Conversing about Ethics in the Newsroom

By Henkel, Abby | The Quill, March/April 2012 | Go to article overview
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Conversing about Ethics in the Newsroom


Henkel, Abby, The Quill


"People think of the Code of Ethics abstractly, like it doesn't matter. As a manager and an editor, it was so important to me. At the NewsPress, it was such a central thing. To have ethics codified was central to getting through the experience. It wasn't just my opinion - there was something real there."

- JERRY ROBERTS

For some people, a code of ethics is a nice reminder of how to behave. For others, it's a lifeline.

Jerry Roberts first became interested in professional ethics in the mid-1990s, when he says the American Society of News Editors, National Newspaper Association and other organizations began to emphasize establishing and bolstering the public's trust in newspapers. As managing editor of the San Francisco Chronicle, Roberts facilitated the process of developing the paper's own code of ethics, inspired in part by the times when a situation would arise in the newsroom for which he and his colleagues didn't have answers.

He recalls learning some lessons the hard way. The Chronicle was reporting on a trial for a girl's kidnapping and murder. As the conviction was announced, the murderer turned around and gave photographers both middle fingers. Roberts' paper published the photo and, Roberts remembers, "just got clobbered by the readers who thought it was completely in bad taste."

The San Jose Mercury News did not publish the photo, but instead shared a note from the executive editor explaining their decision and acknowledging that readers would likely find the photo offensive. From this incident, Roberts learned that to build credibility, one of the most important things a paper can do is simply to communicate directly with readers. When an ethical question arises in the newsroom, he advises that "the main thing is to have the conversation," discussing the issues and the potential conflict.

When Roberts joined the staff of the Santa Barbara News-Press in 2003, one of his first moves was to distribute the SPJ Code of Ethics to staff. Together they held ethics sessions and worked on case studies. When a reporter was facing a difficult issue with a story, people would get together and consult the Code.

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