Spokane Spokesman-Review gets new ethics code

Between 2005 and 2006, The Spokesman-Review newspaper experienced a firestorm of ethical criticism from its readers and the journalism community. In addition to the normal ethical challenges facing a daily metropolitan newspaper, Editor Steve A. Smith said the paper went through the troubling investigation of Spokane Mayor Jim West on abuse of power charges in 2005 that also involved alleged sexual relationships with young men. In the West series, some people complained the newspaper used entrapment or unethical means to gather the data, creating a major controversy for the paper. In addition, the newspaper’s publisher, Stacy Cowles, was embroiled in a controversy involving his purchase of city property through the Cowles’ Co. for the creation of a new parking garage for the upscale shopping center in downtown Spokane called River Park Square (RPS).

New social media technology was also racing into the newsroom. In 2006 Smith said he was bothered by readers’ blogging on his paper’s Web site. Ethically, he asked himself, can bloggers and others who submit comments and opinion to the newspaper be brought under the company’s ethics code to prevent legal or ethical problems?

That question, along with other issues which surfaced during 2005-2006, started a process in which Smith led a change in The Spokesman’s newsroom ethics code. The changes, many of which reflected the lessons learned in the West and RPS controversies, brought about what the crafters said is a new comprehensive code involving reporters, editors, photographers, editorial assistants, upper management, bloggers and readers. The code was put in place as the paper began increasing its dependence on correspondents or stringers (some without any journalism background) for local news, and announced a pending divorce from the Associated Press for national and international news. Six months later The Spokesman had a major newsroom staff reduction due to the financial meltdown in newspapers. Prior to the layoffs, two staff members who were intensely involved in the creation of the new code – including Smith – resigned, citing ethical considerations.

Because of issues such as the West story and RPS, Smith said he wanted every person who worked in the Spokesman’s newsroom not only to read the code, but to sign a memo stating they had read and understood this code, and the penalty for violating it could be as severe as termination. This was, he said, a way to make sure everyone knew the code was serious and active.

The Spokesman-Review is one of the few locally family-owned newspapers of its size in the United States. In August 2006, when work began on the new code, the paper was listed as 108th in the United States by the Core Based Statistical Area (as determined by the federal Office of Management and Budget) in terms of size. Since July 2008, the paper has seen a 10 percent drop in paid daily circulation while experiencing a 15 percent increase in its on-line traffic, said editor Gary Graham. The company’s last ethics code revision was in 2001 and did not include new technology.

In mid-2006, the newspaper had a news staff of 108; by the spring of 2009, the number was at 81 reporters, editors, newsroom executives, and other news personnel. Current staff members write for the newspaper, both in print and on-line, and create video-streaming breaking-news reports for the Web site at www.spokesman.com. Much of the Web information is used by the Cowles’ TV station, KHQ-TV, the local NBC affiliate in Spokane. The newspaper hosts 13 blogs for readers, with topics ranging from sports to parenting, to politics, among others, Graham said.

The 2001-crafted code was in place, but some reporters said they did not pay much attention to it. Among them, Julie Titone, who worked at The Spokesman-Review from 1984-2001, said she rarely referred to the code. “The times that I remember it coming up was when management thought – or a news source alleged – that something egregious happened, which would have the editors scrambling to look at it,” Titone said.

Creation of the new code of ethics was eventually broken into two separate parts.  The initial section, led by the paper’s editorial page editor Doug Floyd, consisted of 10 people from the newsroom who began by looking at the existing code. After the work began, Floyd said, “At some point, it became apparent that a more thorough job was called for.”

Also in 2006, the newspaper asked its ombudsman, Gordon Jackson, to help Smith craft a new code. Jackson, a journalism professor at Whitworth University in Spokane, worked with Smith to develop the plan for creating the new code and how the paper could bring staff, administrators, readers, and others into the process. In August 2006, Smith brought in a team from the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and the American Press Institute to start a discussion on excellence in news reporting and how to translate that into ethical decision-making.  The two-day discussion included brainstorming on ethics and issues such as blogging, reporting and story placement. The second day ended with a 24-member citizen panel, in which people ranging from elected officials to local minority/underrepresented groups told the news staff their opinions of the paper’s reporting and ethics.

As the second, final committee — made up of eight newsroom employees, including Floyd — developed drafts of a proposed code, the drafts were individually sent out for review in the newsroom, and comments were considered with sections being added or deleted. A draft was readied and printed both in the newspaper and on-line for readers to review and make comments. Then the team went back to refine the document, Floyd said.

