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Code Words: SPJ’s Ethics Committee Blog
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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
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@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 > SPJ Ethics Committee Position Papers > Reporting on Grief, Tragedy and Victims

SPJ Ethics Committee Position Papers
Reporting on Grief, Tragedy and Victims

A city truck collides with a motorcycle, killing the cyclist immediately and tying up traffic for a half hour. The local newspaper’s photographer, by happenstance, is at the scene minutes afterward.

A man holds two individuals hostage. Police surround the house in the standoff for nearly two hours before the man takes his life. A reporter/photographer is at the scene.

What do these incidents have in common? They are being talked about in the community. They have an impact on people. They are sensitive issues that deal with grief and victims. They are the type of stories that should be reported as a living history of communities.

The overriding point, however, is that journalists must be responsible both in how they gather and present the information in words and photos. Stories involving grief and victims go to the heart of one of the tenets of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics: Minimize harm.

Journalists often advance their “right” to seek information and record events, and stories of grief and tragedy are a staple of community news. The SPJ Code underscores the accompanying “responsibility” with common-sense principles:

— Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage.

— Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.

— Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort.

— Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials.

— Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.

It’s certainly within journalists’ purview — some may even argue obligation — to report news of tragedy and grief. Citizens expect to see these stories, especially if the circumstances have an impact on neighborhoods and community.

Journalists also should heed the SPJ Code of Ethics. Scrutinize the guidelines, and a common theme emerges. Most important, journalists have a responsibility to report these stories in a careful — not careless — fashion. At the foundation, journalists should be aware that these stories often thrust individuals into a “public setting” for the first time, and maybe the only time, in their lives. The individuals also are often full of emotion. They are typically unprepared for interrogation by law enforcement authorities, who are often at the scene, let alone quizzing by journalists who come armed with notebooks, microphones and cameras.

The sensitivity in approaching these stories applies to gathering as well as reporting the information. There’s a delicate balance between being assertive and aggressive. In truth, journalists are likely to get a more complete — and meaningful — story if they approach victims with sensitivity.

Journalists also should recognize that news of grief and tragedy circulates quickly. The news will draw attention no matter the presentation. In other words, media will receive higher marks if they present the stories in responsible fashion without resorting to sensationalism in words or photos.

Don’t misinterpret. The SPJ Code of Ethics does not suggest journalists avoid reporting on grief and victims. Such occurrences are a fact of life. The code, however, does underscore that these stories be pursued in a responsible and professional manner. Adopting that approach will prove long-term dividends for everyone involved.


This statement expresses the views of the SPJ Ethics Committee. It was written for the Committee by Jim Pumarlo, Director of Communications for the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce. He spent 27 years working at small daily newspapers in International Falls and Red Wing, Minn., and is an Ethics Committee member.

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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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