Ethics Confidential: As AdviceLine Wins Awards, Critic Recalls Its Origins

By Casey Bukro

It might pain Michael Miner, media critic for the Chicago Reader, to know that he can claim some responsibility for how the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists handles confidentiality.

From the start, Miner has assumed that anyone who presumes to tell journalists what to do about ethics is a bit daft, silly or pretentious. He tends to be in the camp of those who believe that journalism ethics is an oxymoron.

“The old solution to journalism’s intractable contradictions was to build newsrooms no more than 100 feet from a bar,” Miner wrote in a column published March 9, 2001, a month after AdviceLine’s advent. Instead of a bar, wrote Miner, journalists now could pick up a phone and say, “Hello, sweetheart. Get me ethics.”

It’s good for journalists, and ethicists too, to have an unsympathetic, cold-eyed lampooner.

And Miner continues prodding, even when he wrote a column mentioning that AdviceLine had been awarded a Peter Lisagor Award May 8 by the Chicago Headline Club as best independent continuing blog. The Lisagor awards are given for exemplary journalism. Miner was not impressed.

Lisagor Award“But as life is richer when Bukro’s around to disagree with, I’m pleased to report he hasn’t gone away,” wrote Miner. It’s good to have a media critic, even after the passage of 14 years, who still closely follows developments in journalism and ethics with a wry bent.

The Lisagor award, named for the late Washington correspondent and PBS commentator, was the second in a few weeks given to AdviceLine. The Society of Professional Journalists announced in April that AdviceLine won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online independent column writing. The award will be presented in June in Washington, D.C.

Miner writes for the Reader, which describes itself as “Chicago’s Free Weekly/ Kicking Ass Since 1971.”

Miner is a good kicker. He wrote one of the first pieces about AdviceLine, saying in the 2001 column that a Chicago Tribune columnist beat him to using “a smart-alecky tone … forcing me to scramble for higher ground.”

Miner is also a very good reporter. He interviewed me in 2001 about what kind of calls we were getting from journalists, and I described some of our first. I thought I was being careful about identifying callers or details that could not be disclosed under our confidentiality policy.

Miner has a soothing voice on the telephone, teasing out information in a way that non-journalists might find disarming. He told others on the AdviceLine team that I had described some of the cases we handled, and encouraged them to do the same. And they did.

What followed was what I called a Miner uproar. After reading the Miner column, one AdviceLine member wrote in an email “I hardly know what to say about the extent to which confidences and commitments have been violated” in response to Miner’s questions.

The first reaction from some AdviceLine members was to say they had said too much, especially me for “spilling the beans,” causing others to follow suit.

This was virgin territory. How much can be said about ethics cases? Nothing at all, some argued. And, if you are not accustomed to being interviewed, it can be shocking to see your comments in print.

It was a tumultuous beginning for AdviceLine.

Even Miner was criticized for being too informative about the AdviceLine cases he described.

“I’m stunned, stunned, stunned to read that the contents of the phone calls to the ethics line were reported openly,” was one reaction that appeared in Jim Romenesko’s media news site.

The president of an SPJ chapter, not identified by name, had called AdviceLine with a question, and his question was described. He later told Romenesko that he had not expected his phone call to result in a news story.

My take at the time: “On the face of it, it looks as though some members of our team lost their moral bearings and we had an ethical meltdown as a result of the Miner article. How could that happen with a group trained in ethics?”

It was not ethics at fault. It was learning to communicate effectively. It was a hard-won lesson, one that rattled some members of the AdviceLine team.

At the core was knowing our standard on confidentiality, and sticking to it. Yet one of AdviceLine’s goals is education – learning what ethics issues plague professional journalists, and the advice given to help solve those dilemmas. There can be no education if the cases cannot be described publicly, even without names and places.

An AdviceLine staff member at the time, the late Mary Myers, reminded all of us of our mission: “We not only want to man an AdviceLine, but contribute to the greater discussion, understanding and body of knowledge regarding ethics and journalism.”

