Ethics and Credibility


Questions about credibility-questions posed by journalists and by the public-have filled the discourse of recent years.

In 1996, the Society, after two years of work and debate, adopted a new Code of Ethics The code, with language borrowed from the Society's own ethics handbook, instructs journalists to seek truth and report it; minimize harm; act independently; and be accountable. Approval of this code at the national convention was an all-important moment for the Society in its continuing support of the highest standards of journalism.

In December 1996, SPJ President Steve Geimann, Ethics Chair Jay Black and Past-president Paul McMasters testified before a Senate subcommittee looking at the news media's coverage of the bombing at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta and of Richard Jewell, a former suspect in the bombing. Geimann said the coverage was "excessive, overblown, and unnecessarily intruded into the life of Mr. Jewell." He emphasized the need to learn from past mistakes, pointed to the Code of Ethics for guidance.

The Society also addressed undercover reporting in its support of ABC in a case involving the grocery chain Food Lion, Inc. SPJ joined more than 20 other media organizations in a friend-of-the-court brief asking that a $5.5 million punitive damage award to Food Lion be set aside. "In the Food Lion case, ABC rightly determined that some surreptitious reporting was needed to tell the story using the tools of television," said Geimann. "In the final evaluations, the jury punished ABC News with a financial penalty that just doesn't fit the offense. This is a dangerous precedent that must be challenged and reversed." Geimann also noted that sometimes traditional methods of gathering the news won't get the full story, a point the Ethics Code addresses. By the end of August, a judge had reduced substantially the award to Food Lion. …

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