Although the team sent drafts to all employees asking for input, some staff members said they did not read them. Former copy desk editor Richard Miller said he paid little attention to drafts of the new code.

“Even the final version didn’t have much impact on the copy desk,” he said. “Most of the copy desk’s work is production-oriented, and that doesn’t involve the kinds of issues addressed by the code.”

In January 2008, The Spokesman-Review began organizing a series of three town hall-style meetings to gather public comment. Smith said 22 people came to the meetings in Spokane and Coeur d’Alene, Idaho, noting the severe weather that year probably did inhibit some people from traveling. A scheduled meeting in Spokane Valley, Wash., was cancelled due to a snowstorm. Of the public meetings, Smith said the comments were overwhelmingly favorable, with a few critics complaining the code did not go far enough or expressed belief it would be ignored by the paper’s management.

The result was a 20-page document that covers 32 separate entries, from accuracy to blogging, stereotyping, freelance work, fairness, attributing works of others and the Web.

In the forward, Smith highlighted the importance of new technology: “This code revision, for the first time, takes into account ethical land mines presented by our online journalism, including blogs. The code makes a strong statement about the newsroom’s independence from special interests and, importantly, its independence from the newspaper’s owners when covering their activities and business interests.”

Prior to implementation, Smith and Jackson said they were both concerned about blogging by newspaper staff members and readers. The new code outlines basic responsibilities of bloggers using The Spokesman-Review-hosted sites, and lists ethical issues of concern to employees who may host a personal blog or write on an outside blog. The 2008 code states: “The laws of libel, defamation and privacy apply to staff-written or produced blogs in the same way they apply to the print edition.” Citizen bloggers also are cautioned to write in good taste, avoid profanity or offensive material and to be mindful of photographs or graphs that may violate copyright or be in poor taste. Non-journalist bloggers who attach links to other websites are told that links to a site with adult or offensive content it must first be approved by the paper’s editor or managing editor.

In addition, the code cautions employees who write personal blogs they should be careful not to “threaten our credibility and objectivity. Reporters should not write ‘personally’ about issues they cover professionally. All staff members must avoid partisan political statements or positions, including the endorsement of candidates or ballot measures. In short, all rules relating to political activity and conflicts of interest apply to personal blogs.”

Because technology changes rapidly, the team addressed future technology under the Web section, calling for the same rules and guidelines to apply to new innovations. The code also recognized differences in defamation and privacy in third-party postings on blogs sponsored by the newspaper. In addition, it gives editors the authority to block or pull posts dealing with issues of privacy, obscenity, defamatory content or personal attacks.

The Spokesman-Review employs a number of free-lance writers, primarily for the outlying areas in its Voices section, many of whom, Graham said, do not have training as journalists. During the code creation, an incident happened with one such free-lance writer, in which the correspondent invented most of her column, an act which was not caught by the editors. Because of this and other prospective problems, the code team added a section to address the specific responsibilities of editors when dealing with writers who may not be trained journalists. This section requires editors to ensure the correspondents are in compliance with the new code.

The new code details specific requirements of the news staff under 28 various reporting categories. These follow the same guidelines as many other codes of ethics, including the Society of Professional Journalists’ code. The code also includes help on what to do by incorporating other decision-making tools from the Poynter Institute for Media Studies and The Ohio State University.

On May 1, 2008, The Spokesman-Review officially began using the new code of ethics, placing the entire document in the newspaper and on-line for the readers to see on May 4, 2008. Immediately, a few readers who are regular critics of the newspaper – especially concerning the River Park Square issue – complained and called the new code a hoax. However, Smith, then-managing editor Graham and others defended it as a viable document that is as much for the readers’ benefit as the reporters’.

Smith also invited readers with complaints to contact the newspaper’s ombudsman and said the paper’s philosophy of transparency, online and in person, gives readers additional ways of calling attention to ethical lapses by the newspaper.

But five months later, Smith was gone, having resigned as editor, citing ethical issues when he was ordered by the publisher to reduce the newsroom staff by nearly a quarter.  Today, Graham said the entire news staff continues to be obligated the terms of the newspaper’s code of ethics. He said the new code also specifically addresses the issue of holding correspondents to the code through their editors.

