Thursday, April 24, 2014

Journalism ethics: A Chicago minority report

SPJ's Chicago regional ethics conference, before the the career breakouts.

Midwest journalists met in Chicago to discuss their code of ethics, and immediately got bogged down in the generalities.

Truth to tell, mention ethics on a bright spring afternoon and people start drifting away. Students cleared the room when job-hunting sessions started. But after live-blogging professional sessions at the Society of Professional Journalists regional conference, I caught up on efforts to revise the SPJ ethics code.

The conference produced a Chicago ethics report. Here's my slant. You decide if it's ethical reporting.

Chicagoans have a fascination with ethics, or their public absence. Chicago reporters have elbowed their way into standards-and-practices discussions for years. Casey Bukro was in the room April 12; he drafted the society's 1973 code revisions. For this session, he brought business ethicists from his Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists. (SPJ has its own hotline, staffed by journalists).

Film critic Dann Gire once led Roger Ebert and other opinionated peers to draft a reviewers' code. Gire's charge here was to walk through SPJ's first attempt at ethics revisions since 1996.

My first question; What needs changing? Gire seemed at a loss. The committee issued its draft by noting but not resolving a struggle among its 18 committee members to define the scope: "How much should we change? Shorter? Longer? More specific? More general? Keep, change or add to the guiding principles? What’s missing as we march into 2014 and beyond?"

So many questions, so few answers. Despite the lack of clarity, a subgroup emerged to address standards for digital media, and the committee called for this regional review. Journalists will vote on a final draft at SPJ's September convention in Nashville.

Casey Bukro, Dann Gire and Howard Dubin form an impromptu hallway subcommittee.

In Chicago, the conflicting goals surfaced immediately. Battling the forces of death by committee, Gire attacked the preamble like a copy editor: He recommended a wire-service lede: "Justice and good government require an informed public."

True, but sounds like a job for politicians and police. Giving the news, on the other hand, simply obligates the delivery to be truthful and open. That's true for an over-the-fence conversation among neighbors, a blogger's screed or the reporter's first rough draft of history. It's a better reason to spell out those obligations, whether they benefit journalists, the wider world of "content providers," or an audience curious about how the process works and whom to trust.

The codified project management standards fill a book. The Online News Association is working on a wiki with more room for debate. SPJ codes seem to have an unwritten goal: they all fit an 8½-by-11 page tacked to the newsroom bulletin board. That might not be enough help for the blogger that aspires to professionalism, but I'll accept it as a deliverable. We write journalism ethics textbooks too, just not by committee.

Gire asked if journalists can critique events yet report on them objectively. That's a slope we've been scaling for decades, ever since the "he said, she said" reporting model started coming up short. I'm drawn to complex issues that demand critical thinking skills, from both reporters and their audience. Like business leaders, readers can rely on factual, measurable and observable analysis. Journalists need to follow these objective standards, and consumers need to know what makes them trustworthy.

Enforcement is always where these efforts founder. Why have standards if you can't support them? Well, you have to start somewhere, even if just to court public opinion. Loyola philosophy professor Hugh Miller gave a reasonable starting point: Journalists should pledge to back one another in their professional activities and advocate for ethical practice worldwide. Bukro saw the idea as an inadvertent throwback. A fraternal pledge is still lodged in SPJ's initiation.

As it turns out, the revisions for digital practice are minimal. Practitioners have worked them out by following the code's general principles: Seek truth and report it. Minimize harm. Act independently. Be accountable. Tweetable words to live by.

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