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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 Case Studies > Reigning on the Parade

Ethics Case Studies
Reigning on the Parade

WHAT: Frank Whelan, a features writer who also wrote a history column for the Allentown, Pennsylvania, Morning Call, took part in a gay rights parade in June 2006 and stirred up a classic ethical dilemma. The situation raises any number of questions about what is and isn’t a conflict of interest. Whelan, 56, and his partner of 25 years, Bob Wittman, were the co-grand marshals of a gay pride parade. His newspaper prohibits employees from taking part in “public demonstrations in favor of or opposed to a cause.” His editors say Whelan didn’t seek their permission to participate in the event. A subsidiary publication co-sponsored the parade, but Call editors say they didn’t know of Whelan’s involvement until they saw a press release. Two days before the parade, they warned him that his role would be a conflict, a breach of the code, and that there would be “consequences” if he participated. Whelan said their roles as grand marshals were a celebration of his and Wittman’s long-term relationship.

Question: What should those “consequences” be for Frank Whelan?

WHO: Consider the decision-maker and the parties affected by that person’s decision. Put yourself in the position of the editor who must decide how — or whether — to punish Whelan. As for those affected, the major stakeholder obviously is Whelan. Others include his partner, the parade organizers, proponents and opponents of gay rights. The newspaper’s reputation is hugely at stake. And of course its readers have a stake in this situation, too, but not nearly as great as the newspaper’s.

WHY: The first four principles of the “Act Independently” section of the SPJ code of ethics seem particularly applicable here. It’s unprofessional, and unethical, to engage in activities that “may compromise integrity or damage credibility.” But there are other questions that should be asked. Is “gay pride” a political cause? Was the parade a demonstration or merely a celebration, intended to advocate or merely to entertain? The newspaper notes that a Web site promoting the parade said naming Whelan and his partner grand marshals “supports the need for Marriage Equality.”

A reporter shouldn’t be an active advocate for a particular point of view about a subject he’s covering. But how far does that go? If a political reporter can cheer for the hometown team, should a sports reporter be able to back a political candidate? How many rights must journalists give up when they accept the idea that they should be detached observers? Would we feel differently about this if it had been an anti-abortion parade? What about an Italian-American reporter marching in a Columbus Day parade?

Isn’t it better to acknowledge — and disclose — one’s interests than to deny them? Avoiding membership or participation doesn’t guarantee objectivity. Some reporters who make a great show in the newsroom of avoiding any ties to anything can be among the most biased in their reporting.

HOW: In this case, you’d want to be fair to a long-time employee — minimizing harm, in other words. Is a suspension in order? Paid or unpaid? A change in assignment, perhaps? Or would that be too harsh? The important thing is to ask the right questions (and by no means is this an exhaustive list), to satisfy yourself that your solution is the best outcome — and to be able to explain it. Put it in writing, to be sure it makes sense.

Whelan, upset by his employer’s reaction, took two days off after which the paper told him it would consider that an unpaid suspension. “I basically walked out the door,” he said in January 2009, even though he was asked to return after the two days.

Whelan filed three lawsuits: sexual discrimination in violation of a city ordinance, age discrimination and defamation. All three claims were settled out of court, he said. The Morning Call’s owners, the Tribune Co., agreed to pay two years of severance to Whelan and two years of medical benefits for him and his partner, he said.

Morning Call editor Ardith Hilliard, who was editor during the controversy, could not be reached for comment.

— by Fred Brown and Nerissa Young, SPJ Ethics Committee

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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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