AdviceLine has refined its confidentiality policies periodically. Here are the questions asked every time AdviceLine gets a call or query.

1. Do I have your permission to share the details of your case, including your name and organization, with the AdviceLine team?

2. Education in journalism ethics is one of the AdviceLine’s core missions, so may we have your permission to discuss the nature of your case anonymously in the AdviceLine’s educational reports, books or online blogs, but without identifying you or your organization?

3. Real-life case reports are very important resources for education in journalism ethics, so may we have your permission to use the content of your case and our discussion of it, including using your name and organization, in the AdviceLine’s educational reports, books or online blogs?

The goal is to be clear on what AdviceLine can say publicly about the cases. Thanks, Mike!

Journalists Working for Community Groups Face Hazards

From the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists Archives

By Casey Bukro

Editors and publishers often are asked to serve as volunteers on civic groups.

Of course,  community groups might hope to get some publicity, and media management wants to serve their community. But is this symbiotic relationship good for journalism?

That’s what an editor for The Free Press, in Mankato,  Minn., wanted to know. She called AdviceLine in 2004.

She pointed out that an editor, especially in a smaller city, is regularly being pressured by  newspaper owners to be involved in community service like the United Way board. There is benefit, she said, for the editor’s work because you learn a lot about the community this way.

It also supports the paper’s message to the community that the paper cares about the community, she said. These are good things.

But at the same time it sends a mixed message to your reporters because, at a minimum, it looks like you are breaking the barrier between editorial and business; that you are schmoozing with the community’s power brokers like a publisher does rather than staying on the news side of the organization. She wanted to know what to do about this?

The AdviceLine consultant answered this way:

The first thing to say is that an editor who has to do such things needs to make sure she does not influence reporting about these organizations at all, because that would clearly break the barrier between reporting and business influence.

The editor is conscientious about not being involved in reporting about civic groups by leaving that entirely to the reporters assigned to those beats. Her concern is not that this activity is actually compromising anything in that way, but that her staff sees her going out to these things and wonders if there is compromise involved.

“I suggested that she sit down with them and talk it out, how she is being pressured by the owners for this and its benefits and her concerns about the ethical barrier,” said the adviser. “She could ask them for advice about it and elicit their help in making sure that the barrier is properly protected. She thought this was a good way to proceed.”

AdviceLine is always curious about what happened after journalists contacted AdviceLine. So, 11 years later, AdviceLine spoke with Joe Spear, managing editor of The Free Press. The editor who called AdviceLine has since left the newspaper, but Spear recalls working with her.

In 2004, said Spear, it’s possible that the newspaper did not have a policy governing the situation she called about. But in 2005, the newspaper was taken over by new management, Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc.

The new company “does have a handbook and just last week we went through the guidelines,” he explained.

The corporate handbook encourages journalists to “participate in worthwhile community activities, so long as they do not compromise the credibility of news coverage or the independence of the newspaper. Avoid involvement in organizations or activities that could create a conflict of interest or an appearance of conflict.”

Also,  “do not use CNHI or your CNHI paper’s connections to benefit you or your family, or to benefit a third party.”

A leading publisher of local news, CNHI serves more than 130 communities in the United States. The privately owned company is based in Montgomery, Ala.

Some cases are not always clear-cut.

“We have a photographer who teaches a photo class at a university in town,” said Spear. “He gets a paycheck. Is that a conflict? We leave it up to the editor and the publisher. If it appears to be a conflict of interest, we say we can’t do it.”

The AdviceLine consultant who handled the case commented: “The question isn’t whether conflicting interests exist, but whether the result is harmful in that it inhibits the editor’s or reporter’s exercise of sound professional judgment about something (or is highly likely to lead others to assume such harm will occur, as was the question in the original case).”

Another member of the AdviceLine team said it’s unfair to assume that civic boards invite journalists for the publicity.

“In my experience, they’re looking for someone with contacts in the community, or someone who can represent a major employer or its union, or someone who can take minutes or knows the web.

