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Home > Publications > Quill > Ethics Toolbox



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Thursday, September 5, 2013
Ethics Toolbox

Reviewing the Code of Ethics starts with you

By Kevin Z. Smith

When it comes to codes of conduct, history presents a long and populated account of people wanting to do the right thing. Whether itís through religious teachings, political legislation or the development of morality by 10 young men trapped on an island without adult supervision, rules of moral behavior quickly develop for the betterment of the group. Itís said that even thieves have a code of honor.

And so it is that people who wish to develop a harmonious society and professionals who want to create uniform standards that will enhance their credibility openly develop and commit to codes of conduct. Journalists are no exception.

In 1926, 15 years into its creation, Sigma Delta Chi leaders saw the value of creating a Code of Ethics for our organization. They borrowed language from an existing editorsí code and turned it into something that would well suit our groupís growing journalist ranks. Since that time, the Code of Ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists has been made over four times, the last in 1996, 70 years from its date of creation.

For the past 17 years, SPJís Code of Ethics has been an outstanding model for journalists and media organizations around the world. Translated into 14 languages, the backbone of two ethics case study books and hundreds of lectures, the current Code of Ethics has served SPJ with distinction. Each year more than 300 journalists call or write SPJís Ethics Committee seeking advice based on this code. This past year a series of position papers were created to help those seeking ethical advice to more fully understand how the code speaks to topics like Minimizing Harm and Acting Independently without conflicts.

But, the question that no one within SPJ can dodge as this Code moves farther from its creation is whether the Code has worn-out verbiage and might need an editing facelift to address current times. Think about what has changed in journalism in the past 17 years; itís mindboggling. No one was predicting social media, mobile phone reporting and satellite spying from a laptop computer in 1996.

So this low growling discussion about perhaps changing the SPJ Code of Ethics has continued a little more in earnest the past few years as more and more members and journalism onlookers are asking whether the SPJ Code has fallen behind times in how it addresses todayís current ethics dilemmas.

This brings us to what is now happening. Under direction from 2012-13 SPJ president Sonny Albardo and incoming president Dave Cuillier, the Ethics Committee is beginning the process of evaluating the Code to see, what, if anything, we should change.

Members are invited and encouraged to step up and speak out about what you think the Code should say. Maybe it should be changed a lot. Maybe itís an edit here or there. Maybe nothing changes at all. Every option is on the table, but the dialogue has already started. Opinions are being sought from members and scholars of ethics, and a plan to strategically work our way through this process has been developed.

I encourage you to review the Code and offer your comments by submitting ideas via Google Drive.

As we collect suggestions, we will share them with the committeeís members and begin to note areas of concern.

Then, come the Excellence in Journalism conference (Aug. 26-28), we invite all SPJ members to participate in an ethics summit to further discuss the merits of our Code. During this town-hall-type meeting, we will hear from the committee as to its findings to date, and we will listen to advice from some well-respected ethics scholars and todayís leading media thinkers. We will listen to all who have a view.

At the end of this meeting, the committee will work over the next year, further soliciting advice through spring conferences, and then develop a Code we think best represents the wisdom of membership, journalists, scholars and ethicists. Those revisions, if there are any, will be presented to the voting delegates at the national convention in 2014. Members will learn about them by next summer.

I strongly encourage you to take time to read the SPJ Code of Ethics and give some thought to how it speaks to you as a member of SPJ in 2013. Is it what you want to see from the nationís largest, oldest and most broad-based journalism organization? We are listening.

Kevin Z. Smith is chairman of the Ethics Committee and was the 2009-10 SPJ president. He has previously served as national secretary-treasurer and Region 4 director. He was also chairman of the Ethics Committee in 1995-97 when the Code of Ethics was revised. Smith spent 20 years as a newspaper reporter and editor. Contact him at ksmith@spj.org.

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