Weigel, Nasr cases dramatize need for newsroom ethics policies

Dave Weigel (Washington Post) and Octavia Nasr (CNN) had, and lost, some of the most enviable jobs in professional journalism, because they expressed controversial opinions in comments published online. Their highly publicized downfalls should prompt all newsrooms to take stock of their own ethics policies — and whether those policies are realistic in a world where people (especially people in the communications business) live unfiltered lives online.

In a recent look at campus controversies in which students’ political or social activism collided with their journalistic roles, the SPLC’s Mary Keister described the unique dilemma of imposing “no activism” rules in a student newsroom. Unlike staffers at CNN or The Washington Post, college journalists often are unpaid, working part-time, and pursuing career paths other than journalism. It may seem especially harsh to expect them to conduct themselves as professional journalists 24/7, forsaking opportunities available to their fellow students.

But a more relaxed ethics policy can put the publication’s credibility at risk, and can present the editors with slippery judgment calls. If some off-hours activism is tolerated, then where is the boundary — and who decides? Is involvement in local politics (which the publication might cover) worse than involvement in national politics (which the publication likely won’t)? Must the prohibition apply equally to all staffers, or are there some — Sports photographers? Cartoonists? — whose ability to do their jobs would be unimpaired by association with a controversial cause?

The Society of Professional Journalists publishes the most widely accepted code of ethics in the field, and many college media outlets adhere to the SPJ code in whole or in substantial part. The SPJ code provides that journalists should “shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.” The “if” clause is significant, because the code recognizes that some level of community involvement — charity work, belonging to a professional or alumni association — is not only unavoidable but desirable.

The SPJ policy is intentionally general so that newsrooms of all kinds can use and adapt it. That generality means that editors may need to supplement the policy with their own details — for instance, pertinent to the Weigel and Nasr cases, exactly what constitutes forbidden “political involvement.” Can a staff member sign a petition to put a gun-rights referendum on the state ballot? Join an environmental cause on Facebook? Complain about his garbage pickup during the public-comment period at a city council meeting?

Even if your publication does not find the SPJ code to fit its needs, it is important to have some standards, and to establish and publicize them before a dispute arises. Every incoming editor or news director should run through a mental checklist at the start of the school term:

  1. Do we have a written ethics policy?
  2. How is it made known to the staff, and how is it enforced?
  3. When was the last time it was updated?

In the campus setting, an ethics policy should make clear that it is to be enforced solely through the personnel mechanisms of the newsroom — and not by external actors. Just as a real-world journalist could not be sued or arrested for violating the SPJ code of ethics, no student journalist should be subject to punishment by a school (or by its student government association) for violating the newsroom ethics code. Outside actors have been known to invoke “ethical standards” to justify imposing their judgment over the editors’ when it comes to matters of editorial content or staff management. Ethics policies are meant to promote professionalism, and they are best enforced in the professional arena, not the political one.