A Philosopher’s Thoughts on Charlie Hebdo

 

  • Cartoonists pay Tribute to Charlie Hebdo attack victims - 25 Cartoons

By David Ozar

I am a philosopher and ethics professor.

Some of what has been said about the murder of staff at Charlie Hebdo has seemed to me to make very good sense; but some of it has been muddled by treating together a number of ideas that are very different from each other. There are at least three sets of ethical or social-ethical issues that these events put on the table for careful reflection.

I began writing about these issues because I was pretty sure that drawing a clear conclusion about one of these issues does not lead us to clear conclusions about the others.  I offer my reasons for this point of view here in the hope that they will help others think carefully about these issues and, if I am correct, avoid muddling them together.

One set of ethical issues raised by the events at Charlie Hebdo focuses on whether killing people to prevent them from speaking their views is ever morally/ethically justifiable. Very few people in the world believe it is.

No philosophical and theoretical position, Islamic or otherwise, that affirms every human being has a value that does not depend on what the person believes or how he or she acts would ever support such killings as morally/ethically justifiable.

Clearly, committed terrorists of any religious stripe or of no religion view humans differently.  But I am assuming the fact that there are people who hold other views about human beings is not counter-evidence enough for the rest of us to withhold judgment about the value of a human being, or a reason to view terrorists as anything but profoundly mistaken and dangerous enough to the rest of us that ethically extraordinary measures may be necessary to prevent them from acting on their views.

But as I said, I don’t think being clear about this set of issues provides clarity to the other two.

A second set of issues concerns what is or is not required of Muslims who seek to act faithfully in accord with the Koran.  The fact that the jihadists we are dealing with say they read the Koran as justifying acts of terrorism — and let us assume this is genuine and not strategic posturing for the sake of grabbing power or whatever, though their being genuine in this is also something that would need evidence for us to be sure — tells us nothing at all about other strands of Islam and nothing dependable about the Koran and surely provides no evidence about Islam in general or Muslims as a group.

I have no detailed knowledge about Islam and its many varieties and all the Muslims I have known personally have been good people whom I would be happy to call my friends. My guess is that there are as many strands of Koranic interpretation as there are regarding interpretation of the Judaic and Christian Scriptures; and the news about the Paris massacre has evidenced many devout Muslims who condemn terrorist acts of all sorts as being clear violations of Koranic teaching.

In fact, while these terrorists and ISIS do use the word “jihad” to describe their efforts, this probably tells us nothing specific enough to draw conclusions about jihad itself as this idea occurs in the Koran or is understood by Muslims generally.

For I do not know – and we would need to listen carefully to Koranic scholars to draw any conclusions – whether the notion of jihad in the Koran or in various Muslim traditions of interpreting it always requires terrorism. Religion-based wars have been fought — by partisans of many different religions — without resorting to terrorism. That is, in accord with the rules of ethical war (articulated for example, but not exclusively, in the West’s understanding of “Just War Theory”). There could just as easily be Islamic traditions that interpret jihad this way rather than seeing it as requiring terrorism.

And ethical/moral questions about what justifies acts of mortal violence under any circumstances, much less circumstances having any relevance to the present situation of various peoples in the Middle East, is a huge set of questions I am not even attempting to say anything about here.

Anyone wishing to understand the ethical issues involved in justifying war’s violence will find a good, careful discussion in Michael Walzer’s book, Just and Unjust Wars. A good example of a discussion of the ethical issues involved specifically in addressing the threat of organized terrorism that our country learned it must deal with in the events of 9/11 is Jean Bethke Elshtain’s book, Just War Against Terror.

The third set of ethical issues raised by the events at Charlie Hebdo concerns journalists and their various appropriate professional roles.  In an essay entitled, “An Explanation and Method for the Ethics of Journalism,” which I co-authored with another philosopher/ethicist, Professor Deni Elliott, I proposed an answer to the question “What Values Do Journalists Bring About For Those They Serve (i.e. in their designated social role in our society)?”

The book is: Journalism Ethics: A Philosophical Approach edited by Christopher Meyers, pp.9-24. This is a central question to reflect on when asking about the professional ethics of any profession.

I argued there that Needed [by the public] Information comes first and Valued [by the public] Information comes second.

Clearly the creation and publication of humor, and more narrowly of satirical humor, is not part of the role of journalists to provide the public with needed information or even information which the public does not need but values having for one reason or another.

I argued that the other kinds of good that journalists can do may well be ethically appropriate to their professional role, at least in Western societies, and I think that producing humor is one of these, either as entertainment or as something valued for other reasons, perhaps including thoughtful social criticism.

