Pimples, Pints and Press: SPJ Showcases Ethics

The mayor’s pimple was the biggest the photographer had ever seen, rising like a mini-Mount Vesuvius in every picture she took of him at a news conference. Should she Photoshop out the blemish, she asked the newspaper editor?

(Relax, Mr. Mayor, this is just a hypothetical.)

Or how about a lawmaker who wants to buy a reporter a beer as they discuss a new bill? Tell us, wise editor, should the journalist mix news and brews?

Those questions, along with others more thorny and serious, were fodder for fun and discussion a couple of weeks ago at Vino’s Brewpub in Little Rock, where the Arkansas Pro Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists put their ethics to the test — along with their acting. The exercise was called What Would You Run?, modeled on “What Would You Do?” the ABC News program hosted by John Quiñones.

Sarah DeClerk of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, one of the newest additions to the SPJ chapter’s board of directors, devised the event as the latest in a series of monthly programs like Law School for Journalists, Behind the Scenes of Broadcast and Halal Food for Thought, which gave chapter members a chance to get to know members of the Muslim community.

The night at Vino’s had journalists laughing, talking and tweeting, not bad for a test on the somber subject of ethics.

“I thought it would be fun to put a journalist twist on the concept,” DeClerk said, referring to the ABC show, which uses actors and hidden cameras to test how people react to ethical dilemmas. “Ironically, the use of hidden cameras for the show could raise ethical questions,” she mused.

The skits at Vino’s employed two SPJ members as actors, Emily Partridge of the Democrat-Gazette and Arkansas Business’ own Sarah Campbell-Miller. They illustrated ethical questions involving anonymous sourcing, conflicts of interest and the appropriateness of gruesome images on the front page. “Then we called up participants, a mix of professional and student journalists, to act as our imaginary newspaper’s chief editor and explain what they would do in that situation,” DeClerk said. “Then our judges rated each respondent” on a 10-point scale.

The judges were Frank Fellone, the longtime editor and columnist at the Democrat-Gazette; Jamie Byrne-McCollum, a professor at the University of Arkansas at Little Rock School of Mass Communications; and David Keith, a University of Central Arkansas instructor and adviser to the student newspaper, The Echo. DeClerk played host, and the scorekeeper was SPJ board member Wendy Miller.

The idea was to apply SPJ’s Code of Ethics in some 20 ethical scenarios. “Very few had right or wrong answers, and in many cases the judges were split and offered vastly different scores for responses,” DeClerk said.

Everyone agreed that the mayor’s pimple shouldn’t be digitally erased, but the judges suggested perhaps using a different photo to illustrate the event. The judges were also unanimous in thinking the reporter shouldn’t accept the beer, “because it is a breach of ethics to accept gifts from sources, even gifts as small as a free drink,” DeClerk said.

But even that isn’t open and shut.

Policy at my former paper, The New York Times, calls for the paper to pay for any entertaining of news sources, but it concedes that in some business situations and cultures “it may be unavoidable to accept a meal or a drink paid for by a news source.” The Times also prohibits accepting gifts, tickets or other inducements, but makes an exception “for trinkets of nominal value, say, $25 or less.” The idea is for journalists to use common sense and protect the paper’s neutrality, standards editor Philip B. Corbett told Arkansas Business. “It’s not our goal to be rude or holier-than-thou,” he said. “Just to avoid a situation in which a skeptical reader might wonder if reporter and source are too cozy.”

Integrity is of utmost importance in an age of unprecedented scrutiny of the news media, said Jennifer Ellis, SPJ chapter president and the Democrat-Gazette’s zoned editions editor.

“SPJ’s Code of Ethics explains how journalists should act with integrity, using four guiding principles: seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable and transparent,” Ellis said. But she said it’s not always easy to choose the right path. Many factors arise, and countless options may present themselves. “We saw this play out with sometimes varying scores from our judges.”