Killing the messenger takes new meaning when you see it live, in living color, as happened in the deaths of a Virginia television news reporter and her cameraman.
WDBJ correspondent Alison Parker was conducting an on-air interview in a Moneta, Va., shopping center when she and the photographer, Adam Ward, were shot and killed by a disgruntled former colleague who also videotaped the attack and put it on social media.
The New York Daily News gave the murders front-page display, in very graphic detail than some TV outlets shunned.
Killings on video are increasingly common these days. Journalists are among those targeted now, becoming victims and not just reporters of events. Parker and Ward’s names are now added to a list that included James Foley and Daniel Pearl.
Tech-savvy killers use social media and the internet these days to show their crimes.
The Islamic State group released a video in 2014 showing Foley, clad in an orange gown, kneeling on the ground next to a man dressed in black holding a knife. Foley makes a short statement and then is decapitated.
In 2002, Pearl, a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, disappeared while on assignment in Karachi, Pakistan. Video shown around the world via the Internet showed Arab extremists cutting his throat, then decapitating the reporter.
In this world of social media, terrorists don’t need reporters to tell their message. Terrorists can do that themselves now, and one way of doing that is killing reporters.
The Virginia slayings were tied to a different kind of terrorist, one with a workplace grudge. Vester Flanagan worked as a WDBJ newsman until he was fired for unprofessional conduct. He videotaped his shooting of Parker, Ward and a woman being interviewed by Parker.
Flanagan led police on an auto chase until he crashed, and was found in the car with a self-inflicted fatal gunshot wound.
“Whatever the shooter’s motivations, the idea that journalists are targets for infamy seekers is now an idea in our culture,” writes Andy Ruddock, a senior lecturer in the School of Media, Film and Journalism at Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. His comments appeared in conversation.com. The website is an Australia-based independent, not-for-profit media outlet that uses content from academic and research sources.
His article is entitled: “Virginia TV shootings: Murder as a media event.”
Colleagues were forced to cover the deaths of Parker and Ward as it happened, Ruddock pointed out.
“In the digital age, news is a live performance,” he wrote, adding that “this unimaginable situation reflects global realities in news production.”
Footage of the crime forced news outlets to discuss how much of it should be used. Some used more, some used less. Most alerted viewers to the sensitive nature of the images.
“Beyond the shock of the ghastly crime,” wrote Ruddock, “the talk among journalists is about the upping of an ethical ante in a profession already facing unprecedented pressures.”
If journalists want to protect the public from disturbing images, writes Ruddock, “they can’t. This is precisely why professional journalism is every bit as important as it has ever been.”
Professional journalist would be expected to make news judgments based on ethics and professional standards.
“The question of how we are harmed by viewing real as opposed to staged violence is the main ethics issue raised by coverage of the shootings in Virginia, but there are others,” writes Frank. “One is the attention paid to the perpetrator.”
News organizations often are consumed by motivation. “Perhaps news organizations would do better to ignore them and focus on the victims,” wrote Frank.
“Certainly, we humans have always been fascinated with the criminal mind – with what makes transgressors tick. But is the possible role of the news media in inspiring copycat criminals even part of the newsroom discussion anymore?” Frank asks.
“Horrified as we are, or claim to be, by real violence, televised real violence that we can watch as it unfolds is realer than real and, therefore, vastly more fascinating than the kind we find out after the fact. Or so the mainstream news media believes.”
The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics encourages journalists: “Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.”
Charlie Hebdo, the French satire newspaper, published a cartoon of a drowned 3-year-old boy and showed why codes of ethics should warn against satirical cruelty.
Satire can be cruel, inspiring or infuriating. Maybe all at once. But are there limits to this form of freedom of expression?
Charlie Hebdo clearly touched a nerve by joking about the boy lying facedown in the surf of a Turkish beach, after drowning with his mother and a brother while attempting to flee war-torn Syria, becoming a stark symbol of Europe’s growing migrant crisis.
The cartoon was based on photos of the boy, first described as Aylan Kurdi and corrected later as Alan Kurdi.
“The haunting photograph of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian boy whose lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach last week, has been inescapable; even if you’ve just seen it once, it’s an image you can’t forget,” wrote Carolyn O’Hara, managing editor of The Week magazine.
