I am responding to the story titled “Where is Ohio University CFO Deb Shaffer? Nobody will say,” published Feb. 26 on The Athens NEWS’ website.
As a member of the Society of Professional Journalists for 30 years this year, I am thrilled to know Ohio University leadership is reading a code that is considered the “gold standard” around the world. I was proud to serve on SPJ’s national Ethics Committee when it drafted the 1996 revision.
Ohio University President Duane Nellis, OU VP for Marketing Robin Oliver and OU spokesperson Carly Leatherwood — in a telephone call to the newsroom, according to the story — chastised The Athens NEWS and its reporters for failing to follow the SPJ Ethics Code.
They accused the reporters of “undue intrusiveness” after learning the reporters called Pennsylvania to verify employment for Shaffer’s husband. Calls to verify employment are made all the time when evaluating job candidates, determining insurance eligibility, conducting security checks, etc.
The leadership’s communication with any Athens news media is another welcome change after reporters have consistently noted in their stories the prevailing silence coming from Cutler Hall. But I digress.
The SPJ Ethics Code is voluntary. Sources may no more beat journalists over the head with it than journalists may beat other journalists over the head with it. However, the code does indicate what is aspirational behavior and what members of the organization hope all journalists will aspire to in their reporting.
Because both journalists who are bylined in the story are graduates of the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, the administration appears to suggest that we don’t teach our students ethics. Every major is required to take a semester-long course that deals exclusively with ethics. Further, many of our students take PHIL 1300, an ethics class offered by the philosophy department, as a general studies elective.
I teach at least one unit of ethics in every class for which I am instructor. This semester, I am teaching Journalism and Trauma, which is a semester-long look at how to cover traumatic events and the humans who experience them in a compassionate, ethical way.
I am confident my Scripps colleagues also talk about ethics in their classes even if they are not teaching the designated ethics class required of all majors.
One of the hazards of formally writing a code — and SPJ’s members know this — is that people tend to cherry pick the parts they like and ignore the parts they don’t.
I’d like to draw attention to some of the items in that university leadership did not reference in the phone call with The Athens NEWS staff as reported in the story:
Seek truth and report it.
Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.
Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable.
Recognize a special obligation to serve as watchdogs over public affairs and government. Seek to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open and that public records are open to all.
The reporters on this story carefully documented all their findings and fully attributed the sources of all information. If they happened to uncover things the university leadership does not like, that does not make the reporting unethical.
Ohio University is a public institution. Its leaders are responsible to the public. By accepting employment with Ohio University, Shaffer made herself a limited public figure, which means her job performance is open to questions, criticism and comment.
The reporters note later in the story that the university leadership “collectively decided not to engage with The Athens News on a story that is irrelevant to the work of the university.”
Many fail to see how the work of the person in charge of the university’s and the university’s foundation’s finances is irrelevant.
Although news is where most of my journalistic background is based, I am familiar with public relations, and I offer this free advice to university leadership. You are not helping yourself with evasive and bully tactics. To the contrary, you are digging the hole deeper. Threats sound like attempts at hiding something really, really bad.
Editor’s note: Young is an adviser to Ohio University’s eight-time national chapter of year SPJ chapter, an associate professor of instruction at the E.W. Scripps School of Journalism, and a proud Bobcat.