But I take it for granted that every profession’s ethics are the product of a dialogue between that group and the specific larger society in which it functions. So I think that, in today’s world where the products of journalists’ work go far and wide, it is a complex question to know whether societies where other things besides these two are not part of journalists’ social role are ethically justified in those societies.  This is a question I will not try to comment on here, but which would make a great topic for discussion by those who care about journalism’s professional ethics in today’s digital world.

With that as background, I can pose the key question about journalism’s professional ethics that is at stake here: Is satirical humor sufficiently socially-ethically justifiable within the social-ethical role of a professional journalist or professional journalist organization that such humor continues to be ethically justifiable when it is highly offensive to large numbers of otherwise reasonable, not-fanatic, peace-loving and neighbor-caring people?

This is a very complex ethical question.  What a person finds offensive is, for want of a better word, painful to them, it hurts.  And in general we think hurting others’ feelings ought to be avoided unless there is a good reason for it. In addition, it is rare that we judge hurting someone’s feelings, offending someone, for no other reason than to entertain other persons (besides the one who is hurt) to be something that is morally/ethically justifiable if the situation is one in which the hurt party has little realistic opportunity of avoiding the hurt.

The great American philosopher, Joel Feinberg, determined that his examination of rights should include a careful discussion of the extent to which offense can ever be morally/ethically justified and if there are circumstances in which it should be legally prohibited.

The work ended up taking him a whole, complex book to sort out. [The book is: Joel Feinberg, Offense To Others.]

So it seems to me that well-thought-out answers to the question I just asked are going to take time and effort to sort out, especially in an international digital world in which “news” of all sorts is flashed on screens, billboards, etc., at least in many parts of the world.  For that means that the ethical issue is not resolved by just saying, “Well, if you think it will be offensive (or even know it because they said it would be), just refuse to buy Charlie.”

That is not a realistic answer to the opportunity-to-avoid question in a world where the line between information, entertainment, and advertising has been blurred so thoroughly (although this blurring has not been solely the result of the changes in journalism in recent decades, but on the other hand journalist organizations have certainly played a part in the process).

So I think there is a lot here that is worth discussing, especially if we are willing to assume that short, quick answers are almost certainly going to be too simple once we get past the “do not kill” part of the matter.  That’s my ‘two cents” on this. Well, to be honest, it’s quite a few cents! But then I am a philosopher and I am unwilling to pretend complex ethical things are simple !

Dilemmas and Difficult Choices

By Nancy J. Matchett

Professionals wrestling with ethical issues often describe themselves as facing dilemmas. But in many situations, what they may really be facing is another kind of ethically difficult choice.

In a genuine ethical dilemma, two or more principles are pitted head to head. No one involved seriously doubts that each principle is relevant and ought not to be thwarted. But the details of the situation make it impossible to uphold any one of the principles without sacrificing one of the others.

In a difficult ethical choice, by contrast, all of the principles line up on one side, yet the person still struggles to figure out precisely what course of action to take. This may be partly due to intellectual challenges: the relevant principles can be tricky to apply, and the person may lack knowledge of important facts. But difficult choices are primarily the result of emotional or motivational conflicts. In the most extreme form, a person may have very few doubts about what ethics requires, yet still desire to do something else.

The difference here is a difference in structure. In a dilemma, you are forced to violate at least one ethical principle, so the challenge is to decide which violation you can live with. In a difficult choice, there is a course of action that does not violate any ethical principle, and yet that action is difficult for you to motivate yourself to do. So the challenge is to get your desires to align more closely with what ethics requires.

Are professional journalists typically faced with ethical dilemmas? This is unlikely with respect to the four principles encouraged by the SPJ Code (Seek Truth and Report It, Minimize Harm, Act Independently, and Be Accountable and Transparent). Of these, the first two are most likely to conflict, but so long as all sources are credible and facts have been carefully checked, it should be possible to report truth in a way that at least minimizes harm. Somewhat more difficult is determining which truths are so important that they ought to be reported. Reasonable people may disagree about how to answer this question, but discussion with fellow professionals will often help to clear things up. And even where disagreement persists, this has the structure of a difficult choice. No one doubts that all principles can be satisfied.

Of course, speaking truth to power is not an easy thing to do, even when doing so is clearly supported by the public’s need to know. So motivational obstacles can also get in the way of good decision-making. A small town journalist with good friends on the city council may be reluctant to report a misuse of public funds. It is not that he doesn’t understand his professional obligation to report the truth. He just doesn’t want to cause trouble for his friends.