O’Hara compared it with other grim photos of the past that forced the world to confront some tragic realities, such as the the 1972 photo of a naked Vietnamese girl screaming in agony from napalm burns, the 1993 image of a vulture stalking a starving Sudanese toddler and the hooded Abu Ghraib prisoner with outstretched arms.
It could be argued that these images served a greater purpose. Can the same be said about Charlie Hebdo?
Morocco World News reported “a wave of indignation has swept across social media denouncing Charlie Hebdo” for its cartoons “mocking” the drowned toddler. The New York Times reported widespread “disgust” with the cartoons.
The cartoons are in French. Aamna Hohdin, writing in Quartz, an online business news site, explained that one of the cartoons shows a Christian walking on water, while “Muslim children sink.” Another suggests the toddler narrowly missed taking advantage of a fast food promo.
The Quartz report leads with a headline saying “Charlie Hebdo is at it again — this time with jokes on drowned toddlers and the refugee crisis.”
The irony is that earlier this year, Charlie Hebdo gained world sympathy when three terrorists invaded its Paris headquarters and killed 12 people, most of them cartoonists and staff members. The militants, later killed, shouted they were avenging the Islamic Prophet Muhammad, who had been the subject of Charlie Hebdo cartoons.
“We have killed Charlie Hebdo!” shouted the militants, according to a New York Times report. At the time, the French newspaper prompted soul-searching about the limits of free speech. One could argue they’ve done it again, and continue a tradition of indiscriminate offense. The newspaper’s editor now says he will not publish any more cartoons about the Prophet Muhammad.
After the Paris attack, Je suis Charlie, I am Charlie, was an expression of solidarity with the satirical newspaper. In the wake of the drowning cartoons, that has not been heard.
It could be argued that a newspaper dedicated to satire does not operate by normal rules of journalism ethics. Its aim usually is to provoke, prod, insult and create awareness of uncomfortable truths.
Freelancing is a tough way to make a living – even tougher as downsized journalists turn to freelancing.
For writers specializing in health care, it’s especially challenging because of the ethics issues faced in navigating the cross connections between clients who want stories written for them or about them. Or both.
“Ethical guidelines for subspecialties may vary,” Tara Haelle in an email exchange with the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists.
A freelancer herself, Haelle traced the obstacles in a story that appeared on the Association of Health Care Journalists website.
Haelle calls it the conflict-of-interest maze: “Ensuring that work for one client doesn’t create a conflict for another, present or future.” Though that might sound simple, Haelle said it isn’t because freelancers work for companies, journalism publications, universities and foundations or as consultants.
Haelle went to several sources, asking how she can avoid ethical conflicts of interests under the conditions in which she works and found that ethical guidelines vary. One source said “there’s no clear answer.” Another said journalists should “decide for ourselves what we think is ethical behavior.”
That sounded like a challenge for the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, which has a staff of five university ethicists to answer questions of the kind posed by Haelle.
One of them, David Ozar, is professor of social and professional ethics in the department of philosophy at Loyola University Chicago. AdviceLine asked Ozar to read Haelle’s story and offer his perspective on how he would have answered her call for guidance on ethics.
Here’s what Ozar wrote:
First, I certainly agree with her that the question that she is examining – which I will phrase as, “Is it ever unethical for a health care freelancer to write about closely connected topics (where “closely connected” admits of many possible kinds of connections, of which the author gives a number of examples) for distinct outlets (journalism organizations, blogs, public relations projects, etc.)?” – is appropriate to be considered as a question of professional ethics and important for a freelancer to think carefully about.
Second, I also wholeheartedly agree with her one clear and firm answer at the end of the essay; namely, complete transparency about such situations with the editor (that is of the second and any subsequent outlets) is required.
Third, the principles of AHCJ which she mentions having consulted are a fine example of the kind of guidance a well-crafted set of ethical principles can provide to journalists in a particular area of practice, in this case health care journalism. But no set of principles should ever be expected to resolve every possible challenging ethical decision that could come up; the assumption that, if such a document doesn’t clearly resolve a decision, then any course of action in the situation is just as ethical as any other is not only false, but sets aside one of the fundamental bases of professional ethics, namely the commitment of every member of the profession to make careful ethical judgments in practicing that profession.
[G]o for it if you need the money and don’t worry about it” … in fact is a recommendation to ignore one of the central commitments of a professional journalist.
