By Casey Bukro
Codes of ethics sound like such noble things.
They can be inspirational and aspirational, statements of our highest moral and professional conduct.
Like any description of what is good, the devil is in the details. And where journalists are involved, the effort can bring out the devil in them. Some seem to handle it better than others.
For instance, three journalism groups are considering revising or creating codes of ethics: The Society of Professional Journalists, the Radio Television Digital News Association and the Online News Association.
The SPJ effort stands out because of the degree of conflict that erupted over charges by one of SPJ’s regional directors, Michael Koretzky, that the organization’s national ethics committee has conducted the code revision process largely in secrecy. Koretzky is a member of SPJ’s national board.
“It’s been difficult to get answers,” Koretzky said in an e-mail to SPJ leaders. Koretzky launched his attack against the national ethics committee by e-mailing his “journoterrorist” blog illustrated with 11 panels that graphically compares SPJ’s code revision efforts with ONA’s.
Kevin Smith, SPJ’s national ethics committee chair, denied “this conspiracy theory of secrecy in revising the code,” adding “we have nothing to hide.”
Koretzky replied that he never said anything about a conspiracy, but “the fact remains that no one has explained to the SPJ board (or anyone else) how the first draft of the code revision was compiled” and who was involved.
David Cuillier, SPJ’s president, added this to the chain of e-mails: “You’re absolutely right, Michael, that we have not communicated the process, or engaged members and non-members, as effectively as ONA.” No conspiracy or secrecy, he added, “but the ultimate outcome is a much more low-key effort on our part. All true.”
SPJ adopted its present code in 1996.
The American Journalism Review described the struggles over SPJ’s proposed code revision.
The Online News Association is working on a novel approach, which it calls “Build Your Own Ethics Code,” a crowdsourced ethics code.
ONA describes it as a toolkit “to help news outlets, bloggers and journalists decide on ethical guidelines that match their own ideas about reporting and journalism.”
The ethics guide would be a constantly updated online document. Reporters will be encouraged to publish the ethics codes they create, and to hold themselves and their news outlets accountable to them, said ONA. In other words, it would be largely voluntary.
RTDNA’s ethics code was last updated in 2000, “and I don’t need to tell you how greatly our technology and our newsrooms have changed in 14 years!” said Mike Cavender, RTDNA”s executive director.
One of the central questions in revising or creating codes of ethics is whether they should reflect changing technology, or state undying principles that apply regardless of technological changes.
RTDNA asked its members to complete a survey. “The goal is to insure that a new code fits our business as it stands today, without straying from the principles that define outstanding journalism.”
All three code-writing efforts are in the round one stage, with more rounds to follow. SPJ’s national ethics committee is expected to report its findings at the organization’s annual convention in September.
All three are worth watching to see if they end in a win, or in a knockout.