On a 90-degree day last July, more than a dozen journalists holed up in an upstairs meeting room at the Ohio State University campus. The air conditioning was cranked but the committee was still sweating it out. Before them was projected the preamble for Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics. It was their job to revise it.
The group, wordsmiths all, spent 90 minutes parsing just 56 words of the prologue; this after a yearlong debate by SPJ members on the nuances of the language.
Spearheading the changes was outgoing SPJ ethics chair Kevin Z. Smith, who also serves as the deputy director of the Kiplinger Program in Public Affairs Journalism. He had spent months piecing together various edits of the new code, orchestrating plans for the meeting, even arranging for a “geographic” food exchange among the committee. But in the sixth hour of revisions, someone broke out the Georgetown cupcakes, St. Louis crumb cake and the chocolate-covered toffee, effectively ruining the exchange. The committee needed a sugar boost and Kevin didn’t protest.
The task at hand was too important. That’s because journalism ethics is eminently important to Kevin, who served for 23 years served on the ethics committee, two terms as its chair. Whatever it took to hammer out this much-needed code revision, he was going to support. This was his baby.
So no one was too surprised — except Kevin himself — when he was awarded the Wells Memorial Key at Excellence in Journalism 2014 conference in Nashville Saturday. The award, named after the second president of Sigma Delta Chi, Chester C. Wells, is the highest honor an SPJ member can receive.
“No one deserved it more,” one tweet read.
Kevin was praised for his commitment to ethics and to journalism in general.
“He knocked on the doors of countless congressmen and officials to push for a federal shield law, spread the Society’s message throughout the world — even staring Ebola in the eye (in Sierra Leone in June) — and somehow got a normally slow-moving vessel to adopt a Code of Ethics overhaul in one year,” wrote Andrew Seaman, the new ethics chair. “Even in that list, I’m forgetting countless other contributions he’s made to the Society, journalism and individuals over the years.”
After that marathon weekend of code revision in July, Kevin wrote about his feelings in Code Words, the SPJ Ethics blog.
“Journalism has changed dramatically in 18 years. Ethics, not so much, but the way we want to address ethical issues needs to be reviewed from time to time or we grow irrelevant to newer generations.”
Winning the Wells Memorial Key, he tweeted after receiving it, was a “stunning end” to the day. But the biggest accomplishment — as people who know him will attest — was that the SPJ delegates overwhelmingly voted in favor of the revised ethics code.
Journalism, and democratic process, had won out again. And that chocolate-covered toffee wasn’t bad, either. Congratulations, Kevin.
Robin Chenoweth is Program Coordinator for the Kiplinger Program.