The Society of Professional Journalists adopted a new Code of Ethics Saturday at its meeting in Nashville.
I am pleased that SPJ updated a code that I described four years ago as profoundly outdated. But I’m disappointed that SPJ didn’t provide better leadership in this code.
Before I address my disappointments, I’ll say what pleases me:
Why I’m pleased
I’m pleased that SPJ has a more timely, relevant code. The code has been outdated for years, and I applaud progress. I’m pleased that the code mostly improved since I criticized the first draft in two lengthy blog posts in April and improved a bit more since I criticized the third draft in July. It even improved since Friday morning, when I was one of many during an Excellence in Journalism conference session who criticized the “final draft” that was approved by the Ethics Committee Aug. 28. In a Friday evening meeting, the SPJ Ethics Committee and Board adopted some of the changes suggested by Andy Schotz in a blog post and at Friday morning’s discussion. That I wish for more doesn’t change the fact that this is progress and I do appreciate that.
I’m pleased that SPJ was responsive to the need to update the code and to some of the criticism of the various drafts.
I’m pleased that the SPJ Ethics Committee, which actually removed some encouragement of transparency in its first draft, ended up elevating transparency to a core value, paired with accountability in the heading of the fourth principle of the new code.
In the first draft released in April and even in the almost-final version of the code that was discussed Friday morning in Nashville, a passage calling for journalists to “show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage” had been removed. It was restored in response to journalists’ objections Friday, a good move.
I’m pleased that the first of 18 points in the “seek truth and report it” section after “Journalists should:” is “Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work.” I’d have preferred specifying that we should not blame sources for our errors. The first draft released in April said, “Journalists, not sources, are responsible for the accuracy of stories.” It was reworded in part, I’m sure, to fit the “Journalists should:” construction. But SPJ should have kept the admonition against shifting responsibility to sources. Too many journalists blame sources for our errors, even in corrections. Still, the “take responsibility” wording is strong. I called for this change and I welcome it.
The update process has stimulated and contributed to the broader discussion of journalism ethics. I think journalism needs thoughtful and frequent discussions of ethics, and I thank SPJ for its contribution to this discussion.
I think it’s probably good for journalism’s ethical guidance to be varied, reflecting the nuanced nature of the ethical issues we face and the ethical debates we are having. Since the mid-1990s, Poynter’s Guiding Principles for the Journalist and the SPJ Code of Ethics have closely reflected each other. I don’t think it’s bad for these two most-cited ethics codes to vary a bit more on their advice. I wish SPJ had updated more than Poynter, rather than lagging a bit behind, but I can live with them providing different guidance.
Last year I said journalism needs more detailed advice on making ethical decisions. One of the things I am most pleased about is SPJ’s plans to hyperlink the code to essays intended to help journalists apply the principles of the code to the situations they face in their daily practice of our craft. I think this is more important than the code update itself, and I appreciate that Andrew Seaman, the new Ethics Committee chair, has asked me to contribute to this effort.
Why I’m disappointed
SPJ is following, not leading, in updating journalism ethics. It did not even catch up to the daily practice of journalism, let alone start leading. The Code of Ethics has long been a distinguishing feature of SPJ in the world of journalism practice and organizations. I’m told that visits to the Code of Ethics outnumber all other visits to the SPJ website combined. But I don’t hear the SPJ Code cited as often in discussions about ethics as I used to. SPJ could have re-established itself as a leader in journalism ethics with this update. That it failed to do that is a profound disappointment.
The code did not directly condemn the he-said-she-said stories that many journalists produce, presenting opposing accounts of the facts without addressing and resolving the differences between them.
The code did not advocate the use of accuracy checklists. I think most journalists don’t use checklists and we should. This proven way of preventing errors shouldn’t be a lonely quest by Craig Silverman and me. It should be embraced by the ethics code as the best way to prevent errors (a best practice in seeking truth and reporting it, the first value of the code).
I’m disappointed that the code perpetuates the misuse of the word “anonymity” in describing unnamed sources. As I’ve said here before, it’s an inaccurate word that harms the credibility of journalists, and SPJ should not have used it in its code of ethics. Journalists should never quote truly anonymous sources, people who are anonymous to us, known only as a voice on the phone or an unidentified digital voice. At best, they are tipsters who will never be cited in a story, even if we independently verify everything they said. The code should, though, address our decisions to keep known sources’ names confidential. When we do this, we are deeply familiar with the sources and we’ve thoroughly checked how they know what they tell us and their motives both for telling us and for not standing behind what they tell us as named sources. Though deciding not to name them does hurt their and our credibility, they are much more credible than “anonymous sources” are or sound, and journalists shouldn’t harm our credibility by using inaccurate terms. This is a perfect example of an instance where SPJ chose to follow a bad practice in journalism rather than providing leadership.
