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Wednesday, February 12, 2014
Ethics Toolbox

Ethical resolutions for the coming year

By Kevin Z. Smith

The first Quill ethics column of 2014 seems like the perfect opportunity to talk about ethical resolutions for the coming year.

Hundreds of calls to the Societyís Ethics Hotline, weeks upon months, have inspired this list. So, it stands to reason that if you can make these resolutions and stick to them, you will be doing your all-important part in 2014 to turn around the reputations of journalists.

Resolve to:

1) PURSUE THE TRUTH WITH COURAGE AND DETERMINATION, BUT ALSO RESPONSIBILITY

Having a press badge isnít your divine right to set everything in perfect order, the order you want. Stop trying to be a crusader with a pre-determined outcome. Let the truth guide you and report it fairy and accurately.

Remember the time when reporting to support a predetermined agenda was the highest form of yellow journalism? Now itís everywhere, because we all know one side is where the truth always resides. Break that trend.

2) VERIFY YOUR INFORMATION

In lockstep with resolution No. 1, stop guessing about the truth, and for the love of Edward R. Murrow, stop reporting ďfactsĒ you havenít verified. That includes passing on someone elseís reporting without verifying it.

This might be the worst collapse of journalism standards weíve seen in 50 years. Thanks to 24-hour news cycles, social media and the uncontrollable urge to be the first to report, this has created a wrecking ball on our ethics.

3) KEEP YOUR WORK RHETORIC-FREE

I know CNN plans to eliminate more newscasts and focus on talking head rants. But Facebook, where rants are the norm, hopes to populate your social media experience with more news.

CODE OF ETHICS UPDATE

The SPJ Ethics Committee is taking feedback throughout 2014 on a potential update to the Code of Ethics, last updated in 1996. Share your thoughts, even if you think it should not be updated, by filling out a survey.

The committee will convene for in-person feedback and discussion on a potential revision at the Excellence in Journalism conference Sept. 4 to 6 in Nashville, Tenn.

The bottom line is regardless of what TV ratings say, blabbing pundits and the blogosphereís white noise of opinions have become tedious. People would like to hear the news straight like a glass of Makerís Mark. Pledge to think more neutral and less opinionated.

4) IF YOU HAVE TO COMMENT, DIAL BACK THE RHETORIC

Not everything insults you beyond the pale, not everything requires a strategic counterattack, and certainly not everything requires your unqualified opinion. Save that energy for the real issues and spare us the overwrought indignation and threats of retribution. Save the outrageous Hitleresque comparisons of anything for the extremists who desperately need attention and a remedial history class.

5) STAY UNINVOLVED

This is becoming more of a challenge, especially for journalists who think they can be a credible journalist and lots of other things in their spare time. But let me offer this piece of evidence to support this resolution. Of the 300-plus inquiries we receive every year on the SPJ Ethics Hotline, the vast majority of them involve conflicts of interest between journalists and their roles as impartial news gathers. Some are so blatantly obvious it borders on comical. No you canít work for the paper and be the sheriffís public information officer. But there seems to be a growing disconnect between what can potentially interfere with their journalistic responsibilities.

6 )RETHINK GRANTING ANONYMITY TO SOURCES

If you canít report without always relying on an anonymous source, you might need to broaden your contacts. I taught my students that if someone wants to hide his name, first question his motive and, second, try to confirm the information from a source that might be identified. Rarely does someone have exclusive ownership of information, no matter what he might tell you. Too many deadline-driven reporters accept the sourceís information, cast the shadow on their identity and move forward.

Anonymous sources are necessary to good journalism. Theyíre also a barrier to good journalism when you canít report without them.

7) TAKE RESPONSIBILITY FOR YOUR MISTAKES

Admit them and work to see that they arenít repeated. We all make mistakes. No one feels worse about it than the journalist. Then why is it becoming so difficult to acknowledge those mistakes and apologize?

We saw a number of glaring mistakes in 2013, from a major news network down to local outlets covering disasters. But the no-blood-no-foul attitude isnít helping journalistic credibility. Half-hearted or contrived apologies come across insincerely and donít assure the public that such gaffes wonít be repeated or that attempts will be made to mediate the problem. Be sorry and show it ó sincerely.

8) JOIN SPJ AND SUPPORT ITS MISSIONS

This might not be an ethical resolution, but we all benefit when you and your colleagues show your support for our organization. Stand up for strong ethical standards in your newsrooms. Defend rights to public information. Resolve to lend a helping hand for the local chapter, get involved on committees, get more training, join the monthly dues program and be sure to speak out on the proposed Code of Ethics revisions.

Have a great, ethical 2014.

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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