September 5, 2014

The Society of Professional Journalists approved a new Code of Ethics at the Excellence in Journalism 2014 convention in Nashville Saturday afternoon.

SPJ’s code of ethics attempts to speak to all media, and all who consider themselves to be journalists:

Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that democracy, a just society and good government require an informed public. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity.

The Society declares these four principles as the foundation of ethical journalism and encourages their use in its practice by all people in all media.

The newly approved code attempts to address using anonymous sources in stories:

Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.

Question sources’ motives before promising anonymity, reserving it for those who may face danger, retribution or other harm. Do not grant anonymity merely as license to criticize. Pursue alternative sources before granting anonymity. Explain why anonymity was granted.

Some members wanted the new code to urge journalists to directly link to sources they reference online, the committee rejected that idea, saying it was a good idea to link to original sources but it was not imperative in every circumstance.  The new code says:

Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.

Provide access to source material when it is relevant and appropriate.

The new code takes a harder line against paying for interviews compared the the previous code. The previous code said, journalists should “avoid bidding for news.”  The new code say s”do not pay for access to news. Identify content provided by outside sources, whether paid or not.” 

The new code also takes a dim view of undercover tactics:

Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public.

The proposed new code also said, “Be cautious about reporting suicides that do not involve a public person or a public place,” but late Friday, committee members removed that line and would write an expanded guideline for journalists urging them to be careful when reporting on suicides but to not ignore such a significant issue. SPJ has already produced “position papers” on a number of other ethics issues.

I asked SPJ Ethics Chairman Kevin Smith if he thinks ethics codes even matter anymore.

After the vote Saturday, Smith said, “This was a long and arduous process that took a lot of thought and deliberation.”  Smith said he was “proud of the people who worked on this new code and proud of SPJ for accepting it.”

At the same convention that SPJ adopted its new code of ethics, the Radio and Television Digital News Association unveiled its proposed new code of ethics. Ethics committee chairman Scott Libin says the new code is RTNDA’s first ethics code update since 2000. The proposed code, which will likely be voted on in 2015. Here are some of the passages:

  • The facts should get in the way of a good story.  Journalism requires more than merely reporting remarks, claims or comments.  Journalism verifies, provides relevant context, tells the rest of the story and acknowledges the absence of important additional information.  Many things that are technically “true” are incomplete, out of context or otherwise misleading.  Journalism’s standard of accuracy is higher than that.

  • There are not two sides to every story; for every story of significance, there are more than two sides.  While they may not all fit into every account, responsible reporting is clear about what it omits, as well as what it includes.

  • Scarce resources, deadline pressure and cutthroat competition do not excuse cutting corners factually or oversimplifying complex issues.  “Trending,” “going viral” or “exploding on social media” may increase urgency, but these phenomena only heighten the need for strict standards of accuracy.

  • Facts change over time.  Responsible reporting includes updating stories and amending archival versions to make them more accurate and to avoid misinforming those who, through search, stumble upon outdated material.

Libin explained to what the committee was aiming for:

The SPJ and RTDNA codes are similar, both focusing on accuracy, accountability and independence. I asked Libin if he foresees a day when all of the organizations could come together with one unified code that all people practicing journalism in all forms could follow.

The RTDNA proposed code includes language that both encourages journalists to tackle unpopular, even controversial topics, while encouraging journalists to be sensitive, not just in how they report, but how they gather the story:

  • Responsible reporting means considering the consequences of both the newsgathering – even if the information is never made public – and of the material’s potential dissemination.  Certain stakeholders deserve special consideration; these include children, victims, vulnerable adults and others inexperienced with American media.

  • Preserving privacy and protecting the right to a free trial are not the primary mission of journalism; still, these critical concerns deserve consideration and to be balanced against the importance or urgency of reporting.

  • The right to broadcast, publish or otherwise share information does not mean it is always right to do so.  However, journalism’s obligation is to pursue truth and report, not withhold it.  Shying away from difficult cases is not necessarily more ethical than taking on the challenge of reporting them. Leaving tough or sensitive stories to the rumor mill, the blogosphere and social media can be a disservice to the public.

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Al Tompkins is one of America's most requested broadcast journalism and multimedia teachers and coaches. After nearly 30 years working as a reporter, photojournalist, producer,…
Al Tompkins

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