This is why it can be useful to resist the temptation to classify every ethical issue as a dilemma. When facing a genuine dilemma you are forced, by the circumstances, to do something unethical. But wishing you could find some way out of a situation in which ethical principles themselves conflict is very different from being nervous or unhappy about the potential repercussions of doing something that is fully supported by all of those principles. Accurately identifying the latter situation as a difficult choice makes it easier to notice — and hence to avoid — the temptation to engage in unprofessional forms of rationalization. That doesn’t necessarily make the required action any easier to actually do, but getting clearer about why it is ethically justified might at least help to strengthen your resolve.

Ethical dilemmas are more likely to arise when professional principles conflict with more personal values. Here too, the SPJ Code can be useful, since being scrupulous about avoiding conflicts of interest and fully transparent in decision-making can mitigate the likelihood that such conflicts occur. But journalists who are careful about all of this may still find that issues occasionally come up. As the recent case of Dave McKinney shows, it can be very difficult to draw a bright line between personal and professional life. And the requirement to act independently can make it difficult to live up to some other kinds of ethical commitments.

Whether this sort of personal/professional conflict counts as a genuine dilemma is subject to considerable philosophical dispute. The Ancient Greeks tended to treat dilemmas as pervasive, but modern ethics have mainly tried to explain them away. One strategy is to treat all ethical considerations as falling under a single moral principle (this is the approach taken by utilitarianism); another is to develop sophisticated tests to rank and prioritize among principles which might otherwise appear to conflict (this is the approach taken by deontology). If you are able to deploy one of these strategies successfully, then what may at first look like a professional vs. personal dilemma will turn out to be a difficult choice in the end. Still, many contemporary ethicists side with the Greeks in thinking such strategies will not always work.

If you are facing a genuine dilemma it is not obvious, from the point of view of ethics, what you should do. But here again, it can be helpful to see the situation for what it is. After all, even if every option requires you to sacrifice at least one ethical principle, each option enables you to uphold at least one principle too. In addition to alleviating potentially devastating forms of shame and guilt, reflecting on the structure of the situation can enhance your ability to avoid similar situations in the future. And if nothing else, being forced to grab one horn of a genuine dilemma can help you discover which values you hold most dear.

The Steve Kroft Affair

 

 

By Casey Bukro

We here at Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists sometimes clash over what is ethical or not.

The Steve Kroft affair is the latest example.

The veteran “60 Minutes” correspondent admits he had a three-year fling with a New York City lawyer, though both are married.

“I had an extramarital affair that was a serious lapse of personal judgment and extremely hurtful to my wife and family, and for that I have nothing but regret,” Kroft said in a statement to the New York Post. Both the Post and the National Enquirer published salacious text messages between Kroft and his lover, proving once again that anything on the internet is not private.

A CBS spokesperson said “It’s a private matter.”

Soon after the scandal broke, an AdviceLine colleague wrote: “Are personal values/ matters the same as professional matters? Should I teach my students that I don’t care what they do in their personal lives as long as they make good ethical choices in their professional ones? Personally, this Kroft story does not interest me. His professional work does.”

Kroft is one of the most high-profile journalists in America. He has been a CBS newsman for 31 years, 26 of them as a correspondent with “60 Minutes,” which specializes in asking the high and mighty tough questions about their personal lives, their entanglements, their dalliances and the quality of their professional judgment.

Here’s what I say to my AdviceLine colleague: What people do in their personal lives reflects on their credibility and integrity. I don’t think you can separate personal and work lives that easily.

By your reasoning, we should have ignored Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, as we did with JFK and his affairs. Looking back on JFK, journalists are criticized now for turning a blind eye to his dalliances. Now we’re more inclined to think about accountability.

Kroft is a very public figure by virtue of his role on “60 Minutes.” Part of his job is exposing the conduct of public officials. I would buy your argument if he were not a public figure. That is why, in ethics, we draw the distinction between public and private individuals.

Also, there is the issue of blackmail. Anyone involved in something he or she does not want the public to know is subject to the possibility of blackmail and manipulation.

Tell your students that they have to be smart enough to recognize that ethical values apply to all facets of people’s lives, especially to public figures, and that they, themselves, become public figures when they become very visible journalists. Think Woodward and Bernstein.

That’s why, these days, we encourage publishers and editors to avoid becoming involved in civic organizations, a practice that once was common, and to a degree still is. There is the public perception that if a publisher is an official on the board of a civic organization, he will favor that organization and give it favorable publicity. He also is seen likely to keep bad information about the organization out of the news.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics warns journalists to avoid conflicts or interest, real or perceived.

