SPJ Ethics Panel Once Again Avoids Confronting Bias

April 17th, 2014 5:11 PM

In 1996, the  Society of Professional Journalists removed a stipulation in its ethics code holding that “News reports should be free of opinion or bias.” Earlier this year, theSPJ’s Ethics Committee released its draft of a revised ethics code which, alas, does not restore the bright-line rule against opinion and bias in news stories that was removed in 1996

The rule, was on the books for some 70 years before being scotched. What’s more, the 1973version of the code, went on to insist that news reports should “represent all sides of an issue.” That revision of the code  also contained language which emphasized the preeminence of truth and objectivity in the practice of journalism “Truth is our ultimate goal” with “Objectivity in reporting the news”another goal in service of that aim.

Noting that news coverage nowadays is often slanted, Congressman Lamar Smith (R-Texas) recently lamented on the floor of the US House of Representatives: “How can we expect journalists to cover events in a fair and objective way when their own code of ethics does not discourage biased reporting?”

Well, we can’t. The 18-year period following the SPJ striking their bright-line rule against bias has been marred by ever-increasing media bias, and, worse, outright liberalpropaganda passed off as news. 

Here are just a few examples:

  • Dan Rather, in connection with the 2004 election,  failing to authenticate fake documents before rushing to report that the military helped George W. Bush avoid the draft by volunteering for the Texas Air National Guard
  • Mark Halperin (then at Time Magazine) noting the “extreme pro-Obama coverage” in the 2008 election
  • Four reporters on a panel  admitting that the media “leans left” to Politico’s Chief White House Correspondent Mike Allen in 2013

The 1996 Code, still in use today, dances all around the subject of media bias without explicitly mentioning or condemning it. This is a glaring deficiency which weakens the code’s propounding of such laudable principles like:

  • “Seek Truth and Report It”
  • “Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.”
  • “Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context….”

Apologists for the current code will tell you that ‘no one is free of bias’ and that reporters should police their own biases.  But how’s that working out for us the news-consuming public?  Journalistic standards have obviously declined since 1996. Taking out the bright-line rule against opinion and bias while leaving a mish-mash of less clearly-stated rules surely could not have helped matters. It may, indeed, even have accelerated the erosion of principle and contributed to the virulent media bias we are seeing today.

SPJ’s Ethics Committee is meeting in May and intends to circulate draft code revisions to rank-and-file members in mid-summer.  SPJ will then presenta final draft at its membership convention on September 4 in Nashville. 

If enough pressure is put on them this time, perhaps the rank-and-file members of SPJ will once again seek to memorialize in their own professional code what was there in the beginning and should still be there today – clarity and a no-nonsense exhortation to adhere to principle.

Unless and until we return to the kind of openly partisan rag that characterized colonial-era journalism in America, reporters at supposedly objective mainstream media outlets should keep their opinions out of their stories and ensure that their biases do not skew the news in favor of their pet politicians and causes.  Their professional association and ethicsmeisters should be elevating their collective character, not contributing to its dissolution. 

Put the rule back on the books!