“All full-time and part-time employees are bound by the terms of the code,” Graham said. “We ask stringers to adhere to the code, and we also ask their editors to make sure they are fully aware of such things as not accepting gratuities or allowing themselves to be used by people with political agendas. Many of the stringers have not been trained as professional journalists, so we try to take extra care with them and make sure they understand the basics.”

Graham added that he uses the code of ethics daily, but said many of the news staff also apply personal ethical considerations with or without a code.

“We were ethical before the code was adopted,” Graham said. Former copy desk editor Miller agreed with Graham, adding “If you are ethical, you have your code; it you aren’t, a code won’t help.”

Both Graham and Floyd said there are times as editors when they will automatically defer to the new code of ethics. Graham said it is usually when a possible conflict of interest is questioned; Floyd said from his perspective on the editorial page it is when the Cowles Co. interests are interwoven with public issues about which he editorializes. Neither editor said there is any difference in use or implementation of the code of ethics by the newsroom after the staff reduction in 2008.

Reporters and editors responding to a questionnaire were nearly unanimous in their opinions about the code. Roughly 10 percent of the newsroom answered a three-question survey in mid-2009, and the majority of the respondents (all of whom wished to remain anonymous) said they saw little if any change between the new codes. A few respondents pointed out language for technological improvements in the future and that the new code is much more specific. But, most people said they saw little change.

Answering the first question, “If anything, what are major changes between the old and new code”, one respondent said it was the addition of the code on the company’s intranet (internal computer network), two specifically pointed out the addition of room for changes in technology; one said it better clarifies conflict of interest; and another said it was much more detailed and specific. Another person said the new code reinforced editorial independence from the publisher.

One respondent said, “Honestly, I’m not sure. My impression, without going back, is that there is very little difference on almost all the points — some new language, some expanded passages, but very little substantive difference. Obviously, the section on blogging is new, and the section on gratuities and gifts is probably more extensive.”

Answers to the second question, “Do you use the new code in your decision-making process,” were almost unanimous:  The code is available but they tend to use their own experiences and common sense rather than look up a situation in the code.

For the final question, “Do you think the layoffs have had an impact on use of the code,” everyone said there was no impact, although a few said the 7 percent pay cuts and furloughs did have them looking at the new code’s conflict of interest section when they were considering adding secondary employment to counter the effects of the pay cut. One person said there was a concern about the newspaper using more freelance writers, who may not be as familiar with the code or The Spokesman’s ethical concerns.

Originally scheduled as a six-month project, it took 20 months for The Spokesman-Review to develop and implement a new code of ethics. People were not always in agreement, and there was dissention from the paper’s critics as well as resistance from some employees. The detailed final code is comprehensive and allows for future technology to be included, and responses from most of the news staff who answered the questionnaire found they do not believe staff reductions has resulted in any lessening of the code’s impact on news.

Not that this is a perfect code. The length and detail can be unwieldy for some reporters and editors when they want a quick answer. But it is a code that takes multiple issues into account, and the team apparently worked to make it all-inclusive so the different departments within the newsroom do not think they are excluded.

One of the better moments in the code’s development was taking it to the readers in print, on-line and in person. The public-comment period, while it did draw some people who are long-time critics of the newspaper, provided an opportunity for the team to help explain the difference in journalism codes and ethical needs compared to other types of ethical codes (business, religious, non-profit organizations, etc.). While at least two readers continued to complain, it was an educational opportunity for the newspaper as well as an opportunity to emphasize that journalism ethics should be of a great concern of the readers. Whether this translates into a better understanding of the news product is still not certain.

Another move to be applauded is the addition of a tools section for the news staff members; although the respondents said they do not generally use this material. Not everyone takes a media ethics course in college, nor does every journalist always have a good concept of what ethical questions to ask. By giving the news staff the access to a variety of tools, the code team encourages reporters to think in a broader context when trying to answer an ethical question.

When discussing the code a year after implementation, the editors of The Spokesman-Review said they are committed to the new product and want to keep it as a viable part of their newsroom. Because of the expansive nature of this code, it is likely the editors will be able to maintain the integrity of the current code through both technological changes and shifts in newsroom personnel numbers and delivery systems for a few years ahead.

The Spokesman-Review’s Code of Ethics can be found on-line at http://spokesmanreview.com/about/ethicscode/

Rebecca Tallent is an assistant professor at the University of Idaho.

Share our journalism