By Casey Bukro
Some might argue that it takes a certain amount of hutzpah to adopt a set of principles intended to curb the worst behavior of journalists, sometimes seen by the public as an unruly bunch of ruffians.
But that’s what the Society of Professional Journalists did at its annual convention in Nashville. Actually, it was an updated, boiled down, tweaked, massaged version of a code SPJ adopted in 1996.
The framers of the new version started the revision process by arguing that the 1996 version failed to take into account all the technological innovation that has transformed journalism. Others argued that the ethical foundations of journalism don’t change, regardless of technological changes.
A reading of the updated code suggests that the foundationalists won, since the new code does not mention technology. It’s a smoother read in places, but most of the original principles are still there, with some added emphasis on transparency and accuracy.
The code does not “sing,” as some journalists had wished, hoping that journalists who pride themselves as wordsmiths might have produced a more inspiring document. It tends to plod from one “do” and “don’t” to another.
But it is the nature of journalists to quibble about how things are worded.
The Society of Professional Journalists introduced its first original code of ethics in 1973, causing a wave of consternation and congratulation among journalists. Some thought a code of conduct was contrary to First Amendment protection of Freedom of the Press.
The reaction to the 2014 version was more subdued.
Kevin Smith, outgoing SPJ ethics chair, said one of the goals of the revision was to address “the growing problems with transparency, including news outlets failing to disclose clear conflicts of interest.”
Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute pointed out that, at the same joint convention, the Radio Television Digital News Association disclosed its own proposed code of ethics.
“The SPJ and RTDNA codes are similar,” said Tompkins, “both focusing on accuracy, accountability and independence.” He also pointed out that the SPJ code took aim at using anonymous sources in stories.
Public Relations practitioners also would benefit from taking note of the SPJ code because it addresses two key issues: Anonymous sources and a prohibition against paying for access to news.
“So if you’re ever talking to a journalist to give information,” writes Ellis Friedman, “think twice about requesting anonymity….”
Most people might think that adopting a code of ethics is not especially controversial, but they should think again. Such efforts always trigger powerful emotions for one reason or another. Journalists can be fractious.
Among those is Michael Koretzky, an SPJ regional director, who complained that the society was unethical in the manner in which the code was rewritten, charging that it was done in secrecy. SPJ leaders were not pleased with his remarks.
And he complained that the new code was adopted by an antiquated method through representatives attending a national convention.
“The code may have needed a tech update,” Koretzky wrote, but “SPJ leaders clung to a century-old system that featured less than 125 insiders making the decision for all its 7,500 members.” Voting should have been done electronically, he argued, giving all members of the society a chance to vote on the updated code.
Koretzky promises that’s not the last word on SPJ’s code of ethics.
“But from bad things, sometimes good things come,” he wrote. “Already, work is underway on an alternate SPJ code of ethics.”