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Home > Publications > Quill > Ethics Toolbox


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Wednesday, October 22, 2014
Ethics Toolbox

New ethics code is an educational resource for all

By Andrew Seaman

With an overwhelming chorus of “ayes” in September, delegates of the Society of Professional Journalists ushered in a new era of journalism ethics. After a year of work and debate, approved revisions to the SPJ Code of Ethics for the first time in 18 years.

When delegates last approved an update in 1996, The New York Times and The Wall Street Journal had just started publishing online, which many people were navigating using the recently launched browser known as Internet Explorer.

The previous version of the Code served SPJ and journalists well, but it was obviously due for a revision.

SPJ’s Ethics Committee came together at the 2013 Excellence in Journalism conference in Anaheim, Calif., to begin the process of reviewing the Code. Over the next year the group of people grew to include more working journalists, academics, ethicists and an entire sub-committee focused on digital journalism.

Three drafts emerged from the yearlong process, which included a 10-hour meeting on the campus of Ohio State University in Columbus. After some final feedback from SPJ members and robust debate, the current version of the Code went up for a vote at the closing business session of Excellence in Journalism 2014 in Nashville.

At first glance, the new version of the Code looks very similar to its predecessor. The Code is made up of four main principles that remain unchanged except for the marriage of accountability and transparency.

Additionally, the updated Code — like its predecessor — remains media neutral. The revision committee crafted guiding principles that apply to all forms of journalism. The position of the revision committee is that the Code’s guiding ethical principles apply to journalism whether it appears in print, on broadcasts, online or in some other medium yet to be invented. Journalism is journalism regardless of where it occurs.

Unlike the previous version of the Code, the committee emphasized that the principles guide ethical journalism, not just journalists. The revision committee recognized that journalism is not just the practice of professionals. Many people from all different backgrounds practice journalism.

Additionally, more sweeping and extensive changes from the previous version of the Code occur in the bullet points that cover the four principles.

For example, the Code now stresses that legal access to information is not the same as ethical justification to publish or broadcast that information. People often need a reminder that the words “legal” and “ethical” are not synonyms.

The Code reminds people practicing journalism that they must take responsibility for the information they share, whether that be in print, on broadcasts or in social media like Twitter. Too often news organization quote each other after little or no verification attempts.

In the same vein, the Code reminds people that speed and format does not excuse inaccuracy. While this statement applies heavily to digital journalists operating in a world of social media, it also applies to works like headlines, broadcast teasers and breaking news updates in all media.

As a nod to some people’s ability to link and provide access to source material in digital formats, the Code encourages people practicing journalism to provide access to that material when relevant and appropriate.

The changes, while extensive, may not go far enough for everyone, which is understandable. There are a variety of opinions on what, exactly, codes of ethics should include. The revision committee received many comments that the Code must specifically address Twitter, Facebook and a number of other media.

While the committee was made up bright people, they couldn’t predict the future. There’s no way to know whether some other platform will usurp Twitter’s or Facebook’s positions as major means of communication within the next 10 years.

To account for those unknown changes, the committee decided to create an evolving library of position papers, case studies and perspectives to elaborate on and provide more guidance about specific parts of the Code.

SPJ’s Ethics Committee already has a large collection of position papers and case studies to start building the library, which will be linked directly from the Code of Ethics page online. The committee will also reach out to SPJ membership and other journalists who want to contribute their own perspectives on individual parts of the Code. As practices and technologies change, the evolving library behind the Code will keep it fresh and sustainable.

There will also be a platform for people to have an ongoing discussion about journalism ethics. The discussion platform will be in addition to the help the committee currently provides in the form of the ethics hotline and the ongoing Twitter conversation under the hashtag #SPJethics.

Under the guidance of an updated Code, the goal of the committee — like all of SPJ — is to educate, inform and guide people to improve and protect journalism for years to come.

Andrew Seaman is chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee and a health/medical reporter for Reuters. Contact him at andrew.m.seaman@ gmail.com. On Twitter: @andrewmseaman

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