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Ethics Committee

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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 Answers > Is “Public Affairs” a Euphemism for Propaganda?

Ethics Answers
Is “Public Affairs” a Euphemism for Propaganda?

Each week, the Society of Professional Journalists’ National Ethics Committee receives dozens of requests for counsel and information concerning the Society’s Journalism Ethics Code.

SPJ does not enforce the code in the sense of sanctioning journalists and news organizations that violate it. However, the Society’s National Ethics Committee does not hesitate to identify ethical lapses in journalism and to disagree with those who have misinterpreted the code.

Committee members frequently investigate allegations of code violations and report their findings. Committee member Jerry Dunklee recently investigated a complaint lodged by a citizen who questioned the ethics of a television news segment about the Iraq War. The complaint and Dunklee’s findings are summarized here. Personally identifiable information has been removed.


The Original Complaint

Dear SPJ,

I would like to inform you about a television news segment ...

The story was the first of a two-part "Back from Iraq" sequence ... It featured a photographer for (the TV station), who was sent to Iraq as a member of the National Guard, and whose job with the Army is also as a journalist. His specific job, according to the piece, is as a "member of the mobile public affairs detachment.”

My concern is that "public affairs" is a euphemism for propaganda, and that by essentially allowing (the photographer) to use (the TV station) as an extension of his Army job, (the station) is passing on propaganda as if it were news, similar to the "fake news" or "VNRs" which have caused so much controversy.

I believe this news segment certainly violates the intent, if not the letter of the Hinchey amendment to the Transportation, Treasury, HUD Appropriations Bill for Fiscal Year 2006, which prohibits the federal government from entering into any contracts with writers and broadcasters or public relations experts to secretly create fake news that serves as government propaganda.

According to Congressman Hinchey, "A properly functioning democracy depends on a news media that is free of any conflicts-of-interest, especially with the government that it is supposed to be holding accountable."

(The photographer featured in the segment) is introduced as "a soldier who is also a reporter.” If that is not a conflict of interest, I don't know what is.

It also violates The SPJ Code of Ethics, which clearly states: "Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know." It also states: "Journalists should avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived." Being paid to promote a point of view in news stories or columns is never acceptable for ethical journalists.

The report itself is standard Bush administration propaganda, attempting to portray those who dissent with Bush policies as unpatriotic or even traitorous.

(The reporter of the segment): "Morale dips in ranks when the soldiers hear about antiwar protests back at home." (The photographer): "We are having a hard time winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people; we shouldn't have to win the hearts and minds of the American people." Both statements are voiceovers to images of local antiwar demonstrations.

I ask that you look into this matter and work with (the TV station) to improve their standards. I would hope that some corrective actions would include giving equal time to an alternative point of view ...


Dunklee’s Assessment

I have read the complaint from a viewer concerning ethics issues about a story ... I asked the viewer for a copy of the news story he felt was unethical. He sent the video to me, and I have viewed it several times.

I spoke on the phone and via e-mail with the television station’s news director. I sent a her a copy of the complaint (without the name of the viewer at the viewer’s request) and asked for her response.

The viewer said he felt the story violated the SPJ Ethics Code in two ways. He writes:

“It also violates The SPJ Code of Ethics, which clearly states: "Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know." It also states: "Journalists should avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived." Being paid to promote a point of view in news stories or columns is never acceptable for ethical journalists.”

The next portion of the code states: “ Disclose unavoidable conflicts.”

It is my view that (the TV station) clearly disclosed that the subject of the story was an employee on leave from the station. The anchors said that. The reporter did as well. It is clear that the subject of the story, (a station photographer), is a soldier working as a reporter in Iraq for the Army and not reporting for (the station). (This story is one part of a two-part series on local people who are serving or have served in Iraq.)

The viewer charges that (the station) is permitting “propaganda” to be “passed off as news.” It is clear that (the photographer) has a point of view. He’s entitled to one, of course. And the reporter says in a voice over that (the photographer’s) “perspective may be colored by his job.” (The reporter) also reports that (the photographer) said “there are no simple solutions” in Iraq.

It is my view that the report did not violate the SPJ ethics code because (the station) clearly disclosed the subject’s connection to the station and pointed out that his views were his own. I don’t think the average viewer would have been confused about these issues.

The viewer asserts that the report was also a violation of law in relation to the federal government producing “fake news” or Video News Releases with tax dollars. SPJ has taken a strong position in opposition to government producing such material or news operations airing it without clear labeling. This story does not appear to be a violation of our position on government-produced news. But SPJ is not in the business of law enforcement, and alleged violations of law should be forwarded to the proper authorities.

The viewer’s complaint is articulate, and I applaud (the viewer) for following through on these concerns. The war is controversial, and a good news operation should attempt to cover all sides. I am not in a position to know if (the station) has followed this basic tenet of good journalism throughout the war. But this story does not rise to the level of a violation of the SPJ Ethics Code.


For more information about SPJ’s Code of Ethics, write to ethics@spj.org.

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Ethics Answers
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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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