This was originally published Feb. 12, 2008, on the Training Tracks blog I wrote for the American Press Institute. I repost it today as a supplement to a separate post about Bob Steele’s Guiding Principles for the Journalist. I removed outdated links and added a couple of updates.
I hesitate to write about Bob Steele‘s accomplishments, because I don’t want this to sound like a eulogy. He’s not dead and he’s not retiring. He’s not even fully leaving Poynter.
But Bob’s contributions to journalism — specifically to the teaching and thinking about journalism ethics — have been monumental and his semi-departure from Poynter seems like a time to take note of those accomplishments.
Journalism is one of the most ethical pursuits in the world. Not only do we hold ourselves to high standards, but we enforce those standards with great transparency and public verbal floggings of offenders. Still, we don’t think enough about our ethical standards and how to make good ethical decisions. We think about those things a lot more — and a lot more clearly — though, than we did before Bob began teaching and writing about ethics for the Poynter Institute in 1989.
API and Poynter can be competitive about some things. It’s not just a pride thing – we certainly compete some for the same philanthropy dollars and for tuition dollars from tight newsroom budgets. But when I proposed in 2005 that API launch a series of ethics seminars, our president suggested collaboration with Poynter. Bob and his colleagues on Poynter’s ethics faculty have done such prolific, visible and thoughtful work on this subject that here at least competition seemed pointless.
So I went to Poynter to confer with Bob and his colleagues there on starting our own ethics series. While his own schedule was too busy to join me in presenting any of the 12 Our Readers Are Watching seminars we have presented, his Poynter colleagues, Aly Colón and Kelly McBride, joined me for 10 of them, most recently last week at the Erie Times-News.
I’m hoping Bob’s new gig will leave some time for him to work with me in a new series of seminars, Upholding and Updating Ethical Standards. API just received a grant from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation for these seminars, focused on ethical issues relating to innovation.
For the first series of seminars, I produced more than a dozen workshop handouts. None of them was as clear and helpful as the two handouts that Kelly and Aly used at each seminar: Bob’s Guiding Principles for the Journalist and 10 Questions for ethical decisions.
I tend to be verbose in my writing about ethics, covering lots of possibilities and pointing out lots of things that you should consider. Bob is simple and direct. Look how much ground he covered in this one sentence from the Guiding Principles: “Be honest, fair, and courageous in gathering, reporting, and interpreting accurate information.”
When I’m doing ethics consultations, I invariably pull out the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics and Bob’s Guiding Principles. They say essentially the same things. SPJ’s code is four times as long, but Bob’s principles always have the line I want to quote first. He’s unsurpassed in getting to the heart of what we value as journalists and stating it clearly.
While his two signature pieces are notable for their brevity, he also brought the same clarity of writing and thought to a seemingly endless stream of longer, more detailed Poynter Online columns. Check out this Jan. 24 piece, Competing Loyalties, Conflicting Interests.
I’d hate to get in an argument with this guy. He’d have me reconsidering in a hurry.
As I noted above, he’s not really leaving. He will continue teaching and writing about ethics as Eugene S. Pulliam Visiting Professor of Journalism at DePauw University and Scholar in Residence at DePauw’s Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics. (That’s a bigger pair of titles than his current gig as Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values; you’re going to need both sides of your new business cards, Bob.) Update: Bob is now Phyllis W. Nicholas Endowed Director of Prindle Institute and a distinguished professor of journalism ethics on the DePauw faculty.
He’ll even continue teaching and writing about ethics at Poynter. President Karen Brown Dunlap‘s announcement of Bob’s change of jobs said Poynter will “will retain his distinctive voice part-time in his role as Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values. He and Dean Keith Woods have arranged for Bob to continue as co-leader of the Ethics Fellows program and critical issues conferences, among other things. Along with other faculty he will respond to the industry’s ethical questions on Poynter’s behalf.” Update: Keith Woods has move to NPR, replaced as Poynter Dean by Stephen Buckley.
But his departure from full-time status in the position where he made such a mark is noteworthy, so I wanted to note it. Bob’s Guiding Principles start with this principle: “Seek truth and report it as fully as possible.”
In that vein, I’ll conclude with this truth: Bob Steele is a journalism treasure.