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Code Words: SPJ’s Ethics Committee Blog
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Journalists Should Tread Lightly When Projecting Election Results

Ethics Committee
This committee's purpose is to encourage the use of the Society's Code of Ethics, which promotes the highest professional standards for journalists of all disciplines. Public concerns are often answered by this committee. It also acts as a spotter for reporting trends in the nation, accumulating case studies of jobs well done under trying circumstances.

Ethics Committee chair

Andrew Seaman
Email
@andrewmseaman
Bio (click to expand) Andrew is a medical journalist for Reuters Health in New York. Before coming to Reuters Health, he was a Kaiser Media Fellow at Reuters’s Washington, D.C. bureau, where he covered the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

In 2011, Andrew graduated from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, where he studied investigative journalism as a Stabile Fellow and was named “Student of the Year.” Andrew also graduated with his B.A. from Wilkes University in 2011.

He’s won numerous awards throughout his short career, including being named a 2010 Tom Bigler Scholar for ethical standards in journalism, the 2009 Robert D.G. Lewis First Amendment Award, the 2009 and the Arthur H. Barlow National Student Journalist of the Year Award.


Fred Brown, vice chair
E-mail
Bio (click to expand) picture Fred Brown is a former national president of SPJ (1997-98) and is very active on its ethics committee. He writes a column on ethics for Quill magazine and served on the committee that wrote the Society’s 1996 code of ethics.

Brown officially retired from The Denver Post in early 2002, but continues to write a Sunday editorial page column for the newspaper. He also does analysis for Denver’s NBC television station, teaches communication ethics at the University of Denver, and is a principal in Hartman & Brown, LLP, a media training and consulting firm. He has won several awards for writing and community service, including a Sigma Delta Chi Award for editorial writing in 1988. He is an Honor Alumnus of Colorado State University, a member of the Denver Press Club Hall of Fame, and serves on the boards of directors of Colorado Public Radio, the Colorado Freedom of Information Council and the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation.




SPJ Ethics
Committee Members


Lauren Bartlett
E-mail

David Cohn

Elizabeth Donald
E-mail

Mike Farrell
E-mail

Carole Feldman

Paul Fletcher
E-mail

Hagit Limor
E-mail

Dana Neuts
E-mail


Chris Roberts

Alex Veeneman
E-mail

Home > Ethics > Ethics Case Studies > A Congressman’s Past

Ethics Case Studies
A Congressman’s Past

WHAT: You’ve learned that a Democratic member of the U.S. Congress, up for re-election to his fourth term, had been accused by an ex-girlfriend of a sexual assault some 28 years previously. But criminal charges never were filed, and neither the congressman, David Wu, nor his accuser wanted to discuss the case now, only weeks before the 2004 election.

The (Portland) Oregonian spent months trying to discover the truth about this persistent rumor. On Oct. 12, 2004, it published an article more than 3,000 words long explaining what if found out. On that same day, Congressman Wu held a news conference to say he did something regrettable in his youth, but he didn’t think it was relevant now. Other media picked up the story, of course, and his Republican opponent used it in her campaign.

Here’s a summary: Wu and his ex-girlfriend were science majors at Stanford University. She broke up with him in the spring of 1976. That summer, Wu was questioned by Stanford campus police after his ex-girlfriend said he tried to force her to have sex with him. Wu told police it was consensual. He was not arrested. The woman declined criminal prosecution and didn’t file a formal disciplinary complaint.

Wu refused to be interviewed or to answer written questions about the incident when The Oregonian asked him about it 28 years later. Wu’s ex-girlfriend also declined to comment, either in person or through a representative. Stanford officials wouldn’t discuss it either, citing university policy and student confidentiality laws.

So how did The Oregonian get its story? Here are some quotes from its article:
“Reporters contacted scores of former Stanford students, current and retired university officials and professors, law associates, and former campaign staffers and friends of Wu to determine what occurred. ...
“The account that follows is based on recollections of the Stanford patrol commander, the woman's counselor, two professors who supervised dormitories at the time and several classmates who were on campus that year.”

Question: Should The Oregonian publish this story?

WHO: The decision-makers are newsroom managers and executives at The Oregonian. If they decide to do a story, the other competing news outlets in Portland face the decision of how to follow the story.

The stakeholder with the most to lose if the story appears clearly is Congressman David Wu. His accuser, who remained unnamed and uninterested in having the story pursued, also has a stake. The public has a stake in this story, especially those who live in Congressman Wu’s district and will be deciding whether to re-elect him. His opponents in the election have a stake. Stanford University and its reputation could take a hit. Some readers might think your newspaper has a biased agenda, because it endorsed Wu’s Republican opponent, Goli Ameri. There may be others. Think of as many as you can, and consider their varying degrees of involvement — harm or benefit — from the publishing of this story.

WHY: Clearly, there is a truth here that has gone unreported for a generation. And a journalist’s primary obligation is to tell the truth. But how important a truth is it? Consider the possible consequences of your reporting. The congressman could lose his seat. His long-ago accuser might be badgered by other media organizations. Should you be concerned about that? Are you trying to salvage your reputation after an alternative weekly own a Pulitzer the previous year for a sex abuse story involving a former Oregon governor? Examine competing principles and decide what’s the best outcome.

HOW: Do you pursue the story and publish it? The Oregonian did, just three weeks before the election. It also made its decision-making part of the story. And Michael Arrieta-Walden, the newspaper’s public editor, wrote a very long follow-up column on Oct. 17, explaining the decision point-by-point. More than 350 readers called or wrote to criticize the story; several canceled their subscriptions.

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Ethics
Ethics Home
SPJ Code of Ethics
News/Articles
Case Studies
Committee Position Papers
Ethics Answers
Ethics Hotline
Resources
Ethics Committee

Code Words: SPJ’s Ethics Committee Blog
Words Matter: Alt Right Alternatives
TV Execs, Journos Fail Viewers With Off-the-record Meeting
Journalists Should Tread Lightly When Projecting Election Results

Ethics Committee
This committee's purpose is to encourage the use of the Society's Code of Ethics, which promotes the highest professional standards for journalists of all disciplines. Public concerns are often answered by this committee. It also acts as a spotter for reporting trends in the nation, accumulating case studies of jobs well done under trying circumstances.
 

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