Ethos Ethics Ethicker Ethicist

Spring for jour­nal­ists marks the end of con­test entry sea­son and the begin­ning of con­fer­ences and work­shops. Heavy think­ing threat­ens the daffodils.

Collecting arrows at Dunster Archery competition, Somerset, 2009. Source: Wikimedia Commons

Col­lect­ing arrows and scor­ing at a 2009 Som­er­set (UK) archery com­pe­ti­tion.
Source: Wiki­me­dia Commons

Ethics com­mit­tees of two groups, the Soci­ety of Pro­fes­sional Jour­nal­ists and the Online News Asso­ci­a­tion, are mark­ing this cli­mate change with pro­pos­als. SPJ’s is revis­ing its Code of Ethics, last dolled up in 1996, and ONA’s panel wants a new approach it calls “Build Your Own Ethics Code.”

A key dif­fer­ence: SPJ will engrave its code in stone and ONA plans con­tin­ual updat­ing. One sim­i­lar­ity is promi­nent: How ethics (sin­gu­lar noun) effects Inter­net news.

Or com­men­tary, for that mat­ter. (My gang, the National Soci­ety of News­pa­per Colum­nists, has a Code of Con­duct, set in 2009. Valid in any medium.)

A point by point break­down can’t be done until ONA com­pletes its list. Until then, here’s their links:

Even their post­ings’ titles (which I’ve edited for form) indi­cate a sig­nif­i­cant issue. Ethics has a rep­u­ta­tion as the Law’s way­ward brother — while the Law grad­u­ated with high hon­ors and is out mak­ing a name for itself, ethics still is in school, par­ty­ing with the atti­tude, “What­ever, Dude.”

If you can go to jail or lose a law­suit, it’s the Law. Ethics runs into its brother and bounces off: It is the agree­ment we jour­nal­ists have with our audi­ence; it’s how news providers are trusted to be as com­plete and fair as pos­si­ble in the moment and not too offen­sive. While the Law has excep­tions, Ethics func­tions by its elasticity.

Ethics for many, though, must be a fixed point, a poster on a wall for peo­ple to point to while argu­ing. The spongier ethics is, the less effec­tive. Pla­gia­rism for exam­ple is wrong only most of the time, and those out­liers are sim­ple to list, cit­ing his­tor­i­cal and cul­tural jus­ti­fi­ca­tions. But the lim­its change, hence occa­sional or con­tin­ual revision.

This is the charm of the cur­rent SPJ Code of Ethics and the pro­posed revi­sion, announced yes­ter­day. It’s detailed for sundry cir­cum­stances. SPJ con­tin­ues to divide the rules into these four headings:

  1. Seek Truth and Report It
  2. Min­i­mize Harm
  3. Act Inde­pen­dently
  4. Be Account­able

If you’re already trained as a jour­nal­ist, these bul­let points are nearly enough to point to right conduct.

The Online News Association’s Code of Ethics — click on its line for a PDF — con­cerns only the behav­ior of the orga­ni­za­tion. Advis­ing the world on proper con­duct, begin­ning in May, is the plan. And it’s new: the Colum­bia Jour­nal­ism Review reported on it, also yesterday.

ONA plans strong-enough sim­i­lar­i­ties to SPJ’s four head­ings. One dif­fer­ence may rest in how each tack­les the chal­lenges brought by Web pub­lish­ing and social media.

Maybe I missed oth­ers, but SPJ’s draft has a sin­gle line about online:

Con­sider the long-term impli­ca­tions of the extended reach and per­ma­nence of online pub­li­ca­tion. Pro­vide updated and more com­plete infor­ma­tion when appropriate.”

Maybe that’s the right approach. ONA’s stated plan is for more specifics.

Cer­tainly my career-long prac­tice has been see­ing accu­racy, integrity and bal­ance as pretty much the same using sen­tences, illus­tra­tion, radio and video, and the Web — which also uses text, sound and pictures.

The ONA ethics toolkit acknowl­edges the exis­tence of advo­cacy jour­nal­ism. The com­mit­tee seeks input (“crowd­sourc­ing”) on the gov­er­nance of

trans­parency’ jour­nal­ism, mean­ing it’s fine to write from a cer­tain polit­i­cal or social point of view as long as you’re upfront about it.”

SPJ par­al­lels this:

  • Pro­posed: “Dis­tin­guish between advo­cacy and news report­ing. Analy­sis and com­men­tary should be clearly labeled.”
  • 1996 code: “Dis­tin­guish between advo­cacy and news report­ing. Analy­sis and com­men­tary should be labeled and not mis­rep­re­sent fact or context.”

ONA empha­sizes advo­cacy splits the infor­ma­tion pie, the other being “tra­di­tional objec­tive jour­nal­ism, where your per­sonal opin­ion is kept under wraps.”

The web peo­ple con­tinue, “[W]e expect the toolkit to be a liv­ing thing, with updates and expan­sion as new eth­i­cal issues arise and per­spec­tives on jour­nal­ism change.” It will be a wiki, in short.

SPJ’s new Code of Ethics poster — whether vir­tual or thumb­tack­able — has the advan­tage of per­ma­nence, until its com­mit­tee next reconvenes.

ONA will have the flex­i­bil­ity demanded by the newish media: Pho­tos and video shot on smart­phones, for exam­ple, reset com­mon lim­its with every pass­ing catastrophe.

But what good is that when an editor/publisher/teacher/curator/self-in-mirror tries to point to a pol­icy when dis­cussing a con­tro­versy with a reporter/blogger/columnist/videographer/texter — only to find it’s been revised since yesterday?

My response:

Both forms are needed. Hence an illus­tra­tion of mul­ti­ple archery bullseyes. You stand in front of one of sev­eral tar­gets, or you’re assigned to it, and aim for the mid­dle of yours.

That is our world.

Copy­right 2014 Ben S. Pollock

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