“Of course, they might want publicity eventually — or might NOT want publicity for something on the agenda. The journalist will want to think about how to handle that. But don’t discount the other reasons nonprofits may seek out people of honesty, talent and energy.”

An Editor’s Dilemma: Taking Donated Money for Reporting

From the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists Archives

By Casey Bukro

In tough economic times, newspaper managers are always looking for new ways to raise money and pay the staff.

For an editor-in-chief of a small Idaho newspaper, that was always a problem. But in 2005, he got an offer that seemed too good to refuse. So he called AdviceLine and explained his dilemma:

A county commissioner called the editor saying he should have a reporter at an afternoon meeting of the county commission, because the commissioner is having a conflict with the county clerk and expects “there may be some monkey business on the agenda.”

Strapped for funds, the editor could not afford to send a reporter to cover the meeting.

Not a problem said the commissioner. She has a friend willing to pay for the reporter’s presence at the meeting. The editor called AdviceLine, wondering “Is it ethical to accept this money?”

This is how the conversation went:

Editor: I’m inclined to say so. Without the money, no reporter. Without the reporter, no possibility of a story, something the public may need or want to hear.

Adviser: The Society of Professional Journalists ethics code says journalists should “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived,” “Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility” and “refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment … if they compromise journalists integrity.”

Editor: How would this payment scheme be a “conflict of interest?” How could it “compromise journalistic integrity or damage credibility?”

Adviser: Consider “perceived conflict of interest.” Suppose you are a reader. You read the story that results, which recounts a dispute between the clerk and the commissioner. You find out later, though, that the reporter’s presence was paid for by a friend of the commissioner’s. What are you likely to think?

Editor: Depends on the slant of the story.

Adviser: Why should it?

Editor: Hmmmm.

Adviser: Say you watch a press conference held by an embattled public official. One reporter gets called on a lot. You find out later he was paid for by friends of the official. What do you think, even if this questions seemed at the time “hardball?”

Editor: At the very least I’d re-read the press conference transcript and ask myself what he was up to.

Adviser: What do you think other media outlets in your area would say if they found out you’d done this?

Editor: Actually, we’re pretty much it in these parts, except for trade papers. But what about press passes to, say, concerts, rodeos, etc.? The organizers and promoters pay for them, not us.

Adviser: The pass is to enable the journalist to attend as a reporter, not a spectator. A better analogy might be: What might a reader think of the review if she knew that the promoter not only had issued the reporter a pass but paid the paper a sum of money equivalent to the reporter’s wage for the night?

Editor: Hmmm.

Adviser: I realize small-town journalism is different from the big-city type. The Tribune has a Clydesdale, and you’ve got a Shetland. But the issues are basically the same and you need to adapt them the best you can to your situation.

Editor: You’ve given me lots of food for thought. I’m now inclining the opposite way from the position I had at the beginning. Let me mull it over. Can I call you back?

Adviser: Sure.

Ten years later, AdviceLine tracked down the editor, who is no longer in the newspaper business. He quit in a dispute with new management over, among other things, raising revenue.

What did he do about that offer 10 years ago?

“I doubt that I allowed somebody else to pay for it,” said the ex-editor. “What might have happened? I didn’t cover it.”

But the editor admitted the temptation was great, because he knew that local commission meetings had a way of becoming explosive, making for interesting reading.

“It was so crazy,” he recalled. “In one case the commissioner slapped a clerk. And commissioners gave rants and got tossed out. It was great!”

He misses those days, but also recalls the never-ending tide of dilemmas.

“The buck stops with the editor,” he said. “The editor is responsible. Questions come up every week.”

Looking back on it, the adviser said he should have recommended that the editor adopt a procedures manual, “or some other way of maintaining an institutional ethical memory,” so that he or a future editor could ask, “have we ever dealt with something like this before? If so, how did we handle it?”

Conflict of Interest: What Does it Mean?

By Nancy Matchett

A reporter who covers town meetings wonders whether it is appropriate to pursue a relationship with a councilmember’s daughter.

