behind the news

Exploring ethics through journalism hotlines

How news associations are keeping up with changing principles
September 18, 2014

Media ethics are always a hot-button issue in journalism, but there’s reason to pay particular attention at the moment, as new initiatives are stirring up old ways of thinking.

The Society for Professional Journalists just revised its code of ethics for the first time in 18 years for the digital age, and the Online News Association is crowdsourcing a project that allows journalists to build individual codes of ethics on the premise that one standardized code can no longer represent everyone.

Lodged in between these contrasting initiatives is a question about whether more standardized ethics codes have become stale in a fast-paced media environment where the working conditions for journalists are ever-changing. Or, do they in fact represent much-needed, objective fix points in a fluid world where far too much is already relative and individual?

Part of the answer may lie in the practicalities of when and how journalists interact with such codes in a busy everyday life of quick judgement calls. One longstanding data set in that arena is a couple of journalism ethics hotlines which, for more than a decade, have both been informal gauges of the issues roiling the journalism community.

Beyond overcaffeinated editors, dedicated ethics hotlines are another resource at the disposal of journalists facing delicate decisions. There are at least two in existence at the moment, one run by the Society of Professional Journalists, and the other run by the society’s Chicago Headline Club chapter. Both offer guidance based on the SPJ’s code of ethics.

Though the hotlines don’t seem to be widely known in the journalism community—something both are striving to change—they receive enough calls to provide an auditory window into some of the dilemmas that journalists face in their working life.

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“Conflicts of interest continue to be about half of our questions, but there are also questions like, ‘How much can you take from the internet? When is it plagiarism?’” says Casey Bukro, journalism lecturer and SPJ ethics committee member, who advises callers to the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, run by the Chicago Headline Club chapter of SPJ in partnership with Medill since 2001.

At the SPJ, the issues raised over its 14-year-old Ethics Hotline helped inform the changes made to the society’s Code of Ethics, just revised for the first time since 1996. An 18-member committee worked for about a year on the revised version, published on September 6, and now addressing issues relevant to the digital media world, though some critics said the updated guidance isn’t specific enough.

Steve Buttry, visiting scholar at the Manship School of Mass Communication, wrote on his blog that the code fails to guide journalists in a “time of change.” Poynter. org questioned the code at a more existential level and asked SPJ’s former ethics chairman, Kevin Smith, if ethics codes even matter anymore (Smith said they do).

Meanwhile, the Online News Association is developing a crowdsourced Build Your Own Ethics Code project, conceived by the association’s new News Ethics Committee this spring. The rationale behind the project is that, when it comes to ethics codes, “one size does not fit all.” In an interview with CJR in March, ONA Executive Director Jane McDonnell said that the old format of an ethics code handed down by a corporate media entity is no longer possible to follow in a multi-faceted industry where media genres, organizations, and individuals come in many different shapes.

Andrew Seaman, the new chairman of SPJ’s ethics committee, believes his organization’s revised code does fit the modern world of online journalism.

“The revised code will give us more support and guidance in terms of problems journalists are facing now,” Seaman says, like how to deal with online commenting.

“A lot of journalists are uncomfortable with the nature of comments. The fact that many are rude, not to the point, about sharply divided politics,” says Fred Brown, a long-time advisor on SPJ’s hotline, who now goes by the nickname “Ethical Fred.” Brown says journalists call the hotline because they are concerned about their paper’s policy on comments or are unsure of how to respond to them.

Checkbook journalism has become an increasing concern, too, Brown says. “I would say there are more questions about advertisers and sponsored content and where to draw the line.”

Then there is the issue of journalists having affairs with sources. And journalists who want to run for office and are wondering if this poses an ethical problem (it usually does, says Brown). Add to that a good number of calls from members of the public who call to complain about the general untrustworthiness of the media, or students looking for quotes.

Many callers are freelancers, Brown says. “They are probably more frequent [callers to] the hotline because they don’t have anyone supervising them.”

SPJ’s hotline tends to get less than 10 calls a week; the AdviceLine only gets around one call every few weeks at the moment, and has had a total of 900 calls since 2001. Most callers are more seasoned reporters, as the industry’s generational shift has caused a decline in callers since the AdviceLine started. “We have lost a lot of the people who know about us. You have to be around for a while to learn about us,”  says Bukro, adding, “Young people don’t want to rock the boat. They’re trying to protect their jobs.”

Bukro doesn’t believe that the concept of a hotline has lost its relevance, though, and is exploring ways of raising awareness about the AdviceLine. “This is not a high-volume business; it’s not as if every journalist has a screaming dilemma,” he says. “But we know there are people out there with dilemmas.” Seaman too hopes that the SPJ hotline will become more widely known with the adoption of the new code.

Both hotlines always advise according to SPJ’s code of ethics and refer callers to the code for self-help. This might suggest that the hotlines only prove the ongoing relevance of traditional codes of ethics. But in fact they seem to simultaneously support the relevance of individual codes—callers have usually formed their own opinions before calling the hotline to check if it matches with what those manning the hotline suggest.

“We are talking about journalists, people who are smart and usually know what the answer should be but are looking for more refinement on the answer and an informed opinion, not just for someone to agree,” says Bukro.

Other journalism societies recognize a need to discuss dilemmas with peers too, one example being the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors’ internal hotline, where members ask questions and debate ethics in an online forum.

While the questions asked over the hotline reflect the problems of an industry in flux, the answers adhere to a system—one that, with ONA’s new initiative, may or may not still be the most relevant way to address media ethics in the future. And if not, ethics hotlines may be rendered obsolete.

In any case, as Thomas Kent, leader of the ONA’s crowdsourcing initiative, states, “With so many definitions these days of ‘who’s a journalist,’ it’s more important than ever for journalists to be clear about who they are and what they stand for.”

Lene Bech Sillesen is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow her on Twitter at @LeneBechS.