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Home > Publications > Quill > Ethics Toolbox



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Friday, December 20, 2013
Ethics Toolbox

To each his own ethics code?

By Kevin Z. Smith

When SPJ leaders announced their intentions to consider a revision to our Code of Ethics, it seemed like a logical first step to ask "why?" After all, sound reasoning should be offered before digging deep into the nuts and bolts of rewriting the 17-year-old code.

So, we asked all of you if you think SPJ needs to revise its Code. So far, the online survey shows most of you think it's a worthwhile effort. Add your input.

But, where we may have erred is not stepping back further and asking a more overarching question, one that may well shock the system of some in SPJ who have never known a time when we didn't have a Code of Ethics (essentially all of us).

If deciding how to change the Code is the equivalent of shopping for floor mats, and asking whether the Code should be revised is comparable to asking what kind of a car do we want to drive, the bigger question we didn't consider is whether we need a car at all. I say that here because this initial query might well speak to how journalism is playing out in a new frontier when conformity isn't an easy idea.

So, here it goes.

Is there a need for a universal code of journalism ethics, and should SPJ have a code?

To be sure, the first line of argument against that question is this: There isn't a universal code. Correct. But SPJ's is the closest we have to a universally accepted one.

Despite the array of codes and guidelines from other journalism groups, there is little doubt that the gold standard for journalism ethics rests w i t h SPJ's version. Translated into 14 languages, emulated, copied, reused wholesale, it speaks well to the profession's code of conduct.

Struggling with a dilemma on deadline, or just want to talk about a tough call youve had to make? Call SPJs Ethics Hotline at 317-927-8000, ext. 208. Leave a message, and a member of SPJs Ethics Committee will soon be in touch.

But, back to the question. Twice in as many months I've been presented with a theory that having a large, industry-wide code is a bad idea. The option is to allow various media outlets to devise their own codes and dispense w i t h the "Big Brother" types that have come to be the hallmark of media organizations like SPJ, RTDNA, NPPA, ASNE and so on.

Thus, in this line of thinking, individual media outlets are encouraged to create their own. To point to a recent case, NPR scrapped its use of SPJ's Code after firing Juan Williams and hired a team of experts to assist in writing its personal code.

Let's look at the cons of this theory:

Most media outlets are not interested in reinventing the wheel, so they will likely turn to existing, proven sources because of their support of fundamental principles they likewise support. A more widely accepted code could be that source. In fact, that happens routinely.

Many media outlets lack the staff, finances and other resources to embark on such an endeavor, and they also lack professional expertise in moral reasoning or theory to carefully plan such a document.

Likely their code will not be so fundamentally different than the ones already in existence, the essence of what they are trying to avoid.

If five media outlets write five slightly different ethical guidelines for dealing w i t h anonymous sources, then you have no professional standard. The public and sources would need to know and understand the ethical principles of each outlet they speak w i t h in order to know how they are being treated. The same holds true for dealing with conflicts of interest, grieving people, verifying information, transparency, etc. And there would be no default code to help them understand the hallmark principles.

Ignoring a universal code may lead to ignoring fundamental principles. If you scoff at basic tenets you will likely practice a brand of journalism that falls outside the boundaries of traditional media ethics. Maybe that's your intention.

Now, to their credit:

Individual codes carry a strong selling point: They are enforceable. Unlike codes from membership organizations, individualized codes can present teeth and real consequences. SPJ's Code is an aspirational set of guidelines. An individual media outlet code could be an implemented one.

Code writing doesn't require formidable leadership in these cases. If 10 people in a room can agree on fundamental "rights and wrongs" and agree to live by those principles, there is no need for prolonged work or deliberation.

Some principles found in more universal codes don't mesh with real-world journalism in the 21st century. They adhere to times that are changing, and old codes are slow, if not impossible, to bring up to date.

Universal codes have to speak to a vast array of people. Individual codes can speak to those people working in that newsroom.

Outlets can elect whether to follow universal codes now or create their own. The idea that sources and the public would need to understand the existing rules of anonymous sourcing, etc., already exists.

I admit this idea of "to each his own" doesn't resonate with me. I also have to admit I'm a bit too close to the process to be impartial, having served on SPJ's Ethics Committee for 23 years. Im afraid I see this individual approach as a Code of the Wild West version where every town has its own laws. It creates confusion for journalists, sources and the public.

On the other end, there is something intriguing about an approach where SPJ would forgo its Code of inspiration and set out on a mission to work with individual media outlets to create viable codes that carry strong threads of universal principles but the added weight of enforcement.

Id be interested in knowing which approach you think best serves SPJs mission of promoting the highest ethical standards.

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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