Undercover Investigator Insults Journalists

By Casey Bukro

David R. Daleiden said he misrepresented himself and falsified his identification while investigating Planned Parenthood because that’s what journalists do.

What an insult to journalists! Ethical journalists know that telling lies and deception while covering the news destroys their credibility. Who would believe a journalist who lies, cheats or steals?

That’s why the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics clearly states: “Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story.”

True, there’s a qualification. And journalism lore is rife with tales of Hollywood-style derring-do, with reporters pulling off grand deceptions.

The Mirage tavern, a study in journalism deception.
The Mirage tavern, a study in journalism deception.

In 1977, the Chicago Sun-Times bought a tavern and staffed it with reporters and photographers to show the extent of corruption and shakedowns by Chicago city inspectors and others who took $10 or $20 payoffs to ignore safety or health hazards. Then the Sun-Times published a 25-part series that documented the abuses and crimes in the Mirage tavern.

You’ll still get an argument from some journalists who say it was a terrific story and resulted in major city, state and federal reforms. The talk at the time, though, was that the series failed to win a Pulitzer Prize because the investigation was based on deception, and that was wrong.

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Police Video: Searching for the Limit to Gruesome

By Casey Bukro

Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times, and every second of that fatal shooting was recorded by a police car dashboard camera in the middle of a Chicago street.

That video has been broadcast countless times, showing every twitch of the body and what appear to be puffs rising from McDonald’s body as bullets strike.

Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke and Laquan McDonald.
Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke and Laquan McDonald.

It’s gruesome, but it shows exactly what happened. The video is compelling evidence to disprove early police accounts that McDonald, who was black, was walking toward police with a knife in his hand and menacing police.

The video indicates that McDonald was walking away from police when Van Dyke, who is white, opened fire with a barrage that caused McDonald to twirl around, drop on his backside and roll to his right. Van Dyke kept shooting as McDonald lay in the street Oct. 20, 2014.

An autopsy confirmed that McDonald was shot 16 times. Van Dyke was indicted on six counts of first-degree murder and one count of official misconduct.

Police misconduct in shooting deaths in the United States is a major story propelled by television, a visual medium.

The use of phone video or dashboard cameras are recent developments that make it possible to show what happened, rather than rely on police or witness accounts. Technology is playing a bigger role in proving guilt or innocence.

But how many times is it necessary to show McDonald striding toward police, then falling to the ground as Van Dyke shoots him? Sometimes the whole scene is broadcast, sometimes it is edited so that it shows McDonald walking toward police.

Continue reading Police Video: Searching for the Limit to Gruesome

Sean Penn Touts Experiential Journalism on ’60 Minutes’

60 Minutes

Charlie Rose on CBS’ s “60 Minutes” broadcast.

By Casey Bukro

Sean Penn told “60 Minutes”, the CBS television news magazine, that he was practicing “experiential journalism” when attempting to interview Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

Penn admitted he failed. His article, based on an encounter with Guzman in a Mexican jungle and published in Rolling Stone magazine, was intended to spark a public discussion about U.S. policy on the war on drugs.

How could he succeed? When Penn actually had a chance to confront Guzman face to face, instead he asked Guzman if he has visited his mother and whether he knows Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar. These are not penetrating questions that could trigger public discourse.

What he did was not experiential journalism. He knows the phrase but he doesn’t know what it means.

American Journalism Review uses the phrase to describe “How Virtual Reality Could Depict News in 3D.” In this case, newsrooms attract young users with in-the-round video on the Oculus Rift gaming platform: “Strap them in vision-encompassing helmets and let them experience the news like a video game.”

A Nieman Journalism Lab report names experiential journalism as one of “The Five Es of Journalism in 2016.” Neiman Lab is a Harvard University project aimed at discovering where the news is headed in the Internet age.

“Journalism has always been about more than just the facts,” according to the report. “There is a place for informational news but also for experiences that immerse the audience in the narrative.”  It cites the New York Times’ “Snow Fall” feature, “an attempt at using words, graphics, video and interactivity to have readers feel the story.”

Continue reading Sean Penn Touts Experiential Journalism on ’60 Minutes’

Sean Penn Meets Drug Lord in the Jungle for Rolling Stone

el chapo

Sean Penn shakes hand of Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Sean Penn photo.

By Casey Bukro

Once again, Rolling Stone managed to embarrass itself by publishing an account by surly Hollywood star Sean Penn of a jungle trip to interview Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Penn reported that he farted but Guzman graciously pretended he did not notice.

Although pairing a Hollywood star with one of the world’s most wanted drug lords probably sounded like a good story idea, it does not get much more exciting than Penn’s faux pas. Guzman mailed a 17-minute videotape with answers to questions Penn sent by BlackBerry messaging after they met.

An article with Penn’s byline says: “Of the many questions I’d sent El Chapo, a cameraman out of frame asks a few of them directly, paraphrases others, softens many and skips some altogether.”

Penn admits: “Without being present, I could neither control the questioning nor prod for elaborations to his responses.”

Rolling Stone calls that an “interview.”

