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SPJ Ethics Committee Highlights Journalism Highs and Lows From Past Year


For Immediate Release:

Scott Leadingham, SPJ Communications Coordinator, 509-859-2818 sleadingham@spj.org
Andy Schotz, SPJ Ethics Committee Chair, lawngyland@aol.com

An earlier version of this release incorrectly stated that Pat Tillman was killed in Iraq. He was killed in Afghanistan.

ATLANTA – As the Society of Professional Journalists opens its annual convention this week, the organization’s ethics committee is highlighting the highs and lows of ethical journalism over the past year.

Andy Schotz, the committee’s chairman, reminds journalists in a column that the industry code of ethics, while not legally binding, requires every media outlet and individual journalist to carefully consider their actions. At the forefront of reporting, editorial and even business decisions should be considerations of whether actions present a conflict of interest; undue and unfair sponsorship; or issues with plagiarism, among other ethical questions.

Schotz’s column is included below and open for publication.

Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, SPJ promotes the free flow of information vital to a well-informed citizenry; works to inspire and educate the next generation of journalists; and protects First Amendment guarantees of freedom of speech and press. For more information on SPJ, please visit www.spj.org.

Journalism Ethics: Year in Review
Ethics Committee Chair, Society of Professional Journalists

As we look back at poor journalism ethics during the past year, two prominent examples have a common failing: source credibility.

This is the link between a) military experts who deceptively tried to shape public opinion of the war in Iraq and b) hospitals that try to buy the right to be exclusive sources in TV news segments.

Both make us wonder: Who can we trust?

Of course, it's the journalism side that concerns SPJ — the disturbing lack of ethics by news organizations that fail their viewers, listeners and readers by not explaining the source of information or the possible conflicts of sources.

This year, SPJ is giving its ethics award to Glen Mabie, who resigned as news director from WEAU-TV in Eau Claire, Wisc., rather than submit to a questionable practice. Mabie was told that an area hospital was going to pay his station to air two "health news" segments per week. Only employees of this hospital could be used as sources for those stories.

Arrangements like this, in which hospitals even write the scripts for news stories, exist across the country, as Trudy Lieberman documented in a story for Columbia Journalism Review.

Another egregious case of letting sources lead the news — and mislead the public — was brought to light in David Barstow's New York Times exposé about military experts embedded in network news shows to push the Bush administration's view on the war in Iraq. The networks didn't tell viewers that retired military experts had been given marching orders by the Pentagon and that they often had outside defense-industry connections, putting their neutrality in question. The experts from whom we heard were not independent voices.

The networks were derelict in failing to alert us to the context and connections we needed to know, and, since Barstow's story was published, have been largely silent.

A sample of other areas of journalism lapses in the last year includes:

- Sponsorship: The Memphis Commercial Appeal's newsroom objected to the newspaper's plan to "monetize content" — or, in plainer words, allow companies to sponsor stories. The plan, which would have taken a hacksaw to the essential wall between news and advertising, faded away.

In Las Vegas, a Fox TV affiliate took its own whack at the news-advertising wall with a sponsorship deal in which McDonald's drink cups will sit on the anchor desk during broadcasts, their logos facing the camera.

In Philadelphia, an attempt to rent an entire newspaper building as ad space fell flat. The owner of the Inquirer and the Daily News withdrew a plan to drape the newspapers' building with banners promoting an animated Hollywood movie.

- Coziness: The Baseball Writers' Association of America took what it
considered to be a principled stand by voting to stop giving postseason awards to players who have bonus clauses in their contracts for winning those awards. The writers, though, continued to overlook the glaring conflict that has lingered for decades: They're creating the news, rather than covering it, by choosing these awards.

We learned this year that Associated Press reporter Ron Fournier, in a 2004 e-mail to Karl Rove about Afghanistan war casualty Pat Tillman, urged "Keep up the fight," a puzzling chuminess that Fournier later conceded was too "breezy."

- Conflicts of interest: A Telemundo anchor was reassigned one year ago after she reported on the Los Angeles mayor's broken marriage without telling anyone that she was dating the mayor.

- Plagiarism: Several violations of journalism's cardinal rule surfaced during the past year, but only one that we know of shut down a newspaper entirely. An alternative weekly paper in Texas stopped publishing because of allegations that one of its writers lifted stories from other publications.


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