All of this is in the realm of accountability, an issue we take more seriously these days. People with ethics issues should not be pointing fingers at others with ethics issues. “60 Minutes” sets very high standards and its correspondents should measure up to them.

Personally, I always thought my role as a journalist meant that I was forbidden from doing things others could do. When I covered finance, I avoided buying stock in companies I covered. I did not join organizations I covered. I did not take part in political campaigns.

You can argue that any American citizen is entitled to do those things, and you would be right. But I always believed that anything I did should be above reproach. Being a journalist was paramount. It is an honor, a privilege and a duty to be smart enough to avoid any activity that could tarnish my reputation, and the reputation of the journalism organization I worked for.

Too often, the public complains that the media gleefully write about the transgressions of politicians and others, while keeping silent about the transgressions of journalists. The “old boy” syndrome. They say we cover up for each other. It’s a double standard. We should report on the transgressions of journalists as vigorously as we do about the transgressions of others. It’s only fair.

Comments are welcome.

Rape, Cosby and UVA

A story in Rolling Stone featured the alleged gang rape of a University of Virginia student, launching calls for reform and more attention to the issue of sexual assaults on campus. Recent reporting by the Washington Post, however, has raised doubts about the veracity of the story.

Fraternity house named in alleged rapes (Ryan M. Kelly, The Daily Progress/AP file)

How aggressively did journalists pursue the facts?

By Casey Bukro

Rape became big news with allegations against Comedian Bill Cosby and an explosive Rolling Stone story describing a gang rape of a co-ed at a fraternity house on the University of Virginia campus, for which editors later apologized for “discrepancies.”

Both rape stories raised questions about how journalism works in America and whether it can be trusted.

Where were the editors while these stories were being covered? Tough editors ask tough questions, and demand answers from their own reporters about how they got the story and whether it’s supported by hard investigation.

Media are accused of failing to dig into serial rape accusations over decades against Cosby, who was seen as a popular father figure as he was portrayed on his television show.

About 20 women have accused Cosby of drugging them, and often raping them. But he has not answered to what he calls “innuendos.” Some of the accusers have been challenged. Cosby’s most recent comment is that his wife is dealing well with the controversy.

Pushing back, Cosby’s lawyer accuses a reporter of deception, and his wife, Camille, contends the media failed to take a close look at her husband’s accusers.

The Rolling Stone gang rape story by Sabrina Rubin Erdely is based on a single source, a woman identified only as “Jackie,” who claimed she was lured to a 2012 fraternity party by a man named “Drew,” and raped by seven men. The Washington Post described the story.

Good reporting usually involves getting all sides of the story. Erdely admitted that she made a deal with Jackie that no attempt would be made to find and interview anyone else involved in the alleged rape, or knew about it.  And her editors allowed her to get away with a violation of a basic tenet of good reporting – getting multiple sources to verify the accuracy of the story

The editors allowed this unusual dispensation from careful reporting because the story was “sensitive.” Yes, rape is a sensitive issue, but not a reason to suspend professional standards in reporting. Sensitive stories require more careful reporting, not less.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics urges caution in reporting sex crimes.

The story was widely reported and put a spotlight on campus rape. Then came questions about its accuracy. The accused fraternity had no party on the night the rape allegedly happened, and issued a statement saying that sexual assault was not “part of our pledging or initiation process.” It appeared to be fabricated and continues to be called into question from many sources.

Media followed the story as a lesson in journalism and ethics. A defamation suit against Rolling Stone is a possibility.

Rolling Stone’s managing editor, Will Dana, issued a statement:  “In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced.”

Other media noticed the discrepancies. Pittsburgh Post-Gazette Columnist Jack Kelly calls the story “an unforgivable breach of journalism ethics” and thinks the fraternity house should sue Erdely and Rolling Stone for libel.

Rolling Stone editors believed Jackie was credible, according to Leslie Loftis in the Columbia Journalism Review,  because of a bias – a willingness to believe Jackie because “everyone knows that there is an epidemic of rape on campuses around the country….”

It’s what you know, or want to believe, that can set a trap.

The editors at the Washington Post wanted to believe one of their bright and upcoming reporters, Janet Cooke. She wrote “Jimmy’s World,” a story about an 8-year-old heroin addict in a family of addicts. Narcotics addiction was a big issue in 1980.

That story was so good, it won a Pulitzer Prize in 1981.

