The Debate Continues: Society of Professional Journalists Has Tables for Another Year, Another New Proposed Code of Ethics for the Organization

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NOTHING, IT SEEMS, fires up the Society of Professional Journalists like a no holds barred debate about an ethics code.

So, faced with the choice of sticking with their current code or adopting a new one, SPJ delegates at their recent annual convention in St. Paul Minn., decided to table the proposed code -- and debate it until they meet again in Washington next year.

As the occasionally intense arguments over four days in St. Paul suggest, the society will have plenty to talk about.

All of the divergent views that emerged when the society adopted its most recent code in 1987 remain.

Some members want a very specific and practical code -- others want a poetic creed that "sings" and inspires.

Some want a code that includes specific penalties for ethics violations -- others want the document's moral suasion to speak for itself.

And some -- in a society that adopted its first canon of ethics in 1926 and revised the code in 1973, 1984 and 1987 -- want no ethics code at all.

"I believe there are many people like me who believe adopting a code of ethics is dead wrong," said Dayton (Ohio) Daily News editor Max Jennings. "A code of ethics that is unenforceable means nothing. And if it is unenforceable, why have it?"

SPJ ethics debates tend to be fairly raucous affairs, and at St. Paul it was apparent that some participants walked away feeling hurt and insulted.

Yet something there is in SPJ that loves an ethics argument -- and many delegates threw themselves into the discussion with zest.

"We ought to [revise the ethics code] every two years," said jay Black of the University of South Florida. "It's a grueling but helpful process. What we're trying to do is rearticulate what it means to be a journalist, which is a difficult thing to do in a time of cyberspace and everything else."

This year's ethics controversy began more than nine months ago when the ethics committee on its own decided to draft a revised code that would more closely follow the spirit of an ethics guidebook SPJ published in 1994.

"It was believed that the code itself needed to evolve into something more contemporary," said Kevin Z. Smith, Miami (Ohio) University professor who chairs the ethics committee. "There was a feeling it should be more positive rather than ... a negative type of code."

The revision that emerged from the committee tends to be far more succinct than the current code. …