Fourth, as the author does when the matter is not crystal clear from consulting SPJ and AHCJ’s guidelines (too bad she didn’t call the AdviceLine: we would have given her more help than she got from the SPJ hotline respondent), getting advice from admirable practitioners of the ethics and skills of one’s profession is a valuable contributor to good professional ethical thinking. But it is also important to remember that their comments ought not be considered the final answer any more than some published document. It is the professional journalist who is going to be acting one way or another, so that is who should be making the best judgment she or he can about what ought to be done (or not done).
But what the author’s little essay does not even try to do is explain why situations of conflicting interests are of ethical importance in professional life. The answer has three parts, all of which depend on the fact that every profession and therefore every professional makes a twofold commitment to the larger society. One of these commitments is to practice in such a way that the profession as a whole and each professional individually can be depended on to place the well-being of those they serve ahead of every other interest that might be important to them. Acting otherwise than this can only be justified in exceptional circumstances if ever (which excludes merely fiscal considerations and the personal preferences of the professional). This means that “go for it if you need the money and don’t worry about it” not only fails to get at the ethical issues Tara Haelle is calling attention to, but in fact is a recommendation to ignore one of the central commitments of a professional journalist.
The second commitment every professional makes is that the practical judgments involved in providing professional services will be made as much as possible on the basis of that profession’s specific kinds of expertise. So a second reason why Halle is right to see a serious ethical question here – which is just as important as the first but not mentioned very directly very often – is that one’s professional journalistic judgments – about what is important and what is not, about what might help or harm one’s audience, even about who one’s audience is likely to be, etc. – can be adversely affected by one’s other interests.
One respected author on conflicts of interest sees this connection with expert professional judgment as the hallmark of a genuine conflict of interest: “P (whether an individual or a corporate body) … has a[n ethically important] conflict of interest if and only if (1) P is in a relationship with another person requiring P to make a judgment in the other’s behalf and (2) P has a[n]…interest tending to interfere with the proper exercise of judgment in that relationship” (Davis, M. “Conflicts of Interest” in Encyclopedia of Applied Ethics, vol.1, ed. R Chadwick. London: Academia Press, 1998; pp. 585-595).
The key is to carefully evaluate conflicting interests to determine if they will produce harm [or] interfere with the exercise of one’s professional judgment.
It is important to add a person is not unprofessional as a journalist simply because one experiences interests that might conflict with the well-being of one’s audience or the exercise of one’s professional judgment. The truth is that we all have lots of different kinds of concerns, and the fact that these interests can conflict with one another is an unavoidable part of life; having conflicting interests is, taken by itself, neither professionally ethical nor unethical. As the social philosopher Dennis Thompson points out, professionals often have “necessary and desirable” interests that are not directed to the person being served. Thompson calls these interests “secondary interests,” and calls the interests of the person served that are of specific concern to the professional the professional’s “primary interests in the situation” (Dennis Thompson, “Understanding Conflicts of Interest,” New England Journal of Medicine, 1993, v.329, pp. 573-576).
It is therefore not really very helpful for professional guidelines to say that conflicts of interest are simply to be avoided. While the AHCJ Statement of Principles, for example, does say a bit more than this, a statement just like this is the header; and the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists includes this directive: “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.” This advice is not helpful because many conflicts of interests are irrelevant to one’s professional life. The key is to carefully evaluate conflicting interests to determine if they will produce harm or loss to one’s audience in some fairly direct way or if they will interfere with the exercise of one’s professional judgment as a journalist.
For the freelancer who has the opportunity to be paid for writing about closely connected topics for distinct outlets almost certainly “has a[n] … interest tending to interfere with the proper exercise of judgment in that relationship.”
The third reason why situations of conflicting interests require careful ethical thinking on the part of the conscientious professional journalist is that the commitment to the audiences it serves must include a recognition of and respect for the audience’s ability to make their own judgments about what a journalist produces. Assuming one’s audience is ignorant and/or wholly passive is inconsistent with the profession’s commitment to serve the public’s wellbeing first of all. Therefore the journalist who is practicing with conflicting interests that might produce harm or loss to the audience or that might interfere with the exercise of the journalist’s professional judgment must be transparent with his or her audience about these conflicting interests.
