I thought it was something worth fighting for, and for sure, much of it was a struggle with occasional and surprising twists and turns. And I encountered some inspiring people along the way, and a few who put their foot in my face.
Media under ferocious attack
For me, it began in the 1970s, a time of civil rights marches, Watergate, Vietnam, and a rising environmental crusade. Today’s journalists think President Donald Trump is tough on reporters, but so was Ronald Reagan. His vice president, Spiro Agnew, was calling reporters “nattering nabobs of negativism.” The media were under ferocious attack, much like they are today.
I was chairman of the Sigma Delta Chi Professional Journalistic Society’s Professional Development Committee at that fateful time. The society changed its name in 1973 to the Society of Professional Journalists.
At its 1972 national convention in Dallas, the society adopted a resolution asking journalists and the public to be aware “of the importance of objectivity and credibility in the news media by calling attention to abuses of these tenets when they occur.” That resolution came to the Professional Development Committee “for study and program proposals.”
Committee members considered a list of things to do in response to the convention mandate, with a new code of ethics that the society could call its own topping the list. The society had borrowed an American Society of Newspaper Editors code of ethics dating to 1926, a worthy but outdated code that pre-dated television and the many contributions of women in journalism.
While I researched modern ideas in journalism ethics, committee members offered their thoughts. Some of the most active were Haig Keropian of the Van Nuys News, Clifford Rowe of the Seattle Times, David Offer of the Milwaukee Journal, Wendell Phillippi of the Indianapolis News, Dorman Cordell of the Associated Press, Sherman London of the Waterbury Republic and American, Noel Avon Wilson of Lincoln University, Robert Liming of The State newspaper, Sidney Elsner of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Searle (Ed) Hawley of the Chicago Tribune.
After gathering ideas and inspiration, I was the one who sat at my Underwood typewriter (yes, this was before computers) and wrote a code of ethics, which earned me the title of its author, since I was the one who organized the thing and pressed the keys to create the words. I wanted it to reflect the ideals of SPJ and of journalism in a soaring way, reflecting not only what journalism is but what it wants to be. It was aspirational in nature.
People might ask who would have the gall, the temerity, the chutzpah, to write a code of ethics. But that’s how it happened.
That was just the beginning. Strong leadership in journalism ethics was a niche waiting to be filled.
A new code of ethics
The next year, in 1973, I presented the new code of ethics to the convention. What happened next was bizarre, surprising and probably unprecedented in the history of the world. Only once in SPJ’s 100-year history has a resolution been adopted twice, unanimously, by the convention delegates. Usually once is enough. But not this time. It was Nov. 16, 1973.
I walked up to the dais and introduced the proposed code, calling it “strong stuff”
that outlawed accepting gifts, free travel or secondary employment that could damage a journalist’s credibility. “Freebies” were a particular sore point. The public was suspicious of politicians on the take, and would be equally suspicious of reporters on the take.
William Payette, the society’s president, called for its adoption, expecting a fierce fight. All the delegates had copies of the proposed code in their notebooks for prior inspection. There were several hundred journalists in that conference room. Typically, journalists will challenge the use of words, sentences, phrases, even the punctuation, in written material. It’s what they do.
Instead of resistance, without objection or one word of debate, the new code was loudly adopted with a chorus of “ayes.”
I was walking from the dais when Russ Hurst, the society’s executive officer at the time, grabbed my arm with a worried look and asked me if the delegates understood what they had just done. He also had expected a battle over a code that urged journalists to “actively censure and try to prevent violations” of the code.
So once again, I returned to the microphone, to Payette’s surprise after I tapped him on the shoulder, and explained I was told to do it again. In a louder voice and giving more details, I declared that this was a code of ethics “with teeth” that reflected the society’s own “ideals in the practice of journalism.”
And a second chorus of “ayes” rang out, without objections or debate.
It was an idea whose time had come, and possibly the last time ethics was mentioned at an SPJ convention without triggering a fierce debate.
A good code of ethics should remind you it’s there, like a pebble in your shoe. It should not be easily ignored. It should require you to pay attention. Ethics requires thought and action.
A controversial pledge
The “pebble” in this code was the pledge, at the end. It said: “Journalists should actively censure and try to prevent violations of these standards, and they should encourage their observance by all news people.” This became known as “the enforcement clause.”
SPJ leaders responded cautiously with a go-slow campaign of hanging copies of the ethics code on newsroom and journalism school walls.
For the next decade, the code nagged at members, as a good code should. It should not be words on paper, but a call to action.
