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SPJ ETHICS CHAIR: AS THE ELECTION MARCHES FORWARD, DON’T BE LED ASTRAY BY A BAD MEDIA DIET Compared to the United States press from the 19th or early 20th Centuries, the modern mainstream press strives much more to be objective. So why do today’s Americans view a largely responsible press as biased and not trustworthy? The answer, says SPJ Ethics Committee Chair Andrew Seaman, is likely a combination of factors.

SPJ Ethics Chair, Andrew Seaman At its core, journalism’s purpose is to give people the most accurate information about their neighborhood, community, region and world. By knowing that information, people can then make sound decisions in their daily lives, including in voting booths. The landscape of the U.S. press changed dramatically over the past two decades, however. Instead of a handful of large media organizations dominating journalism, the internet allowed anyone to start a blog or news website. This expansion of the press also paralleled another change. Trust in the U.S. mass media fell from a high of 55 percent in 1999 to 40 percent in 2015, according to Gallup. There is no way to say for certain why trust in the mass media eroded so quickly. No evidence suggests the U.S. press is less accurate, more biased or more partisan than before the internet became ubiquitous.

Compared to the U.S. press from the 19th or early 20th Centuries, the modern mainstream press strives much more to be objective. “Publishers founded newspapers to attack political rivals,” wrote Ken Paulson, who is president of the First Amendment Center, in 2010. “There was no pretense at balance. Yet even when the press was irresponsible and one-sided, the first generation of Americans demanded freedom of the press, understanding even an unfair watchdog would help curb corruption.” Why do today’s Americans view a largely responsible press as biased and not trustworthy? The answer is likely a combination of several factors, including that media literacy in the U.S. did not keep pace with the expansion of the media. Some of the greatest supporters of media literacy were large media organizations. Usually those efforts were targeted at young people. Companies provided free newspapers to teachers and students as 1

educational tools. News organizations also often sponsored contests that rewarded students for watching or listening to the local news. The results were citizens who knew how to engage with mass media, but that fell apart as the media business became less profitable and those programs were cut. When people are being bombarded by media, it’s easier for people to discredit everything as biased or partisan when they don’t have the tools to decipher between accurate and inaccurate information. As the 2016 U.S. presidential election marches forward, it’s important to remember some tips and tricks that can help people make sure they’re not being led astray by a bad media diet. 1.) People should have a large and diverse diet of mass media. Instead of only watching one news channel or reading one newspaper, people should make an effort to consume news from a variety of sources. For example, people who traditionally only read the New York Times should also read the Wall Street Journal or Washington Post from time to time, too. People should also “like” and/or “follow” a variety of different news sources on social media. 2.) People should be engaged in the news by feeling free to email or call journalists with unanswered questions. An ethical journalist

has nothing to hide, and should be able to answer general questions about their reporting and stories. Of course, readers, viewers and listeners should be courteous and civil. Also, people can write letters to their editor to make their own voices heard. 3.) People should keep an open mind. News stories will not always agree with a person’s preconceived opinions. Sometimes news stories will not show a person’s preferred candidate or organization in a pleasing light, and that does not mean the story is inherently incorrect, unethical or biased. 4.) People should be skeptical of news and information that does not follow accepted best practices. For example, the Society of Professional Journalists promotes the use of its Code of Ethics to encourage responsible journalism. No news story will meet every point listed in the Society’s Code of Ethics, but each story should strive to fulfill its spirit. A healthy media diet filled with diverse sources of news can guarantee that people will be armed with the most accurate information when they’re buying a car or electing a president. In both cases, making decisions with bad information can be costly. Seaman is chair of the SPJ Ethics Committee and senior medical journalist for Reuters.



Not sure the story you just read about your favorite presidential candidate is true? Want to be armed with facts at your next family gathering so you can set Uncle John straight on what your candidate stands for? Or do you simply enjoy making sure the sources you receive your information from are accurate and ethical?

FACTCHECK: POLITIFACT: WASHINGTON POST FACT CHECKER: NEW YORK TIMES FACT CHECKER: interactive/2016/us/elections/fact-check.html SNOPES: NYT: What to Know About the Presidential Race Today: election-2016.html


SHOULD JOURNALISTS GET INVOLVED IN POLITICS? The SPJ Ethics Committee gets a significant number of questions about whether journalists should engage in political activity. The simplest answer is “No.” Don’t do it. Don’t get involved. Don’t contribute money, don’t work in a campaign, don’t lobby, and especially, don’t run for office yourself.

