What I learned from working on the Society of Professional Journalists’ new Code of Ethics

With SPJ President David Cullier at the 2014 business meeting in Nashville.
With SPJ President David Cullier at the 2014 business meeting in Nashville, where the new ethics code passed. (Photo by Meredith Cummings)

This month’s biggest personal and professional success may not make it on my tombstone, but it is a thrill to note that words I wrote are included in the Society of Professional Journalists’ new code of ethics.

Delegates of the nation’s largest journalism association approved the code on Sept. 6, 2014, nearly 18 years after the last revision and a lifetime since the Internet fundamentally changed the business, collection, and publication of news.

While the code introduces new concepts, it insists that the fundamental ethics of journalism have not changed. The code’s four pillars remain: seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable. That fourth pillar was strengthened with the addition of “…and transparent” as a core value—an explicit reminder of principles of messenger transparency indirectly stated in previous codes but more important in the Internet age.

I was part of the 16-person committee that worked a year on the code. Committee members wrote and revised three drafts of the code, listening to each other and literally hundreds of suggestions from members. The committee met at (The) Ohio State University in July, where a long Saturday ended with a “final” draft we circulated to members before the Excellence in Journalism ’14 convention in Nashville, Tenn.

It wasn’t final, of course. While at the Opryland Hotel, we listened to concerns during a panel Friday morning open to all SPJ members. We revised the code after that meeting, listening to specific concerns from a board member who had line-edited the draft. We made more changes during an open-to-all comers committee meeting Friday afternoon. We revised the code again Saturday, listening to specific concerns from a chapter whose members had line-edited the draft. I sat on the platform to explain those changes Saturday afternoon during the sometimes-contentious SPJ business meeting, where delegates approved (and voted down) still more changes before overwhelmingly approving the code.

The result is what fellow member Stephen J.A. Ward describes as a depersonalized code, because it focuses on core values that describe ethical journalists regardless of their jobs, employers, or the channels they use to gather and disseminate news. The SPJ code remains different from journalism-focused companies whose codes are essentially employment contracts, and different from the Online News Association’s “build your own” code aimed at individuals who want to roll their own.

The code also makes SPJ different from many specialty journalism groups with specific sets of standards and practices aimed at their line of work. This is based on SPJ’s mission of being a broad-based organization aimed at all who do journalism. But this broad-based code will not be sufficient to help journalists make daily decisions, and it does not sufficiently spell out what some of its abstract values mean in practice. The next step for the committee is building its website to include documentation, case studies and practical advice for journalists. We’ll likely disagree on specifics. This is not a bad thing, because no code can rule in every situation, because the First Amendment provides freedom of the press, and because well-meaning, truth-seeking people will disagree.

Thinking online

Committee members spent a great deal of time thinking about online journalism, but a careful reader will notice that the code doesn’t include channel-specific words such as “online,” “social media,” “tweet” or “link.”

Yet the channels that have blossomed since the 1996 revision are fully represented in the code’s concerns about:
♦ Accuracy – “Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy” is new to the code, as is the reminder to verify information (even from other news sources) before spreading it.”
♦ Context – “Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.”
♦ The Internet’s report-it-as-we-go approach, which is far from the once-a-day cycle for many journalists a generation ago – “Gather, update and correct information throughout the life of a news story.”
♦ Online commenting – “Support the open and civil exchange of views, even views they [journalists] find repugnant.”
♦ Linking – “Provide access to source material when it is relevant and appropriate.”
♦ Privacy, even “private” information found in public spaces – “Weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information.”
♦ The Internet’s “easy-to-find, never-goes-away” qualities – “Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication. Provide updated and more complete information as appropriate.”  (That’s a line I wrote that made it into the code. Roll Tide.)
♦ The Internet’s limitlessness, which provides the ability to publish or link to information simply because you can – “Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.”
♦ Journalism isn’t just for “journalists.” As the barriers to entry have fallen, the committee used the word “journalism” instead of “journalist.” As the SPJ’s announcement says, the code believes in the idea that “journalism is an endeavor that transcends that of the professional workers and encompasses many people and many forms, the idea of speaking to the act of journalism over the actors.”
♦ Journalism isn’t just made by journalism organizations anymore. The “Be … Transparent” addition to the code’s four values is a nod to organizational changes, and the “Act Independently” entries further define the differences between journalism aimed at serving the public and content created under the guise of journalism.

