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SPJ Ethics Week generates discussions about journalistic decision making


Robert Leger, national president of SPJ, cell 417/425-9140 or
Gary Hill, SPJ Ethics Committee Chairman, 651/642-4437 or
Fred Brown, SPJ Ethics Committee Co-Chairman, 303/829-4647 or

INDIANAPOLIS -- Journalists are making news in recent days, but not in the ways they are accustomed to doing.

Boston Herald reporter Jules Crittenden is stopped by U.S. Customs and a large painting is seized along with various Iraqi war souvenirs. Crittenden defends his actions, saying “these items were being routinely discarded and destroyed and clearly were of no value to the Iraqi people.” Benjamin James Johnson, a satellite truck engineer for Fox News Channel, is charged with trying to smuggle a dozen Iraqi paintings into the country. The paintings were apparently looted from an Iraqi palace. Fox fired Johnson.

In Washington state, King County Journal Editor Tom Wolfe agreed with law enforcement requests to run a fake story about a staged arson. It was all part of the authorities’ plan to prove a convicted murderer is trying to reach out from his prison cell and hire someone to set fire to his mother-in-law’s home. Wolfe stands by his decision, saying “we have a responsibility to the community.” Critics say the paper failed to act independently of the authorities and undermined its own credibility by lying to its readers.

With the end of Saddam’s regime, CNN’s chief news executive, Eason Jordan, writes an extraordinary column for The New York Times called, “The News We Kept to Ourselves.” In it he reveals that CNN had not reported on various abductions, torture and murders committed by the regime. Jordan says the network did not report these things because it knew they would lead to the additional torture and murder of Iraqi employees. CNN’s critics say the motives were more self-serving and claim CNN was willing to not report the repression in order to maintain the competitive advantage of having a bureau in Baghdad.

Each of these situations illustrates the types of ethical challenges journalists face in doing their jobs. Over the next week and half, the Society of Professional Journalists encourages journalists everywhere to discuss ethical decision making with their peers and the public as part of SPJ’s Ethics in Journalism Week.

Ethics in Journalism Week is timed to coincide with the annual ethics issue of Quill magazine, published by SPJ.

SPJ has identified ethical standards -- and the advancement of those standards -- as one of its most important missions. Ethical decision making has long been one of the “big-picture” priorities distinguishing SPJ from other journalism organizations. SPJ’s Code of Ethics, first adopted in 1926 and most recently updated in 1996, is widely regarded as an industry standard.

Copies of those codes will be distributed during Ethics in Journalism Week to newsrooms and individual reporters in all parts of the country. Local SPJ chapters also are encouraged to recognize good -- and bad -- ethical behavior and to hold discussions and workshops on ethical journalism. To find a nearby professional chapter, visit

SPJ’s National Ethics Committee, through a generous grant from the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation, has awarded grants to seven SPJ chapters across the country for more ambitious programs. These range from discussions of the ethics of war coverage to production of broadcast public service announcements with the message that journalists do care about ethical behavior.

There also are continuing online discussions about ethical questions such as those mentioned here. SPJ members can post general ethics discussion topics on SPJ’s online message boards at Journalists with an ethical dilemma can write to a member of SPJ’s Ethics Committee at

This is the first Ethics in Journalism Week. SPJ’s intent is that it be a continuing event, late in the spring.

The Society of Professional Journalists works to improve and protect journalism. SPJ is dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, and based in Indianapolis, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed public, works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists, and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press.


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