United States Project

‘Ethics’ bill leaves Georgia journalists on edge

April 8, 2019
The scene from the floor on April 2, the final day of the 2019 Georgia legislative session. Photo by Stephen Fowler.

In the waning hours of Georgia’s legislative session, between votes on sex trafficking and organ procurement, Republican House Representative and lawyer Andy Welch introduced the Ethics in Journalism Act. Co-sponsored by five other Republican lawmakers, the bill would authorize a board to create new ethical standards that govern journalists’ work, and to sanction journalists who violate them.

The Journalism Ethics Board, described in the bill as an “independent body,” would be based at the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism. The University System of Georgia’s chancellor would select nine journalists to appoint the board: three editors, three “news producers,” a retired journalism professor, and two digital journalists.

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While not expressly required to do anything, the board could “promulgate canons of ethics for journalism,” develop a voluntary accreditation process for journalists, and handle Georgia residents’ complaints of ethics violations against journalists working in the state. The bill would also grant interview subjects the right to request any photographs, audio, and video recordings taken by a journalist, ­­free of charge and at any time in the reporting process. Reporters that fail to respond in a timely manner would face civil penalties.

In a written statement, Richard T. Griffiths, a retired CNN vice president and former Grady College fellow who now heads the Georgia First Amendment Foundation, said the bill at first seemed “like an April Fool’s joke.”

“But then it became clear it was an effort to rein in those who have been scrutinizing what’s been happening at the legislature,” Griffiths wrote. “Frankly, this is the kind of proposal one might expect to see surface in a banana republic, not the Peach State.”

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The Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s James Salzer wrote that Welch, the bill’s sponsor, “is setting a higher standard than he and other members of the General Assembly are under.” While the bill would compel journalists to turn over records to interview subjects freely and for free, Georgia’s legislature is exempt from the state’s Open Records Act. Those state agencies that must comply with record requests can charge fees to access public documents, and response times for such requests can run longer than the three days afforded to journalists under Welch’s bill. Once those three days elapse, the bill stipulates, journalists would be penalized $100 per day.

You want the press to be independent. You don’t want them spending all their time going to court or having to foot the enormous cost of providing everything to everyone who’s done an interview.

In February, the Journal-Constitution and Channel 2 Action News reported that House Speaker David Ralston, another lawyer, might have used his status as a lawmaker in order to postpone trials for clients. (“By doing no more than writing letters to judges declaring that court dates interfere with his lawmaking duties,” the investigation noted, “he has been able to keep cases perpetually off the docket.”) Responding to the story—part of a series that led to a legislative change—Ralston railed against the media, claiming reporters get to “tell only part of the story and cloak opinions and erroneous conclusions as factual.” Should the Ethics in Journalism Act pass, a lawmaker such as Ralston could file a complaint to the ethics board and have reporters’ work investigated, essentially for publishing a factually accurate story the subject did not like.

Journal-Constitution investigative reporter Johnny Edwards, who worked on the series of stories about the House speaker, says such a bill is ridiculous and ordinarily wouldn’t have a chance of advancing. However, based on the obstacles he faced from lawmakers and other officials while working on his story and the national climate towards journalism, he says he’s alarmed.

“This bill is absolutely shocking,” he says. “Everyone in the state should perk up right now.”

Georgia lawmakers have not previously sought to regulate journalists. However, in recent years, Republican lawmakers in South Carolina and Indiana have proposed journalist registries in an effort to critique coverage they see as critical of Second Amendment rights.

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Stephen Key, director of the Hoosier State Press Association, calls Indiana lawmaker references to a journalist registry a “publicity move,” and says the bill, which never received a hearing, wasn’t serious. However, he says, lawmakers in Indiana’s statehouse and elsewhere across the country increasingly won’t talk to members of the press, and conflate talk shows, opinion pieces, and political commentary with hard news reporting.

At Georgia’s capitol, Welch, the bill’s sponsor, told reporters he filed the measure to confront a national media landscape that, he claimed, blurs the line between fact and opinion.

“It is very difficult to discern for the public as to what’s an editorial commentary on something and what are the facts the article’s based on,” Welch said. “Blending the two seems to be what has become more prevalent in the media than a separate analysis of facts versus commentary.”

Journalists will always need to educate the public about how news is made, Lynn Walsh, Ethics Chair at the Society of Professional Journalists, says. But a board to decide a “canon of ethics” isn’t necessary, because such codes already exist within many newsrooms.

­”We have an ethics code that goes over the basic principles of journalism, and a lot of news organizations have their own ethics code,” Walsh says. “But people may not know this, so it’s on us to talk about why we made ethical decisions.”

Atlanta-based First Amendment lawyer Cynthia Counts says questions about journalism can’t be heard if media outlets are busy spending time and resources sending raw interview documentation to every person they may encounter.

“You want the press to be independent,” she says. “You don’t want them spending all their time going to court or having to foot the enormous cost of providing everything to everyone who’s done an interview.”

Counts also says the language of the bill seems to be in direct conflict with reporter privilege protections, which in Georgia say anything obtained during newsgathering is protected unless it is “material and relevant… cannot be reasonably obtained by alternative means… and is necessary to the proper preparation or presentation of the case of a party seeking the information, document, or item.”

On the same day Welch introduced his bill, he also announced his intention to resign from his seat. However, the bill’s five Republican cosponsors will still be in the General Assembly when the next session begins in 2020.

Even if the bill never sees the light of day, Nora Benavidez with PEN America says leaving the concept of a Journalism Ethics Board unresolved until next January’s session sends a clear message to journalists in Georgia.

“It casts this cloud over the press for the next several months,” she says. “It’s very threatening, as if to portray that the press better be careful how it represents what’s going on at the Capitol.”

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Stephen Fowler is the politics reporter at Georgia Public Broadcasting in Atlanta, where he covers local, state, and local-around-the-state stories. His work has appeared on NPR’s national newscasts, Morning Edition and All Things Considered, Here & Now, Marketplace, and ProPublica. You can find him on Twitter @stphnfwlr.