[I]ntense commercialism … has made many journalists’ audiences cynical about the existence of professional expertise.
Since the ideal relationship between a professional journalist and the audience is that her or his journalistic judgments are informed above all by the profession’s distinctive expertise and are motivated by the professional’s commitment to serve their well-being first of all, the professional should be practicing on the assumption that this is how the audience will receive his or her product and therefore the audience must be alerted if there are conflicting interests at work that are ethically problematic, so the audience can then make its own judgments about the journalist’s work product. This is why the SPJ Code of Ethics adds, “Disclose unavoidable conflicts,” to its guidelines for such situations. The situation here is analogous to one in which the use of deception in investigative reporting really is the only way to protect the public from genuine harm. There too the reporter must be transparent about the deception so the audience has all the data it needs to properly judge what is reported.
Admittedly, the impact of today’s intense commercialism, which is affecting all the professions significantly, has made many journalists’ audiences cynical about the existence of professional expertise in general and about the strength of professionals’ commitment to the well-being of those served by the professions. But this is not a good reason to step aside from making one’s own work as a journalist as professionally expert and properly motivated as one can and assuming that her or his audience is taking the same view of what the journalist produces. Moreover, if a journalist were in fact feeling uneasy about being transparent with her or his audience about a conflicting interest in this way, then this concern should itself be considered a “red flag” that the situation deserves very careful ethical evaluation before proceeding.
Keeping these three points in mind – the professional’s commitment to the audience’s well-being, the commitment to create one’s work product as fully as possible in accord with journalism’s specific expertise, and the consequent obligation to be transparent about potentially compromising conflicts of interest – will provide the conscientious professional journalist with a set of fairly concrete ethical tests to apply in situations where conflicting interests are present, including situations in which the journalist has an opportunity to be paid for writing about closely connected topics for distinct outlets.
I’m a sucker for stories about news ombudsmen, or public editors or readers representatives, even though they are branded these days. I can’t help myself. It’s a compulsion, an addiction.
Think about it: An ombudsman might walk up to the top boss and tell him he’s wrong. She might pick through the details of a complicated story, then defend a reporter for doing a thankless, difficult or even dangerous job, or discover that a reporter did not go far enough to find the truth, and then say so publicly.
It’s almost heroic.
I suppose I also admire ombudsmen because what they do is so idealistic: speaking up without fear or favor, letting the chips fall where they may.
Maybe that’s why there are only about 20 of them working at American news outlets today, according to a Politico article, “The State of the Ombudsman in 2015.” That’s about half as many as a decade ago, according to USA Today.
Still, ombudsmen in the U.S. and elsewhere trudge on.
Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star in Canada, recently wrote an article titled, “So what does the public editor do?” Readers had asked her to explain her job, which she’s done for eight years.
English explained she reports directly to the publisher as part of a strong commitment to accountability and transparency.
“Being outside the newsroom gives the public editor essential latitude to weigh in on public complaints and, when called for, make clear to our audiences how newsroom journalists fall short of the Star’s journalistic standards,” English wrote. “Being outside the newsroom also means that the public editor has no say in newsroom decision-making.”
The Star is one of two Canadian newspapers with ombudsmen. The other is The Globe and Mail. CBC and Radio-Canada also have ombudsmen.
Eight years of experience, wrote English, proves “we can never please everyone.”
National Public Radio also recently posted “How we Work: A Week in the Ombudsman’s Office,” also in response to questions.
“The ombudsman’s office serves primarily as a liaison between the newsroom and listeners, to make the newsroom leaders aware of how listeners feel and help listeners understand why the newsroom makes the decisions it does,” said ombudsman Elizabeth Jensen.
The NPR ombudsman has no management authority, however, “the newsroom can take my suggestions (or not). I don’t speak for the newsroom or for NPR – just for myself – and I don’t have the power to print a correction or set policy,” Jensen wrote.
Jack Lessenberry, ombudsman of The Blade in Toledo, Ohio, recently pointed out that sometimes he has to side with a newspaper’s owners and editor, since they decide policy.
A reader wanted to know why The Blade denied the “Dr.” title to everyone except holders of medical and veterinary degrees. Lessenberry asked The Blade’s publisher and editor-in-chief, John Robinson Block, if it was time to change the newspaper’s policy. No, said Block. The policy is consistent and does not need to be changed.
