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Home > Publications > Quill > Ethical questions that bother us so


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Monday, November 26, 2007
Ethical questions that bother us so

by Andy Schotz

A few months ago, Christine Tatum, SPJ’s president at the time, wrote a column about examples of questionable journalism ethics (www.spj.org/rrr.asp?ref=77&t=ethics).

Her column was based on a running list that, at her suggestion, she and I kept throughout the year.

Producing a top 10 list of ethical misdeeds would have been tricky, and probably unfair, so the examples instead illustrate categories of problems: political activism, overly cozy journalist/source relationships, plagiarism and others.

Those were, and long will be, significant themes, worth our vigilance.

But, by far, those are not the only types of ethical concerns, judging by calls to SPJ’s ethics hotline and e-mail that SPJ’s Ethics Committee members receive.

The committee regularly gets questions from journalists and professors, as well as sources, readers, viewers and listeners. And students, plenty of students, especially around the end of each semester.

What follows is a “year in review” sample of concerns brought to our attention, minus identifying details:

• Should an editor write columns about a political campaign if her husband has political connections and has donated to one of the candidates?

• How can a journalist decide whether to go to an off-the-record briefing?

• Is it a problem for a newspaper to offer an endorsement in a race in which one of the candidates, an attorney, used to represent the newspaper?

• How should a news organization report on a lawsuit when it’s involved in the story?

• Is there anything wrong with an editor who has strong political ties in his past addressing, off the record, a group with a similar political slant, when his own staff is barred from covering the entire convention?

• A journalist and a possible future source both plan to go to the same out-of-town event. If they ride together, how should the expenses be handled?

• How can a newspaper allow someone with a business interest in a certain property to write a column about the development of that property, without disclosing the business connection?

• A reporter was handed a file about a public employee in which the Social Security number was not redacted. The mistake was quickly realized, but the reporter refused to give the file back and left. Was that an acceptable response?

• Is it damaging to the career of an aspiring political reporter to first take a job as a political columnist?

• A man profiled in a newspaper story made up his military background. The newspaper editor later acknowledged that the story was wrong but refused to debunk it in print for fear of humiliating the subject. What can a reader do?

• Is there anything wrong with having a byline over a feature story when you hired someone else to write it?

• While a reporter is working on a story about someone who was killed, is it insensitive to contact the person’s employer before even the victim’s family is notified?

• Why would a newspaper write an editorial trying to influence a judge’s decision on a pending case?

• Should spelling and grammar errors posted at an online forum by a reader be corrected by an editor before printing the comments in the newspaper?

That’s just a quick search through some of the inquiries I received this year.

Maybe the list has given you one or two new things to think about.

Most of all, we commend the people who asked questions. Ethical decision-making clearly is still valued.

The most frequent misconception, almost always from the public, is that the Ethics Committee has policing power in the industry or among its members.

It’s not true. The Code of Ethics isn’t meant to be enforced; there are no sanctions.

The committee gets requests to do official investigations into, well, you name it.

One person asked how to report an SPJ member “who has signed the agreement.”

When I explained the voluntary nature of the Code of Ethics to another person, she wrote back, “Your organization means nothing.”

Ouch. That’s one person we couldn’t please, but I think we’ve reached many others. Keep your calls and e-mail coming. We’ll do our best to help.

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