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The Society of Professional Journalists now has an updated Code of Ethics, perhaps almost in spite of itself and, while SPJ’s leadership was pleased with the outcome, not everyone was satisfied with the process or convinced that the job is done.

The revised code was approved on a voice vote by chapter delegates to SPJ’s September 2014 conference (held jointly again this year with RTDNA) in Nashville, TN. The year-long process that preceded the vote was a remarkable juxtaposition of open discussions and feedback ahead of the convention and a series of private conversations that followed an open session in Nashville. Those hallway discussions and backstage negotiations—an anomaly for an organization that fights for openness everywhere else—led to numerous last-minute changes in the draft document and were as important in updating the Code as were the debate and vote at the business meeting.

The final version of the revised Ethics Code can be found in this issue of Media Ethics and at http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp. A number of the update’s key changes are highlighted in a September 6 th SPJ press release posting available at http://www.spj.org/news.asp?ref=1282. But anyone reading only these two sources would miss entirely the maneuvers in Nashville which shaped the document that was finally discussed and debated by delegates at the end of the convention—a final draft of the Ethics Code that most of them saw for the first time when they walked into the business meeting. (I was told that this version was either the fifth, sixth or seventh draft of the document, depending on who was counting and what they regarded as formally constituting a new “draft.”)

Delegates hadn’t seen a final draft earlier because the last pre-convention version of the updated code—made public just a week before the convention began—was revised still further between 10:30 a.m. on September 5th (when a contentious “town hall” discussion of the proposed update ended) and the start of the business meeting at 3 p.m. the following day. Most of the late revisions stemmed from informal contacts between some Ethics Committee members and other interested SPJ members. Some of these led to discussion and formal action to incorporate them at the regularly scheduled Ethics Committee meeting on Friday afternoon (September 5). But there were also some even later changes that were made on Saturday as a result of a chance hotel lobby conversation on Friday night.

The conference vote capped at least a decade of growing awareness—both in SPJ leadership circles and among rank-and-file members—that the 1996 Code of Ethics no longer dealt adequately with 21st century journalism. By 2010, the SPJ Ethics Committee had taken at least one careful look at the possibility of reviewing and updating the Code, but decided that the timing wasn’t right (and that’s an interesting story by itself). SPJ’s ethics landscape became more complicated at the convention that fall, when incoming president Hagit Limor almost totally revamped (some SPJers have said “purged” is a more accurate description) the Ethics Committee membership, a step that also fanned a few personal animosities going back at least 15 years.

It wasn’t until David Cuillier took office as SPJ’s president in August, 2013 that a formal review of the Code was undertaken. At an Ethics Committee meeting toward the end of the 2013 convention, the chair—Kevin Z. Smith—sounded less than enthusiastic about undertaking a wholesale review of the Code he had shepherded through a revision 17 years earlier. Several committee members were more willing to consider a review, though there was little agreement then on how extensive the update needed to be.

Cuillier stepped into that meeting briefly and his desire to bring an updated code to a vote at the 2014 convention eventually carried the day. The Ethics Committee was charged with studying the Code and recommending changes with Smith, SPJ national president in 2009-2010 and Ethics Committee chair 1994-1996 and 2010-2014, heading the effort. He and/or Cuillier added eight outside media ethicists to the group.

That expanded committee solicited feedback for the rest of 2013 and then broke into four groups, each of which reviewed one major section of the existing Code. The committee provided online updates of its work in March and early July of 2014, published the text of the proposed revision (as it existed then) and some commentary on it in the July/August issue of Quill magazine (pp. 17-20), and solicited feedback (and received a good bit) at each step along the way. Interestingly, there was little or no effort to solicit input from former Ethics Committee members, including some who had been involved in earlier revision efforts.

Among the more meticulous sources of feedback was Andy Schotz, a member of the Ethics Committee from 2004 to 2010 and its chair for the last three of those years, who monitored the draft at every stage of its development. Schotz, who was honored as SPJ regional director of the year at the 2014 convention, used the SPJ Region 2 blog to post comments on the first two revisions and was one of more than 100 people who commented online in response to the second draft document. He also followed closely the Webcast of the Ethics Committee’s mid-July meeting to refine the draft Code and submitted both chat comments and e-mails as that discussion unfolded.

