I’m pleased that the Society of Professional Journalists is considering an update to its Code of Ethics.
The SPJ Code of Ethics has guided journalists for decades, but hasn’t been updated since 1996. I called for an update in a blog post nearly three years ago, then in a follow-up cover story for Quill magazine and discussed the need for an update in an #spjchat Twitter chat. I applaud new SPJ President David Cullier for calling on the Ethics Committee to consider an update.
In a discussion Sunday at the Excellence in Journalism conference, SPJ Ethics Chair Kevin Smith and some other Ethics Committee members acknowledged a need for at least some fine-tuning, though some said they did not see the need for heavy revisions.
I won’t belabor here the points I’ve made before, but I’ll summarize briefly. The journalism landscape has changed dramatically since 1996 and I think the need for an update is clear and compelling. The code offers little to no guidance for journalists on digital issues such as linking or personal use of social media. The “act independently” section offers little to no guidance for self-employed journalists covering areas in which they have personal interests or those working for organizations involved in advocacy or with direct interests in the topics they cover. The code is silent in the debate over the proper role of opinions in journalism.
SPJ played an important role in journalism by updating its code in 1996. It should play a similar role now, inviting several journalists involved with the challenges of digital journalism and changing business models to join the Ethics Committee in updating the code. You can contribute to the discussion by answering the committee’s online questions.
The need for extensive updating was most dramatically underscored by a young journalist (and I apologize for not getting her name) who said during Sunday’s discussion that the SPJ Code doesn’t provide guidance for the issues she faces. If the code isn’t helpful to such journalists, it needs to be updated, period.
I will repeat here a suggestion I made Sunday, when those minimizing the urgency of an update were saying the code offers timeless principles (an oversimplification in my view), but the Ethics Committee has offered more detailed advice on various timely issues. The SPJ Code is not hyperlinked at all on the organization’s website. Links within the code to relevant elaboration by the Ethics Committee would be a valuable help to journalists while the committee considers whether and how to update the code itself.
I should also express appreciation here for the new book, The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century, by Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel. I intend to read and review the book, but haven’t had time yet. I was involved last fall when Kelly and Tom led a discussion on developing new guiding principles for journalism ethics, and I made some suggestions for Poynter’s new guiding principles.
I applaud Poynter and SPJ for recognizing the need to continue providing current, relevant leadership in journalism ethics.
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