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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