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Home > Publications > Quill > Ethics Position Papers



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Thursday, April 5, 2012
Ethics Position Papers

By The SPJ Ethics Committee

In December 2011, the SPJ Ethics Committee began releasing position papers and explainers that expand on certain points of the Code of Ethics. The goal is to explain in more detail some of the larger issues addressed by the Code – and provide additional resources for journalists considering ethical questions.

To date the Committee has released three – on using the Code of Ethics, political involvement and checkbook journalism. More are coming throughout 2012. See all the papers here – and access more ethics resources – at SPJ.org/ethics.asp.

Ethics Position Paper: Using the SPJ Code

The Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists is an open document. The more it’s distributed – and used – the better. The Code is not intended to be arcane or cryptic. It is not like a secret handshake intended for use only by the members of some mystic order. If it were, we would put something at the bottom similar to what is run in television ads for zippy cars: “Professional Driver. Closed Course. Do Not Attempt.”

There is nothing in the code that prevents non-journalists from accessing it and using it. It’s readily available online at spj.org/ethics.asp. Members of the public are free to refer to the Code when they want to call attention to what they perceive to be a news medium’s questionable ethics.

But this should be made clear: The Code is entirely voluntary. It is not a legal document; it has no enforcement provisions or penalties for violations, and SPJ strongly discourages anyone from attempting to use it that way. The Code’s only check on ethical misdeeds is expressed in the final of its four main principles: “Be Accountable.” There, journalists are told that they should “expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media.” We believe a free exchange of ideas – not any sort of sanction – is the best way of getting at the truth, at who is right and who is wrong.

The SPJ Code is the “gold standard” of aspirational codes of ethics, and it has been used by many news outlets as the basis for more formal and detailed codes. Employers’ codes of ethics are much more specific, and there are penalties for violating them. Reporters have been fired for plagiarizing, for accepting gifts or for other ethical breaches. An employer can do that; an association of volunteers cannot. Many news media make their codes available to all, and they encourage the public to hold them accountable for the standards expressed in those codes. SPJ applauds that embrace of transparency.

At the end of the SPJ Code of Ethics, after the actual working principles, is this important explanatory caution: “The code is intended not as a set of ‘rules’ but as a resource for ethical decision-making. It is not – nor can it be under the First Amendment – legally enforceable.”

The SPJ Code of Ethics, in other words, is available for anyone to see and to refer to. But when it’s quoted, it should be properly attributed – and, we would hope, not taken out of context or misinterpreted. Such questionable uses of the Code inevitably will be questioned – that’s the nature of free expression, and an extension of the principle of accountability.

Thousands of responsible, ethical journalists follow the SPJ Code of Ethics and adhere to it. The most important thing to remember is that it’s a set of principles that is open to interpretation and discussion, not a statute or a constitution or a set of regulations. There is nothing about it that can be or should be considered a legal or binding requirement.

This statement expresses the views of the SPJ Ethics Committee. It was written for the committee by its vice chairman, Fred Brown, a former SPJ national president who was one of the authors of the 1996 version of the Code of Ethics.

Ethics Position Paper: Political Involvement

The SPJ Ethics Committee gets a significant number of questions about whether journalists should engage in political activity. The simplest answer is “No.” Don’t do it. Don’t get involved. Don’t contribute money, don’t work in a campaign, don’t lobby, and especially, don’t run for office yourself.

But it’s a bit more nuanced than that. These are the most pertinent parts of the SPJ Code of Ethics:

• Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived

• Remain free of associations that may compromise integrity or damage credibility

While those are the most directly relevant provisions, the following also apply, but in different ways:

• Disclose unavoidable conflicts

• Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable

• Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context

• Recognize a special obligation to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection

Objectivity in today’s superheated political environment may be impossible, but impartiality should still be a reporter’s goal. Even those who are paid to have opinions – columnists, editorial writers, talk show hosts, bloggers (OK, maybe not always paid) – should at least be aware of all relevant points of view.

Skeptics of journalistic objectivity are quick to point out that some publishers and owners of news media outlets may not follow the rules they lay down for their employees. A few get more deeply involved, and they may contribute to candidates. Is this ethical? It’s at best a double standard, and a questionable practice. But at the very minimum there should be public disclosure – in their own media – when media magnates get politically involved in this way.

Reporters covering politics are at the other end of this spectrum of what may be tolerated. For them, almost no political activity is OK. Some reporters interpret this as meaning it’s off-limits even to register to vote as a Democrat or Republican or third-party member. Some take it to extremes and even decline to vote in a general election. Those are extreme positions, and unnecessarily prim. The proof of a reporter’s impartiality should be in the performance.

Families and close relationships create another set of ethical dilemmas. If a reporter’s spouse, family member or other relative – or even a close friend – runs for office, the reporter should not be covering the campaign. The same is true if a spouse or relative is working in a campaign. Issues campaigns – public referendums, bonding for public works projects, tax questions, etc. – are less likely to be considered partisan than candidate elections. But even here, a reporter covering a campaign shouldn’t take sides.