A community activist learns that the editor of the local newspaper plans to run for town supervisor, and asks whether this is OK.

An editor discovers that one of her reporters is covering an issue he previously wrote editorials about, and wants to check whether her instinct to give the story to someone else is correct.

And a publisher posts a notice that “no anti-fracking info [is] welcome,” overturning the paper’s previous policy of printing flyers on both sides of the issue. This prompts at least one reporter to resign, and she wants to know whether we share her concern that the new policy poses a threat to journalistic integrity.

All of these AdviceLine cases raise the general question, “What counts as a conflict of interest?” Interestingly, the SPJ code is relatively silent on this.

It does say that journalists should “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived,”and “disclose unavoidable conflicts.” But the code does not provide further details about what would make a conflict unavoidable, nor does it offer a precise definition of what it means to say a conflict of interest exists.

This is not a criticism of the code itself; it is a reason why ethical professionals sensibly seek advice from time to time.

Conflict of interest is an example of an “open concept.” While it’s possible to give some textbook examples, there is no single definition that adequately covers all cases.

At best, there is what the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein called a “family resemblance” among the various situations in which the concept is appropriately used. When dealing with an open concept, testing your thinking against other professionals’ reactions is one of the best ways to ensure that you have fully understood what the concept means.

Whether a real conflict exists will also depend on facts about the particular individual whose interests potentially conflict. All of us have different abilities to bracket off our emotional attachments and understand conflicting points of view. So while one reporter might be able to draw a bright line between objective reporting and editorial work, another might find it impossible to report seriously on the arguments made by those with whom he disagrees.

One of the things AdviceLine respondents try to do is make sure callers are attending to this kind of detail. But even when it’s plausible to say that only the journalist herself knows whether a real conflict exists (the first three cases above could be examples of this), the need to avoid perceived conflicts of interest remains.

Why should journalists avoid perceived conflicts of interest even when no real conflict exists? The answer comes from reflection about the profession’s societal role. The average citizen isn’t in a position to know which reporters and editors can fight which forms of temptation.

And even the most seasoned journalist occasionally might be mistaken about his or her own ability to resist. To protect the profession’s integrity, it’s better for everyone involved if journalists avoid anything that looks remotely like conflict of interest. Only then can journalists and readers alike be confident that the profession is fulfilling its broader obligation to seek and report the truth.

Conflict of Interest: The Perils of Journalists in Love

From the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists archives.

By Casey Bukro

The managing editor of a California newspaper said one of his reporters has been having an affair with the mayor of one of the towns the paper covers.

The editor learned that she has sent her paramour at least two stories about his town prior to their publication. The editor intends to confront the reporter about this, but she is otherwise a fine reporter and writer and he doesn’t want to lose her.

A further complicating factor is the discovery that a competing newspaper has become aware of the relationship between the reporter and the mayor, and might run a story about it. The managing editor wanted to know the AdviceLine adviser’s take on this situation, for the reporter and for the editor.

The AdviceLine adviser pointed out that the reporter had violated two standards in the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics – to “act independently” and “avoid conflicts of interests, real or perceived” – by concealing her relationship with the mayor from her editor, surreptitiously leaking stories in advance of their publication and then concealing that exchange.

“The other paper’s telling this story before you do anything about it might severely or even fatally impair your paper’s credibility and reputation. Imagine what a typical reader would think,” said the adviser.

The editor answered: “I can, alas.”

Here’s what the AdviceLine  adviser suggested:

“I think you should do something decisive, and promptly. Either reassign her to an utterly different beat or function, at the minimum. Or fire her. In either event, you might consider disclosing the matter in some form to the public before the competition gets a chance to do it for (or to) you.”

The editor answered: “That’s pretty much exactly what I thought was called for before I called you — I wanted confirmation of my instincts.”

Years after the editor called AdviceLine for guidance, AdviceLine called the editor to learn the outcome of this case.

“I wanted to fire her outright,” said the editor, who left the newspaper after 22 years in the news business. “She eventually got fired,” he added, but not for her affair with the mayor.

