Journalists & Sources Should Not Fear Each Other, Says Former SPJ Prez Fred Brown

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Fred Brown, pictured above, oversaw the revision for the SPJ's ethics book. (Credit: 9News)

Last year, the Society of Professional Journalists publicly “denounced” ABC, NBC, CNN and CBS for paying sources — or, as journalists refer to it , checkbook journalism.

Examples of checkbook journalism cases and other ethical decisions faced by journalists are featured in the latest revision of the SPJ’s book on journalism ethics.

Fred Brown, a former SPJ president who oversaw the book’s fourth and most recent revision, explained to iMediaEthics by phone that the changes to the book contains 26 new case studies, including those of checkbook journalism, an ethical issue that he described as “more current” and relevant for issues journalists encounter.

Checkbook journalism issues have come up as recently as this week, as it was revealed that ABC News had agreed to pay $10,000 for “licensing” related to an interview and segment on Sheena Upton, the mother who recently called her earlier admissions of giving her daughter Botox a hoax.

Another issue brought up in the book reminds journalists of their responsibilities to sources. Journalists are reminded not to grant source confidentiality unless they are willing to deal with the “legal consequences.”  iMediaEthics asked Brown if there are other rights journalists think they have, but actually don’t.

“There are a lot of things that journalists assume that they should not assume,” Brown said.  “One of them is that there’s this almost sacred right to protect your sources, whereas, you know, that could really get you into trouble.”

Besides source confidentiality — which isn’t guaranteed in law federally, just in some states, Brown recommended journalists should be open with sources about what the focus of stories are – even if it’s not legally required.

“When you think about it, if you tell them what you’re after, you’re more likely to get their cooperation than if you go into this super-defensive mode,” Brown explained. “That’s one of the lessons that I hope you get from this book: You need to respect your sources, and they need to respect you. They shouldn’t fear you, and you shouldn’t fear them.”

Q & A with Fred Brown, former SPJ President who led book revision

iMediaEthics:  What’s different in this book from previous editions?

Fred Brown“It’s more organized around the SPJ code of ethics than the previous editions were. This one is more directly tied to each of the main sections of the code and also it’s got a new section on the differences between law and ethics so that it could be used in courses where both of those is taught.  Also, it has a new method for working your way through an ethical problem.

“Also, there’s a discussion at the end about how the code of ethics applied to different modes of communication, and not just mainstream media.”

Brown noted that this edition of the book features an index to make it easier for journalists to find different ethics topics.

iME:  Who’s the audience for this book?

FB: “[The book] started out more as a handbook for working journalists and then gradually it evolved into more of a textbook.  But, it still can be used as something on a city editor’s desk to look for ethical situations similar to ones at the newspaper.

“It could be a guidebook, it could be a textbook, or it could just be something people can read who are in the business of communicating that shows that maybe the ethical problems they’re facing aren’t all that unique and there have been others facing them before and this is how they addressed them.  And we’re not saying that every one of these ethics cases..the people did the right thing.”

“There are cases where reasonable people can disagree with the actions that are taken in real life but the idea is just to get people thinking about these issues and talking about them and having a thorough discussion that arrives at a decision that they can defend.”

iME:  How was it decided which case studies to include or add in this edition?

FB:  “There was a lot of stuff that happened in the last couple of years, issues that came before the SPJ ethics committee such as checkbook journalism. That was a big deal…when NBC was paying to bring people back from Brazil and ABC was paying for home movies of Caylee Anthony…in any event the whole idea of paying for news we felt was something that was really very current, so we put a couple of case studies in about that.”

Brown said that 26 of the case studies are new, and the remaining 24 come from previous editions.  He explained that in this edition any case studies that weren’t as relevant, such as sports columnists writing critically about sports teams, were cut from the book.

Also, the SPJ is adding some cases online on its website, “so that as new situations arise, people who have the book can actually go online and check out new stuff that’s not in the book right now.”

iME:  In the conflict of interest section, it’s mentioned that it’s harder sometimes in smaller cities and towns because reporters know sources or have personal relationships. What’s the best remedy for those journalists who may have competing loyalties?

