Policy would let NJ school system ignore reporters it deems unethical

Asbury Park Press
The proposed policy, reports Amanda Oglesby, "would enable board members to decline to speak or share information with journalists and bloggers whom the board deems violate the [Society of Professional Journalists] code of ethics." The school board could ask news outlets to have other reporters cover the board; otherwise school administrators wouldn't answer any questions or provide information that it wouldn't for a member of the general public. SPJ President John Ensslin and ethics committee chairman Kevin Smith tell the board in a letter that this isn't how the code of ethics should be used. Board members met Tuesday and have postponed action on the proposal while it is revised. || Related: Mayor tells reporter that journalists are lobbyists

Here's SPJ's letter, in which Ensslin and Smith say the policy would "legislate morality in a way that is detrimental to moving forward with government- media relations."

Dec. 12, 2011

Jackson School District
Board of Education
c/o Board President Sharon E. Dey
151 Don Conner Boulevard
Jackson, N.J. 08527

Dear Ladies and Gentlemen of the Jackson School Board of Education:

On December 20, 2011, you will consider a proposed policy that will provide you with a means by which to judge journalists on their ethical standards and then act accordingly with regard to the levels of cooperation they will receive from the board.

As leaders in the Society of Professional Journalists, we respectfully object to this proposal and the use of our Code of Ethics. We ask that you postpone this decision and allow SPJ members in your state to work with you in the coming weeks to more appropriately resolve your concerns.

While we understand your mounting frustrations with the media, we believe codifying our Code of Ethics as policy allows board members to legislate morality in a way that is detrimental to moving forward with government- media relations.

SPJ is the oldest, largest and most prestigious journalism organization in our nation, and we pride ourselves on protecting and improving journalism using a variety of missions. Part of that includes advocating free-press rights, and certainly holding up the highest standards of ethical conduct within our profession, no matter the medium.

Our code has become the benchmark for those high standards. Here and around the globe, our code is used on a regular basis to motivate journalists to the highest ethical ideals. It has been translated into 16 languages as has often served as the model by which media companies create their own internal standards.

Part of this code focuses on accountability. We expect journalists, the public and public officials to hold journalists accountable for their conduct.

Each year SPJ receives more than 300 complaints via its ethics hotline and through emails from journalists and citizens seeking resolution to journalism concerns.

We carefully evaluate each complaint on its merit and often engage both parties in a discussion. Other times we speak out when the Ethics Committee believes the violation is so grievous and has such over-reaching impact that we need to address it in a way that makes an industry-wide statement.We believe the Jackson County Board of Education has every right to question the ethics of journalists who do not match the standards set forth in the code. We don't challenge that.

But, we do believe it is misguided to enact the code as a form of policy that gives the board a legal means to shun the media and deny access to events and documents when it deems members irresponsible.

SPJ's code is voluntary, and though we created it and it has been established as a standard, there is no enforcement mechanism for our 8,000 members or the other tens of thousands of journalists in the United States who do not belong to our group.

Our code is a guideline that we hope motivates proper behavior among our ranks. Our belief is that forcing compliance would infringe on individual rights to free expression and certainly press rights. We believe the same happens if this board of education does the same.

Even without this policy you certainly are within your individual rights to speak or not speak to the media, and the media has the right to hold you accountable to the public for those decisions.

This proposed policy is of concern to us because it takes the mediation of problems that might arise between the board and members of the media off the table and allows the board to be the sole arbitrator of what is ethical or not, based on its interpretation of this code.

It is our hope that you will reconsider this policy and instead of passage agree to an open and honest dialogue with the press regarding their standards and their relationship with your board.

You should be comfortable in taking those concerns to the highest levels within the news organization, and regarding online news sites or bloggers, we again encourage an open and direct dialogue with them.

We also expect them to maintain the ethical standards set forth in the code, and we believe part of the media's accountability is to provide the public and this board with a means by which to voice complaints against their work.

They should be willing to provide the board with a means by which to challenge or refute reporting and make timely and appropriate corrections to errors.

SPJ would be happy to assist you moving forward in talks with the local media, but, while we greatly admire the board's commitment to our code and high ethical standards, we cannot support the notion of the board having arbiter status when it comes to deciding ethical issues.


John Ensslin
National President

Kevin Smith
Ethics Committee Chairman and Past President

cc: Amanda Oglesby, the Asbury Park Press

  • Steve Myers

    Steve Myers was the managing editor of Poynter.org until August 2012, when he became the deputy managing editor and senior staff writer for The Lens, a nonprofit investigative news site in New Orleans.


Related News

Email IconGroup 3Facebook IconLinkedIn IconsearchGroupTwitter IconGroup 2YouTube Icon