Making revised code broadly relevant is vital objective for SPJ ethics committee

Columbus, Ohio — How do you make an ethics code relevant for a membership significantly more diverse than in years past? This is a challenge for the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), now in the midst of only its second revision in the past 17 years.

Ultimately, SPJ deliberations “must create standards that support all genres of reporting,” says national ethics chairman Kevin Smith. “Our freelance faction has expanded,” Smith told Ethics News Updates during a telephone interview. “And the code also must be relevant for a variety of quasi journalists.”

Code revisions include committee and sub-committee reviews that may take up to one year to complete, according to Smith. To ensure a comprehensive study of any revisions, Smith invited seven heavy-hitting “voices from the outside” to support the efforts of eight regular committee members.

The outside group includes Poynter Institute ethics authority Kelly McBride; Oregon University’s Stephen Ward, and Associated Press Standards Editor Tom Kent. (Editor’s note: the latter two are interviewed in separate articles appearing in this issue of ENU. A workshop hosted late last year by McBride was covered in a recent ASBPE blog.)

Hotline addresses member concerns

Another SPJ committee service is its hotline where members discuss concerns via phone or email. “At SPJ, we answer more than 300 calls and emails yearly,” says Smith. “Typically they come from consumer journalists or journalists complaining about others in the profession. The rest are public concerns or college students looking for direction with an ethics research paper. Our biggest challenges seem to be accuracy, conflicts of interest, plagiarism, and the lack of accountability by those who make mistakes.”

Occasionally, the hotline draws fire from other sources. One of those cases is a complaint from an equipment manufacturer citing “one of the most egregious actions we’ve seen in a long time” involving a trade publication editor.

The company owner describes being approached by a trade publication and asked to write a story on a specific product his company makes. “That alone raises concerns as to the publication’s truth and fairness values,” declares Smith. “It also suggests laziness on the part of the publication staff.”

Inviting industry executives to contribute byline articles is a common trade editor practice. Once the company president had submitted the article, the editor suggested some additional information, which was provided.  So far so good, but what happened next is clearly out of bounds.

“During the rewrite phase, the author was told that the article would be a shared byline between him and the editor,” Smith explains. “But when the story ran, it was virtually everything the company president had written, sans his name. In fact, the story also removed mention of the man’s company and instead highlighted a competitor, still using the lion share of the shunned company president’s prose. That seems like a set-up from the beginning.”

(Editor’s note: Identities of parties involved understandably were not disclosed.  However, the American Society of Business Publication Editors has a follow-up service that, in cases like the above, admonishes B2B publishers to discontinue practices that clearly cross over integrity borders. For further information or to discuss an existing situation, email ethics@asbpe.org).