Schotz posted further comments on the Region 2 blog when the committee released a third draft in mid-August and he quickly updated that entry when another draft appeared (see http://blogs.spjnetwork.org/region2/2014/08/20/part-three-critiquing-the-code-of-ethics/ ). That was after the SPJ Board (which includes Schotz and the other regional directors) discussed the Code for 90 minutes during a Skype meeting on August 20 and recommended several changes. This fourth draft, endorsed by the Board on an 11-4-1 vote, was posted on August 28—seven days before the convention began. (For Schotz’s post-convention comments, see http://blogs.spjnetwork.org/region2/2014/10/17/so-what-changed/.)

The week-old online fourth draft prompted Schotz to prepare four pages of comments and further edits that he thought were needed. He brought copies of his document with him to that September 5 “town hall” session on the convention’s second day, where Cuillier presided over an open discussion of the committee’s proposal. This session, in a room packed with 60 or more people, produced considerable criticism and some outright opposition to the committee’s draft from delegates and other members. Their concerns ranged from the omission of online linking to the Code’s approach to the reporting of suicide to a grammatical error or two . . . to mention only some of what was said, often with a fair amount of heat.

Steve Buttry, now a visiting faculty member at Louisiana State’s Manship School of Mass Communication, and before that the digital transformation editor for Digital First Media, renewed his contention that the updated Code should address the value of attributing material by providing links to online sources of information used in stories. Buttry, a member of the digital subcommittee working on the Code, had made this argument in his July 15, 2014 blog entry ( www.stevebuttry.wordpress.com) which was also reprinted in the July/August 2014 Quill (pp. 15-17) 

During the “town hall” discussion, a number of delegates made it quite clear that, unless there were further changes, the Code faced a very uncertain fate when it came to a final vote. There was some talk about sending the draft Code back to the committee for another year’s work. . . something that didn’t sit at all well with Smith, who seemed at times to be suggesting that it would disrespect the committee’s work to decide that the task wasn’t completed.

Several other committee members expressed similar sentiments, and Cuillier at times showed considerable impatience with questions or comments that focused on specific points in the draft—reactions for which he apologized during Saturday’s business meeting. In an early November telephone interview, he characterized the town hall session as “interesting” and added that “a lot of pent-up energy and anger was released at the meeting,” something that he said paved the way for calmer discussions afterward. 

However, not all of the “pent-up” questions about the Code were raised at that session. Members of the Northern California professional chapter, which had prepared its own draft version of the Code, felt that the town hall meeting provided insufficient time to discuss possible changes in the committee’s draft. Sally Lehrman, one of the NorCal delegates, said in a November e-mail that after the meeting it seemed that “the only recourse was to take revisions to the [business meeting] the next day. Our group of delegates agreed to talk over and prioritize the suggested changes from our chapter that night.”

When the “town hall” session ended, Schotz, Cuillier and several others were talking near the doorway when Paul Fletcher, the unopposed candidate for SPJ president-elect and a member of the Ethics Committee, asked Schotz to step into the hallway for a private conversation. In a phone interview, Schotz said that Fletcher expressed interest in finding a way to incorporate some of Schotz’s points into the proposed Code, and asked for the five most important ones.

Schotz offered to attend the afternoon meeting of the Ethics Committee but Fletcher turned down the offer and the five points were never specified. As Schotz was walking away through the (seemingly endless) hotel corridors, he happened upon a discussion between Smith and Chris Roberts, a University of Alabama media ethicist who was one of the 2013 additions to the review group. Smith and Roberts were going through Schotz’s comments and proposed amendments to the draft Code regardless of the emphatic statements by Smith and several others in the town hall session that a line-by-line review of the draft couldn’t be done ahead of the business meeting.

Schotz joined this discussion and for about 40 minutes, the trio went through the Code thoroughly. Schotz suggested 25 or 30 changes, both major and minor. Smith was more receptive to the changes than was Roberts, and the three of them agreed to incorporate about half of what Schotz suggested in the draft Code.

Those changes were presented to the full Ethics Committee at its regularly scheduled meeting later Friday afternoon (September 5th). Schotz and seven or eight other non-members of the committee sat in on that meeting and their comments were occasionally allowed or solicited. Considerable time was spent on whether the Code should deal with anonymous online comments and, when the committee couldn’t reach a consensus on how to word such a reference, the topic was dropped.

That apparently was supposed to be the final tweaking of the new Code. However, at a chance meeting in the hotel lobby on Friday night, Lehrman told Smith about the changes that the Northern California pro chapter wanted to propose at the business meeting. Smith, in a November e-mail, said he was “less than enthusiastic about this” and that, “initially, I wasn’t willing to negotiate.”