Then came the questions. A Washington Post editor asked Cooke to get in a car and go with him to identify where Jimmy lived. They drove around and could find no Jimmy. Cooke eventually admitted she invented Jimmy.

Cooke said the Post’s high-pressure newsroom corrupted her judgement. She said she had heard about somebody like Jimmy. She decided to write the story, based on anonymous sources, to satisfy her editors, she said.

The Post’s ombudsman wrote a long critique on the “Jimmy’s World” story, and found that the editors bore heavy responsibility, adding that “everybody who touched this journalistic felony was wrong.”

Good editors are supposed to do the hard work of keeping stories honest.

“Don’t tell me what you think, chum. Tell me what you know!” said a fabled, crusty editor at the former City News Bureau of Chicago, once called the Devils Island of Journalism. He grilled his reporters as vigorously as he expected his reporters to grill their sources.

3 Ethical Pressure Points for Journalists on Twitter

Twitter shades of gray

Shades of gray: Rumor, intent and context in reporting on social media

By David Craig

This post is a condensed version of an article I wrote on the website Mediamorals.org.

For many journalists and news organizations, Twitter has shifted in a few years from being an oddity and add-on to a key tool for gathering and reporting news.

The thinking about ethics and best practices in journalistic use of Twitter has sharpened and evolved since the platform’s early days. But the ethical challenges persist, and the boundaries of best practices are difficult to nail down. Here, I will look at three continuing ethical pressure points for journalists using Twitter.

Handling unverified information

The continuous flow and immediate spread of information on social networks make this part of journalists’ work, which has always been challenging, more difficult. The consequences of incorrect information – whether about individuals, companies or governments – can be devastating and global. And with journalists occupying only a small space in the larger network of information flow, the pressure to pass on and amplify information prematurely becomes much greater.

My interactions with journalists, tracking of Twitter discussion, and reading suggest that journalists’ understanding of best practices with unverified information sits on a continuum from not tweeting until verified to acknowledging on Twitter while simultaneously checking. (For contrasting perspectives, see this AdviceLine post.)

The notion of reporting information in the process of being verified is in line with what City University of New York journalism professor and blogger Jeff Jarvis calls “process journalism,” which emphasizes being transparent about what one does and does not know, rather than waiting for a final finished product – which he argues is never perfect itself. I think the key challenge with this approach – and the lingering question for journalists – is how to be transparent in the midst of the larger network flow while maintaining truthfulness and minimizing harm.

What is the proper balance among these principles? Transparency alone doesn’t guarantee truthful information. Focus on minimizing harm alone can keep reports out of the public eye, even though members of the public might be able to help corroborate or dismiss them in an open network. Paying attention to the importance of the truth that is being reported alongside the extent of the harm that may result – a common balance in journalism ethics – helps in sorting out whether to transparently acknowledge unverified information on Twitter.

Beyond this, it’s important to use all available resources to verify content. As BBC News social media editor Chris Hamilton has told me, that means making the most of both technical tools such as Google Earth and reverse-image searches to check content shared through tweets and other means. But it also means using critical thinking to look for evidence of falsity and ask questions of human sources.

Navigating boundaries between personal and professional identities

The dual and overlapping uses of social media for personal and professional purposes create ambiguity about the identity of journalists using Twitter and other social platforms. One can signal intentions to some extent with a Twitter profile listing professional affiliations alongside some personal information, but not everyone will see the profile or the larger context of the kinds of things being tweeted.

I don’t think it’s necessary or helpful to agonize over whether journalists should offer routine tidbits about their personal lives in the same feeds they use for their journalism. As some journalists argue, doing that just shows they are human like their audiences. This may serve to increase rather than diminish their credibility. The bigger issue becomes how to handle opinion, especially opinion associated with what one is writing about.

Kelly Fincham, a professor at Hofstra University on Long Island, New York, studied a number of major news organizations’ social media policies for a chapter in Ethics for Digital Journalists, a book I co-edited. She found that although there were “some small signs” that “opposition to transparency about viewpoints is weakening,” overall the guidelines still warn against stating opinions on social media.

In the guidelines she studied, Fincham found that there has been a substantial shift since early days, from the expectation of separate Twitter profiles for personal and professional activity to a consensus that journalists should have single accounts. But single accounts do leave open the possibility that different people coming from one’s personal or professional worlds will assume different things about the intent of the account holder.

There is no foolproof way to navigate the challenges that come from the ambiguity of professional versus personal on Twitter. In ethical terms it’s important to be transparent by signaling the scope of the social world represented by including both professional and personal elements in the profile, or only professional elements if the focus will really be limited to those.

