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Wednesday, April 10, 2013
Ethics Toolbox

Beware the Code of Ethics as a weapon

By Paul Fletcher

The SPJ Code of Ethics provides valuable guidelines to journalists for handling sticky issues that inevitably arise.

SPJ’s Ethics Committee has noted in one of its position papers that the Code is regarded as the “gold standard” when it comes to aspirational codes of ethics.

Others have taken note of the Code and have been working on ways to make the Code, and adherence to its precepts, a weapon to be used against you.

How might someone turn the Code on you? Consider the following examples.

CRISIS ‘MANAGERS’

It’s almost a cliché for someone or some organization that attracts unwanted attention from a reporter to blame the messenger, i.e. the news media.

It can become a well-executed strategy. Jonathan Bernstein, who runs a “crisis management” business in California, has offered public information officers and public relations people a primer. In 2010, he published an article titled “Fighting Back: The Journalistic Ethics Code.”

In the piece, Bernstein marches through the tenets of the SPJ Code and recommends how to turn those principles on reporters and editors.

He concludes by urging businesses that perceive violations of the Code to “fight back in the court of public opinion,” including the use of non-traditional media as a means to score points. He notes, “How many news outlets would like to see a news headline, prominent blog headline or Tweet with the message, ‘The (name of city) Times refuses to comply with journalistic ethics code’?”

If that fails, he advises, “put all allegations into a civil lawsuit, if there’s any basis for filing one.”

SPJ members would not disagree with Bernstein, who says he is a former reporter, on insisting that journalists follow the Code. One must observe that in his piece, though, he seems far more interested in exploring how to get the upper hand and manage some crisis for a client than in promoting quality journalism.

POLITICIANS

Office-holders or those seeking election may use a variation on the blame-the-messenger meme.

Herman Cain’s bid for the 2012 Republican presidential nomination did not last long, but he left one dubious legacy: He introduced the SPJ Code of Ethics into presidential politics.

When news organizations started investigating sexual harassment allegations against Cain, he refused to answer questions and directed his chief of staff to send a copy of the “Journalistic Code of Ethics” (i.e., the SPJ Code) to reporters. He apparently overlooked the item that urges reporters to “[d]iligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.”

Cain wasn’t the first politician to attempt to turn the conversation on the news media, and he won’t be the last.

LAWYERS

A previous Quill Ethics Toolbox (“Code not meant to be rule or law,” January/February 2010) observed that the Code of Ethics is not intended to operate as a set of laws.

In fact, in 2009, the Ethics Committee appended an explicit disclaimer to the Code:

“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.”

Lawyers, doctors, accountants and a host of other professionals may be subject to their own ethics codes, and there are agencies across the country established to prosecute violations.

The same does not hold true for journalists. In the past, SPJ has debated whether an enforcement system was warranted, with the final conclusion that any governmental or court actions ultimately would abridge the rights of free speech and the free press. (See these ethics FAQs for more.)

Despite the disclaimer, plaintiffs’ lawyers in defamation cases have sought to use the Code in an effort to prove their claims.

The most recent effort of which I’m aware came in Smyth County, Va., last year. A woman sued the local newspaper for defamation, based on a criminal indictment that was later dismissed.

The plaintiff planned to offer expert testimony about the SPJ Code, but the defense was able to knock out that plan in preliminary motions. The Smyth County News won the case when it went to trial, but an appeal may be on the way.

SPJ members might consider it a backhanded compliment that some of the people we cover think so highly of the Code of Ethics that they want to make it a weapon.

For journalists, though, the best way to combat this potential weapon is to observe the Code of Ethics in the first place. That way, they won’t have anything to lob back at you.

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