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Public journalism undermines SPJ ethics.

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."


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. The new connections can involve collaborative projects in which journalists join with civic groups and local leadership to find solutions that will "make public life go well."

These collaborative public journalism projects are often funded by sources outside the cooperating news media organization. Reports on the results of these collaborative projects can involve journalists traveling and participating in seminars, again with funding from sources outside the news media organization.

The public journalism movement runs into problems when the "proper separations" are emphasized as ethical absolutes, according to Lawbaugh. He noted the new flexibility in the SPJ's revised code wording: "Journalists should: refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity."

"I'm a believer in absolutes, that there is a knowable right and wrong. That's why I find the old code more useful," said Lawbaugh. "For example, the old code said, 'Nothing of value should be accepted.' Period.

"Now there is that 'if.' According to the revised code, loss of independence or taking things of value are only a problem if they compromise journalistic integrity. That big 'if' leaves things pretty wishy-washy."

Acting independently

John Schmitt, a professor in the journalism department at Indiana University Southeast in New Albany, spoke up in agreement with Lawbaugh at the collegiate press conference in Kansas City. Schmitt said his own experience as a reporter on a public journalism project at the daily Palladium-Item in Richmond, Indiana, convinced him that cooperative projects can compromise journalistic integrity.

Schmitt was involved in Project Partnership for Youth and reported for a story series entitled, "The Growing Challenge," during the summer of 1995. Part of Schmitt's reporting assignment was to focus on the problem of teen pregnancy and to find solutions for it.

"I interviewed a very articulate 13-year-old who said that any girl who was afraid of getting pregnant ought to get herself down to Planned Parenthood to get some help," Schmitt told SJR. "When my copy got to the editor, her quotes were cut out. I got angry about it. I was told the paper didn't want to aggravate some partners in the project.

"We couldn't report the stuff that we should have, because we were in partnership with different groups who were ready to fire on us for anything that might be an affront to them," added Schmitt. Among the issues that were downplayed or not reported: the lack of youth activities in Richmond; the absence of summer camps; the lack of a health clinic infrastructure to address youth problems.

"At one point, an editor and I were lectured by the mayor about how Richmond knew how to run itself without our help," said Schmitt. "The editor told me to ignore the lecture and to just keep on doing what I was doing. But it became a farce. I noticed that everything that could be controversial was getting cut from the stories."

The lesson Schmitt has taken away from his own public journalism experience: When a news organization becomes part of the process instead of just covering the process, it makes itself part of the problem. Schmitt said any ethics code for news organizations should be clear and uncompromising about the need to act independently.

Don Corrigan is a professor in the School of Communications at Webster University and he also edits two weekly newspapers.
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Title Annotation:Society of Professional Journalists
Author:Corrigan, Don
Publication:St. Louis Journalism Review
Date:Dec 1, 1998
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