Book Review: Media Ethics

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A Guide For Professional Conduct by SPJ

Reviewed by Carolyn Schurr Levin

Book Review: Media Ethics: A Guide For Professional Conduct, 5th edition, Published by the Society of Professional Journalists, Revised by Fred Brown, editor, and members of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Ethics Committee

There is no shortage of course materials for media ethics classes. Yet, can there ever be too many? I’d argue no – the more the better. That is also clearly the position of the Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Committee, which on June 25, 2020, released the 5th edition of its ethics handbook and collection of cases. Both the new edition and the 4th edition, which was released in 2011, are the effort of the Ethics Committee of the Society of Professional Journalists, and were edited by long time journalist Fred Brown, a former chairperson of the Ethics Committee and former SPJ national president. (The first three editions were primarily the work of the Poynter Institute.)

In the six years since the 4th edition was printed, everything has changed, and nothing has changed. The SPJ Journalists Code of Ethics still imparts the profession’s collective wisdom, and remains the focus of the book – “the news industry’s widely accepted gold standard of journalism principles,” according to the book’s promotion. Like the four editions before it, this book is organized around the SPJ Code of Ethics, whose basic principles are reflected in many other codes of ethics across a wide range of communications disciplines, Brown said.

The new edition expands beyond journalism to those other communications disciplines and a growing number of technologies. “Media Ethics: A Guide for Professional Conduct” is intended to be used as a college-level textbook in ethics classes whose students are not just aspiring journalists, but strategic communicators such as P.R. professionals or workers in political campaigns,” Brown said. And, the new edition is, for the first time, available in online form as well as in print, to be both more accessible and less expensive for those students. (The paperback is $24.99 and the ebook is $19.99.)

“Media Ethics: A Guide for Professional Conduct” begins with not just the SPJ Code of Ethics, but also the ethical codes of the Radio Television Digital News Association, the Online News Association, the Public Relations Society of America, and other professional media groups.

This new handbook is much more than just a collection of codes though. It gives students tools and procedures for using these codes for ethical decision-making. What makes it unique are the case studies that intersperse its pages. Some of them will feel familiar from previous editions or other media ethics books (Deep Throat, and His Motive, for instance, about the Watergate story and protecting sources). But what excited me about this book were the new ones – timely case studies that will intrigue our students and (hopefully) lead to lively discussions. Brown described the new case studies as “all from real life” and addressing “other disciplines” in addition to traditional journalism. The best way to teach and learn ethics is to practice, and these case studies provide engaging ways to do just that.

Here’s an example: In the chapter on truth, accuracy and fairness is a case study entitled “A Confrontational Confirmation.” The case study involves President Donald Trump’s 2018 nomination of Brett Kavanaugh to the U.S. Supreme Court, and the allegations that Kavanaugh committed sexual assault when he was a teenager. The question posed by the case study is whether unmasking the identity of Kavanaugh’s accuser was “fair game” or “necessary for a full account” and whether the media was “correct to air these allegations in the late stages of the confirmation process.”

And another example: In the chapter on privacy, a case study entitled “A Controversial Apology” analyzes the apology that The Daily Northwestern at Northwestern University offered in November 2019 for its coverage of demonstrations that took place when former Attorney General Jeff Sessions spoke on campus. The student newspaper’s apology for its coverage became a “firestorm” from students who felt victimized by the coverage, on the one hand, and from journalists, Northwestern alumni and others who accused the newspaper of apologizing for simply doing its job, on the other. This case study, in particular, seemed invaluable to me. If media students can discuss, think about and analyze situations such as the one experienced by The Daily Northwestern, they can be so much better prepared to respond when similar situations arise at their own campus media outlets, because they undoubtedly will.

In addition to the case studies, other useful aspects of “Media Ethics” are the checklists at the end of the chapters. The “Fairness Checklist” reminds journalists and journalism students to ask, among other things: Is the meaning distorted by over- or under-emphasis? Are facts and quotations in proper context? If sources are not fully identified, is there a justifiable reason? The “Photojournalism Checklist” poses questions to ask before taking a still or moving image: “Am I invading someone’s privacy? If so, is it for an appropriate reason? Am I acting with compassion and sensitivity? Does this image tell the story I want? Certainly, all of the questions in these checklists are helpful not only for students learning the craft, but for professionals as ongoing reminders of the best ethical practices.

Students in my media ethics classes debate, during the first week of the semester, whether ethics can even be taught. As this book points out in Chapter One, “it is certainly possible to be an ethical person without knowing any of the history or terminology of moral reasoning.” I frequently hear students take that position. Yet everywhere around us are instances of ethical lapses, whether intentional or unintentional, and journalists find themselves “spending an increasing and regrettable amount of time identifying and apologizing for” those lapses, according to “Media Ethics: A Guide For Professional Conduct.” So, teaching journalism and other communications students to ask the right questions, to recognize ethical issues and anticipate ethical dilemmas, and to develop analytical skills to arrive at defensible solutions to those problems is unquestionably beneficial.

The SPJ’s Ethics Committee’s purpose, according to its website, “is to encourage the use of the Society’s Code of Ethics, which promotes the highest professional standards for journalists of all disciplines.” That too is the purpose of this highly usable book.

Carolyn Levin

Carolyn Schurr Levin, a media and First Amendment attorney, is of counsel at Miller Korzenik Sommers Rayman LLP in New York. She was the Vice President and General Counsel of Newsday, Vice President and General Counsel of Ziff Davis Media, and Media Law Adviser for the School of Journalism at Stony Brook University. She teaches Media Ethics at City University of New York’s Baruch College, and has also taught media ethics and law at Stony Brook University, Long Island University, and Pace University. From 2010-2019, she was the faculty adviser for the Pioneer, the student newspaper at Long Island University, during which time the Pioneer won 28 awards.