Providing context and narrative structure

From my own use of Twitter, I have seen how difficult it is to include structure and context. The character length limit makes it challenging to provide context for the meaning and significance of individual words. Other challenges involve connecting multiple tweets in a coherent way, especially given that many people get thousands of tweets a day and move in and out of the platform. It’s almost guaranteed that some followers will miss some tweets. From an ethical standpoint, this means that the truth users take away from these messages is fragmented and often missing some of the intended pieces.

Journalists have had several years of Twitter use to gain experience looking for ways to provide context and a coherent narrative. Jonathan Hewett, in another chapter in Ethics for Digital Journalists, notes the simple approach of numbering each segment of a series of related comments, in ways such as “1/3,” “2/3,” etc. (if the number is known). Parallel wording can also help, as he noted in an example of multiple tweets introduced by “Survivor of boat sinking:” or, in subsequent tweets, simply “Survivor.” He said BBC journalist Dominic Casciani has been trying “signposting” of tweets – “alerting users at the start of the day to what he’ll be covering later, for example, or providing a reminder of key points to add context and/or to help those who have not been following the story.”

Twitter hashtags also can help to provide context by keeping related tweets connected with one another.

On a larger scale, Storify has enabled journalists and others to combine tweets and other social posts in a single document and, if desired, add explanatory sentences of introduction and connection. But the tweets can end up in different contexts than the originals did by being selected for inclusion when related tweets were not.

All of these approaches using Twitter and related tools provide means to meet the ethical goal of truth telling to the greatest extent possible within the format.

 

Cosby: When The Media Watchdogs Bark, Or Not

 

By Casey Bukro

The serial rape allegations against Comedian Bill Cosby have reached the stage where people are asking why the media failed to report them when they happened.

It’s complicated and messy, in part because Cosby denies the allegations and calls them “innuendos” from the distant past which he will not dignify with a response.

The public often blames the media for hounding celebrities, sometimes to the point of ruining their reputations. Other times, the media are accused of promoting popular celebrities to the point of being a cheering section.

Both true.

It could be argued that Cosby got the cheering section treatment for decades. But now that’s changing and causes observers to wonder if media watchdogs failed, professionally and ethically.

Especially troubling are media reports that, in exchange for an exclusive interview, Cosby made a deal with the National Enquirer to delay a story about a new rape accusation while the civil suit in another rape case was going on. That strikes to the heart of media responsibility to report the facts, and whether the media did that in Cosby’s case.

The Columbia Journalism Review  says the press is responsible for ignoring Cosby rape allegations, pointing out that People Magazine published an article in 2006 about five women who accused him of rape.

About 20 women have accused Cosby of assaults, most dating to the 1970s and 1980s.

From a wider perspective, rape is one of those issues where the media tend to reflect societal attitudes, which includes the issue of privacy for both public and private figures. And all of that is changing fast. Media always had a responsibility to lead public opinion, not just follow it.

Not so long ago reporters ignored the private peccadillos of powerful figures in the belief that what they did in private was their business, not the public’s. Their silence was called “a gentleman’s agreement.”

Think President John F. Kennedy and President Dwight D. Eisenhower.

Kennedy was a known cavorter, but the White House press corps ignored it, in part to stay in the president’s good graces.

Rumor had it that Eisenhower had an affair with his war-time chauffeur, Kay Summersby, who confirmed it in 1975 in a memoir titled “Past Forgetting: My Love Affair with Dwight D. Eisenhower,” before she died. The rumors stayed mostly under wraps until the memoir appeared.

But rape is far more complicated. In the past, police departments sometimes minimized it as a he said/she said sort of thing. Women were sometimes twice victimized by rape and then accused of bringing it upon themselves. Sometimes they were ashamed to talk about it, especially when alcohol was involved.

It is a topic coming out of the shadows as women are more inclined to talk about it, and the media more inclined to report on it partly as a result of that openness and changing social views. That comes at a time when other sensitive issues, such as gay rights and abortion, are discussed more openly.

The Cosby accusations  stretch over decades, enough time to show how differently the issue is treated, then and now.

The case against Cosby snowballed recently after supermodel Janice Dickinson publicly accused the entertainer of drugging then raping her in 1982 when she met with him, hoping he would help advance her career. Dickinson is one of about 20 women who tell similar stories, one of whom was 15 years old at the time.

Nostalgia is another time-related thing.

