruder film of the JFK assassination.
"Unlike the images Mindich cites, the image of Daniel Pearl's severed head came not as the result of journalism, but from a video that was scripted as propaganda -- and that was given currency by the newspaper's publication of a link to the video.
"In the current case and those Mindich cites, journalists had to weigh the balance between reporting the truth and minimizing harm. That balance is often difficult to ascertain. In this case, the photo was used as a design element, was not specifically referenced in the editorial, and added nothing but shock value to the awful truth that Pearl was decapitated.
"Given these circumstances, the Ethics Committee believes that the shocking, extremely graphic photo should not have been placed before readers without warning. Ethical journalists respect the sensibilities of their readers, viewers and listeners. In this case, seeing the actual image adds little if anything to our already horrific imagination of the event."
Web site's refusal to accept Sony ads draws ethics commendation from SPJ
The Society of Professional Journalists commended The New York Times Web site for refusing to accept Sony Electronics Web advertisements designed to look like news content.
According to AdAge.com, the Sony ads were written by free-lancers and read like news features, with sidebars to Sony's Web site. The editorial-like format makes it difficult to determine whether the information is an advertisement or news.
"The New York Times Web site is to be commended for rejecting the Sony ads," said SPJ Ethics Chairman Gary Hill, director of investigations & special segments at KSTP-TV in Minneapolis. "As online publishing continues to grow and evolve, professional journalists need their institutions to maintain bright clear lines between advertising and editorial content."
According to the Ad Age story, Sony freely admits it is trying to do the opposite: "We're trying to blur the line between the advertising and editorial boundary," said David Cohen, senior vice president and interactive media director on Sony at Interpublic Group of Cos.' Universal McCann.
Such blurring crosses ethical lines. The SPJ Code of Ethics calls for distinguishing between advocacy, advertising and news, and making certain that news content does not misrepresent.
"The reason Sony would want to do this is obvious," said Hill. "If readers are unable to distinguish the origin of the content they give it the credibility they would normally reserve for the news organization. It would allow Sony to cheaply capitalize on the credibility of The New York Times and other news organizations that accept their money."
In the short run, accepting these ads without clear labeling will compromise the independence of news organizations who do so. In the long run it will cost them their credibility -- the single most valuable commodity any newsroom possesses.
SPJ's Code of Ethics is voluntarily embraced by thousands of writers, editors and other news professionals. The present version of the code was adopted by the 1996 SPJ National Convention, after months of study and debate among the Society's members. SPJ's first Code of Ethics was adopted in 1926.