It should know better. The magazine is still recovering from apologizing for its “Rape on Campus” story at University of Virginia, which it later admitted was a “journalistic failure that was avoidable.” The entire story, which proved to be false, was based on an interview with one person. The failures, Rolling Stone editors admitted, included faulty reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking.

Now it’s Sean Penn in the jungle. Penn said it was his idea to contact Guzman. But the article amounts to a printed “selfie.”

On the Jan. 11 PBS News Hour, moderator Judy Woodruff said “some are questioning the ethics of Rolling Stone’s methods” and “the ethics of interviewing an infamous drug lord.”

The program featured Angela Kocherga, Borderlands News Bureau director for the Arizona State University Cronkite School of Journalism, speaking on the ethics of the Rolling Stone piece.

“It raises very tricky questions about what constitutes journalism,” said Kocherga. “It raised some very troubling issues about access and what constitutes real journalism as opposed to more of a conversation, rather than what they are calling an interview.”

Continue reading Sean Penn Meets Drug Lord in the Jungle for Rolling Stone

Secret Vegas Deal: Adelson’s Bet on Journalism

Sheldon Adelson
Sheldon Adelson, chairman and CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corp. Photo by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

By Casey Bukro

The stealth purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson had journalists guessing for a week about the identity of the new owner and had some fuming over a lack of transparency, a prime tenet in media ethics these days.

But why should we be surprised by all this?

Very rich men often play by their own rules and get away with it. Even in media, top executives sometimes believe they are exempt from the ethics standards they hand down to their employees.

Journalists are warned against forming close personal ties with the sources they cover in case of conflicts of interest or an appearance of conflict. Publishers, however, party and play golf with the high and mighty covered by their staffs and call that good business.

They see themselves as business men and women, not journalists. In this case, we’re talking about a businessman in the Las Vegas casino business, where razzle-dazzle is the way the game is played. The house always wins.

Politics makes it more complicated. Adelson reportedly declined mentioning his purchase of the largest Nevada newspaper, even denying it as first, because he did not want it to distract from the fifth GOP presidential debate being held at the time in the Venetian resort hotel casino owned and operated by the Las Vegas Sands Corp., of which Adelson is chairman and CEO.

Clearly, politics took priority. And that might offer a clue into some of the leading questions in Las Vegas these days, such as what does Adelson want, and what does he intend to do with the newspaper?

Continue reading Secret Vegas Deal: Adelson’s Bet on Journalism

What the Ethical Robo-journalist Needs to Know

The ethical rob-journalist.
(Shutterstock photo)

By Casey Bukro

Can machines learn ethics?

The Associated Press already uses an automated platform capable of producing up to 2,000 stories a second. This is especially handy when companies issue quarterly earnings, which can be drudgery for a human reporter who scans the reports for meaningful numbers and statistics.

The robotic journalist crunches those numbers in seconds and spits them out in readable form, not in Pulitzer Prize-winning style but adequate.

Robo-reporting is especially handy for business and sports stories heavy on numbers and scores.

Northwestern University was among the pioneers in using machine learning, or pattern recognition software, to assemble the basics of a news report. A 2009 student project created software to write a headline and story from a baseball game’s box score. Two NU professors in 2010 started a Chicago company, Narrative Science to find commercial uses for the technique.

Stories written by robots have a lot of potential for the news business, and a few issues that need to be hammered out. Like ethics.

Computers, for example, could become plagiarists.

“Just because the information you scrape off the Internet may be accurate, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have the right to integrate it into the automated stories that you’re creating — at least without credit and permission,” said Tom Kent, Associated Press standards editor, in a Digital Journal article, which cited comments Kent made to the University of Wisconsin Center for Journalism Ethics.

“I think the most pressing ethical concern is teaching algorithms how to assess data and how to organize it for the human eye and the human mind,” said Kent. “If you’re creating a series of financial reports, you might program the algorithm to lead with earnings per share. You might program it to lead with total sales or lead with net income. But all of those decisions are subject — as any journalistic decision is — to criticism.”

Continue reading What the Ethical Robo-journalist Needs to Know

Ethics Scan: Remaining Media Ombudsmen Uphold Standards

By Casey Bukro

Ombudsmen and public editors often are described as a dying breed, yet those who remain clearly take the job seriously.

A 2014 University of Nebraska graduate thesis finds there are about a dozen ombudsmen working now in U.S. news organizations, down from about 40 or 50 earlier in the decade. Internationally, however, the report finds ombudsmen growing in number and popularity.

In these times of job insecurity, ombudsmen seem to be taking more risks than most journalists. But they toil on.

In the U.S., Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times public editor, attracted attention for pointing to a conflict of interest Times editors failed to flag or apparently even to notice in an article titled “The Transformers.”

The article profiled five technology entrepreneurs, including Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky.

Tipped by readers, Sullivan discovered the article was written by the wife of a major investor in Airbnb, and that the writer was not a NYT staffer. The article appeared in T, the style magazine of the Times, and lauded entrepreneurs “harnessing goodness through technology.”

Sullivan came down hard on her employer in an article titled “Conflict of Interest in T Magazine’s Tech Article.”

