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Sunday, January 31, 2010
Ethics Toolbox

Code not meant to be rule or law

By Andy Schotz

When the SPJ Ethics Committee started a blog, and we wanted a catchy name, I suggested “Canon Fodder.”

Others on the committee correctly rejected that idea.

The double meaning didn’t work. We didn’t want anyone confusing the rules governing other professions with the principles guiding journalism. Unlike law and medicine, there are no mechanisms in American journalism to expel its practitioners.

The blog is up and running, with the name “Code Words.”

Regardless, many people still misunderstand the purpose of the code.

It is not a set of rules. The Ethics Committee is not a policing agency. There are no sanctions attached to “violations” of the code. (This is explained in detail at spj.org/ethicsfaq.asp.)

Committee members occasionally hear from people urging us to “investigate” biased news coverage or other journalistic sins.

One man sent me about 50 New York Times stories he had clipped and deconstructed over several months. He wanted us to condemn the newspaper for what he saw as a clear, concerted effort to slant an issue.

Recently, I heard from someone at a public relations firm who wanted SPJ to get involved after a blogger announced a campaign to shut down a communications network. “Seems like a lot of violations of the SPJ’s Code of Ethics are in play here,” he wrote.

The committee gladly offers advice and feedback on questions about journalism ethics, such as how to avoid a conflict of interest, when a graphic photo might be worth printing or why paid ads should be clearly labeled as such.

But investigating news coverage is not our mission and is beyond our means.

The SPJ Code of Ethics is a broad framework of principles and questions for journalists to consider as they make decisions. The code purposely avoids specifics in many areas. News organizations often go further in drawing boundaries for their employees on conflict of interests, unacceptable gifts or anonymous sources.

We are glad to hear journalists and news organizations adopt the SPJ Code of Ethics as a guide for their work. But we bristle and speak out when we hear the code framed as legal or binding, which it is not. Our protests have helped halt attempts by the New York Press Association, the Hawaiian legislature and a Virginia school system to make the ethics code mandatory, however they expected to make that happen.

We’ve heard of a news organization having contracts requiring staffers to “adhere” to the SPJ Code of Ethics. We know of attempts to wield the code in lawsuits as evidence of a news organization’s recklessness. These are distorted uses of the code.

About a year ago, the Ethics Committee added a brief explanation that we hope adds clarity:

“The SPJ Code of Ethics is voluntarily embraced by thousands of journalists, regardless of place or platform, and is widely used in newsrooms and classrooms as a guide for ethical behavior. The code is intended not as a set of ‘rules’ but as a resource for ethical decision-making. It is not — nor can it be under the First Amendment — legally enforceable.”

Since questions on this topic come up so often, it’s worth summarizing here. SPJ members should see the distinctions if we expect the public to do the same.

Sigma Delta Chi, as SPJ was known at the time, borrowed its first Code of Ethics in 1926 from the American Society of Newspaper Editors.

In 1973, we wrote our own code. It was revised in 1984, 1987 and 1996, when the current version was created. Ethics Committee members who were involved still remember the debating and wrangling.This year, we’re looking at the code again. We don’t have any specific goal of making changes, but after 13 years, we figured it’s time for another review.

The committee would love to hear from anyone with strong feelings about the code — what we should change or protect, or what’s outdated or timeless. E-mail me at LawnGyland@aol.com.

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