“As far as your ombudsman is concerned,” wrote Lessenberry, “style decisions are up to the newspaper’s owners and editors. There is no fairness issue involved as long as the policy is consistent and consistently applied.”
In another example, the Columbia Journalism Review points to concerns raised by The New York Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, about a front page story that cast Hillary Clinton as the subject of a criminal investigation, which turned out to be false. First The Times revised the story, but did not issue a correction until 12 hours later. That did not meet Sullivan’s standards.
“When mistakes happen, the Times Needs to be more transparent with readers about what is going on,” she wrote. “Just revising the story, and figuring out the corrections later, doesn’t cut it.”
The ombudsman trade got more than the usual passing glance in 2013 when the Washington Post decided to replace its ombudsmen with a reader representative.
“I liked things better when the ombudsman was the reader’s representative,” wrote Elkin. “What sounds like just a change in title, substituting a more readily recognized job description for an obscure bit of jargon, is really something more. It is a mark of how the commitment of American newsrooms to impartial reporting is fading.”
The rise of the newspaper ombudsman, beginning in the late 1960s, “coincided with the golden age of American newspaper journalism in the 1970s,” wrote Elkin. He, like others, believed that the job was being watered down.
It’s understandable why ombudsmen are vulnerable as news organizations cut staff in a punishing era of digital information, wrote American Journalism Review editor Rem Rieder in 2013.
“But it’s a big mistake to look upon the position as a frill,” Rieder wrote. “The credibility of the news media is low. Mistrust on the part of the public is high. Having someone dedicated to listening to readers or listeners or viewers and dealing with their concerns can be a major plus.”
And it could be a step toward getting back to the idealism mentioned earlier. Idealism often accounts for the reason journalists get into the business in the first place. In this raging age of digital communication, that idealism gets lost. Let’s find it again.
GamerGate from its beginning a year ago seemed touched by lunacy, and that was borne out when bomb threats forced the abrupt closure of a video-game program in Miami.
The Society of Professional Journalists event AirPlay aimed to pin down the social-media campaign GamerGate – whether it’s about journalism ethics and accurate reporting about the video-game industry, attacks on women in the male-dominated industry, or resistance to political correctness and censorship. Or something else.
The conference goal was to “make a good gaming press better, or a bad gaming press good,” said Michael Koretzky, an SPJ regional director who organized and moderated. The conference “concocted some novel yet practical ideas for achieving that,” he said, such as an SPJ award for games journalism or recruiting games media critics.
A Twitter feed and hashtag and a YouTube channel suggest the event provoked lively discussion. SPJ secretary/treasurer Lynn Walsh said “if mainstream media jumps on this, it should be done well and ethically.”
Topics included plagiarism, fabrication, anonymity, fair reporting and the performance of Gamer writers. Koretzky asked about a “troll patrol,” how to vet or write about their social-media statements, and how to expose anonymous digital mischief-makers.
Then it all ground to a halt.
Miami police cleared the building after a series of bomb threats, UPI reported. Breitbart.com reported that the event got 10 bomb threats before police stopped the program and moved participants out of the building and into the streets.
Koretsky said two separate conferences in the building drew about 135 participants, of which about 60 attended the AirPlay event.
AirPlay was supposed to teach us something about GamerGate. AdviceLine asked Koretzky what the abbreviated conference taught him.
“I learned I was right about one thing,” Koretsky responded in an email. “Face-to-face opens minds. As for the bomb threat, it was awesome. It happened only 30 minutes before we ended, and it made @SPJAirPlay trend worldwide.”
Such threats are not new to GamerGate. Earlier this year a bomb threat cleared 300 people from a Washington, D.C., event aimed at GamerGate supporters. And Anita Sarkeesian, creator of a video series of pop-culture critiques, canceled an appearance at Utah State University last year because of the threat of a mass shooting.
AdviceLine asked Koretzky if continued threats of violence prove that some of those GamerGate folks really are nuts.
“I knew some GGers were nuts from the get-go,” he said. “But I learned just how many aren’t. I’d say it’s 50-50 &ndash which might offend both sides. But really, that’s a ringing GG endorsement, since so many folks told me the stat was 100 percent.”
And what else did he learn from the event?
