More than a year into its development, we publish today The Spokesman-Review’s new newsroom code of ethics.
For our staff, this is one of the most important documents they will receive. It sets out critically important guidelines, standards and, yes, rules that apply to all newsroom employees, regardless of position. The new code went into effect May 1, 2008.
The document was developed by a newsroom task force made up of rank-and-file journalists and newsroom managers. Drafts also were presented to the community, in print, online and in a series of public meetings. The lengthy process was facilitated by Whitworth University Professor Gordon Jackson.
The code is a vital road map to professional conduct that embodies our long-term craft values as well as the posted professional and news values of The Spokesman-Review newsroom.
This code revision, for the first time, takes into account ethical landmines presented by our online journalism, including blogs. The code makes a strong statement about the newsroom’s independence from special interests and, importantly, its independence from the newspaper’s owners when covering their activities and business interests. And it is more specific than in the past about how our journalists can – and must – avoid conflicts of interest, including political conflicts.
A complete understanding of the code is expected of every newsroom staff member and all will be required to sign a receipt indicating they have received and read the code. All new employees will be required to sign a similar receipt within the first week of employment after receiving a complete briefing on our standards from their immediate supervisor.
We have opened up the drafting process to readers and made the final version available in a number of ways so that people can weigh in when they think we have violated the code’s provisions.
Reader complaints may be lodged with the newspaper’s ombudsman.
Various transparency initiatives, online and in person, also provide the public with several ways of calling attention to ethical lapses.
However, we must acknowledge that in our democratic society, code enforcement is voluntary. To be faithful to the First Amendment, we can’t compromise our independence, either for government officials or for offended readers. A fair press is important, but a free press is essential.
Ultimately, the enforcement mechanism that counts is the same, with or without a code. Readers either read us and trust us and use us or they don’t. And if they don’t, whether for ethical concerns or any other reason, we will lose our audience and our standing will be unalterably compromised.
The newsroom knows this and for that reason all of us take this code very seriously. We would like to know what you think.
You may contact me at email@example.com, send a letter to me at The Spokesman-Review, 999 W. Riverside, Spokane 99201, or call me at (509) 459-5423.
Steven A. Smith