Magazine article The Quill

Ethics: It's All That Matters

Magazine article The Quill

Ethics: It's All That Matters

Article excerpt

I REMEMBER VIVIDLY a conversation I had about 10 years ago with Patrick Lee Plaisance, a former journalist and current media ethics scholar at Colorado State University. I asked him why he chose to focus his teaching and research - his life's work - on ethics.

He looked at me surprised, like it was the dumbest question he had ever heard, and he replied: "It's all that matters."

Well, I thought, that's a pretty bold statement. What about effective information gathering? What about accuracy, clear writing, amazing video/multimedia, database analysis, fighting for open government, or telling compelling stories?

But, I later realized, he's right.

If the best journalists in the world lack credibility then they are nothing. All we have is our credibility. We aren't granted "journalist" status by earning a certain college degree or being issued a government license. We earn it by reporting responsibly.

That is why SPJ considers ethics one of its cornerstone missions, and why this year we are taking a close look at the SPJ Code of Ethics, with a potential update this fall. In this issue of Quill you can read members of the Ethics Committee describing a draft update of the Code. You can also read Monica Guzman's discussion of personal ethics in a digital age, as well other articles about ethical issues.

Great stuff, but a code is not enough.


During our discussions this year, I think we need to remember that codes are just roadmaps for reaching an ethically sound destination. The real work is behind the wheel.

We have more journalism codes of ethics than we know what to do with. It seems like every journalism organization and most newsrooms now have their own codes. The American Society of News Editors website lists dozens of codes (see

The standard code since 1926 was produced by ASNE. Then SPJ created its own version in 1973, updating it in 1984,1987 and 1996. Every month the SPJ Code of Ethics page gets about 17,300 page views, more than any other page on the SPJ website.

But we need to step back and look at the big picture. It's too easy to focus on specific wording of a "code." For example, I imagine one debate that will emerge this year is whether we include words and platforms like "social media" or "Twitter" in the code, or will it be outdated within three years? Codes are useful, but they also can distract us from core principles that have guided humans for thousands of years.

At their worst, codes, if used simplistically and without thought, can be crutches - a way for someone to cherry pick a line to justify a gut call. …

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