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Wednesday, October 16, 2013
Ethics Toolbox

Code of Ethics revision: Your input sought

By Kevin Z. Smith

It's never easy saying goodbye to an old friend, especially one that has been so loyal and helpful to you over the years.

Old friends remind us of simpler, bygone times when we become confused by all of the noise and uncertainty generated in our changing world. The best friends stick with us and share many of our core values.

So, too, it might be said of the Society’s Code of Ethics. SPJ is prepared to say goodbye to its current Code of Ethics in favor of an updated version, the looks of which remain uncertain.

GIVE FEEDBACK

Should SPJ update the Code of Ethics? Yes? No? Not quite sure? Tell us what you think. Fill out the short survey here.

After a very robust and thoughtful discussion about the code’s future during a town hall meeting at the Excellence in Journalism conference in Anaheim, Calif., there was agreement that it was time to say thank you to the current version of SPJ’s Code after 17 years of service and move forward with a revision.

As one might expect, the extent of that revision was the theme of much of the discussion. It will be the nucleus of discussion moving forward.

On one hand, there are those who advocate for minor changes, keeping alive the core values and much of the language from the existing code because of strong convictions that no matter what changes sweep across the journalistic landscape, the current Code of Ethics has the often-sought-after moral guidance to assist in all situations.

Others aren’t so convinced and think the code should reflect more finely developed journalistic concepts, ones we had no way of knowing would exist 17 years ago, such as the rise in so-called citizen journalism and social media, the incorporation of public communities into the newsgathering process and the complexities that come from digital media. What actions define a journalist today? To whom does this code speak — professionals, members of SPJ, anyone who makes an attempt to commit acts of journalism?

The process has begun. The Ethics Committee will do the heavy lifting, just as it did 17 years ago. The code revisionists consist of the 10 principal members of SPJ’s Ethics Committee: Fred Brown, Irwin Gratz, Paul Fletcher, Hagit Limor, Lauren Bartlett, Michael Farrell, Elizabeth Donald, Andrew Seaman, Jim Pumarlo and myself. In addition, Tom Kent, managing editor of standards for The Associated Press; Jan Leach of Kent State University’s Center for Media Law and Ethics; Chris Roberts, associate professor of journalism at the University of Alabama; and noted media ethicist Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute have been added to serve on the committee. Additionally, SPJ Western Washington chapter member Monica Guzman is heading up a subcommittee to bring in more digital media voices.

But the process is far from depending on just these 15 people. At the core of what we decide will be the voices of journalists from within and outside of SPJ. In the coming months you will hear a great deal about the process, and we hope you take the time to fill out an online survey. Do so here.

Tell us what you think the code needs to say, or not say. In the meantime, there will be outreach efforts to make sure every SPJ chapter, professional and collegiate, holds some level of discussion on the code leading up to regional conferences in the spring.

The Ethics Committee will initially tackle the idea of the core values currently resting within the code. Do “Seek Truth and Report It,” “Minimize Harm,” “Act Independently” and “Be Accountable” still resonant with today’s journalism? Can we say it better? Are there any other core values to add?

I think this represents the smartest starting point, and I believe a thorough examination of these principles is precisely what we need. Even if we ultimately change nothing, the discussion to reaffirm what we have as our principles is worth the time and effort.

How can you help?

• First, give serious thought to the Code's core principles and walk yourself through what each one means. Reexamine them and challenge them. Add more or change what's there.

• Second, share your thoughts with others. Debate and evaluate.

• Next, how about holding a meeting — in-person or online — on the topic? Consider inviting SPJ Ethics Committee members to attend.

• Share your comments with the committee and complete the survey. Our email addresses and the survey link are easily found on SPJ's website.

• Consider holding a session at your regional conference, or at least a chapter meeting.

• If you're an educator, consider a Code evaluation as part of your semester lesson plan. Campus advisers should encourage students to make it a topic of a meeting or host an event. Use Skype or Google Hangout to include one of the committee members.

In the end, the value of this code lies in how well it speaks to you as a journalist in 2014 and beyond. In order to do that it should have your input and be a product of your inventive minds. Your help in giving birth to a revised code will make saying goodbye to an old friend all the easier.

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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