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New review board addresses ethics questions

By Chris Cobler
Aug. 12, 2007 at 3:12 a.m.
Updated Oct. 3, 2011 at 5:03 a.m.


Every day, journalists make a variety of ethical decisions. Some involve big questions that prompt much discussion: Is this photograph too sensational for the front page? Should we grant anonymity to a source who offers important information? How should we report on a star athlete kicked off the high school team for underage drinking?

We make many more decisions, though, almost routinely. Who should we call for a story? What stories deserve our attention? What part of the community should we be covering better? Daily deadlines force us to act quickly. When you start a new product from scratch every day, you don' t have the luxury of time.

That's why we've formed a new in-house ethics review board. This new group met recently for the first time at the Advocate and outlined our mission. Our statement is simple on the surface, but much more complex when you stop and think about it: to provide guidance to the newspaper on the ethical decisions we face every day.

Along with providing guidance internally, we want to be transparent with our readers about what we do and why. This philosophy of openness will build our credibility in an era when so many are turned off by the national media. We're proud to tell you the accountability and concern of your local newspaper is much greater than what you'll see on either Fox News or CNN.

In establishing this new board, we agreed upon the principles of the Society of Professional Journalists as our foundation. You may read the full SPJ's ethics statement online. The preamble bears repeating in full:

"Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues. Conscientious journalists from all media and specialties strive to serve the public with thoroughness and honesty. Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist's credibility. Members of the Society share a dedication to ethical behavior and adopt this code to declare the Society's principles and standards of practice."

Here are the four cornerstones of the code:

-- Seek truth and report it.

-- Minimize harm.

-- Act independently.

-- Be accountable.

Our board, which will meet monthly, consists of various Advocate journalists, the newspaper's family ownership, and representatives of our other newspaper departments. Once we get more established, we may bring a couple of outside experts, such as a minister or priest, to offer a broader perspective.

We agreed our topic for next month's meeting should be our Web site and how we handle the citizen journalism we plan to encourage further with the upcoming redesign of www.victoriaadvocate.com.

The Web presents exciting new ways to engage readers in the news and our democracy. Within the cornerstone of seeking truth and reporting it, two sections of the SPJ code seem particularly pertinent to this discussion:

"Support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant."

"Give voice to the voiceless; official and unofficial sources of information can be equally valid."

On the other hand, the anonymous nature of the Internet collides headlong with another aspect of seeking truth and reporting it:

"Identify sources whenever feasible. The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources' reliability."

Newspapers are charting new territory in cyberspace. We'll find our way best by involving our readers in the discussion. We look forward to talking more.

Chris Cobler is the editor of the Victoria Advocate. He may be reached at ccobler@vicad.com or at 361-574-1271.

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