The SPJ Ethics Code p. 12

By: Tony Case

Society of Professional Journalists leaders want
to revamp it so it addresses modern-day newsroom issues sp.

SOCIETY OF PROFESSIONAL Journalists leaders want to revamp SPJ’s ethics code so it addresses modern-day newsroom issues such as multiculturalism and the digital manipulation of photographs. But they’d like to avoid some of the controversy that has befallen other associations that have tinkered with their codes.
A 13-member task force headed by SPJ ethics committee member Lou Hodges of Washington and Lee University in Virginia is being formed to evaluate present ethical guidelines and look at possible changes, it was announced last month at the SPJ national convention.
The ethics committee is encouraging openness and inclusiveness in the revision process, inviting input from all SPJ’s 13,500 members and promising the task force will include women and minorities and will be representative of all the group’s factions ? student journalists as well as professional, print and broadcast newspeople, and so on.
The task force is expected by February to come up with a draft, which then will go to the executive committee for consideration. Chapter presidents will be asked to air their comments and suggestions, and a final version of the revised code will be presented to the membership next October at the annual convention.
Hodges noted that Associated Press Managing Editors “has been going through hell” trying to change its ethics statement. APME had considered replacing its one-page code with longer, stricter guidelines but retreated after much controversy arose (E&P, Aug. 13, p. 18). APME members overwhelmingly approved a less radical revision this month at their convention in Philadelphia (see facing page).
“We must at all costs avoid that kind of free-for-all, and I think we can provided we get one thing quite straight in our minds . . . that it’s possible to disapprove of some things the code says but nevertheless to vote for approving the code as a whole,” Hodges said. “That’s critically important. You can’t write a meaningful document that will please everybody in every detail.”
The 85-year-old SPJ adopted ethical guidelines in 1926. The code was revised in 1973, 1984 and 1987.
“Codes of ethics, like muscles and brains and old house pets, wither and atrophy unless they get exercised occasionally,” explained ethics committee member Jay Black of the University of South Florida.
SPJ “is not in a position to impose anything on anyone,” Hodges said. But through its ethics code, “it can provide a framework for conversation, since the journalists must work out for themselves the standards about which they wish to live.”
The existing code pontificates about journalistic duty and the public’s right to know, reiterates the First Amendment and offers a series of no-nos: “Gifts, favors, free travel, special treatment or privileges can compromise the integrity of journalists and their employers.” “Plagiarism is dishonest and unacceptable.” “There is no excuse for inaccuracies or lack of thoroughness.”
But a working paper presented at the Nashville convention is more a document for the supersensitive ’90s. It’s not so concerned with restricting newspeople as it is with urging them to examine their own beliefs and actions.
“It doesn’t tell people what’s right and wrong, but asks them to sit down and think through the [journalism] process,” said ethics committee chairman Kevin Smith of the Dominion Post, Morgantown, W.Va.
The proposed version specifically addresses five issues: privacy; conflicts of interest; promises and confidences; truth-telling and deception; and inclusiveness and diversity.
The present guide sums up SPJ’s stance on privacy in a single line: “The news media must guard against invading a person’s right to privacy.”
The suggested section on privacy is more verbose, stating, “Because human beings are individual, responsible journalists respect individuals’ need for a measure of control over others’ access to information about themselves. Journalists also recognize that because humans are social, they need information about others that relates to the common life. When the public’s need to know outweighs the individual’s need for privacy, journalists are justified in gathering and reporting private information. When the individual’s need for privacy outweighs the public’s need to know, invasion of privacy is not justified.”
Hodges told conferees the paper was only a “jumping-off place” for discussion about ethics among members.
No matter how the new and improved code ends up reading, “We need to look at the document as something that will change again,” advised former ethics committee chair Dan Bolton of the Glendale (Calif.) News-Press. “The code has to evolve.”

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