“I’ve been talking to some gaming journalists post-AirPlay about why it wasn’t covered. Interestingly, the reporters are cool, editors are not. So once again, it’s age more than philosophy.”
As for his next move, Koretzky said he’s considering hosting a feminism-and-media debate.
Mark Samenfink, a lifelong gamer, wrote that he was frustrated by the way the Miami GamerGate event ended.
“This feels like a hollow victory,” Samenfink wrote. “But since at least half of the event took place (and was streamed live, worldwide), it’s not completely hollow. I was excited all day, my hype was real, I sat down to watch the debates and was overjoyed by them, but this … it just killed the mood.”
Did the gaming press cover the event?
“No,” said Koretzky, “just the bomb threats, and some not even that. It says more in defense of GG than anything else to date.”
Is GamerGate about ethical violations in video-game journalism?
Or is GamerGate just a smokescreen for harassing women who want to work in the male-dominated gaming industry?
Or is it something else?
A live-streamed debate will sort it out Aug. 15 in Miami.
Elements in the controversy include the $15 billion video game industry, the video game press, game reviewers, developers, commentators and those who sell advertising in gaming magazines. It’s a volatile mixture.
Michael Koretzky, a regional director for the Society of Professional Journalists, organized the conference and will moderate. His region covers Alabama, Georgia, Florida and South Carolina. Sponsors are the region and SPJ Florida.
AdviceLine questioned Koretzky on the key issues:
Why is GamerGate a journalism ethics issue?
Because GamerGate says it is – its supporters insist the movement started after years of shoddy journalism by the gaming press. What’s that mean? It means game reviews that aren’t objective, because the reviewers are too cozy with the manufacturers. Are they really? I dunno, that’s why we’re hosting AirPlay (the conference). GamerGate critics say the ethics charges are a smokescreen for a group of mostly white males who don’t like gaming journalists promoting diversity in their culture.
Why is the gaming issue worthy of SPJ’s attention? Reporters on the travel industry and the auto industry also have been accused of biased or inaccurate reviews in hopes of capturing magazine advertising.
Because there isn’t a passionate group of travelers or drivers going nuts over travel and auto magazines. The gaming press is reminiscent of the music press at the dawn of the rock era – not imbued with the ethics traditions of the news press.
Yes. Anytime average citizens cite journalism ethics, SPJ should respond. It’s hard enough to get journalists interested in the topic. Any time anyone else utters the term “journalism ethics,” that should be like a bell to Pavlov’s dog.
Are the GamerGate folks “gaming” everyone, just as the spoofers spoof and the malware devils spread viruses and other crap over the Internet, including hackers who like to cause damage?
Some are. Many aren’t. How do I know? I’ve talked to dozens of both over the past few months. Anecdotal, I know. But I’ve met earnest folks on both sides, and some trolls on neither side.
Some of this seems to boil down to the nature of the computer age. Anyone can say anything on the Internet.
Some observers appear to think GamerGate has had its day.
“Is GamerGate still relevant? Has the loose, mostly anonymous movement, which claims to be about ethics in journalism but whose critics (myself included) see as more a reaction to increasing progressivism and diversity in gaming, lost its ability to garner mainstream headlines, let alone sympathetic ones?”
The last word goes to Vice gaming contributor Mike Diver, who says maybe gamers are “geeks, dorks, or nerds,” or “losers who live with their parents.” But so what?
Q: Did you hear about the new “divorced” Barbie doll in stores now?
A: It comes with all of Ken’s stuff.<
Submitted By: Anonymous
TWEET OF THE DAY
Marriage is mostly about knowing which hand towels you can use and which ones are for the better people who visit your wife’s home.
From Chicago’s Laugh Factory
By Casey Bukro
A funny thing happened on WTTW’s Chicago Tonight show: they were talking about ethics in comedy and joke stealing.
It’s no laughing matter when comics steal jokes from other comedians. How can you stop it?
The Chicago Tonight program was prompted by a lawsuit filed by Alex Kaseberg, a Winnetka freelance comedy writer, who accuses television talk show host Conan O’Brien of stealing his jokes.
“Plagiarism is a huge deal in journalism,” said Phil Ponce, the moderator. “It’s a career-ender. Why is it not a career-ender in comedy?”
Nobody on the panel of comedy experts laughed.