Nonetheless, four members of the Ethics Committee met with NorCal chapter representatives for about an hour on Saturday. According to Lehrman, “the meeting went very well and although we didn’t agree on everything, the group listened to our suggestions and made some revisions as a result. They asked us to take others to the business meeting for a vote.” At that point, the Code was—finally—duplicated and made available for all the delegates to see.

Schotz noted in an e-mail that—ironically—some of the changes he had suggested were turned down by the committee on Friday afternoon and then were added to the draft Code on Saturday after the Northern California chapter also suggested them.

The Code, as finally seen and approved by the delegates, introduces the concept of transparency and couples it with accountability. [Paul Voakes, the new vice president-elect of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication, discusses this point elsewhere in this issue of Media Ethics.] Andrew Seaman, incoming SPJ Ethics Committee chair, said in a phone interview that he particularly liked this pairing and noted that transparency was also stressed by the group’s digital media subcommittee. (“Transparency” also was a major point in the Poynter Institute’s 2013 contribution to ethics codes—see Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel, eds., The New Ethics of Journalism).

The SPJ Code now avoids any direct references to specific media platforms on the grounds that its ethical principles should apply regardless of medium—and also regardless of whether a journalist is a professional or an amateur. A specific mention of social media was removed during the business meeting debate of the Code, although several veiled but fairly obvious references to various media still lurk in the Code’s language. 

Now that the dust-ups have settled a bit, several questions are worth asking. First, is the updated Code an improvement over the version it replaces? I would say it almost certainly is, simply because it attempts to deal with some of the upheavals in the journalism landscape since 1996. Second, does it deal with those upheavals adequately? That undoubtedly depends on whom you ask, but there certainly are some topics that could benefit from further analysis and discussion. Third, was the process by which it was adopted flawed in part or even fatally by last-minute changes that gained traction in hotel hallways and other unofficial venues? That also depends on whom you ask and on whether you think that the convention was a proper venue to propose and debate changes in the Code or whether that should have been done only through the review committee’s work—and the public input it received—in the 12 months prior to the convention.

Lehrman, via e-mail, said that more time was needed to discuss and debate the Code at the convention.

“After all, it’s the signature of SPJ and used around the world,” she wrote. “I know there were many people, including members of our chapter, who wanted an open process for further revision during the convention itself. Chapters like ours that had taken the time to prepare revisions could have worked together in a meeting room with one another and the committee on Friday or even Saturday morning.”

On the opposite side of that question, Smith’s November e-mail strongly criticized both Schotz and the Northern California chapter for what he regarded as “walking into the convention and trying to undermine the Code language through a floor debate.” He called the final editing of the Code “completely unnecessary” and wrote that it “insulted the committee’s work and that of many other members who elected to work with us through the process.”

But those reactions were tempered by other comments from these two participants. Lehrman also wrote: “We appreciated the spirit of collaboration that developed on Saturday.” And Smith also complimented Schotz for being part of “a productive and civilized” discussion after the Friday town hall meeting.

Perhaps the most outspoken critic of the new Code and how it was approved was Michael Koretzky, SPJ’s Region 3 director and someone who has frequently staked out controversial positions in the organization. His indictment (posted on the Region 3 blog two days after the convention) of both the process and the SPJ leadership was scathing.

Koretzky argued (among other points) that the business session debate on the Code should not have been cut off when it was. He also suggested that the final decision on the Code should have been made online, so all SPJ members—not just convention delegates—would have the opportunity to weigh in. (See http://blogs.spjnetwork.org/region3/2014/09/08/one-unethical-weekend.)

By contrast, a press release posted on September 6th (the day the revised Code was approved) on the SPJ Web site quoted Smith in praise of the new Code and saying: “This was a long and arduous process that took a lot of thought and deliberation.” His statement is right on target regarding the committee’s work, but it glosses over the much less extensive opportunity for delegates who hadn’t followed the revised Code’s evolution closely to exercise “thought and deliberation” before voting on the committee’s final draft. 

The reality undoubtedly lies somewhere between Smith’s statement and Koretzky’s online tirade. As Koretzky noted, the final (sixth? seventh?) draft emerged from the copier less than 90 minutes before it was handed to the delegates. And they then had about two hours to read through the Code, handle the rest of the convention’s business and discuss the Code and decide whether to accept it (with floor amendments), reject it or send it back for further review. The final vote on the Code came after more than an hour of discussion and debate, and after a couple of abortive attempts and then a successful one to call the question.

