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Thursday, December 2, 2010
Ethics Toolbox

Avoid journalistic pigpens

By Kevin Z. Smith

In October, while attending the BlogWorld and New Media Expo 2010 in Las Vegas, I found myself anxiously scanning the convention program looking for a session on journalism ethics.

I mean, after all, I was the newly appointed SPJ Ethics Committee chairman, and I wanted to get my hands good and dirty at this convention. I hoped to get inside the heads of some of the 5,000 convention attendees to see what they were wrestling with on this new media ethical frontier. I wanted to wrestle with them, ethically speaking.

Then I discovered maybe they’re not as concerned as I hoped, because out of 140 workshops and six keynote addresses, there was one —a session on ethics between a blogger and his/her marketing agent — dedicated to ethical concerns. There wasn’t anything about the ethics of journalism.

Initial shock gave way to concern. From my vantage point, these past few years as an SPJ leader, I can tell you the biggest ethical challenges facing our profession come from cyberspace. That’s not just me talking. That’s a lot of ethicists, journalists and consumers.

Case in point: Four years ago, Mark Cuban starts an Internet journalism venture called sharesleuth.com. Cuban, the rebel owner of the NBA franchise Dallas Mavericks, hires business writers to investigate companies and then trades stocks in those companies prior to the stories being released, known as shorting the stocks. His bet is that once the story becomes public, the stock value will drop and he’ll make money on his entrepreneurship. His profits are then returned to fund more stories. In essence, the more companies they expose and stocks tank, the more money they make and the cycle can be repeated. Ethical journalism? Hardly.

Or, consider most recently the growing number of entrepreneurial and innovative journalism business models being created. As the old models of journalism suffer, the new notion is journalists should seize upon this opportunity and create new business models, ones that make them company CEOs as well as editors-in-chief. This has been wildly popular, and schools of journalism are even developing specific programming to accommodate this trend.

Many of the proponents who are advocating “tearing down silos between journalism and business” are embracing journalists who cover events and manage purse strings and haven’t given a lot of thought to the professional ethics. When I read a blog post from an entrepreneurial journalist who writes: “Conflicts of interest? Your peers are more likely to be happy you’re making money in this environment and aren’t likely to say anything,” I have a real need to worry. Ethical journalism is under assault.

I worked on a farm one summer and helped tear down a silo. You know what’s left behind after that project? A lot of dirt and mud. So, the question entrepreneurial journalists need to ask themselves is: “Are we going to use that dirt and mud to grow a garden of journalistic responsibility or are we going to turn it into a pigpen?” And I think it’s incumbent on the people tearing down these silos to make that decision before they swing the wrecking ball.

Recently the SPJ Colorado Pro chapter sent a letter to the administrators at the University of Colorado’s Department of Journalism raising concerns over the need to maintain an ethical vanguard. Officials at UC-Boulder are restructuring the program to emphasize information, communication and technology, and chapter board members were clearly concerned that foundational ethics would fall by the wayside in a desire to accommodate new technological training. See the letter here.

“SPJ exists to protect and advance ethical journalism, which has historically been a keystone of democracy and an important tenet of a free society,” the letter said. “SPJ encourages university programs to remain highly committed to teaching the basic tenets of reporting and storytelling. Students still need a basic and thorough grounding in objectivity, fairness, ethics and media law.”

But it’s not just SPJ that’s waving a cautionary flag regarding ethics in the new media frontier. Last month, a panel of journalists at the National Press Club in Washington, D.C., talked about the inherent concerns of social media. The panel rightfully concluded there is nothing wrong with utilizing social media for journalism so long as traditional values of reporting are used. Traditional values means ethics, here.

I wish that panel had been asked to speak at the BlogWorld and New Media Expo. I wish I could have stuffed copies of the Colorado letter into every one of those 5,000 bloggers’ eco-friendly tote bags. It’s a message that can’t be ignored. We have to hang on to our values and the principles like those outlined in SPJ’s Code of Ethics. And unless we convince many new-media journalists to join us, we are destined to create a pigpen that is as big as cyberspace itself.

Kevin Z. Smith is chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee and served as 2009-10 national SPJ president.

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