Wednesday, March 28, 2007

If All Journalists Followed Code of Ethics, the Profession and Democracy Would be Better Served

Good journalism is vitally important for a strong democracy, but studies and surveys show Americans increasingly do not trust the news media.

This mistrust comes from several directions (liberal and conservative) but examples seem to abound, even locally.

No wonder Americans mistrust the news media when we have weekly newspapers where the editor writes news stories and then editorials on the same subject (actually taking sides). No wonder American trust of the media is waning when hosts disguised as “journalists” on talk radio shows only give one side of a story – and give it as fact.

Some national experts believe negative influences in journalism have been allowed to flourish because journalists have been working without identified standards of conduct.

As a result, they have lost sight of journalism as a public service.

Supporters of this approach point out that many professions, such as accounting, law, and teaching, require ongoing certification for participation in the field. Journalists should be subject to this kind of scrutiny especially given their unique role in our society.

It has been suggested that journalists should develop and post standards that help citizens discern fair and accurate news coverage and then should be officially tested and certified in these new standards.

What most Americans don't realize is that the Society of Professional Journalists ( already has a comprehensive "Code of Ethics” with four major components.

First, journalists are to seek truth and report it. "Journalists should be honest, fair and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information," reads the Code. This covers the need for accuracy, as well as different aspects of reporting and the need to not impose their own values and biases on readers.

Second, journalists are to "minimize harm." In other words, "ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect” by showing compassion, not being arrogant, respecting people's privacy and showing good taste.

Third, journalists should "act independently." The SPJ Code of Ethics says, "Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know."

And finally, journalists should "be accountable … to their readers, listeners, viewers and each other." The SPJ Code of Ethics says this can best be done by "inviting dialogue with the public over journalist conduct, encouraging the public to voice grievances against the news media, admitting mistakes and correcting them promptly, exposing unethical practices of journalists and the news media and abiding by the same high standards to which they hold others."

If every journalist followed this code of ethics, the profession and the democracy would be better served.

Thursday, March 22, 2007

Unwrapping Freedom

A submission by a Stockton High School senior was the unanimous first-place selection in the 2007 First-Amendment essay contest sponsored by the Southwest Missouri Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. The following first place essay was written by Katie Shellhorn, senior, Stockton High School. Here essay, entitled "Unwrapping Freedom" is reprinted here:

Every year at Christmas I anticipate opening presents with my family. After opening all of the gifts I usually focus on the main gift and push the less important ones aside. In a sense, I treat Christmas the same way I do freedom. I am thankful for the most important gift, which is freedom, but I find myself overlooking the small freedoms. In eighteen years I have overlooked free media, a freedom with significant importance. I’ve been so used to finding information through the news or Internet, but I never stop and realize that not everyone in the world has that freedom.

The first amendment to the United States Constitution, a gift given to all Americans, states, “Congress shall make no law…abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press...” Free media is the only way citizens are informed and not deceived. In societies such as George Orwell’s 1984, the government used media to control the people which resulted in a loss of individual freedom. Where there is no free media, there are no free people.

Thomas Jefferson, America’s third president, stated the importance of free media over the government. “…And were it left to me to decide whether we should have a
government without newspapers or newspapers without a government, I should not hesitate a moment to prefer the latter.”

September 11, 2001 was a day in which I realized the importance of the media. As I sat in my seventh grade classroom I watched the twin towers fall. I felt I was experiencing the tragedy with the people of New York. I was able to grieve with the suffering and at the same time I became angry with the terrorists. If I were unable to see the damage done to my country that day I would have had no idea how bad it truly was. Without free media I would have been left in the dark without any knowledge or understanding of what happened that day.

Freedom is a gift I receive everyday of my life. I don’t have to write it down on my wish list each year for Christmas or beg my mom and dad to buy it for me. Each time I turn on the news, listen to the radio or get on the Internet, I unwrap gifts of freedom.

What a great entry. I hope we find out in a month or two that Katie has won at the national level too. I'll keep you posted. Plus, I'll be sharing some of the award winning essays over the next few weeks. These are available for publication by any area newspaper that is interested.