I’m also disappointed that this passage was cut from the first draft of the revision: “Avoid publishing critical opinions by those seeking confidentiality.” The publication of opinions by unidentified sources is a widespread practice that the new SPJ Code of Ethics should have condemned.
I like the positive statement that we should “reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere.” But I think some thou-shalt-not statements were in order here, calling out widespread bad practices such as attending “background briefings” by public officials who should be accountable by name and granting confidentiality to powerful people seeking to harm political foes or weaker people who pose a threat to their power.
Here’s what the code says about identifying sources:
Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.
Consider sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere. Explain why anonymity was granted.
I don’t think that’s enough. I don’t think the code should have gone into the depth I did in my series of posts on confidentiality last year (those are more like the essays SPJ is planning to accompany the code). But I think this is an important issue in journalism that deserved more and better guidance in the Code of Ethics.
The code is also silent on ethical use of social media, reflecting a misguided attempt to draft a code that would reflect “timeless” principles rather than advice for the use of specific technology. At Friday’s meeting and in earlier interactions with Ethics Committee members, I heard this unrealistic wish to write an ethics code that would stand the test of time and never need updating. But by refusing to address issues that journalists face today, the committee deliberately made it less relevant the day they passed it. It’s not going to grow more relevant as journalism continues to change. So I guess it will stand the test of time by being similarly inadequate now and in future years.
Another current dilemma in journalism that the code is silent on, even in the section that mentions transparency in its title, is whether journalists should be transparent about their opinions or maintain a position of neutrality or objectivity on the issues they cover. I’m not saying SPJ needed to come down on a side (though that would have provided some leadership). But some guidance on the issue might have been helpful. All we got was “Label advocacy and commentary.” (I think the Online News Association’s ethics code building blocks address this in a thoughtful way that provides some leadership. I plan to be blogging more soon about the ONA ethics initiative.)
The code should advocate linking
As I’ve said multiple times, linking is good journalism. It’s the best way to attribute in digital content. It provides depth and context. A culture of linking is a strong measure to help prevent plagiarism and fabrication. SPJ should have advocated linking in the Code of Ethics and its refusal to do so is perhaps the clearest indication of the society’s choice to follow, rather than lead, in this update.
Four places in the code, all in the “seek truth” section, support the reasons behind linking, but stop short of advocating linking as the best ethical practice:
- As noted above, the code says, “Identify sources clearly.” If a source is digital, a link is the clearest form of identification. If you interviewed a source, a link to a bio page or social profile identifies with more depth and clarity than the usual brief use of titles in news stories. This would have been an appropriate place to call for links.
- The code says, “Never plagiarize. Always attribute.” This would have been an excellent place to advocate linking. “Always attribute” is vague, subject to such wide interpretation as to be meaningless. “According to media reports” is attribution, but it’s weak attribution and I think the ethics code should call us to better journalism than that. This would have been stronger (but wouldn’t have addresses all attribution issues): “Always attribute as specifically as possible, including the use of links and embeds in digital publication.”
- The code says, “Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.” When you have digital sources, links are the best way to provide deeper context than the brief context most stories provide.
- The code says, “Provide access to source material when it is relevant and appropriate.” In Friday’s discussion, former SPJ President Hagit Limor said this covered linking. Not really. I have two problems with this, beyond that it doesn’t mention linking as the best way to provide access to digital source material: You could interpret the passage to support a passive granting of access to source materials — if challenged we’ll provide access — rather than an active obligation to show your work routinely. Then there’s the huge out clause — “when it is relevant and appropriate” — that makes it OK for journalists to simply decide it’s usually not relevant or appropriate).
The elevation of transparency as a core principle also created another section where linking could have been addressed, perhaps under a separate point encouraging journalists to show their work (not just through links to digital sources but through embedding scanned documents that are not available online, explaining methods, data analysis, etc.).
I asked at Friday’s meeting for an explanation of the Ethics Committee’s refusal to address linking and didn’t hear a good one. Ethics Chair Kevin Smith agreed that it was a good practice, but said he wouldn’t regard a journalist who didn’t link as unethical. The code advocates several good practices for journalists to follow. Journalists follow those practices in different ways or not at all. I don’t think their failure to follow the letter of the code (or any one person’s interpretation of the code) necessarily makes them ethical. But a code of ethics should not draw the line at simply identifying the practices that would make us unethical. It should advocate for the most ethical practice of journalism. And linking is the most ethical way to attribute and to practice transparency. If SPJ had provided leadership in this issue, it would have armed journalists to challenge newsroom practice in situations where linking, especially to competition, is discouraged or forbidden. It would have armed journalists fighting for better content management systems that would make linking easier.
