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Revisiting journalism ethics

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This time each year, about 1,000 journalists get together to discuss journalism ethics. Yes, journalism ethics.

As humorous as that may sound to some, these news gatherers—attendees of the Society of Professional Journalists' annual national conference—are serious. SPJ, the nation's largest journalism-advocacy organization, is the guardian of an ethics code widely considered the news industry's gold standard. The code is a guide aimed at helping journalists practice their trade ethically and responsibly. Those who honor it do so voluntarily. They believe trust in journalism starts with journalists' commitment to ethical news production, which is, above all, accurate, fair and independent of special interests.

The society doesn't conduct hearings about code violations, much less issue sanctions. Its leaders believe everyone is qualified to interpret the code—not just journalists. It was in the spirit of educating the public and helping journalists make more ethical decisions that SPJ's top ethicists—a committee composed of members representing a variety of media, journalism specialties and experience levels—reviewed ethical lapses that occurred since September 2006 and stirred some of the most passionate debate within the industry.

The committee grouped lapses into larger categories in which journalists appear to have had the most trouble. For the first time, the committee is publicizing its findings. The categories, supported by specific examples, are listed here in no particular order and may be viewed fully at spj.org/ethics.

Political activism: A commendable MSNBC.com investigation revealed that at least 140 journalists contributed to political parties, movements or candidates. SPJ's ethics code states that journalists should "remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility." The code also encourages journalists to shun "... political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity."

Journalist/source relationships: Journalists must maintain a healthy distance from people they cover. A former Telemundo anchorwoman reported about Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa's marital difficulties without mentioning that she was dating him. Getting too close to sources sorely compromises a journalist's ability to "act independently," as SPJ's code instructs.

Plagiarism: It's unclear whether the number of violations of this fundamental of responsible journalism is on the rise—or if technology is making plagiarism easier to find. In a video segment on her blog, CBS News anchor Katie Couric read an essay after it was ripped off from The Wall Street Journal. A CBS producer wrote the item for Couric, who read the piece as if sharing her personal thoughts. That's worth questioning, too.

News/advertising relationships: Times are tough economically for the news industry, and many organizations are responding with problematic news-advertising hybrids. For example, the Philadelphia Inquirer runs a business column under a Citizens Bank label. Though the paper says the bank won't have a say in the column's content, the appearance suggests otherwise.  "Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived," the code states.

Fairness: Last year, SPJ awarded several journalists at the Santa Barbara News-Press an ethics award for resigning in protest of co-publisher Wendy McCaw's influence on news content. That battle reached a new low when the newspaper ran an unsigned front-page story implying that the paper's former editor downloaded child pornography on his office computer. The story fell far short of an airtight case and appeared to be bent on attacking the former editor more than serving readers with truth.

Photo manipulation: After the shootings at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, news organizations may have thought they were doing the right thing by altering photos that appeared to show a wounded student's genitals. They weren't. The image organizations edited out was actually a tourniquet. Photographs should be respected as a form of truth. "Never distort the content of news photos or video," the code instructs.

The blur of news and entertainment: NBC's "To Catch a Predator" series is fraught with ethical problems, such as the hiring of a crusading nonprofit group to set up stings. "Avoid ... staged news events," the code states. It also urges journalists to "deny favored treatment to ... special interests and resist their pressure to influence news coverage."

While these problem areas are cause for concern, they are, thankfully, exceptions to the rule. Thousands of journalists make ethics a top concern, and we commend them.

Christine Tatum is national president of the Society of Professional Journalists and an assistant features editor at The Denver Post.