SPJ Approves Ethics Code p. 22

By: DEBRA GERSH HERNANDEZ AND BILL SCHMITT AFTER TWO YEARS of sometimes contentious debate, the Society of Professional Journalists has approved a code of ethics.
Vote on the measure was postponed from last year, when furious discussion and debate led members to a deadlock.
The revised ethics code was approved by a voice vote during the group's annual convention in Arlington, Va.
After last year's convention, the SPJ ethics committee scrapped the entire code and started from scratch, incorporating into four key principles what it believed to be the best from existing codes, explained immediate past ethics committee chair Kevin Smith of Miami University in Ohio.
The four principles are: Seek truth and report it; Minimize harm; Act independently; and Be accountable.
The reason for a code is simple: to rationalize "why we do what we do and what we believe in," according to current ethics chair Jay Black of the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg.
The code will be used to promote ethical thought in the business, both for newcomers and established professionals, particularly those who may be tempted to cross the line, Black noted during a conference session explaining the code prior to the vote.
The idea is to "promote front-end ethics" and get people to think proactively about ethics decisions before they are in a crisis situation, he added.
Future discussions will look at enforcement of the code so that it does not become an "impotent fa?ade hanging on our walls," Black continued, explaining that committee members and others felt it best to focus on the code itself first and look at enforcement as a separate issue later.
But the final vote by the membership came only after some last-minute wrangling among chapter delegates and designers of the code over an effort to add enforcement language. The proposal, calling for SPJ to "periodically assess" how its members measure up to the new ethical standards, was defeated.
"We want to immediately distribute the code to newsrooms," Black told the delegates, stressing that the code is intended to educate and "inspire" journalists so that they can avoid ethical lapses.
Black said that the organization would be considering some format for regular "exploration of the good and sometimes questionable behavior of journalists vis-?-vis the code itself," as well as stepped-up programs and projects on ethics.
"We might even rethink the possibility of something that might look like a news council, but [is] an ethics council," in which grievances against the press could be aired, he said.
The SPJ also plans to conduct a series of regional training sessions about the new ethics code, and it intends to update its "Doing Ethics in Journalism" handbook.
The new ethics code begins with a preamble, which reads:
"Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist's credibility.
"Members of the Society share a dedication to ethical behavior and adopt this code to declare the Society's principles and standards of practice."
Following the preamble are the four principles and their definitions, which themselves are followed by specific dictates.
u Seek Truth and Report It: Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.
"Journalists should:
"Test the accuracy of information and all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible.
"Diligently seek out subjects of news stories to give them the opportunity to respond to allegations of wrongdoing.
"Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources' reliability.
"Always question sources' motives before promising anonymity. Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information. Keep promises.
"Make certain that headlines, news teasers and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.
"Never distort the context of news photos or video. Image enhancement for technical clarity is always permissible. Label montages and photo illustrations.
"Avoid misleading re-enactments or staged news events. If re-enactment is necessary to tell a story, label it.
"Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story.
"Never plagiarize.
"Tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience boldly, even when it is unpopular to do so.
"Examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.
"Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.
"Support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.
"Give voice to the voiceless; official and unofficial sources of information can be equally valid.
"Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or content.
"Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two.
"Recognize a special obligation to ensure that the public's business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection."
u Minimize Harm: Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.
"Journalists should:
"Show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage. Use special sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects.
"Be sensitive when seeking or using interviews or photographs of those affected by tragedy or grief.
"Recognize that gathering and reporting information may cause harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance.
"Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention. Only an overriding public need can justify intrusion into anyone's privacy.
"Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.
"Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.
"Be judicious about naming criminal suspects before the formal filing of charges.
"Balance a criminal suspect's fair-trial rights with the public's right to be informed."
u Act Independently: Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know.
"Journalists should:
"Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
"Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
"Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
"Disclose unavoidable conflicts.
"Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.
"Deny favored treatment to advertisers and special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage.
"Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; avoid bidding for news."
u Be Accountable: Journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other.
"Journalists should:
"Clarify and explain news coverage and invite dialogue with the public over journalistic conduct.
"Encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media.
"Admit mistakes and correct them promptly.
"Expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media.
"Abide by the same high standards to which they hold others."


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