Prof criticizes SPJ ethics code p.13

By: David Noack Maryland media professor believes that Society of
Professional Journalists' code of ethics ignores duty to truth

Does the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics endorse public journalism? A Maryland media professor thinks so. William M. Lawbaugh, an associate professor of communications at Mount St. Mary's College in Emmitsburg, examined the organization's ethics codes for 1984, 1987, and 1996 and believes the latest revised code includes public journalism language.
He presented his findings at a recent meeting of the Associated Collegiate Press (ACP) and College Media Advisers in Kansas City, Mo. Lawbaugh's remarks were first reported in the December/January 1998/1999 issue of the St. Louis Journalism Review.
Basically, public or civic journalism attempts to reconnect readers with their communities and political and civic life. The media, whether a newspaper or television station, act as a catalyst to bring various voices together to try and resolve an issue or controversy.
But does the revised SPJ code now reflect public journalism standards and values?
By including the word "public" in the code or saying that reporters should listen to readers means the code now leans toward public journalism? Or is it just a matter of interpretation or lack of a clear definition.
The SPJ code, which advances basic journalism standards and ethical principles, is followed by many reporters and editors in the nation's newsrooms.
Steve Geimann, chairman of SPJ's Ethics Committee, denies the code is pro-public journalism.
Lawbaugh, however, points to several sections of the code, including the preamble, that he says lends credence to public journalism.
For example, Lawbaugh points to phrases in the preamble such as "public enlightenment" and that the media should "strive to serve the public." He also cites other passages that call for journalists to "support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant and "clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct."
"I don't think that journalists should be accountable to anything but the truth. ? It's right there in black and white that journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners and viewers. That's public journalism," says Lawbaugh, a member of SPJ's Maryland Professional Chapter.
Louis Hodges, a Knight professor of journalism at Washington and Lee University in Virginia, says Lawbaugh doesn't understand that "enlightenment requires exposure to the truth."
"Enlightenment is the goal; truth is the means," says Hodges.
Louis Ingelhart, an emeritus professor of journalism at Ball State University in Indiana, agrees with Lawbaugh.
"Public journalism is filled with do-goodism. Public journalism is an organized effort to make us feel good about doing a tough job," says Ingelhart.
Lawbaugh says he wouldn't characterize public journalism as "do-goodism," but as a "? misguided attempt to give readers what they want rather than what they need."
He says reporting on the civil rights movement, the environment and even the Watergate scandal ? "was straight reporting that exposed the ignorance and brutality of those opposed to civil rights and in favor of the war in Vietnam. Watergate reporting was perhaps the exact opposite of public journalism: the adversary relationship of press and government.
Environmental reform is more likely to happen with factual reporting than with allowing uninformed people to have open access to the pages of a newspaper."
Geimann says that the problem with public journalism is the lack of a clear definition.
"I fear that if we get caught up in a semantic argument over what is public journalism compared with everything else, we will lose sight of the mission, which is to seek the truth, report it with balance, and remain independent at all times and be accountable for our actions," says Geimann.
When the code was drafted and eventually approved in September 1996 in Washington, D.C., the discussion wasn't about public journalism but on new technologies and increased competition. Geimann says the revised code is an attempt to address as many journalism issues as possible.
"Obviously, we've achieved some kind of middle ground for journalism to embrace all aspects of what we're doing in the field today," says Geimann.
He says that while public journalism advocates criticize the code for ignoring their concerns, Lawbaugh feels the code has gone too far in favoring public journalism.
Over the years, the code has undergone revisions to better reflect the changing nature of journalism and technology. There have been debates over draft codes sounding too "moralistic" in tone or not including an enforcement or sanctions clause.
Becky Tallent, part of the panel that drafted the current code, says that while the issue of public journalism was probably discussed outside the formal drafting session, it was never on the table. "I do remember commenting to one person about it and I cannot say for sure that no one else privately discussed the subject as I did during a break. I just wanted to make it clear that the issue of community or public journalism was not on the table as we developed the code," says Tallent, editor of The Oklahoma Banker.
Peter Y. Sussman, a key author of the revised code, accuses Lawbaugh of misreading the code. "Professor William Lawbaugh's thesis is quite a stretch. He seems to be trying to force most of the code into his preconceived theoretical world view, inappropriately yoking together ? and misreading ? disparate elements to make a false but unified case. It's such a mishmash, I hardly know where to begin," says Sussman, former president of the Northern California Pro Chapter. He says that some of the alleged public journalism passages in the code are just good journalism.
"The open exchange of views is as old as journalism; it is not a trademark of civic journalism, and to trace the phrase to forums and focus groups and letting the man in the street 'hold forth' is a serious misreading of both the history of journalism and the SPJ code. The code simply states that journalists have an obligation to seek truth beyond their own biases. Classic stuff," says Sussman.
Jan Schaffer, executive director of the Pew Center for Civic Journalism, disagrees with Lawbaugh's conclusions. "I disagree with his (Lawbaugh's) view. I think the SPJ Ethics Code states that it's the journalist's job to support the open exchange of ideas, even views they find repugnant. I think that is certainly the proud heritage of journalistic coverage of the civil rights movement in this country. You cover it whether you believe it or not. Heaven forbid that journalists should be empowered to decree what is a legitimate idea vs. what is a repugnant idea. I don't think that's our job," says Schaffer.
?(? William M. Lawbaugh, Mount St. Mary's College) [Photo ]

?( Editor & Publisher Web Site: http://www.mediainfo. com ) [caption]
?(copyright: Editor & Publisher January 23, 1999) [Caption]


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