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Wednesday, February 17, 2016
Ethics Toolbox

An opinion on opinions

Andrew M. Seaman

Opinion writing or broadcasting is a challenging endeavor. Crafting persuasive prose requires a lot of brain power, and sometimes it’s difficult to know what ethical boundaries exist when arguing a specific position.

The Weekender, an alternative weekly publication in Northeast Pennsylvania, recently published a column from a regular contributor about him and his friend pretending to be veterans of the U.S. military to get free drinks at a bar. The piece garnered swift and aggressive national condemnation.

The writer then told a local radio host that the fabrication was a failed attempt at making a larger point about how men and women are treated differently at bars. Ultimately, the writer suggests fabrication is OK in an opinion piece. It’s not.

Whether opinion or “just-the-facts” journalism, it’s the responsibility of the writer, broadcaster and editorial managers to ensure the information still follows many of the tenets and principles found in SPJ’s Code of Ethics.

The idea of applying the Code of Ethics to opinion writing or broadcasting may be surprising to some people, since taking a stance is traditionally a cardinal sin of journalism, but it’s rather simple and natural.

The main tenets of the Code stress that journalists should seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable and transparent. There is no reason opinion writing or broadcasting can’t fulfill the spirit of those tenets.

First, a person – journalist or not – should ideally be truthful at all times. Furthermore, a person should not have to invent or fabricate information if their stance is justifiable. Inaccurate, misleading or made-up facts or information shatters the foundation of most arguments.

Second, there is no reason for a person to use an opinion piece as an avenue to create unnecessarily harm. Yes, opinions may sometimes cast people or entities in unfavorable lights, but the same opinion should not be overly cruel or mean-spirited.

Third, people should make it clear they are conveying their opinion. What’s more, they should be upfront about any conflicts of interests that are not obvious to the reasonable reader.

Fourth, a person should be able to support their information with sources or additional evidence, as is expected of any journalist. Furthermore, people who push their opinions should be prompt when responding to criticism or questions.

News organizations that present opinions must also be mindful of their responsibilities. For example, they should make sure writing or commentary adheres to the basic principles outlined above – especially about distinguishing opinion pieces from straight reporting.

When possible, they should also give the accused an opportunity to respond.

Recently, the Dallas Morning News ran a column from a woman who was stopped by the local police. She used the space to reflect on her experience and point of view of why she was stopped. The Morning News also offered the police department an opportunity to respond, which it did with video of the incident.

While people used the police’s response to attack the woman who wrote the original editorial, it presented both sides of the argument.

Additionally, all news outlets should be extremely cautious about using gimmicky email or phone lines that allow people to voice anonymous opinions. If people want to voice stances in a public forum, they should not be afraid to put their name behind that thought. After all, the Code strongly advises against the use of anonymous sources.

By applying the spirit the SPJ Code of Ethics to opinion and commentary, the substance of that information increases, as does its value to democracy.

Andrew M. Seaman is chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee and a health reporter for Reuters. On Twitter: @andrewmseaman

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