Simply put, the code is a reminder that journalism should be ethical regardless of platform or pace. I’m reminded of Robert Townsend’s 1970s management book Up the Organization, which included a warning against going too fast when moving to computers: “Make sure your present … system is reasonably clean and effective before you automate. Otherwise your new computer will just speed up the mess.” The code clarifies, and hopes to clean, the messes that speedier journalism can cause.

What I learned

No one paid me to serve on the committee. If you count SPJ membership fees, travel costs and the time invested, then I paid thousands of dollars to be a helper. It was worth it.

Professors are supposed to be lifelong learners, and the code revision provided plenty of lessons. Some takeaways:

♦ It helps to agree on the big things.

While others outside the committee still may not agree with our decision to maintain a “depersonalized” code approach, the committee found its footing when it chose this path.

♦ The following is a false syllogism: We all believe we are ethical. We all are journalists. Therefore, we all can write an ethics code.

While many well-meaning people offered strong suggestions, and many were implemented, others did not understand or accept the committee’s approach.

♦ It requires political acumen to accomplish things in an organization.

People who lived through the 1996 update to the ethics code told stories of the difficulties of passing their revisions, with three versions of the code competing on the floor of the business meeting. As a result, the code was held over for a year.

This year, we listened to comments throughout the process. SPJ held a straw vote of members before the convention, and members overwhelmingly favored the change. In Nashville, committee members sat with everyone who brought suggested changes before the meeting. We settled on nearly all of their concerns, and the few major disagreements went to the floor for a vote. The result was a much smoother process, much more buy-in, and a successful vote. Ethics is sometimes about compromise.

♦ You cannot please everybody.

Some still have fundamental disagreements over principles in the code. Some still quibble over style. A few don’t like anything you do. But only a fool would argue that the SPJ’s Code of Ethics isn’t better.

* The code still remains unenforced and unenforceable.

On Saturday, Sept. 6, the code passed with what the SPJ news release called “a more hardline approach to checkbook journalism. Before, it merely said ‘Avoid bidding for news.’ Now it says ‘… do not pay for access to news. Identify content provided by outside sources, whether paid or not.’ ”

On Monday, Sept. 8, TMZ.com broke the most-talked-about U.S. story of the week with video showing NFL Baltimore Ravens back Ray Rice punching his fiancé in an elevator. TMZ paid for the video, prompting New York Times media columnist David Carr to write:

“While networks continue to play peekaboo about whether they pay for news — many do — TMZ is more than happy to pony up for information that will tilt the field and draw hits. A line in the sand long drawn by journalism’s church ladies and observed by most mainstream organizations has all but been blown away. Most people don’t care where the news came from or how it was obtained.”

Does that make the SPJ code irrelevant? Maybe so, in the way that this voluntary-for-journalists code written by a group of volunteers for a not-required-to-join-to-be-a-journalist group has always been irrelevant.

Or maybe not, in that the code likely will attract new members and keep old ones. Moreover, it will remain flag that students, some in the industry, and the public will rally around when they think about what characteristics make for ethical journalism.

♦ A code is merely a code. What matters is each individual.

Jay Black, my academic mentor and co-author, was a member of the SPJ ethics committee in the 1980s and 1990s. In the first edition of his Journal of Mass Media Ethics, he and journal co-founder Ralph Barney wrote The Case Against Mass Media Codes of Ethics, which argues that rule-based codes are ultimately inferior to principles adopted and lived by morally developed practitioners.

Their warnings occurred to me while serving, and the new code is much more focused on the key values and aspirational goals than previous and other codes. Among my few contributions was, when leading the “Seek Truth and Report It” subcommittee during the second revision, trying to arrange that value’s bullet points into a more logical order that begins with aspirations and ends with the minimum expectations of “Never plagiarize. Always attribute.”

Black published that piece in 1985. But there he was a decade later, working on a code, knowing that it provides a path that leads to morally developed practitioners.

I’m proud to have followed in his footsteps, and to have been part of a smart, dedicated group of people. And decades from now, when I have a tombstone, maybe one of my fellow students can follow in mine.

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