Entertainment is a fantasy, just as Cosby as Cliff Huxtable was a fantasy. But it was a fantasy that the public desperately wanted to believe, wrote Vox.com’s Amanda Taub. They wanted to keep happy childhood memories of the Cosby show.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Is Lack of Attribution Plagiarism?


Fareed Zakaria (Getty photo)

By Casey Bukro

Fareed Zakaria finds himself the target of anonymous bloggers who accuse him of plagiarism.

Zakaria says he is not a plagiarist, but media carrying his columns on international affairs — Newsweek, The Washington Post and Politico — have posted corrections or editor’s notes advising readers that Zakaria had not sufficiently attributed sources for material in some of his columns.

Now take a step back for a minute to ponder how the case underscores differences in the way journalism works now, compared with just a few years ago.

In the past, even a whiff of plagiarism was a firing offense. The hammer came down hard in most cases. Mike Barnicle was fired from the Boston Globe for plagiarism. Jayson Blair was booted from the New York Times for similar offenses, plagiarism and fabrication.

And some editors in the past would dismiss information from anonymous sources as lacking credibility unless identity and motivation were known.

In the Zakaria case, the sources are bloggers known only as BlippoBlappo and CrushingBort who consider themselves plagiarism watchdogs at Our Bad Media. They cited 50 examples of what they considered insufficient attribution in Zakaria’s columns. They describe themselves as two young men who are not journalists.

Zakaria also appears on CNN in a program focusing on international affairs. He is widely respected and seen or read on multiple platforms. And that’s part of the problem, say the anonymous plagiarism sleuths. They say Zakaria is treated with a deference that is not shown to minor league journalists. He continues to write columns for media that attached warnings to some of his past columns.

Maybe that makes what he did correctable or excusable. Another new slant on journalism as it is done today, when the focus is more on finance and new business models. And maybe some editors believe lack of attribution is not plagiarism.

The Columbia Journalism Review points out that “outcry within the journalistic community, meanwhile, has been unexpectedly mute, with many discussions focused on the semantic question of whether Zakaria’s mistakes constitute what some news organizations consider an unforgivable sin.”

Zakaria admitted to a “mistake” in 2012, but said that for the most part he uses information that is generally or widely known.

In tweaking its code of ethics, the Society of Professional Journalists this year added “always attribute” to a long-time admonition to “never plagiarize.”

National Public Radio’s Robert Siegel began a segment on Zakaria by pointing out that The Washington Post was the fifth news organization to say “that work it has published by Zakaria appears to have attribution problems.”

NPR media correspondent David Folkenflik said the anonymous bloggers argue that “he’s done so much lifting unattributed characterizations of other people’s reporting that it amounts to plagiarism.”

Folkenflik went on to say that other critics insist Zakaria “is getting away with stuff that others wouldn’t be allowed to do who are more junior, who don’t have the brand-name recognition that he does…”

Dylan Byers of Politico.Com also outlined the campaign waged by the anonymous “plagiarism detectives,” and reported that Zakaria, in an email to Politico, argued “that he simply cited the same facts as others, which did not constitute plagiarism.”

Others say it’s a troubling pattern.

Writer Lloyd Grove wondered if Zakaria can survive the firestorm.

CNN, however, said it stands by Zakaria.

GamerGate Ethics: It’s Not About Scoring Points

Grand Theft Auto 5
Off-the-rails video mayhem in Grand Theft Auto 5 (Rockstar Games)

What’s the point of video game debate? Consumer reviews pose valid ethical issues, but not this one.

By Stephen Rynkiewicz

Critics are prepared to justify their opinions, but shouldn’t be forced to defend their livelihoods, much less their lives. Yet that’s the challenge now facing video game reviewers, and it’s a struggle that tests the maturity of their industry.

Threats against cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian brought the issue mainstream attention. An anonymous email warned Utah State University administrators of a shooting massacre at her speech on women in video games. She canceled the appearance.

It’s hard not to identify with that dilemma. But when I circulated the New York Times report on Sarkeesian’s cancelation, the Twitter response was harsh. “Oh boo hoo,” one wrote, “those terrible, count them, ZERO, attacks on hated busybody con artists.” That suggests the level of the “GamerGate” debate.

No regrets from this editor if the mayhem stays at zero. I’m trained to keep writers safe. Mostly reporters want an editor to check their facts and their logic; reviewers need a sounding board. We may even disapprove of what our critics say. Yet editors defend their right to say it. Must we defend to the death?

Continue reading GamerGate Ethics: It’s Not About Scoring Points

Take This Job and Shove It

 

Dave McKinney

 Dave McKinney

 

By Casey Bukro

 

Once again, one of Chicago’s top journalists is telling his bosses  to “take this job and shove it.”

