By Casey Bukro
Everyone is in favor of ethics, until you get into the details. That’s when the fights break out.
This is something the Online News Association is likely to learn as it makes its way through a project called the Build Your Own Ethics Code. Journalists are invited to crowdsource and document their ethical practices.
I have some personal experience in this realm. Back in 1972, I was national professional development committee chairman for Sigma Delta Chi, later named the Society of Professional Journalists.
The public, then as now, tended to have a low opinion of journalists. A public opinion poll in 1972 showed only 19 percent of the public had confidence in the press. Garbage collectors ranked higher.
Hoping to counteract that, delegates at the 1972 convention in Dallas adopted a resolution asking the group to do something about that low image of American journalists. That resolution was sent to my committee.
We decided to write a code of ethics reflecting SDX values and standards, acting on a constitutional mandate to inform the public as part of journalism’s role in a democracy. We wanted to show that journalists do have standards, and can act in an ethical manner.
In 1926 SDX had borrowed the American Society of Newspaper Editors’ Canons of Journalism, which dated to 1924-25. That document recognized only newspapers. SDX in 1916 changed from an honorary to a professional fraternity. It admitted women members in 1969.
We wanted a modern code that could be a model for all media, one that reflected SDX’s high standards and would lead the way in accountability by admitting our mistakes and correcting them.
So we set to work. I researched codes of ethics, while members of the professional development committee told me what they thought a modern code should contain.
This was in the age of typewriters, so I banged out a document containing all those views, mailed copies to all committee members for comment and further suggestions, then revised and retyped it several times.
The new code was introduced at the 1973 SDX convention in Buffalo, and in a strange turn of events was adopted unanimously twice, the only time that’s happened in the organization’s history.
The code pointedly asked SDX to call attention to abuses that damage journalism credibility in a pledge that read: “Journalists should actively censure and try to prevent violations of these standards, and they should encourage observance by all newspeople.”
This was unusually strong language for a code of ethics. I called for its adoption. It was moved and seconded, and adopted unanimously without comment or debate.
SDX leaders feared the convention delegates did not fully comprehend what they had just done. So, as I was leaving the dais, one of those leaders grabbed me by the arm and asked me to introduce the resolution again, this time with more details.
So I did, pointing out that this code of ethics “has teeth.” I moved for its adoption a second time, it was moved, seconded and adopted unanimously without comment a second time.
This is described in more detail in a 2010 Quill magazine article. In extended debate at the same convention, SDX changed its name to the “Society of Professional Journalists, Sigma Delta Chi.”
History would show that the unchallenged adoption to a code of ethics was an uncharacteristic event in SPJ history, because journalism ethics more typically raises strong feelings and debate among journalists.
The 1973 version of the SPJ code of ethics lasted 23 years. During that time, SPJ members struggled with that censure clause in the pledge. I argued that if you have a code of ethics and don’t enforce it, why have it? I also said censure could mean anything society members decided, including gentle persuasion.
The 1984 SPJ convention in Indianapolis adopted a resolution asking for procedures to enforce the censure clause. SPJ leaders ignored that mandate, although a convention of delegates is considered the supreme governing body. Leaders said adherence to the code is voluntary.
I also served as SPJ national ethics chairman in 1985 and 1986, and for many years as a member of the national ethics committee. At SPJ’s 1987 convention, the pledge with the censure clause was replaced by a call for ethics education and more ethics codes.
In 1996, the 1973 version of the SPJ code was replaced by a new code, which was revised in 2014.
Hopefully, do-it-yourself ethics codes will have less tumultuous histories.
The Online News Association said its project is aimed at helping news organizations, startups and individual bloggers and journalists to “build your own” codes. ONA added that the project’s operating principle is that “no single ethics code can reflect the needs of everyone in our widely varied profession.”
ONA also points out that journalists can honestly disagree on issues, such as removing items from online archives, anonymous sources, quoting without permission comments people make on social media, verification and corrections, racial references, hate speech and vulgarities and coverage of suicide, hostage incidents and bomb threats.
Ideally, codes of ethics should reflect the latest thinking on such issues, since codes quickly become outdated because of rapid changes in journalism and media technology. It takes periodic revisions to create a “living” code of ethics.
Of course, there is the minimalist approach. Some journalists will argue that a basic set of principles that will withstand the test of time and technology will suffice. Here’s one, called “The Journalist’s Creed,” dating to 1906.
ONA board president Meredith Artley reported in February that the code project is moving to a second phase, “with a tool in development that will help journalists craft their own codes around issues surrounding news-gathering and distribution.” It is part one, she said, of a digital toolkit expected to be rolled out this year.
The wikiHow website also offers some useful advice on how to develop a personal code of ethics.
Typically such projects begin with high-minded ideals, but soon become mired in disputes over wording. For journalism codes, there’s also the question of whether such codes violate First Amendment guarantees of freedom of the press. Some journalists argue that the codes restrict free speech and should not be allowed.
But as news media grapple with a faster work pace, staff cuts and desperate searches for more revenue, it’s a worthwhile struggle to clarify the standards by which journalists are willing to live.
The public will be watching.