On Nov. 19, 1977, an SPJ convention in Detroit adopted a resolution mandating that “chapters be encouraged to develop procedures for dealing with questions of ethics.” That never was done.
Then an oversight was noticed in the code. It did not mention plagiarism.
The 1984 convention in Indianapolis took care of that. A resolution mandated that the code include: “Plagiarism is dishonest and is unacceptable.” The resolution argued that “plagiarism by journalists violates the public trust and discredits all other journalists.”
It was the first amendment to the 1973 code and a small one. The next would be major.
The censure clause scared SPJ leaders. But many members wanted action on ethics abuses, and a willingness to face up to the censure clause.
SPJ was torn between a desire to lead journalism to a greater sensitivity toward ethical conduct, and a fear that such efforts might lead to “witch hunts” against journalists, and litigation.
My greatest fear was that 326 SPJ professional and student chapters had no idea how to handle ethics complaints, might act haphazardly and were getting no help from the national organization. But I was confident of the common sense of our membership, and there were no witch hunts.
In 1984, at the request of SPJ President Phil Record, I drafted procedures for addressing ethics complaints. At the time I was the national Ethics Committee chair. On May 17, 1985, the SPJ board of directors unanimously rejected the procedures proposal at a meeting in Salt Lake City.
I should add that the ethics compliance procedures I proposed contained no draconian measures. Censure could mean anything we wanted, including a mild rebuke. My stance was that the code of ethics, like the society’s bylaws, was a condition of membership. If you want to join, abide by the society’s code of ethics. And I insisted that the code adopted by SPJ applied to its members. Since it was considered a model code, other journalists in other organizations adopted it.
An ethics prayer
Allow me to pause for a moment to comment on Record, a Fort Worth Star-Telegram executive, who was an inspirational and very likeable leader. He cared deeply about journalism and ethics. “Is it any wonder,” he would say, “that at least once a week I say this prayer: ‘Lord, lead us to the truth. Let us always be fair in our quest for it. Give us the wisdom to recognize it. And the courage to proclaim it as we find it to be, not as we wish it to be’” That’s a code of ethics in itself.
But let’s go back to the SPJ code. The censure clause issue came to a head at the 1986 convention in Atlanta, 13 years after the code’s adoption.
Edd Jussely, a delegate from the Mississippi Professional chapter, told the convention his chapter started an investigation into an alleged ethics code violation but dropped it when national SPJ officials said they would not back a censure action.
Shortly afterward, Meredith Oakley of the Arkansas Professional chapter proposed a resolution asking the SPJ board of directors to recommend, in consultation with the national Ethics Committee and local chapters, procedures for chapters to use to handle ethics complaints, subject to approval by the national convention the following year in Chicago. The resolution was adopted by convention delegates.
This, Oakley said, would “implement some of the language within the code.” She wanted “clarification and guidance” on the ethics code, for what is “proper and just.”
On April 30, 1987, the SPJ board at its meeting in St. Paul voted to “recommend no procedure for chapters to handle ethics complaints and that the board recommend the deletion of the censure phrase,” according to the meeting minutes.
Journalism ethics wimps
It is noteworthy that the board repeatedly ignored mandates from conventions of delegates. Under Article Nine of SPJ’s bylaws, “the convention shall be the supreme legislative body of the organization.” Usually this means an organization’s staff carries out whatever its supreme legislative body mandates. But SPJ’s staff and officers refused, basically overruling the supreme governing body. About this time, I occasionally referred to SPJ and its leaders as “ethics wimps.
Allow me to pause again in this history of the SPJ code of ethics. My campaign for enforcement action on ethics attracted the attention of the nation’s journalism executives, and they were not pleased. I was warned by one of those executives that word was circulating that “someone should do something about Casey Bukro,” preferably someone at the Chicago Tribune. Words like that, in Al Capone’s Chicago, can have sinister overtones. But I was sure they were not meant that way.
James D. Squires, the Tribune’s editor and executive vice president, was my boss at the time. We both happened to be attending an SPJ convention, and Squires invited me to have a cup of coffee with him. When we were settled in at the coffee shop, I brought up the word that was circulating about me.
Squires knew what I was talking about, shook his head, and said: “I can’t do anything about Casey Bukro.”
“What do you mean?” I asked. “You could squash me like a bug.”
“I can’t do anything about Casey Bukro,” he repeated. “He has a right to freedom of speech like everyone else.”
And that settled it. Squires is a man of character, like Phil Record, and no doubt had more important things to do than squash Casey Bukro. Leaving the Chicago Tribune after 8½ years as editor, Squires wrote a memo to the staff and quoted a famous editor, William Allen White, saying: “There are three things that no one can do to the entire satisfaction of anyone else: Poke the fire, make love and edit a newspaper.” Said Squires, “He was certainly correct about editing the newspaper.” He left with a flourish.
