The Debate Continues p. 11

By: Mark Fitzgerald Society of Professional Journalists has tabled for another
year, another new proposed code of ethics for the organization sp.

NOTHING, IT SEEMS, fires up the Society of Professional Journalists like a no holds barred debate about an ethics code.
So, faced with the choice of sticking with their current code or adopting a new one, SPJ delegates at their recent annual convention in St. Paul, Minn., decided to table the proposed code ? and debate it until they meet again in Washington next year.
As the occasionally intense arguments over four days in St. Paul suggest, the society will have plenty to talk about.
All of the divergent views that emerged when the society adopted its most recent code in 1987 remain.
Some members want a very specific and practical code ? others want a poetic creed that "sings" and inspires.
Some want a code that includes specific penalties for ethics violations ? others want the document's moral suasion to speak for itself.
And some ? in a society that adopted its first canon of ethics in 1926 and revised the code in 1973, 1984 and 1987 ? want no ethics code at all.
"I believe there are many people like me who believe adopting a code of ethics is dead wrong," said Dayton (Ohio) Daily News editor Max Jennings. "A code of ethics that is unenforceable means nothing. And if it is unenforceable, why have it?"
SPJ ethics debates tend to be fairly raucous affairs, and at St. Paul it was apparent that some participants walked away feeling hurt and insulted.
Yet something there is in SPJ that loves an ethics argument ? and many delegates threw themselves into the discussion with zest.
"We ought to [revise the ethics code] every two years," said Jay Black of the University of South Florida. "It's a grueling but helpful process. What we're trying to do is rearticulate what it means to be a journalist, which is a difficult thing to do in a time of cyberspace and everything else."
This year's ethics controversy began more than nine months ago when the ethics committee on its own decided to draft a revised code that would more closely follow the spirit of an ethics guidebook SPJ published in 1994.
"It was believed that the code itself needed to evolve into something more contemporary," said Kevin Z. Smith, Miami (Ohio) University professor who chairs the ethics committee. "There was a feeling it should be more positive rather than . . . a negative type of code."
The revision that emerged from the committee tends to be far more succinct than the current code. Consider these excerpts:
? The current code: "Journalists acknowledge the newsman's ethic of protecting confidential sources of information."
? The committee's proposal: "Keep promises."
Yet, the revision's preamble was criticized as more of a ramble that never quite achieves the ringing quality of the current code's first sentence: "The Society of Professional Journalists, Sigma Delta Chi believes the duty of journalists is to serve the truth."
Indeed, the deliberately prosaic style of the committee's code was criticized repeatedly during the formal debate ? as was the supposed haste in which the document was offered to delegates.
"What we got was an ethical cookbook, written by a committee and amended in hallways and elevators," said Peter Sussman, president of the Northern California professional chapter.
Northern California delegates, who led the movement to delay adoption of a revised code, offered their own revision, a kind of New Age meditation on journalism that reads like a collaboration between Warren Hinckle and Shirley Maclaine.
"We believe that truth is best approached through a multiplicity of viewpoints; that there is more than one 'truth' and that the public is best served by the search for those multiple truths and not by enforcement of any one viewpoint or any one way of finding or expressing the truth," it reads at one point.
Ethics chairman Smith ? who said the publication of the committee's code in the Quill's June/July issue demonstrates delegates had plenty of time to consider the revision ? dismissed the Northern California draft.
"It is ambiguous, it is esoteric, it does not tell you what you need to know to be a journalist in the 1990s and beyond," Smith said.
Another code was offered by Chicago Tribune environmental writer Casey Bukro, who has campaigned for years to include in the SPJ code provisions to censure unethical journalistic actions.
"The SPJ code of ethics should sing and inspire. The task force ethics code reads like a legal document," said Bukro, who added that the committee's code meant SPJ would remain "an ethics wimp."
Both the Northern California proposal and Bukro's code were offered as formal amendments replacing the committee's code ? and both were voted down.
Delegates also rejected the vast majority of 27 other amendments proposed for the committee's code.


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