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Ethics book examines dilemmas old and new

By Billy O'Keefe

By Sommer Ingram
Seek truth and report it. Minimize harm. Act independently. Be accountable.

Members of SPJ’s Ethics Committee (from left) Sara Stone, Chairman Andy Schotz, Vice Chairman Fred Brown and Liz Hansen begin the “SPJ on Ethics” session on Tuesday. (TWANA PINSKEY  / The Working Press)

Members of SPJ’s Ethics Committee (from left) Sara Stone, Chairman Andy Schotz, Vice Chairman Fred Brown and Liz Hansen begin the “SPJ on Ethics” session on Tuesday. (TWANA PINSKEY / The Working Press)

These four elements of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics have been a driving force behind the organization for more than 100 years. They also are key components of the new edition of SPJ’s ethics book, “Journalism Ethics: A Casebook of Professional Conduct for News Media.”
Current and outgoing members of SPJ’s Ethics Committee met at Tuesday’s session, “SPJ on Ethics,” to discuss how ethics have changed since the third edition of the book in 1999 – and how certain elements have stayed the same.
The book consists of at least 30 new case studies and 20 old studies, said Fred Brown, the ethics committee’s vice chairman.
The book will be released later this year.
“The very best thing about this book, about the case studies, about using the code is that it helps people determine what’s the right thing to do,” said Sara Stone, an outgoing committee member. “It isn’t always easy to arrive at, but it’s a wonderful use, I think, of everything SPJ stands for.”
The latest edition has a section on the history of ethical thought as well as a chapter on the difference between law and ethics. Since many colleges and universities are combining law and ethics classes, the panelists thought it would be useful to explain the difference. Often what reporters have the legal right to do and what is ethical are not the same, they said.
The push for multiplatform news coverage also has created a new subset of ethical issues. With news organizations constantly posting and updating stories online, confusion can exist about how to correct them, panelists said.
When information is wrong, many newspapers don’t acknowledge the mistake but, instead, simply replace it with the correct story, said Andy Schotz, the committee’s outgoing chairman.
Schotz also said there have been questions about whether SPJ will update its Code of Ethics to acknowledge social media.
“My view is that the Code of Ethics already addresses the concepts of these issues in social media,” he said. “We can still run those decisions we make about Twitter and about Facebook through this existing prism in the Code of Ethics .”
Audience members questioned the panel about allowing online comments that have the potential to be hateful or borderline libelous.
“I think that’s an example of technology driving the decision-making process with no regard to ethics,” Schotz said. “In the letter to the editor process, you have the process of filtering and verifying, and all of that is removed in the online (comment) process.”
The cumbersome task of managing online comments is a problem for most newsrooms, Schotz said, and the effects of posting hateful comments for all to see can be lasting.
“Not only are these comments hateful at any given point, but they’ve actually changed the tone in the community,” he said. “People with these strong, aggressive voices have crowded out other people, and that now becomes the community.”
But despite the issues these new methods of reporting bring, there are some ethical concerns that have persisted through the years.
“Several inquiries we get to the SPJ ethics hotline fit into some themes that are constant: conflict of interest, fairness, sensitivity,” Schotz said. “The bulk of the questions we get are still the same fundamental principles.”
Stone, a Baylor University journalism professor whose students worked through case studies for the book, said the book has practical applications for journalism students wondering how to respond to ethical dilemmas.
“A lot of the books out there on ethics are so esoteric, so philosophical, that they don’t really help students start to figure out how to apply the code to their individual newsrooms,” she said. “They need to see who are the major stakeholders, what is the conflict and how the news organization went about handling it.”
Brown, the vice chairman, said it is essential to ask the right questions when trying to respond to an ethical problem.
“This book can be used as a textbook but also as a handbook in the newsroom,” he said. “A major feature is that it can be used as a template for working your way through an ethical case.”