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Home > Publications > Quill > Meet your new ethics committee chairman


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Monday, April 2, 2007
Meet your new ethics committee chairman

By Andy Schotz, SPJ ethics committee chairman

My first live encounter with the SPJ Ethics Committee turned into a test of ethics.

I joined SPJ in 2002, but, living 70 miles from the closest active chapter, it took me a while to make much of a connection.

On a whim, with a sense of exploration, I went to the national convention in Tampa in 2003. My agenda included the Ethics Committee’s meeting.

I sat in and listened. Afterward, I asked about joining. No, I was told; with 30-some members, the committee was crowded.

Some time later, I noticed that my name had been added to the committee at the SPJ Web site. As the 2004 convention approached, I received an e-mail telling committee members about the next meeting.

What magnificent irony. I could be part of the Ethics Committee only if I failed to point out that I was inadvertently included — an unethical silence, as I saw it.

I spoke up, expecting to be dropped from the list. Instead, then-Chairman Gary Hill and Irwin Gratz, SPJ’s president-elect at the time, gave me a chance to join, for which I was grateful.

I thought back on that small test of faith several weeks ago, when SPJ President Christine Tatum surprised me with an offer to chair the Ethics Committee.

In my 2 1/2 years on the committee, I’ve read stimulating ethical debates in our e-mail roundtables and contributed when I could. By absorbing the passionate, principled reasoning of others, I’ve expanded my own thinking. This is a wise, passionate group of people who care greatly about right, wrong and the nuances in between.

The Ethics Committee — which has 16 members now — hears from anyone with a journalism ethics quandary or question, from people inside and outside SPJ and the profession. We offer advice in some cases and issue public statements in others.

This year, we have much more in mind.

* We will blog. Our space on the web will be called “Code Words,” a reference to the SPJ Code of Ethics and its tenets. Without an exact startup date yet, I can only say to look for us soon. Go to www.spj.org/spjblogs.asp to see several other SPJ blogs that are under way.

* We are expanding our collection of ethics codes used by journalism organizations and media outlets (www.spj.org/ethicscode-other.asp).

* In the same vein, we plan to continue translating the code into other languages. Thanks to the recent work of SPJ member Mei Ling Sze of California, we have and will post the code in two versions of Chinese, adding to the seven foreign-language versions available now.

We’d like your help on both of these code efforts. Please send me leads for how we might get other translations. And if your media organization has its own ethics code posted online, please send me a link.

* The Ethics Committee has submitted ideas for programs for this year’s national convention in Washington, D.C., in October. We’ll be choosing a national ethics award to be presented at the convention; other ideas are in the works.

* One of the biggest and most exciting projects is updating “Doing Ethics in Journalism,” SPJ’s out-of-print textbook. We have talked for years about reviving it; now, we will.

I’ve always liked the concept of “doing” ethics. We should treat ethical behavior as an active, constant state of thinking, not a rescue kit to call upon after something goes wrong.

As my first brush with the committee reminded me, you never know when your ethics will be tested, even in small ways.

One more thought on “doing ethics”: If you need advice on a journalism ethics matter, SPJ has a hotline you may call for help: (317) 927-8000, ext. 208. Or e-mail us at ethics@spj.org. We’ll respond as soon as we can.

Journalists also may call the Ethics AdviceLine, a partnership between SPJ’s Chicago Headline Club and ethics specialists at Loyola University in Chicago. The number is (866) DILEMMA (866-345-3662). Calls usually are answered within 24 hours.

Schotz, a newspaper reporter in Hagerstown, Md., is chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee. He can be reached at aschotz@spj.org.

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