FB:  “The same standard of proving yourself through what you do applies more in small communities. If you’re going to be a small-town editor, you cannot totally remove yourself from the community. It’s impossible. It’s not a desirable thing to do, either. But, it requires that you be as absolutely fair as possible and that you explain yourself and that your friends, who are inevitably going to be from time to time in the news, [know] that you’re doing what you need to do … and it may from time to time cause them discomfort.”

iME:  Privacy issues are a hot ethical issue this week — what ethical issues do you see as being big right now?

FB:  The whole Schwarzenegger thing: It’s a privacy issue…How much privacy do they deserve? What’s the relevance of this story now since he’s no longer governor? That’s a question people have to talk about.  There’s too much emphasis right now on celebrity news in journalism and not enough on relevant news.”

“The lesson I hope people get is that if you’re going to compete as a serious provider of information in an environment where there are so many people just not committed to high standards and who are determined to get as much information out as possible without really checking it out, then you really need to adopt some principles like the principles set forth in this book. Eventually you’ve gotta hope that the public will understand that some sources of information are more reliably than others and the ones that are reliable are the ones that have standards.”

iME: Is there any main thing you want readers to take away from the book?

FB:  “The main takeaway is that the most important thing about answering an ethical dilemma is to ask the right questions. And, in order to ask the right questions you need to talk it over with as many people as you can who have a stake in the outcome or who can provide relevant information. So, discussion and asking the right questions I think are the main takeaways.”


spj book

The Society of Professional Journalists’ recently revised book.

Book’s History

Much of the book was originally written by University of South Florida professor emeritus Jay Black, Poynter’s Bob Steele and Brigham Young University professor emeritus Ralph Barney, but “more than half” of the case studies are products of the revision.

The updated book, Journalism Ethics: A Casebook of Professional Conduct for News Media, features fifty journalism case studies, accuracy checklists, ethics codes for various journalism organizations, and more.

The Book

The SPJ’s ethics code is often cited in journalism ethics writing, but the SPJ noted that its “four principles” aren’t “fault’ standards” to be used in a court room against journalists but instead “proactive models for clear thinking.” (33)

Adherence to the code is voluntary and violators can’t be punished by the SPJ. As the book explains, the SPJ used to call on journalists “to ‘actively censure’ code violators,” but removed that clause from its code in the late 1980s. “In its place, the society promoted a strong education program that stressed ethics and encouraged journalists to adhere to the code’s honorable ideals.” (31)

According to the book, “the best way to arrive at an ethical decision is to ask the right questions.” (3)  Also, the society stated that “‘Bad’ journalism occurs when we do a lousy job of truth-telling and when sources or subjects are harmed for no good reason.” (35)

After a “brief history” of media ethics, an introduction into moral theory and definitions for various ethics terminology, the book dives into case studies of various controversial or significant ethics issues.

From a newspaper’s decision to publish a cartoon of Mohammad to celebrity reporting and “when is it time to say enough,” the book is heavy on examples of journalism ethics decisions and issues.  Case studies also cover editorial independence, Photoshop, and the fabrication scandals of Jack Kelley and Jayson Blair.

The book also includes a source-reporter relationship list of advice (226) including “do not abuse naive news sources, and don’t be abused by sophisticated ones.”


Reporting on Sex Abuse

One interesting case study featured discusses reporting on sexual abuse crimes, which the SPJ called “one of the most sensitive topics to report.” (113)

In that case, small-town Minnesota newspaper The Wabasha County Herald reported on a man convicted of incest with his daughter.  The now-defunct Minnesota News Council agreed with the daughter-victim that “the newspaper’s report was insensitive” in its 1995 case. The newspaper didn’t contact the daughter in advance of its story.

With that case study, the SPJ included a “check list for evaluating sensitive issues” (114-115) featuring questions such as whether the report both is accurate and needs to be published.  One way the SPJ advised to determine if the newspaper should run a sensitive story included substituting editors’ names in the headline to see if newspaper staff would find the story inappropriate.