“There’s a history of joke-stealing” that goes back to vaudeville, answered Anne Libera, director of comedy studies at Columbia College Chicago. Performers sometimes stood backstage and took notes so they could tell the stolen jokes later.
It’s not easy to prove when a joke is stolen, said comedian Dwayne Kennedy. People accuse others of joke-stealing all the time, he said, but “the topic is so broad,” it’s hard to prove.
From the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists archives
By Casey Bukro
Back in 2011, Chicago radio reporter Steve Edwards was covering gang violence and Chicago police for WBEZ when a video surfaced, showing youths menacing a suspect in the back seat of an open police squad car.
Was it ethical to use that video on a WBEZ broadcast?
That’s what Edwards wanted to know when he called the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists. The video shows two Chicago police officers standing at the parked blue-and-white SUV with the doors open in Chicago’s violence-prone Humboldt Park area. A group of shouting young men, some possibly minors, taunt a suspect cowering in the back seat and trying to cover his face.
Someone tells the photographer, possibly a gang member, “get a close-up.” The photographer posted the video on YouTube and quickly took it down.
Edwards told AdviceLine that WBEZ had been investigating allegations that Chicago police had a history of subjecting gang members to harm by picking them up, then dropping them off in “enemy” gang territory.
The Chicago Police Department told Edwards that it got a complaint about the incident and released this statement:
“The conduct that is alleged does not reflect the behavior and core values of the men and women of the Chicago Police Department nor our commitment to serve the community in a professional manner.” The department said its internal investigations divisions began an investigation.
In 2013, the Chicago Police Department announced that it had dismissed the two police officers involved in the incident, saying the charges included “unlawfully restraining a youth, transporting him without a valid police purpose to the turf of a gang that would threaten him and making a false statement about the incident to an Internal Affairs detective.” Continue reading Ethics of Using Internet Video of Police Conduct→
Some media people find it impossible to forgive Brian Williams, saying he tainted journalism through false reports.
A cascade of shame enveloped the former NBC anchor, demoted and vilified after saying repeatedly that he was aboard a military helicopter that was forced down over Iraq by enemy fire. Turns out that happened to another military helicopter, not the one he was riding.
Williams’ career began unraveling as other reports were called into question.
From a strictly ethical viewpoint, how should Williams be judged? He admitted he was mistaken about the helicopter incident and apologized.
Ethically, are there limits to forgiveness? Is it best to forgive and forget? Is he forever tainted, or is he allowed to get beyond it and redeem himself?
These questions were posed to AdviceLine’s team of ethicists.
“Philosophers understand ethics as ongoing reflection about ‘how one should live.’ In the professional context, that means ongoing reflection about the principles that should guide one’s work and how they apply to the concrete choices one faces every day. Ethics doesn’t exactly have a beginning or end.
“And, with respect to the Williams affair, we can evaluate his choices since the incident, and the choices of the network, as well as the original mistake.”
I asked Matchett if that suggests we should judge Williams and the aftermath by what he does from now on?
“Sure, that’s part of it,” said Matchett. “But I guess what I’m also trying to emphasize is that the fact that any particular bit of conduct that was good, bad, etc., is never ‘the whole story about Williams’ ethics.’ There is no whole story, except perhaps after a person is dead, because characters are never wholly fixed.
“What he does from now on should be judged in light of the fact that we know he is at least careless and at worst inclined to stretch the truth for the sake of a story.”
I told Matchett that appears to raise the issue of redemption.
“I don’t really have anything to say about redemption,” said Matchett. “Whether another person, or ‘the profession,’ forgives Williams doesn’t change his act from wrong to right. It acknowledges that his character isn’t all bad and that the mistake was in some sense ‘understandable’ given the various pressures he was under. And just to be crystal clear, note that ‘understandable’ is not the same as ‘justifiable.’ Or as we say in my business, an explanation is not the same as an excuse.
“As for people finding it ‘impossible to forgive,’ that’s a psychological issue or question, not the ethically central one. The ethically central issue is whether forgiveness is morally appropriate, whether people should do it, which is a little different from whether they can. … If it’s not appropriate, then folks are doing the right thing by refusing to forgive.
