CAJ panel proposes ethics guidelines for digital age

The 2002-vintage ethics code of the Canadian Association of Journalists is certainly due for a revision—for one thing, it makes no mention of the Internet. Now, a panel of the association’s ethics committee has produced a
draft revision for public comment. Panel chair
Shauna Snow-Capparelli explains.

Wondering if it’s OK to take a previously “published” photo
off Facebook to run with your story? Unsure whether you should “friend” your
sources? Or thinking about how much verification you need when finding sources

In an attempt to answer these and other ethical questions
presented by the Digital Age, the Canadian Association of Journalists’ ethics
advisory committee has been working to revise the organization’s familiar Statement
of Principles and Ethical Guidelines

It’s the first revision for the ethics code since it was
written in 2002, and as we all know, the industry has gone through monumental
changes in that time.

In one sign of how outdated the
existing guidelines are, the document has not a single mention of the online

New digital media section

That’s one of several reasons why the committee appointed a
three-person panel to draft revisions to the code. The panel has proposed online-oriented
enhancements to several parts of the document, plus a new “Digital Media”
section in which we note initially that, “Ethical
practice does not change with the medium,” and that ethical principles such as
accuracy, fairness, independence and keeping promises to sources apply “no
matter where our stories are published or broadcast.”

The proposed new section
also works in many elements not previously addressed in the guidelines,
including recent findings by the full ethics committee regarding practices
around personal
activity online
and re-tweeting, as
well as online corrections (on which a committee report is forthcoming).

But the overhaul doesn’t stop with digital content; in
reviewing the existing guidelines, we found that the original code also
contained many references that were overly legalistic or corporate in nature –
and others that just didn’t seem to reflect current everyday practice of our

So the panel – led by myself and also including
investigative journalist and CAJ past-president Julian Sher, and Connie Monk,
head of broadcast journalism at the British Columbia Institute of Technology –
has been working for months to make the code more complete, practical and
user-friendly. In addition to numerous content changes, we’ve proposed a new
format that we hope will make it easier for journalists to find the points that
interest them.

Now, after intensive review by
the full CAJ Ethics
, our draft is ready for the feedback that counts: yours.

We ask you to review our
proposed Principles for Ethical Journalism
– reformatted into a condensed “splash page” that boils down the essential
points for quick and easy reference. More in-depth details are available in the
long-form Ethics
that address finer points
such as undercover reporting, using quotes in context, handling requests to unpublish, reporting on polls and medical
studies, engaging in political activities,
and contacting crime victims.

CAJ conference session

Both versions of the guidelines
will be presented at a special session of the CAJ’s annual conference in Ottawa (May
13-15). In addition to seeking your general suggestions, ethics committee chair
Ivor Shapiro (Ryerson University) will join me in attempting to gain consensus
on a few points that were contentious even among our own members.

These contentious points in the
panel’s draft include whether showing finished reports to sources prior to
publication is an iron-rule no-no, whether different standards for freebies
should be applied to travel writing, and whether there might be cases where it
is OK to pay sources for information. Plus: must online content always be
edited “as carefully as” content for legacy media?

Please join us for this
important discussion, which will take place Saturday morning, May 14, at 09:00 at the Sheraton Ottawa Hotel.

And if you can’t join us in
person, please read over the proposed new documents anyway and send any and all
feedback to me (with “CAJ Ethics” in the subject field) at

Shauna Snow-Capparelli, a former Los Angeles Times staff writer and
entertainment columnist, is associate professor of journalism at Mount Royal
University, where she’s also supervising editor of the Calgary Journal and the author of the school’s  Journalism Code
of Ethics and Professional Practices