The case was brought before the newspaper’s human resources department for review. The HR managers decided that an employee could have a relationship with whomever she wanted.

“With regard to the conflict of interest (of sex with the mayor), HR was not interested in that,” said the former editor.

“There also was an issue of the same female reporter sending her copy to the mayor for review before she filed it to the editor,” he said. “If we had not found out that she was sending copy to the mayor in advance, I don’t think HR would have signed off on firing her.”

Though journalists are guided by ethics codes like the one adopted by the Society of Professional Journalists, HR departments are guided by a different set of standards.

There were “worries about litigation in a highly litigious state,” said the former editor. That was a deciding factor.

Ethics of Promoting Advertisers

From the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists archives

By Casey Bukro

An assignment editor for a New York television station said that management is directing the news staff to give favorable “news” coverage to local advertisers.

The AdviceLine adviser said management’s mandate clearly is unethical, and the assignment editor recognizes that. But what to do about it?

The assignment editor was hoping to contact “some sort of ethics police.”

AdviceLine is not in the ethics policing business, but wanted to help the editor decide where to go next.

The assignment editor clarified his question by explaining that, while the station’s advertising sales department does not actually write “news” stories about advertisers, they pressure editorial staffers into creating stories about advertisers. The sales department has veto power over anything said on the air about an advertiser.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics supports the assignment editor’s concerns, the adviser observed. The code says journalists should “deny favored treatment to advertisers.”

As for his next steps, the assignment editor was encouraged to contact the SPJ professional chapter in New York, which might be willing to pressure the caller’s superiors to stop promoting advertisers, or at least raise questions about it.

The assignment editor also wondered if there was any legal recourse. The adviser gave him the contact number for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, to check if they know of any legal recourse. The adviser also suggested checking Federal Communications Commission regulations.

“After this conversation about resources, we talked a little about his just leaving the job and about the ethical and practical issues related to whistle-blowing to competing TV stations,” said the AdviseLine adviser. The assignment editor “had begun to think about both of these things, even though he was hoping we could provide him with help in finding a less drastic way to address the matter.”

April Fools’ Journalism

From the files of the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

By Casey Bukro

The April 1, 1985 edition of Sports Illustrated magazine carried a story by the late George Plimpton saying that a New York Mets rookie pitcher named Siddhartha (Sidd) Finch could throw a baseball more than 160 miles an hour.

It was a hoax, and Sports Illustrated later admitted that the story was an April Fools’ joke. Plimpton was famous for taking turns as a Yankee baseball pitcher, a Baltimore Colts football player and boxing Archie Moore — then writing about the experience from an amateur’s viewpoint. It was an example of what today might be described as participatory journalism. Plimpton did a lot of that.

A sports publication journalist called the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, saying he had an idea for an April Fools’ Day story in the Plimpton tradition, but wanted to know if that would be ethical.

The AdviceLine adviser remembered the story about fireball pitcher Sidd Finch, and was skeptical at the time he saw it in 1985.

“This was due to the very well-known reputation of Plimpton as a writer who went in for bizarre experiences and writing having to do with sports,” said the adviser, who also recalled that Plimpton and Sports Illustrated at the time “came in for little serious criticism once the hoax was divulged.”

Most readers thought it was “fun” in keeping with the kind of work Plimpton did during his career. But the adviser suggested that, just like fastball pitchers, not all writers can deliver a change-up:

“Without this background and past reputation, a true journalist risks his/her reputation and the reputation of his/her news media using this device. A direct answer is, the creation or promulgation of a known false story is unethical, Plimpton notwithstanding.”

Going Undercover for Drugs

From the files of the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

By Casey Bukro

An Arizona community newspaper staff is considering sending a reporter/photographer team out with a few $20 bills to do a story on how easy it is to buy drugs, but fear they might be arrested if they do that.

What are the legal and ethical implications? A staff writer asked in an email to the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists.