For political reporters, yard signs, bumper stickers and even campaign buttons should be considered off-limits. For a broader range of journalists – whether they’re covering politics or not – political activism should be avoided. The editor/publisher of a Denver newspaper once told his employees not to attend a concert whose proceeds were being donated by the band to a candidate for the U.S. Senate. That applied to all employees, from newsroom to mailroom.

Many employers’ codes of ethics are much more specific than SPJ’s Code about their employees’ involvement in politics. The SPJ Code is merely advisory, but a journalist can be fired for violating an employer’s ethical rules. NPR’s code, for instance, says quite bluntly that “NPR journalists may not participate in marches and rallies” concerning issues that NPR covers – which is pretty much everything. (Note: This statement was written and posted to SPJ.org before NPR released a revised and expanded ethics handbook on Feb. 24, 2012.)

Newspapers, in particular, have a longstanding practice of endorsing candidates in competitive political races. Although some readers think these endorsements signal a bias in the publication’s news coverage, SPJ encourages editorial pages to promote thoughtful debate on candidates and politics; letting readers know through endorsements which candidates share the newspaper’s vision is part of that discussion. Part of an editorial page’s responsibility, though, to take every appropriate opportunity to explain the firewall between news and opinion.

Reporters are not columnists or editorial writers. SPJ’s recommendation is that reporters not take a position on an issue, or in a candidate race, that they are covering. They may do so privately, but they definitely should not do so in a public or visible way.

Ironically, journalism is a profession protected by the same First Amendment that grants to all citizens the right to run for office or to support, by word, deed or cash, the people they would like to see elected. But journalists who want to be perceived as impartial must avoid any display of partisanship.

This statement expresses the views of the SPJ Ethics Committee. It was written for the committee by its vice chairman, Fred Brown, who covered state and national politics and government for nearly 40 years for The Denver Post.

Ethics Position Paper: Checkbook Journalism

Money can corrupt almost anything it touches, and that certainly includes the news. The practice of paying for information, known as checkbook journalism, threatens to corrupt journalism.

Paying for interviews, directly or indirectly through so-called licensing fees, is now accepted practice in Great Britain and has been used by tabloid publications in the United States. Recently, broadcast networks also engaged in the practice.

The Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists admonishes journalists to “Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news,” and the Society’s Ethics Committee has repeatedly in recent years criticized news outlets that bought exclusive access to interviews through payments, so-called licensing fees for photos or videos or in-kind rewards, such as private plane rides.

Checkbook journalism undermines journalistic independence and integrity and threatens the accuracy of the information that is purchased.

First, paying for information immediately calls into question the credibility of the information. Readers or viewers have a legitimate right to wonder whether the source is disclosing this information because the information is important or because the source is getting paid for it.

They also can’t be blamed for wondering whether the source is telling the outlet the truth, telling the outlet what it wants to hear or embellishing the truth to increase the value of the information. If good information is worth so much, better information, true or not, would be worth more.

Gone is the altruistic motive of telling other members of the community what the source knows, brushed away by the lure of making money off of the information.

Creating a market for information that sells also raises the possibility that entrepreneurs looking to make money will create their own news, staging or inventing stories to attract the big checks.

Second, paying for information creates a conflict of interest. By writing a check for an interview, the journalist now has a business relationship with the source. Asking tough questions, examining the motives, weighing the credibility of a source – all of these journalistic functions become intricately more complicated when the source is someone receiving money for a story.

And third, once a media outlet has paid for information, it is less likely to continue to search for the details of the story for fear it might uncover conflicting information.

A source who chooses to tell a story and tell it exclusively should want to choose the reporter who has the clearest record of demonstrated competence rather than the one waving the largest check.

While it is true that journalism is a capitalistic endeavor and money must be made, being first and being exclusive should never be the primary motive of journalists. The primary motive always should be an accurate report. That usually involves a lot of hard work, interviews and phone calls. A check is no substitute or shortcut to the credible, contextual and accurate news story that democracy demands to inform citizens.

In an era when the economic model of journalism has been turned on its head and outlets everywhere have reduced reporting staff, paying exorbitant fees for information that could have been used for journalists who could report more than just one big story is not good economics either.

At a minimum, news outlets that pay for an interview owe their audience full disclosure of that payment. The disclosure should be made clearly, prominently and consistently every time the outlet utilizes its exclusive coverage. That allows readers or viewers to assess the credibility of that purchased information.

The practice of checkbook journalism threatens to corrupt the newsgathering and reporting functions of the media. Because journalism – accurate and credible news – is so essential to the maintenance of a democracy, checkbook journalism is not only unethical, it threatens to undermine journalism and damage democracy.

This statement expresses the views of the SPJ Ethics Committee. It was written by committee member Mike Farrell, an associate professor of journalism at the University of Kentucky and the director of the Scripps Howard First Amendment Center. He was a reporter and editor for almost 20 years at The Kentucky Post.

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