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Home > Publications > Quill > Revising the Code of Ethics: What’s going on?



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Wednesday, April 9, 2014
Revising the Code of Ethics: What’s going on?

Ethics Toolbox

By SPJ Ethics Committee Members

As you may have heard, SPJ is in the process of reviewing and revising the current Code of Ethics, which was last updated in 1996. Here’s an update on what the Ethics Committee has been working on, and will continue to work on until the national Excellence in Journalism convention Sept. 4 to 6 in Nashville, Tenn.

We created subcommittees for each prevailing principle: Seek Truth and Report It, Minimize Harm, Act Independently and Be Accountable. Those subgroups involved the work of four committee members each and were lead by Irwin Gratz (Seek Truth), Kevin Z. Smith (Minimize Harm), Paul Fletcher (Act Independently) and Fred Brown (Be Accountable).

TELL US WHAT YOU THINK

The SPJ Ethics Committee is taking feedback throughout 2014 on a potential update to the Code of Ethics, last updated in 1996. The rough, still-to-be changed first draft update is here.

Share your thoughts, even if you think it should not be updated, by filling out a survey here.

The committee will convene for in-person feedback and discussion on a potential revision at the Excellence in Journalism conference Sept. 4 to 6 in Nashville, Tenn.

This column, written in parts by each respective subgroup leader, speaks to the work done to this point by the committee. Comments, suggestions and revisions will continue into the summer before we offer our version to delegates at this year’s national convention. Your feedback is still welcome. We encourage you to submit yours here.

SEEK TRUTH

Journalism is decentralizing. Independent non-profits now undertake the investigative reporting projects once largely the province of major, urban dailies. We’ve seen a rise in free, weekly publications that provide more in-depth coverage of suburban, or small town news. Important news is now reported online, sometimes by individuals not associated with an established news outlet or “brand.”

In our proposed ethics code re-write, we attempt to take that into account in our new “Seek Truth and Report It,” section. The introductory sentence now reads: “Anyone practicing journalism should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information …”

We have also tried to deal with some of the substantive changes that have been wrought by the digital communication revolution. At a time when the flow of information has accelerated, we feel moved to say: “Neither speed nor brevity mitigates the damage of error.”

The digital era has created more connections to information, which for journalists can be a challenge, since we need not just information but reliable information. We propose a new standard, “Seek primary sources,” and we continue, “make every effort to contact key sources in person.”

We retain the critical admonition to “Never plagiarize.” But in an era where information is so much more freely shared digitally, we’ve advised journalists to “Always attribute information not independently gathered.”

And in recognition of the fact that news dissemination can now be a “many to many” process, we advise journalists to “Cultivate public dialogue on information you report.”

MINIMIZE HARM

The principle of minimizing harm still leans heavily on the current Code’s tenets of showing compassion and sensitivity when dealing with those who might be adversely affected by news coverage.

We recognize that gathering and reporting information can cause discomfort, but ethical journalists will stop short of excessive or unnecessary harm in the development of the story. Because of prevailing misunderstandings between legal rights and moral obligations, language to the effect of “legal access to information differs from ethical justification to publish” has been added to direct those who misunderstand that what you are legally allowed to do isn’t always what you should morally do.

This section has also been modified to caution journalists when they use social media information and images from sites without consideration of privacy, and when the relationship to the subject of the story is unclear, or there is uncertainty regarding the authenticity of the images or information.

This section also adds language to address the permanence of online media and reminds journalists that ending stories without updated and complete information creates long-lasting harm. The section also encourages journalists to avoid following the lead of other media when reporting information that isn’t verified and can be not only inaccurate but little more than sensationalism.

ACT INDEPENDENTLY

The third principle of the SPJ Code of Ethics, “Act Independently,” remains intact in our proposed draft.

Previously, the introductory paragraph stated dedication to the public’s right was the journalist’s only obligation. Today there are many obligations on the journalist as a professional and as a citizen: The right to know is now identified as the journalist’s “highest and primary obligation.”

Transparency and independence are not mutually exclusive within this section. The journalist still should avoid conflicts of interest and anything that clashes with impartial information-gathering. But there are some instances when the journalist should be up front with readers and disclose relationships or personal involvement that may appear to influence his or her work.

The section includes new forms of journalism — notably non-profit and entrepreneurial start-ups — by acknowledging the presence of donors or funders. These should be disclosed, so readers can draw their own conclusions about the information presented.

Readers similarly can reach their own assessments about any content that is provided by outside sources, whether someone pays for placement or not. It should be identified. Sponsored content — which long has been present in print and is becoming more common in digital journalism — should be clearly labeled as such.

Finally, where before a journalist was urged to “avoid bidding for news,” the draft takes a stronger stand against checkbook journalism: “Do not pay for news or access.”

BE ACCOUNTABLE

The first three principles in the Code come directly from a teaching module developed at the Poynter Institute. The 1995-96 Ethics Committee expanded on those principles, rearranged them slightly and then added a fourth: “Be Accountable.”

It’s the shortest section of the code, at 65 words, but it may be the most appropriate place to address the challenges facing journalism today. It can reinforce standards that will help consumers of news distinguish between responsible, reliable journalism and other sources that aren’t as picky about accuracy and ethics, and aren’t as responsive to their audiences.

In response to sentiment that journalism needs to be more transparent, we’ve proposed making the headline on this section “Be Accountable and Transparent.” An edited introductory paragraph says “Journalists should be open in their actions and accept responsibility for them.”

Language about corrections also has been updated, to include making corrections prominently in every place the mistake occurred, including archived material.

Rather than specifically address the sometimes rancorous nature of reader comments, we’d ask journalists to “encourage a civil dialogue” with readers and viewers. Comment sections may be a fad that loses favor, like those specific technologies that make the current Code outdated, and ought to be eliminated from an uncluttered statement of principles.

The suggested language ends up one word shorter than the current Code.

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