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Wednesday, February 2, 2011
Ethics Toolbox

SPJ ethics book is practical for all

By Fred Brown

More than four years ago at a meeting of the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation board of directors in Indianapolis, two board members asked if I’d be interested in editing a fourth edition of SPJ’s widely acclaimed book on journalism ethics. It was in a dark and smoky cigar bar in Indianapolis, Mac McKerral insists, though I remember the rather sterile second floor of the SPJ headquarters where McKerral, a former SPJ president, and Howard Dubin, longtime treasurer of the SDX Foundation, first mentioned it to me.

Now, finally, here we are. The book — formerly “Doing Ethics,” now with the more prosaic title of “Journalism Ethics: A Casebook of Professional Conduct for News Media” — will be released this month (February) by Marion Street Press.

The project was conceived by the SDX Foundation, which is providing financial and logistical support. The SPJ Ethics Committee will do much of the promotion, and past and present committee members contributed most of the 50 case studies. Because most of them are or have been professional journalists, the book stands out from much of the rest of the crowded field of ethics texts (including several others titled “Doing Ethics”).

It focuses less on theory than its competitors, and more on real-life situations, emphasizing principles that apply regardless of the medium delivering the information. It does have a brief history of ethical thought, though — something missing in earlier versions of “Doing Ethics.” Chapter 1 attempts to condense into about 2,300 words what some books cover in 300 pages. Yes, it’s pretty simplistic, but at least it acquaints students with the language that ethics scholars like to use. The book is not written in academic style, in hopes that it will be used in newsrooms as well as classrooms.

The idea for publishing a journalism ethics book dates back to 1987, when Carolyn Carlson, a past national SPJ president and then chairwoman of the Ethics Committee, proposed it. The committee’s vice chairman, Dan Bolton, coordinated fundraising and publishing efforts. The first edition appeared in 1993. The original authors, whose work still comprises a major part of the fourth edition, are Jay Black, professor emeritus at the University of South Florida; Bob Steele, of DePauw University and the Poynter Institute; and Ralph Barney, professor emeritus at Brigham Young University. Their checklists of ethical questions, for example, are included for all major categories of ethical scenarios. This fourth edition would not have been possible without the foundations laid by these three outstanding media ethicists and their continuing support.

The book was revised for publication as a textbook by Allyn & Bacon in 1995. For a few years, there was a litigious dust-up over one of the case studies. But that finally was settled, the problematic case study was removed, and SPJ reclaimed the copyright in 2006. It was soon after that that Dubin and McKerral proposed a new edition.

I led the editing team. Other editors included McKerral, who teaches at Western Kentucky University; Elizabeth K. Hansen, Eastern Kentucky University; Jerry Dunklee, Southern Connecticut State University; Mike Farrell, University of Kentucky; Sara Stone, Baylor University; and Nerissa Young, Marshall University. Jane Kirtley, Silha Professor of Media Ethics and Law at the University of Minnesota, generously contributed an entirely new chapter comparing ethics and the law.

More than half the case studies in this book are new, researched and written by past and present members of the SPJ Ethics Committee. Stone recruited a number of her Baylor University students to work on scenarios. Other past and present committee members who contributed case studies are Casey Bukro, Irwin Gratz, Liz Hansen, Jim Pumarlo, Adrian Ulibarri, Young and me. Contributors to Appendix A, a discussion of the sections of the SPJ Code of Ethics, were Peter Sussman, a freelance writer and author from Berkeley, Calif.; Paul LaRocque, a veteran newspaper editor and educator from Arlington, Texas; and the previously mentioned Dunklee, Bukro and Brown. The former Ethics Committee chairman, Andy Schotz of the Herald-Mail in Hagerstown, Md., coordinated case studies.

The new version is more closely organized than previous versions around the SPJ Code of Ethics. It also contains a new template for analyzing ethics cases. Some cases are presented in that format; others are left for students and their instructors to parse into the template’s various components, if they wish. The book also includes excerpts from professional codes of ethics on subjects such as accuracy, fairness, independence, how to treat sources, diversity and visual media. There are a number of checklists that students and professionals can use to help them make decisions.

This book isn’t a rule book or an answer book. Its primary message is that arriving at ethical decisions requires asking the right questions, and coming up with answers that you can defend without embarrassing yourself. Different people, principled people, may come up with different answers to the same problem. That doesn’t make one right and the other wrong. The critical thing is to be thoughtful about it.

Fred Brown is a longtime member of the Ethics Committee and a past national SPJ president (1997-98). He teaches communication ethics at the University of Denver and may be reached at EthicalFred@aol.com.

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