One complicating factor in all of this was the occasional shadow cast by the extensive past history (not discussed here) of SPJ ethics efforts and the lingering distrust that some of these past contentions left in a few of the participants. Another was the belief of some committee members that major (and time-consuming) revisions at the “town hall” session or the business meeting would needlessly delay the revision for a year and the equally strong belief by some delegates (in addition to Schotz and the NorCal representatives) that, without changes, the revision needed another year’s work.

The result could have been a hardening of an “us against them” mentality on both sides of the issue but there obviously also were voices urging further conversations. Smith wrote that the committee “didn’t think waiting 12 months would create a better Code” and was willing to compromise to “avoid a lengthy floor debate.” About 80% of the updated Code, as finally approved, “is the work of the committee and the people who offered their insights prior to the convention,” he said by e-mail. 

The most intriguing remaining question, though, may well be “now what?” Cuillier, for one, would not be opposed to considering further changes. In a telephone interview, he said it makes sense to him personally that future SPJ leaders and conventions would continue to discuss and change the Code and added that “there’s no reason not to do it, perhaps as soon as next year.” 

But Seaman, the new Ethics Committee chair, said that changing the Code annually would weaken its credibility. He said the committee’s focus this year will most likely be on preparing (and posting online) case studies and additional position papers that deal with various items in the Code and illustrate some of the different positions that can be taken in approaching specific ethics issues.

The positions taken by Cuillier and Seaman both have validity. It may well be more useful for the Ethics Committee to develop position papers and case studies that illuminate the Code than to focus on tweaking it. But if individuals want to work at improving specific statements in the Code, or rectifying what they see as important omissions, how would that weaken what was adopted in Nashville?

It could even be argued that dealing with proposed changes to the Code in small bites rather than all at once would be a major procedural improvement. It would give convention delegates—in 2015 or later—the opportunity to consider changes carefully, thoughtfully and openly. This could only strengthen rather than weaken the Code’s credibility.

Quite possibly, this saga isn’t over yet, in view of both Koretzky’s cryptic blog comment about a possible alternative SPJ Ethics Code and Schotz’s statement that he may still pursue language stressing the need for civility and a lack of anonymity in online comments. And I wouldn’t bet against Buttry continuing to argue the value of using online links for attribution, regardless of the Ethics Committee’s desire to avoid all media-specific references. Other suggestions for changes also are a distinct possibility. 

Regardless of when the next efforts at revision take place, I’ll make two suggestions that might improve the process at least a bit: first, involving younger SPJ members who either don’t know or don’t care about prior battles and personalities (as well as continued input from veterans of those encounters); and, second, that whatever group spearheads the revision not be the final arbiter of the revision. Rather, this authority should rest with the widest possible group of SPJ members who care about ethics and who are given enough time to digest and discuss the reasons for and the impact of whatever updates are proposed. More easily suggested than done, of course, but perhaps a couple of goals to shoot for in 2015 or beyond.

 

Reference notes

  1. Unless otherwise identified, e-mails and interviews mentioned above as sources in this article were initiated by the author.
  2. Members of the SPJ Ethics Committee at the time when the final draft of the Code was brought before the delegates in Nashville were: Paul Fletcher, Lauren Bartlett, Elizabeth Donald, Irwin Gratz, Mike Farrell, Jim Pumarlo (who did not participate in the Code project), Kevin Smith, Andrew Seaman, Fred Brown, and Hagit Limor. Appointed to participate in the revision process, in addition to the Ethics Committee, were Carole Feldman, Mónica Guzmán, Thomas Kent, Jan Leach, Kelly McBride, Chris Roberts, Lynn Walsh, and Stephen J. A. Ward. With regard to the suggestion, in the last paragraph of this article, about involving younger SPJ members in future revisions, Andrew Seaman notes that two of the 17 members of the group that reviewed and updated the Code for the 2014 convention were under 30 and two others were in their 30s.
  3. For a look at SPJ’s official view of the review process while it was ongoing, see the May 6, 2014 memo that’s available at http://www.spj.org/pdf/ecr/ethics-code-revision-plan-4_5_2014.pdf. The timeline that’s given there provides an interesting contrast to the way things finally developed.
  4. When dates are mentioned in this article, it should be remembered that SPJ’s “year” runs from annual convention to annual convention, rather than from January 1st through December 31st.