Unfortunately, it’s a bit more nuanced than that. These are the most pertinent parts of the SPJ Code of Ethics: — Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived — Remain free of associations that may compromise integrity or damage credibility While those are the most directly relevant provisions, the following also apply, but in different ways: — Disclose unavoidable conflicts — Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable — Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context — Recognize a special obligation to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open and that government records are open to inspection

Objectivity in today’s superheated political environment may be impossible, but impartiality should still be a reporter’s goal. Even those who are paid to have opinions — columnists, editorial writers, talk show hosts, bloggers (OK, maybe not always paid) — should at least be aware of all relevant points of view. Skeptics of journalistic objectivity are quick to point out that some publishers and owners of news media outlets may not follow the rules they lay down for their employees. A few get more deeply involved, and they may contribute to candidates. Is this ethical? It’s at best a double standard, and a questionable practice. But at the very minimum there should be public disclosure — in their own media — when media magnates get politically involved in this way. Reporters covering politics are at the other end of this spectrum of what may be tolerated. For them, almost no political activity is OK. Some reporters interpret this as meaning it’s off-limits even to register to vote as a Democrat or Republican or third-party


member. Some take it to extremes and even decline to vote in a general election. Those are extreme positions, and unnecessarily prim. The proof of a reporter’s impartiality should be in the performance.

rules. NPR’s code, for instance, says quite bluntly that “NPR journalists may not participate in marches and rallies” concerning issues that NPR covers — which is pretty much everything.

Families and close relationships create another set of ethical dilemmas. If a reporter’s spouse, family member or other relative — or even a close friend — runs for office, the reporter should not be covering the campaign. The same is true if a spouse or relative is working in a campaign. Issues campaigns — public referendums, bonding for public works projects, tax questions, etc. — are less likely to be considered partisan than candidate elections. But even here, a reporter covering a campaign shouldn’t take sides.

Newspapers, in particular, have a longstanding practice of endorsing candidates in competitive political races. Although some readers think these endorsements signal a bias in the publication’s news coverage, SPJ encourages editorial pages to promote thoughtful debate on candidates and politics; letting readers know through endorsements which candidates share the newspaper’s vision is part of that discussion. Part of an editorial page’s responsibility, though, to take every appropriate opportunity to explain the firewall between news and opinion.

For political reporters, yard signs, bumper stickers and even campaign buttons should be considered off-limits. For a broader range of journalists — whether they’re covering politics or not — political activism should be avoided. The editor/publisher of a Denver newspaper once told his employees not to attend a concert whose proceeds were being donated by the band to a candidate for the U.S. Senate. That applied to all employees, from newsroom to mailroom. Many employers’ codes of ethics are much more specific than SPJ’s code about their employees’ involvement in politics. The SPJ code is merely advisory, but a journalist can be fired for violating an employer’s ethical

Reporters are not columnists or editorial writers. SPJ’s recommendation is that reporters not take a position on an issue, or in a candidate race, that they are covering. They may do so privately, but they definitely should not do so in a public or visible way. Ironically, journalism is a profession protected by the same First Amendment that grants to all citizens the right to run for office or to support, by word, deed or cash, the people they would like to see elected. But journalists who want to be perceived as impartial must avoid any display of partisanship



Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity.

The Code of Ethics of the Society of

and SPJ strongly discourages anyone

Professional Journalists is an open

from attempting to use it that way. The

document. The more it’s distributed — and

code’s only check on ethical misdeeds is

used — the better. The code is not

expressed in the final of its four main

intended to be arcane or cryptic. It is not

principles: “Be Accountable.” There,

like a secret handshake intended for use

journalists are told that they should

only by the members of some mystic order.

“expose unethical practices of journalists

If it were, we would put something at the

and the news media.” We believe a free

bottom similar to what is run in television

exchange of ideas — not any sort of

ads for zippy cars: “Professional Driver.

sanction — is the best way of getting at

Closed Course. Do Not Attempt.”

the truth, at who is right and who is wrong.

There is nothing in the code that prevents non-journalists from accessing it and using it. It’s readily available online. Members of the public are free to refer to the code when they want to call attention to what they perceive to be a news medium’s questionable ethics. 
 But this should be made clear: The code is entirely voluntary. It is not a legal document; it has no enforcement provisions or penalties for violations,

 The SPJ code is the “gold standard” of aspirational codes of ethics, and it has been used by many news outlets as the basis for more formal and detailed codes. Employers’ codes of ethics are much more specific, and there are penalties for violating them. Reporters have been fired for plagiarizing, for accepting gifts or for other ethical breaches. An employer can do that; an association of volunteers LIKE SPJ cannot. Many news media make their codes available to all, and they encourage


the public to hold them accountable for the standards expressed in those codes. SPJ applauds that embrace of transparency.
 At the end of the SPJ Code of Ethics, after the actual working principles, is this important explanatory caution: “The code is intended not as a set of ‘rules’ but as a resource for ethical decision-making. It is not — nor can it be under the First Amendment — legally enforceable.”
 The SPJ Code of Ethics, in other words, is available for anyone to see and to refer to. But when it’s quoted, it should be properly attributed — and, we would hope, not taken out of context or misinterpreted. Such questionable uses of the code inevitably will be questioned — that’s the


nature of free expression, and an extension of the principle of accountability. 
 Thousands of responsible, ethical journalists follow the SPJ Code of Ethics and adhere to it. The most important thing to remember is that it’s a set of principles that is open to interpretation and discussion, not a statute or a constitution or a set of regulations. There is nothing about it that can be or should be considered a legal or binding requirement.



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