Friday, March 09, 2007

Quality of Weekly Newspapers Better Than Some Suspect

In the Feb. 27, 2007 issue of the Maneater, an independent student newspaper on the University of Missouri - Columbia campus, columnist (and pre-journalism student) Dan Friesen took a swipe at agriculture (students and families), rural living and weekly or rural newspapers.

The result was a firestorm of criticism from campus. Friesen heard the complaints loud and clear. He even issued an apology saying he intended the column, entitled “I can service a horse” as satire.

The newspaper itself backed away from supporting Friesen by printing an editorial note saying, “The opinions of Dan Friesen or any other columnist, guest columnist or letter to the editor solely reflect the opinion of their respective authors.”

Friesen’s views on agriculture and farm families have been dealt with fully this past week. However, one comment he made in the middle of the column, a comment about weekly or rural newspapers, seems to have been passed over by many. This is the one that caught my eye:

Can you farmers dig through all the daily events and weave a coherent yarn
explaining why any of it matters? No way. I’ve read the papers that come out
of the country. They have headlines like “O’Flannigan Cow Farts.” Nice try.
Tell you what: You stick to the … (farming), we’ll stick to the important
work of print.

I enjoyed my work at a weekly newspaper. I produced some serious journalism during that time and I met other weekly newspapers editors in Missouri who were considered to be at the very top of the profession.

During those six years at a weekly newspaper I heard plenty of comments from peers who didn’t think weekly newspaper work was “real” journalism. The comments originated from a stereotype, just like Friesen’s suggested “country” headline. The irony is that the only place I have read about cow gas over the last several years has been in national magazines and
newspapers that have written about studies on the impact of “cow methane” on global warming.

Here are a few examples:

ABC News did, “Global Warming Culprits: Cars and ... Cows.”

Terra Daily: “Cow Gas Study Not Just A Lot Of Hot Air “Cow gas study not just a lot of hot air

You get the idea. Big city journalism does not always mean better journalism. In fact, good weekly newspapers that practice quality community journalism are having business great success and are about the only newspapers in the nation seeing circulation increases.

I’ve detailed some of that success of weekly newspapers in this blog before. Journalism needs more of the community/local reporting that takes place at weekly and rural newspapers.

But one other fact also deserves a special note. Weekly newspaper editors do garner national journalism honors. The Associated Press and other newspaper organizations recognize their work and several have actually won the Pulitzer Prize. John Hatcher has a great piece, “Small papers, big stories: a comparison of community newspapers that have won the Pulitzer Prize” in the Spring 2005 issue of the Grassroots Editor, the quarterly journal published by the International Society of Weekly Newspaper Editors ( Perhaps this
journal article should be required reading for journalism students.

I hope the writer of the Maneater column has learned a lesson or two. I know when I was young, and a college newspaper editor, I made some foolish decisions too. The bad thing about putting your opinions in print is that year’s later, they can come back to haunt you.

Thursday, March 01, 2007

Government Bodies Should Adopt Sunshine Law Policy

A strong Missouri Sunshine Law is essential to open and fair government. But based on my past experience, there are times when tax supported public bodies (and there are lots of them) get lazy in following the Missouri Sunshine Law.

Just like I need an occasional reminder on AP Style and coaching baseball, public governmental bodies probably need regular reminders about the Missouri Sunshine Law.

The Missouri Press Association is recommending that every tax funded (public) board go through and personalize -- and then approve – a model Sunshine Law Policy.

You can download a template of a very good six-paged policy here: It is self explanatory.

I’ve read the policy and I think it has merit for any public body. The policy could help groups avoid some common problems.

When it comes to the Missouri Sunshine Law, my suggestion is to “err on the side of openness” by always posting a notice and keeping meetings as open as legally possible.

Missouri’s legislators passed their first Sunshine Law in 1973 just a few years after the federal Freedom of Information Act was enacted.

The single most important thing for reporters and citizens to know is that the “right to know” is not a constitutional right, but a statutory one. So, only legislative support can save Freedom of Information laws like the Sunshine Laws.

It is also important to know that the Sunshine Law is not designed to benefit the news media. The law is designed to protect and inform the public. It opens doors so reporters -- and individuals -- can see government at work, and find out how taxpayer money is being spent. Knowing what your public servants are doing and how they are spending your money is critical to having a strong democratic society.

Sunshine Week is coming up in Missouri (March 11-17). Learn more at