As I’ve noted before, the committee weakened the code in multiple respects by deliberately trying to be “timeless” rather than addressing current issues in journalism. This notion was not only misguided but unsuccessful. Another reason cited for not including linking (and a few other issues raised Friday morning) was the desire to keep the code to a single page. At my Saturday morning session, I dismissed this as silly, but a participant disagreed, saying it was important to post on newsroom walls. Well, the single page version distributed Friday morning was in fonts so small that it was difficult to read. I’ve visited more than a hundred newsrooms. I’ve seldom seen the SPJ Code of Ethics posted on the wall. And where I have seen it, I haven’t seen anyone standing there reading it. Perhaps if the code were more relevant, more newsrooms would post it, either as two pages or as a larger poster.
While I was also disappointed about the refusal to address linking in Poynter’s new Guiding Principles for the Journalist, I think Poynter made a bigger step forward in updating its ethical guidance for journalists. I’m sure that in my blog and in teaching, I will cite Poynter more often than the SPJ Code of Ethics as the best guidance for journalists.
My relationship with SPJ
In my earlier posts on the Code of Ethics, I have said that I was not an SPJ member. I joined before last week’s conference.
I have had an on-again-off-again relationship with SPJ through the years. I was active in the student chapter at Texas Christian University in the 1970s. I think I was president, though my memory might be foggy on that question. Until moving to Washington in 2005, I worked most of my career in places with no strong SPJ professional chapters. I just checked and Iowa, Nebraska and North Dakota still have no pro chapters. Kansas City, where I spent six-plus years, has a professional chapter now, but if it had one during my time there, I never heard about it. So I drifted into involvement in state press associations, Associated Press Managing Editors (now AP Media Editors), Investigative Reporters and Editors, Religion Newswriters, the Omaha Press Club, the American Society of Newspaper Editors (now News Editors) and an informal network of newsroom trainers that operated a list-serv, the No Train, No Gain website and met in annual conferences, but never formally organized.
I did hear about local SPJ activities when I was in Washington, but ONA seemed to fit my needs better, so I didn’t join. I did participate in a panel discussion at a Washington chapter meeting, though. I did like and follow the SPJ Code of Ethics adopted in the 1990s and it figured prominently in the ethics seminars I presented for the American Press Institute from 2005 to 2009. After I called on SPJ to update the code in 2010, someone at SPJ invited me to join and I did. It seemed like the appropriate thing to do, given my call for the organization to update its code. But nothing was happening with the code, so I let my membership lapse.
Scott Leadingham, SPJ’s education director and Quill editor, has featured some of my work in Quill and asked me to lead sessions at the Excellence in Journalism conferences the last two years. (Actually, I think he asked me in 2012 as well, but I had to turn him down because of a schedule conflict.) He also has asked me to contribute to a series of webinars SPJ is presenting, and I did the first one last month, previewing my Friday workshop at EIJ.
Update: I forgot to mention this involvement initially, but added it a few minutes after posting: When the Ethics Committee asked Mónica Guzmán to form a digital subcommittee to provide some advice on digital issues, I participated in that committee at Mónica’s invitation.
In addition, Jerry Ceppos, dean of the Manship School of Mass Communication, where I teach now, asked me to be faculty adviser for the student SPJ chapter here. I said yes. With all that involvement, I decided I should rejoin SPJ.
A final word on my involvement with SPJ: I deeply appreciate SPJ’s openness to criticism and debate. I would not have faulted SPJ for not giving a forum to such a strong critic of the code, especially one who was not a member (when they invited me). But I was invited and made to feel welcome.
Response from former SPJ president
I invited several people involved in the code revision process to respond. Former SPJ President David Cuillier sent this response by email:
Great blog post, Steve. Very thoughtful and some excellent points and suggestions, many that I agree with. Thank you for your participation in the process and I hope you will continue to provide suggestions.
At the final meeting of the delegates Saturday when this was approved, a delegate stood up and said this is a good code that could last another 18 years. I disagreed with that statement. I do indeed think it’s a good code – an incredible amount of work went into this, incorporating a lot of ideas among large numbers of people, and I think the final product improves upon what we had. But I think we should be looking at the code continuously. That is only my opinion – I do not speak for the ethics committee or SPJ, just myself. I see no reason why SPJ could not update the code as needed, and that might even include updates/tweaks next year, depending on the wishes of the new president, Dana Neuts, and ultimately, the delegates. These code words were not written on stone tablets and delivered from the mountain – they were written on a laptop and revised/updated/improved by some very thoughtful people, and that can continue.
Thanks again, and please keep active in SPJ. We can all make journalism better!
Here are two other takes I have seen on the new code. If you’ve seen other good links, please send them along:
Video of SPJ debate
Thanks to Andrew Seaman, new SPJ Ethics chair, for passing along the link to this video of the closing SPJ business session Saturday. The ethics debate begins at the 45-minute mark.