Public Journalism Undermines SPJ Ethics

By Corrigan, Don | St. Louis Journalism Review, December 1998 | Go to article overview

Public Journalism Undermines SPJ Ethics


Corrigan, Don, St. Louis Journalism Review


Tenets of public journalism nave found their way into the revised ethics code of the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ), and this does not bode well for the future of the profession.

A growing concern about public journalism's influence was part of a study of the the revised SPJ ethics code presented at the November conference of the Associated Collegiate Press (ACP) in Kansas City. The SPJ code has traditionally been one of the most widely adopted guidelines for both professional and collegiate journalism.

In his analysis, Professor William Lawbaugh of Mount St. Mary's College said that the old SPJ codes of 1984 and 1987 are superior to the revised code of September 1996. Lawbaugh blamed public journalism and political correctness for what he called an erosion of some basic standards for journalism.

"For example, the revised code states that journalists have an obligation to support the open exchange of ideas, even views they find repugnant," noted Lawbaugh. "This stems from the civic journalism ideas of holding forums and letting the man in the street hold forth.

"A newspaper has an obligation to present readers with legitimate ideas, not repugnant ideas," continued Lawbaugh. "A lot of man-in-the-street views are not worth printing. A newspaper should have the courage to lead the citizenry, not kow-tow to what citizens say on the street or to print what they say in focus groups."

Lawbaugh said he is most disturbed by how the word "public" is used in the revised code. He noted that in the preamble of the old code, the very first sentence emphasizes that "the duty of the journalist is to serve the truth." Lawbaugh said that first sentence should not have been tampered with.

"The revised code's preamble starts off with 'public enlightenment' and also emphasizes that 'conscientious journalists strive to serve the public.' I'd like to see 'truth' back in first sentence as the first obligation," said Lawbaugh. "Serving the public can mean anything. The Nazis talked about serving the public and the Soviets upped the factory quotas for their workers for the good of the public.

"I'm not equating the writers of the SPJ code with Communists," added Lawbaugh. "I'm simply saying that journalists are wordsmiths, and we can do better. We shouldn't go mushy on the truth."

Accountability

Lawbaugh told students at the ACP convention in Kansas City that it's not just the changes in the preamble of the SPJ code that are problematic. He said he is most disturbed by changes in ethical guidelines found under the headings "Act Independently" and "Be Accountable."

According to Lawbaugh, the old code stressed that "truth is our ultimate goal" and that journalists are accountable to the truth. But the revised code now states that "journalists are accountable to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other."

"I find all this language about being accountable to readers, listeners and viewers to be very disturbing," said Lawbaugh. "Where is the truth? There are times when a journalist has to present the truth even if it does offend the readers the listeners and the viewers. Ultimately the public is going to lose respect for journalism if it simply follows public opinion."

Lawbaugh again cites public journalism as the culprit in SPJ ethics code changes that have dropped the emphasis on terms like "objectivity" and "accuracy" in favor of concern for readers, listeners and viewers.

The Maryland professor said the SPJ ethics code section on the need to act independently and to be wary of conflict-of-interest also has been watered down to accommodate various public journalism ideas and projects.

Advocates of public journalism insist that in traditional reporting too much emphasis in the past has been put on "the proper separations, rather than the proper connections" in bringing information to a community. …

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