The specter of lawsuits
Complete satisfaction also does not apply to a code of ethics. Lawyers have long argued that journalists should not admit to ethical standards because they might be held against them in court, a stance that could gain no public trust or credibility for journalists. Bruce Sanford, SPJ’s attorney, was among them and often raised the specter of lawsuits if the society acted against journalists who discredited journalism.
But on page 25 of the April 30 board minutes, Sanford is quoted as saying: “If you believe in ethics, you have to take some risks.” On the other hand, Sanford offered a memorandum to the board that day saying that enforcing ethics was an “oxymoron.” He preferred “using hypothetical situations to provoke discussion.” Otherwise, said the memo, enforcing the code “would likely engender a rash of lawsuits.”
The SPJ national board went to the Chicago convention in November 1987, refusing to follow the 1986 convention’s directive. During the floor fight that followed, the president of the Washington, D.C., chapter proposed deleting the censure clause from the ethics code, and replacing it with a “Mutual Trust” passage calling for ethics education programs and the adoption of more codes of ethics.
The motion was adopted by a 162-136 vote, after expressions of dissatisfaction with the board’s handling of the 1986 convention’s mandate.
By my reckoning, SPJ leadership by this point had shrugged off four convention resolutions mandating action on ethics abuses and procedures for addressing ethics complaints.
This history reveals an organization leading the way on ethics, then losing its way as its leadership turned timid, out of touch with the wishes of its membership. It ended a stormy period that provoked hard feelings and some broken friendships. Though everyone is for ethics, not everyone agrees on how to walk the talk. And while journalists thrive on controversy, it’s usually not welcome close to home.
Subsequent years seemed dull by comparison. The toothless 1973 code of ethics, while still considered a model for journalists after 23 years, was ready for retirement.
A “green light” code
The national Ethics Committee met in Philadelphia in June 1996, with the intention of drafting a new “green light” code of ethics, which it did in two days. The backbone of the new code hinged on four principles: seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable. I was told the Poynter Institute suggested this framework. The new format was a list of ethics dos and don’ts.
Participants gathered into four groups to suggest standards for each of the four principles. I chaired the “be accountable” section and took part in the birth of a new code of ethics, more modern in its outlook for a journalism industry that is always changing.
The code was adopted by a national convention in Arlington, Va., the following September, including passages urging journalists to be accountable by exposing “unethical practices of journalists and the news media” and to “encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media.”
Yet another code of ethics was adopted 18 years later, on Sept. 6, 2014, in Nashville, Tenn., tweaking what had gone before. The framework was the same. “Be accountable” was changed to “be accountable and transparent.” It is in the nature of journalists to rewrite, to edit.
All versions of the code appear in SPJ’s website. Still handling ethics like a hot potato, the site includes this disclaimer: “The SPJ Code of Ethics is a statement of abiding principles supported by explanations and position papers that address changing journalistic practices. It is not a set of rules, rather a guide that encourages all who engage in journalism to take responsibility for the information they provide, regardless of medium. The code should be read as a whole; individual principles should not be taken out of context. It is not, nor can it be under the First Amendment, legally enforceable.”
First Amendment protection
Yes, journalists are protected by the First Amendment. But that does not mean they should hide behind it. They should be bold because of it, not cower. That’s especially true at a time when journalists are described by President Trump as “enemies of the people” and “fake news.” This is no time for ethics wimps.
I served as SPJ’s national ethics chair from 1983 to 1986, when the incoming president replaced me. I continued to serve as a member of the national ethics committee until the incoming president asked me to leave the committee in 2010.
In January, 2001, I co-founded and manage the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, a free service for professional journalists looking for guidance on ethics. But that’s another story.
It’s almost 50 years since that Harris Poll showing the public’s low trust in journalists. What about now? A 2017 Harvard-Harris poll, by the same pollster, found that only 32% of the public trusted the press.
That’s 14 percentage points up from 1972, not much gain for a lifetime of effort in journalism ethics. Based on that metric, I have not made much of an impact, about a quarter of a point per year. Movement on journalism ethics can be glacial, while the media landscape changed devastatingly swiftly. But it’s been a heck of a journey, and never a dull moment.
Now that many of us are under coronavirus pandemic lockdown, we are wondering what happens next. Reporters will tell us. That’s the glorious part of journalism. There are always important stories to write, and doing them right takes journalism ethics.
The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.
Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.