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Salt Lake reporters cross ethical boundaries


Robert Leger, SPJ President, 417/836-1113 or cell 417/425-9140 or
Gary Hill, SPJ Ethics Committee Chairman, 651/642-4437 or
Paul Husselbee, SPJ Region 9 Director, 435/559-0495 or

INDIANAPOLIS -- As the Society of Professional Journalists concludes its inaugural Ethics in Journalism Week on Saturday (May 3), SPJ views with dismay this week’s events in Salt Lake City, where it was revealed that two reporters at Utah’s largest newspaper crossed ethical and professional boundaries in an unauthorized free-lance arrangement with a national tabloid.

SPJ urges newsrooms across the country to use this incident as an opportunity to revisit their own policies and discuss ethical practices with their staffs. The Society also commends the 43 members of the Tribune staff who signed a statement calling for higher standards.

The Salt Lake Tribune dismissed the two reporters, Michael Vigh and Kevin Cantera, who admitted that, in violation of newspaper policy, they had met secretly with a National Enquirer reporter in June 2002 and received $10,000 each for salacious rumors related to the Elizabeth Smart kidnapping investigation. Tribune editor James E. Shelledy resigned Thursday night amid criticism of his handling of the incident.

“This is a sad day for a fine newspaper,” said SPJ President Robert Leger, editorial page editor at The Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader. “It is also a reminder of why it is so important to have regular conversations about ethics. Ethics codes ought to be living documents that are constantly referred to and discussed.”

Gary Hill, co-chair of the SPJ Ethics Committee and director of investigations at KSTP-TV in Minneapolis, said the Tribune reporters’ collaboration with the Enquirer resulted in wholesale violations of the SPJ Code of Ethics.

“They did not meet appropriate standards for sources, and they did not attempt to minimize harm,” Hill said. “They did not act independently,” especially in relation to the code’s admonition to “remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.”

Paul Husselbee, SPJ’s regional director for the Mountain West and a member of the Ethics Committee, said he fears “journalists around the country will shake their heads and acknowledge the ethical lapse, but no one will really talk about it.”

Newsroom policies and their power to prevent such behavior are empty unless they are discussed and enforced, he added.

The SPJ Ethics Committee recommends that journalists use the Tribune incident as a case study to discuss acceptable journalistic behaviors. To that end, the committee suggests:

-- Editors should implement or reinforce free-lance policies that deal specifically with work for other news media in general and particularly with those media organizations whose professional ethics are often called into question

-- Editors should address their newsrooms specifically about the events at The Salt Lake Tribune and use the case to initiate discussion of their papers’ free-lance policies.

-- Journalism educators should employ teaching materials and classroom exercises that specifically prepare young reporters for such situations.

-- Reporters should ponder their individual ethics, as well as their duties and loyalties to news consumers, editors and colleagues.

Leger urges journalists not to dismiss the Tribune incident as an aberration.

“There will be a temptation to cite ethics codes or newsroom rules and say, ‘Every journalist knows better,’ ” he said, “but just because journalists should know better doesn’t mean it cannot happen again. If we don’t talk about these things as they happen, it’s likely we will continue to see what happened here repeated in other newsrooms.”

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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