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Friday, December 2, 2011
Ethics Toolbox

Position papers will elaborate on Codeís tenets

By Kevin Z. Smith

Each week thousands of people visit the SPJ website, and many of them navigate to the ethics page to read our Code of Ethics. In fact, aside from the homepage, the ethics page has the single largest population of unique visitors in the last year, nearly 35,000.

That tells me that journalists and citizens, concerned with ethics, are looking for guidance to better understand the hallmarks of strong, professional moral behavior. It also says to me that the continued argument for strong ethics in our profession isn't coming just from the ethics committee members or the leaders of SPJ, but from the journalists and citizens who are visiting the site and taking it upon themselves to leverage the code in their arguments for better ethical practices.

Depending on your source, SPJ is active or inactive when it comes to addressing rising ethical concerns within the media sphere.

A research paper written a few years ago by a journalism professor pointed out that SPJís Ethics Committee was woefully slow or absent in publicly addressing many surfacing ethical problems. It cited the number of grievous ethical cases in a two-year period and compared that to the number of press releases issues by the Society commenting on the issues.

What the researcher failed to recognize (and she never interviewed anyone on the committee) is that SPJ doesnít rely solely on press releases to get the word out. Each week complaints or questions come to the Ethics Committee via the ethics hotline, and those are dealt with in a singular fashion.

Additionally, Committee members receive direct emails and calls for assistance from journalists working on a story or citizens who are simply curious. It also doesn't take into account that our first line of defense against ethical transgressions is proper training, and we do more than any other organization.

And the paper failed to notice that clearly the biggest advocates for strong ethical practices are the people who visit our website, take the Code words away and spread them among their colleagues or competitors or within the community. No amount of committee work can produce that level of marketing.

To that last point, the SPJ Ethics Committee is embarking on a project to better assist the journalists and citizens who visit the website in search of better ethical understanding.

Soon, the Committee will begin posting position papers on our website that will be used to further educate or explain our interpretation of the various sections of the code. Think of it as Cliffs Notes to the Code sections. The position papers will attempt to explain and enumerate the Society's views on specific language in the code, helping journalists and other to better interpret what it means when the code says "Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived," for instance.

Recently, a journalist disguised himself as a political benefactor and lied his way into a phone conversation with a state official and talked to him at length without ever identifying himself as a reporter. SPJ took exception to that behavior and publicly said so.

The Code says to "Avoid undercover and surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information to the public. The use of such methods should be explained as part of the story." The reporter read the Code and said he was within proper ethical guidelines. We said differently since he never attempted to call the state official directly to get an interview but simply assumed he couldnít because someone on television said the official wasn't talking to the media.

We will elaborate on undercover reporting in a position paper. We will also further explain the Society's stance on checkbook journalism, plagiarism, conflicts of interest when it comes to gifts and conflicts as they apply to journalists and politics. We will further explain our position on ethics as it relates to diversity issues and why accountability is so important; and the ethics of telling stories of personal tragedy such as suicides.

All of these are worthy of further discussion. So, instead of a journalist visiting the website and walking away with a singular sentence, "Avoid conflicts, real or perceived," they will soon have the full backing of a 500- to 700-word explanation as to why it's important that journalists remain independent of their sources for the integrity of the news, a nod to truth and fairness.

It's our hope that these position papers will help SPJ's Code of Ethics remain the cement in the moral foundation of American journalism and that they will drive more inquiring minds to our website in search of more fulfilling answers to the ethical problems that confront us.

Kevin Z. Smith is chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee and was the 2009-10 national president. Reach him at ksmith@spj.org.

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