Conflicts of Interest

The SPJ advises, as does its ethics code, to “disclose unavoidable conflicts.”  While that disclosure doesn’t fix the issue, it does “help with maintaining the trust of the audience,” in the society’s view.  The book noted that journalists in small towns “face particularly difficult challenges” since the odds are greater that they will have personal relationships with sources or subjects of reporting. (145)

Several case studies related to conflict of interest discussions included embedded reporters and their ability to maintain journalistic independence, a Pennsylvania reporter’s role as co-grand marshal of a gay pride parade despite the newspaper’s banning of participation in “public demonstrations in favor of or opposed to a cause,” CNN reporters in the late 1990s appearing in commercials and movies, and ABC’s shelling out big bucks for Casey Anthony’s tapes.

The society stated “it is the responsibility of each journalist to reveal these conflicts” in stories if the conflict is unavoidable.  Further, “If disclosure is embarrassing to you or your news operation, that should send a clear message that you are treading on shifting ground,” according to the SPJ. (287).


Privacy Issues

The SPJ also included a few case studies on the issue of privacy as well as a “privacy checklist” for journalists. Among the points on that list, the SPJ recommended asking if the big picture is more important than the small, privacy-invasive aspect.  Also, is the private information in the public interest or just interesting to the public?

Case studies in this section include that of Arthur Ashe, whose “outing” by USA Today is identified by the SPJ as “one of the earliest, and most notorious, cases of media naming a prominent person living with AIDS.” Ashe, a former tennis player, held a news conference in the 1990s to pre-empt USA Today’s digging into his privacy to find out if he had AIDS.

The SPJ also included a case study questioning the reporting on suicides and the media’s invasive reporting on Richard Jewell, who found the bomb at the 1996 Olympics in Atlanta, Georgia, and was convicted by the press for 88 days for having a role in the bombing, despite his innocence. (See some of iMediaEthics’ reports on suicide reporting here, here, and here.)


 “Minimize Harm”

The section of the SPJ code of ethics labeled “Minimize Harm” calls on journalists to be sensitive, compassionate and tasteful in reporting.  It also expects journalists to be respectful of privacy and careful in reporting about criminal suspects and victims.

In helping journalists understand where that fine line between careful reporting and invasive, inappropriate reporting, the SPJ included a “fairness checklist,” asking about context, justification and relevance, and case studies like one questioning the publication of mugshots of drunken drivers.

As the SPJ’s thirteenth case study explained, Kentucky newspaper the Anderson News warned readers in late 1997 it would start publishing photos of anyone convicted of driving drunk in the newspaper’s county effective with the new year.

The newspaper’s publisher/editor, Don White, wrote at the time that he had “hope” that publishing photos would discourage people from driving drunk. But, the SPJ’s case study questioned if the effort truly minimized harm.  Suggesting that it may have for the community as a whole by trying to keep people from driving drunk, “on the other hand, the policy did not minimize harm to those convicted” or their families, the SPJ noted.

And, the practice required the newspaper to be dependent on the county’s jailer for photos and accurate information, the SPJ added, questioning journalism independence.

Photojournalism Ethics

In the “photojournalism” section of the book, the SPJ noted that numerous ethical issues come into play with photography and videography.  Issues include image distortion, privacy invasion, appropriateness, contextualization, graphicness, and more.

The society also included guidelines regarding obscenity or graphic images from various news organizations including Reuters, the Denver Post, the Washington Post and others.

Other Highlights

Because the U.S. Supreme Court hasn’t established a national shield law, (a cause for which the SPJ advocates), the SPJ advised journalists not to grant source confidentiality unless they are willing to deal with the “legal consequences.”

“Accuracy is more important than independence.” (51).

The SPJ argued that “journalists do their job by taking power  from groups bent on retaining or accumulating it. they then redistribute power to the public by disseminating information.” (27)

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Journalists & Sources Should Not Fear Each Other, Says Former SPJ Prez Fred Brown

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