“But in general, I think any network would be foolish to leave him as an anchor on their main show. He has harmed his own and the network’s credibility. Even if the network execs were convinced that it was a forgivable mistake and his journalistic integrity could be counted on in the future, the average viewer surely doesn’t know Williams well enough to decide whether to trust him again.”
David A. Craig, another AdviceLine ethicist, who teaches ethics at the University of Oklahoma, sees it a different way:
“It troubles me that Williams seems to deflect responsibility for his untruths by saying he did not intend them. Journalists, especially those in roles as high profile as his, have a responsibility for every word that comes out of their mouths in a formal journalistic setting.
“If this were a single brief slipup in language, that would be different. But he was untruthful more than once about his experience in Iraq. Every viewer now has reason to question his trustfulness in the future. By failing to fully take responsibility for his words, he gives his audience ongoing reason to doubt.”
Reason to doubt Williams first emerged when military publication Stars and Stripes challenged his account of being aboard the helicopter that was forced down over Iraq.
NBC suspended Williams for six months without pay, then stripped him of his duties as anchor of NBC Nightly News.
As Matchett points out, we don’t know “the whole story” about Williams yet. Already, he is the subject of jokes and spoofs by the likes of Harry Shearer.
Forgiveness happens on two levels, personal and professional.
Journalists are notoriously soft on each other, and hard on everyone else. Journalists don’t like to criticize or censure other journalists. So, personally, they are likely to forgive Williams by finding that morally appropriate, as Matchett put it. They will write about ethical transgressions, but that’s not the same as taking a personal stand.
Professionally, it’s hard to forgive an act that weakens public trust in the integrity of journalism, which rests on a foundation of truth. The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics begins with this tenet: “Seek truth and report it.”
Falsehoods damage the profession, and cannot be tolerated.
Ethics: The word can make you feel drowsy, or start your heart pounding.
It all depends on whether you are suddenly tangled in a job-threatening dilemma, or one that might destroy your credibility.
Ethics: Distinguishing between good and evil in the world, between right and wrong human actions and between virtuous and non virtuous characteristics of people.
Sounds lofty and maybe even remote from our daily journalism lives, until it’s not so remote anymore.
Seated next to me at the Sigma Delta Chi awards banquet in the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. was the editorial writer of a Midwestern newspaper who was waiting to collect his award. A fellow winner at the dinner table asked the editorial writer how his publication had gotten embroiled in a highly controversial ethics issue.
The newspaper had revealed the names of two alleged women rape victims. Typically, publications avoid naming rape victims.
Off-the-record, the editorial writer explained the difficult process of arriving at the decision to name the women. Then he added that the newspaper had no ombudsman or other trusted source to discuss the difficult decision before publication.
At that point, I reached into my pocket and handed him several Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists wallet cards, explaining how to reach AdviceLine in the event of a similar need for ethics counseling. Call toll free, 866-DILEMMA.
The editorial writer seemed grateful, and said he would carry the cards back to his newspaper and hand them out to management.
Back to the banquet. The award dates to 1932, when the Sigma Delta Chi journalism fraternity honored six individuals for contributions to the profession. The Society of Professional Journalists continued the honors as its Distinguished Service Awards, then with a nod to its fraternal roots as the Sigma Delta Chi Awards for Excellence in Journalism.
The awards recognize the best news reporting in print, radio, television, newsletters, art/graphics, online media and research. The contest is open to any U.S. media outlet.
AdviceLine’s blog won a 2014 SDX award in the Online Column Writing (Independent) category. The blog comments on current ethics issues and describes the kind of questions it gets from professional journalists on ethics.
Here’s what the judges said in naming the AdviceLine blog the winner:
“Ethics, unfortunately, can be an afterthought in a 24-7/digital-first/anyone-can-publish-content environment. In an area that sometimes has no right or wrong answer, the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists helps media pros navigate murky waters. They are doing a public service and helping shape the way forward for our industry, and that deserves recognition.”
Also deserving recognition are the AdviceLine ethicist consultants: David Ozar, Loyola University Chicago; Hugh Miller, Loyola University Chicago; David Craig, University of Oklahoma; Nancy Matchett, University of Northern Colorado and Lee Anne Peck, University of Northern Colorado.
Probably fair to say each of us has an ethics hero. So as a bow to those who came before us, I’ll mention one of mine: American media critic Walter Lippmann, who said in 1920, “There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and shame the devil.”