APME Retreats On Strict Ethics Code p. 18

By: Tony Case

Committee opts to update existing version
after plan for detailed code stirs ‘hornets’ nest’ sp.

AFTER FIERCE DEBATE, Associated Press Managing Editors has moved to update its one-page ethics code instead of supplanting it with longer, stricter guidelines proposed last fall.
A revised APME Statement of Ethical Principles was approved unanimously by the association’s executive committee and will be considered by the board Aug. 29 in New York. If approved, the full membership will vote on it at the 60th annual APME convention in October in Philadelphia.
“The drafting committee concluded that it was not possible to agree on specific guidelines that would sufficiently accommodate all editors in all ethical situations nationally,” said APME president Rich Archbold, who is managing editor of the Press-Telegram in Long Beach, Calif.
The new code is more concise and much less specific than a version introduced at the 1993 convention in Minneapolis. It fine tunes the perfunctory code adopted in 1975.
Last year’s draft will be published, with revisions, as a report of the ethics committee and will act as “one possible starting point for newsroom discussions and development of individual newspaper policies,” APME said.
The controversial proposal ? which addressed standards of conduct ranging from the alteration of quotes to membership in “discriminatory clubs” ? found considerable support but was also criticized both inside and outside APME for being too detailed and restrictive (E&P, Oct. 9, p. 9).
The final version reflects some of the current newsroom issues addressed in detail in the earlier draft, including multiculturalism and technology, but remains sparse on detail.
The new code itself concedes that “no statement of principles can prescribe decisions governing every situation.”
APME ethics committee chair David Hawpe, who helped draft the previous proposal and vociferously advocated it, and Mike Waller, vice chairman of the journalism studies committee and editor of the Hartford Courant, report in the association’s newsletter that the new proposal alters the existing code by addressing new issues such as diversity, the manipulation of photographs, the impact of new technology, and plagiarism.
It also calls for a clear distinction between news and advertising, and expands language on conflicts of interest and community involvement.
One minor but perhaps telling alteration appears in the first line, in which “newspaper men and women” becomes “news and editorial staff members.”
Where the existing code determines that a newspaper should be “a constructive critic of all segments of society,” the revised version adds it “should reasonably reflect, in staffing and coverage, its diverse constituencies.”
Current guidelines urge newspapers to “guard against inaccuracies, carelessness, bias or distortion through either emphasis or omission.” The proposed edition adds “technological manipulation” to the list.
The 1975 code urges “common sense and good judgment” in “applying ethical principles to newspaper realities.” The revision adds, “As new technologies evolve, these principles can help guide editors to insure the credibility of the news and information they provide.”
Where the original maintains that editorials and other opinion pieces should be clearly labeled, the new version states, “Advertising should be clearly differentiated from news.”
Present guidelines recommend newspapers report the news without regard for their own interests, but the proposed code says they should be “mindful of the need to disclose potential conflicts.”
Involvement in politics, community affairs, demonstrations and social causes that might create conflicts of interest or the appearance of conflicts is discouraged in the original code. The new version retains this stance but goes further, encouraging newspeople “to be involved in their communities, to the extent that such activities do not create conflicts of interest.”
The revision follows “the most inclusive discussions in ethics and professional standards ever held,” according to Robert Ritter, past president of APME, who appointed the committee to review and recommend changes two years ago.
It seemed that everyone who learned about the stringent proposal had a strong opinion about it, one way or the other.
Those who supported it maintained it would boost public opinion of journalists ? whose reputation could stand improvement. But critics argued that such painstaking detail would provide ammunition for libel suits and make it easier to prove journalistic malpractice.
In a recent survey of members, APME found 39% supported the strict code, while 36% rejected it altogether and 19% said it needed changes (E&P, July 23, p. 13).
Editors at large newspapers generally opposed the sweeping changes, and those at smaller papers approved of them.
While media lawyers predicted the earlier draft would be used against newspapers, others, such as actor and noted conservative Tom Selleck ? who attended the APME gathering at which the code was unveiled ? praised it.
Updating the 1975 code at first seemed a “modest proposal,” Archbold recalled. “We knew there would be controversy and disagreements in any discussion about ethics, but we did not anticipate the hornets’ nest that was stirred up,” he said.
Hawpe also was surprised the proposal provoked so much discussion. He predicted the latest offering will not meet with such criticism.
“I think everybody saw the first draft as dangerous, and I don’t think they’ll see this as dangerous,” he said.
But did the editor take any of the flak personally?
“My back is well-flayed from almost two years of talking to groups around the country about these issues,” he said. “But at the same time, there have been many supporters.
“I came out of the debate feeling good about generating a conversation about ethics, and that alone was worth having done it. It raised the visibility of ethics issues in the craft for a while, and I think that’s very good.”
He added, with a laugh, “I hope somebody else has the pleasure of doing it next time.”
?( David Hawpe, whose rigorous ethics code was shot down after intense debate) [Photo & Caption]

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