The latest example is Dave McKinney, a highly respected  Chicago Sun-Times political reporter and Springfield statehouse bureau chief.

McKinney complained of being “yanked from my beat” and placed on temporary leave after staffers for Bruce Rauner, candidate for Illinois governor in an election that was only weeks away, made accusations against McKinney and his wife “in a last-ditch act of intimidation” trying to kill a story about Rauner.

McKinney pointed out that the Sun-Times editorially endorsed Rauner’s run for governor.

“Readers of the Sun-Times need to be able to trust the paper,” McKinney wrote in his resignation letter. “They need to know a wall exists between owners and the newsroom to preserve the integrity of what is published. A breach in that wall exists at the Sun-Times.”

Journalists were quick to come to McKinney’s defense.

The Chicago Headline Club, with a membership of about 500 journalists, said it was “shocked and disappointed” at McKinney’s treatment, and called it “a sad day in the history of the Sun-Times and Chicago journalism.”  The news spread fast.

In response, Jim Kirk, Sun-Times publisher and editor-in-chief, called McKinney “among the best in our profession,” but his leave was intended to “ensure there were no conflicts of interest……” Kirk denied that the newspaper’s ownership and management had any role in the matter. He took responsibility for the decisions.

Chicago tends to take its journalism, and sometimes its journalists, seriously.

The last time such an open conflict over news ethics erupted was in 1997, when Carol Marin and Ron Magers quit as evening co-anchors at WMAQ-TV Channel 5 over management’s decision to hire trash talk host Jerry Springer as a commentator on their news broadcast. Springer was known for hosting a show that featured raucous domestic disputes.

Marin and Magers considered Springer’s role on their broadcast “an affront to their credibility and integrity.”

On the day she quit, Marin had a story in the Chicago Sun-Times, where she is a political writer, with the headline: “Credibility, Thy Name Isn’t Springer.”

The decision to hire Springer turned out disastrous for WMAQ-TV. Not only did it lose two admired co-anchors, its 10 p.m. newscast ratings plunged 13 percent.

Robert Feder, a media columnist for the Sun-Times at the time, wrote that Channel 5 executives admitted that hiring Springer was a mistake after losing the anchors and “sending thousands of viewers fleeing in disgust.”

Springer also quit WMAQ after only two nights on the air, saying “it’s gotten too personal.”

Television viewers often form bonds with TV personalities, who are usually attractive and friendly. It’s as though those people on TV are personal friends, sometimes.

Those kinds of bonds seldom form with the largely invisible newspaper writers and reporters, who sometimes describe themselves as “ink-stained wretches.”

In this multi-media world, McKinney did appear on television via Skype broadcasts, reporting on political developments in Springfield. But it’s unlikely that readers will flee from the Sun-Times over the McKinney affair, as viewers fled WMAQ over the resignations of Marin and Magers.

In one of those strange twists, Carol Marin collaborated with McKinney on the Rauner investigation. Marin responded, saying the Rauner investigation was fair and accurate, although a “scorched earth” philosophy is not unusual in a political campaign.

“And so the Rauner team went over our heads to our bosses at NBC5 and the Sun-Times….” with untrue accusations, she wrote.

Hardball is the way the game is played in Chicago in both cases. But the basic issues are the same: Ethics, credibility and integrity.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Cited Out of Context: Reporting Data With Integrity

Chicago School of Data conference
Samia Malik (left) compares notes with technologists at the Chicago School of Data conference.

A Medicare database, second-hand stats and social-science findings shed light on how to handle data with care.

By Stephen Rynkiewicz

Journalists look for reassurance in data, as a way to validate what their sources tell them. Scientists aren’t so sure – they joke about “data” being the plural of “anecdote.” Two sources are better than one, except when they’re both wrong.

“You can really jump to the wrong conclusions if you don’t have an understanding of the background of the data,” says Matthew Roberts, informatics manager for Chicago’s health department.

Researchers make a familiar complaint about their data: Getting quoted out of context. The issue’s playing out in a Medicare database of payments doctors took from medical suppliers. Both groups found errors in the data, and payments on research in progress were withheld.

Before the site launched, Roberts told the Chicago School of Data conference that news media inspecting the raw data were among the first to jump to conclusions.

“They just made some wrong guesses about what the data meant,” he said. The final Medicare database gives companies a chance to comment — to give details that could suggest a productive partnership rather than a conflict of interest.

Continue reading Cited Out of Context: Reporting Data With Integrity