Among readers who contacted Sullivan about the article, one wrote, “my question is about an undisclosed conflict” in an article that “reads as uncritical P.R.” for Airbnb without disclosing the relationship between the article’s author and the investor in Airbnb.

“This is a case in which the financial conflict is so clear, and the spousal tie so close, that a disclosure would not have been enough. A different writer altogether would have been a far better idea, and, to my mind, the only right one,” Sullivan wrote.

Sullivan found that T Magazine failed to live up to the Times’s high journalistic standards. Online, the article carries a disclosure about the conflict.

In South Africa, news24 reported that complaints to the Press Ombudsman faulted the Sunday Times for information it did not report, rather than what it did report about a tax-collecting agency of the South African government.

The Sunday Times published a series of reports on an alleged rogue unit in the agency accused of running a brothel and spying on President Jacob Zuma. Officials accused in the scheme resigned, but told the ombudsman “there is an alternative narrative” that contradicts the Times reports.” A lawyer said the Times had been selective and unbalanced in its reporting.

The Sunday Times of South Africa is a weekly newspaper. The ombudsman is pondering the case.

Here’s a long, scholarly look at the Press Council of South Africa by Dr. Julie Reid.

Despite the brain-twisting nature of the job, others still step up. ESPN recently named James M. Brady, formerly of the Washington Post, as its public editor. In making the announcement, company officials said his goal would be transparency and advocacy in an increasingly multimedia world.

Ethics Scan: Media Bias in Poland and Britain

 

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By Casey Bukro

Media ethics in nations around the globe can be as controversial, and thought-provoking, as they are in the United States. They are worthy of an occasional look, which is the goal of Ethics Scan.

A Polish public broadcaster is back to work after a suspension stemming from her tough interview with Poland’s deputy prime minister over his attempts to block a controversial theater production. He accused TVP, the public broadcaster in Poland, of “manipulating” public opinion.

The interviewer was suspended hours after the interview when the minister complained that her aggressive techniques were contrary to the expected standards of public television. However, TVP’s ethics committee decided that the journalist did not violate network ethics standards and was justified in grilling the government official, whose comments about TVP and its journalist were considered “unjust and hurtful.”

In the United Kingdom, the British Broadcasting Corp. discovered from a viewer survey that they wanted “less bias and political opinion in journalism and news reports.”

The BBC Trust, the network’s governing body, also found that viewers wanted fewer game shows and cooking programs, but more high-quality drama. BBC is the world’s oldest national broadcaster, dating to 1920.

In its analysis of the survey results, BBC said it was not clear how it was biased, since respondents on both sides of the political spectrum complained the corporation was against them.

A Second Look at the Mizzou Uproar, Pros and Cons

 

thefederalist.com photo

 

By Casey Bukro

Since all the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists consultants teach on campuses across the country, it seemed logical to ask them how they and their students reacted to events that played out at the University of Missouri over press freedoms and protests over racial tensions.

An earlier AdviceLine blog post focused on what appeared to be an attack on First Amendment press freedoms when faculty member Melissa Click attempted to banish two student photographers from the protest scene, for which she later apologized.

Hugh Miller, assistant professor of philosophy at Loyola University Chicago, took what he called a contrarian view.

“I disagree,” said Miller, citing a lawyer friend who pointed out that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution “is a restriction imposed upon the state, not upon individuals…. It imposes no restrictions on individuals.

“Reporters are perfectly free to jam a microphone in my face – no government authority can prevent them from doing so. And I am perfectly free to tell such reporters to get stuffed if I don’t want to talk or have them around. In so doing I do not violate the First Amendment. The First Amendment is not, IMHO [in my humble opinion], a license for journalists to demand, and get, access to coverage.

“Whether the contested access is on public property makes little difference to the First Amendment issue (though it may be important in a property rights sense). Nor does the First Amendment impose duties or obligations upon individuals to afford journalists the opportunity to cover them.

Continue reading A Second Look at the Mizzou Uproar, Pros and Cons

Mizzou Students and Faculty Flunk Press Freedom Test

Heated: Activists at the University of Missouri were caught on camera forcing photographer Tim Tai (left) off the public quad on Monday, during their celebrations over the resignation of President Tim Wolfe

Photographer Tim Tai explains First Amendment

By Casey Bukro

Amid the chaos of student and faculty protests over racial tensions at the University of Missouri, student photographers Tim Tai and Mark Schierbecker stood out as young men who understood their First Amendment rights to photograph and videotape the historic event in a public place.

Sadly, Tai and Schierbecker were badgered, harassed and bullied by students and faculty while trying to do their jobs.

Schierbecker videotaped Tai as he was harangued, surrounded and pushed by a crowd of students and older individuals who held their hands in front of his camera and would not allow him to move forward.

“We will just block you,” says one. “You need to go.”

Others chanted, “hey, hey, ho, ho. Reporters have got to go.”

Another says, “You gotta go, bro. You lost this battle, bro. Just back up.”

To his credit, Tai stood his ground and explained patiently, “The First Amendment protects your right to be here and mine.” He added, “I’ve got a job to do.”

Continue reading Mizzou Students and Faculty Flunk Press Freedom Test