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SPJ News Commentary: Think `news value’ when considering coverage


Gary Hill, SPJ Ethics Committee co-chair, ghill@kstp.com or (651) 642-4437
Fred Brown, SPJ Ethics Committee co-chair, ethicalfred@aol.com or (303) 755-0395

INDIANAPOLIS -- Judging from coverage of the Democratic National Convention so far, it appears that news values may be the big loser in this election season.

While acknowledging that there’s not a lot of tension or excitement in either of these major-party conventions, several key members of the Ethics Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists issued a statement Friday saying they’d still like to see the media take their responsibilities more seriously.

The statement from SPJ Ethics Committee Co-Chairs Gary Hill and Fred Brown follows:

Television networks are spending fewer hours than ever covering the events. There wasn’t even the usual perfunctory hour during prime time Tuesday.

Some cable outlets, to their credit, provide gavel-to-gavel coverage, but sometimes the intent seems to be to provoke news rather than cover it. In fact, too many in all news media seem to be trying to inject controversy and celebrity into what otherwise would be an all too predictable and choreographed event.

Here’s just a sample of how the media have been making their own versions of the news - instead of reporting what they find there -- so far in this convention.

* Conservative celebrity Ann Coulter tried to emulate Molly Ivins, but then was canceled by USA Today because her first column about what she called the “Spawn of Satan convention” was “unfunny.” (The newspaper also has signed up liberal firebrand Michael Moore to write from the Republican convention.)

* Television dwelt on Teresa Heinz Kerry’s “shove it” directive to an editorial writer for a conservative Pittsburgh newspaper, but then the networks ignored her speech to the convention. If the intent of the Pittsburgh newspaper was accurate coverage, why was the only person it sent to the convention not a reporters but a notoriously opinionated columnist?

* Talk-show host Jerry Springer, a convention delegate, is being used as an “insider analyst” by an Ohio television station, even though he’s considering running for office. One must ask what motives drove a news organization to rely on coverage from a hot-button entertainer whose very presence in his convention role confuses reporter (or analyst), news subject and meretricious cultural sizzle.

* New York’s Daily News made an issue of its being denied the name of the designer of a Hillary Clinton pantsuit (although an aide did disclose the color, as well as the color of his own trousers and shirt).

The list goes on, often bordering on the silly. Coverage has been dominated by gossip, speculation, irrelevant chitchat, analysis or catty remarks about the presumed tactics behind what you see. Nothing seems to be simply reported, i.e. “Here’s what happened.”

This is far from the spirit of the SPJ Code of Ethics. “Seek truth and report it,” the code states. “Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.” The code also says, “Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.”

The SPJ Ethics Committee feels strongly that the news media should be giving the American people information that will help them make intelligent choices on the governance of the country. Too often, that’s not what the American people are getting.

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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