AdviceLine does not answer legal questions, but from an ethical perspective, said an AdviceLine adviser, the marginal issue is that the reporter would be acting as a buyer and misrepresenting himself.

If they went ahead with the plan to buy drugs, the staff writer added, would they be compelled to report it to the police? The adviser answered that they would have been a witness to a crime, and “it seems to me they would be obligated to do so.”

The assignment sounds more like police work than journalism, said the adviser, and “while I applaud the motive and the courage of the reporter, have you looked at other ways to accomplish the same thing?”

One possibility would be to cooperate with police, instead of embarrassing them, which an article about an undercover journalist might do.

Also, the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics discourages undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information “unless traditionally open methods will not yield information vital to the public.”

The AdviceLine adviser summarized his views by saying: “First, the project is dangerous. Second, it should be left to the police. And third, as an alternative, contact the police and ask if a reporter might accompany an officer who might carry out the ‘bust’…”

The writer said he had not thought about working with police in that way.

Brian Williams, Virtue and the Culture of Network TV News

IMG_9935Correspondent and professor Mike Boettcher, left, with public TV anchor Dick Pryor and professor and editor Yvette Walker (photo by Collier Hammons)

By David Craig

Who’s to blame for Brian Williams’ exaggerations about covering the Iraq war? Clearly he’s to blame because they were his choices. But Mike Boettcher, a longtime foreign correspondent for CNN and NBC who now does work for ABC, had an interesting take on that question during a panel I participated in last week at a conference at the University of Oklahoma.

Boettcher, who is now my colleague on the faculty at the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication, said we can blame Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. “They became the biggest stars in television news” based on the history they built as war correspondents – Murrow covering the blitz in Britain during World War II and Cronkite flying combat missions in B-17s. Thanks to their work, being a war correspondent became a rite of passage in TV news, Boettcher told the audience at the midwinter conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

In our era, Boettcher said, anchors are developed “in a very accelerated way, and I think that’s partly to blame for what happened.” He said Williams was the weekend anchor at WCBS in New York and the head of talent recruitment at NBC had his eye on him. After he came to NBC, the network “began to build the narrative around him,” parachuting him into the sites of major stories so he could build his “promotional reel.” Boettcher said Williams “started believing that narrative that was built around him,” and may have felt pressure to tell stronger stories because he didn’t believe his were good enough.

The Williams situation and Boettcher’s comments make me think of what philosophers call virtue ethics, a line of thought that goes back to Aristotle. Many discussions of journalism ethics focus on ethical dilemmas – hard choices involving balancing of principles such as seeking truth and minimizing harm. But a key element of ethics is connected with character and traits such as honesty and courage that people develop as habits and reflect in their decisions.

Did Williams’ conduct reflect a character flaw? That’s hard to say without being inside his head or being around him regularly, but the evidence of a pattern of exaggeration makes me wonder. Surely a key part of NBC’s investigation will be to see whether more evidence of a pattern exists.

Alongside the idea of virtue ethics comes a concept from Notre Dame philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. He talks about a concept he calls external goods – achievements that accompany practices (including journalism and other professions) but are not part of the substance of what these practices do. External goods – such as status, power and profit – have the potential to corrupt practices. They get in the way of virtuous conduct.

Did desire for status corrupt Williams’ pursuit of honesty? As with consideration of his character itself, that is a difficult question to judge at a distance. Regardless, though, his story is a cautionary tale for journalists and journalism students. That is particularly true in the age of celebrity journalism. Building one’s brand individually, and building a corporate brand and ratings, can overshadow honest and courageous pursuit of the truth.

Dick Pryor, an anchor on public television in Oklahoma who was on the panel with Boettcher, agreed it’s easy for anchors to get “wrapped up in who they are,” to start thinking they can’t apologize and to think they are “bigger than the news.” He said it’s important to use the “truth filter” and remember what you’re there for – not to make money or create a persona but to provide news and interpretation as a public service.

The ethical bar is higher than ever today for anchors and for other journalists because, as with the soldiers who helped bring Williams down via Facebook, every member of the public can instantly question the truth of what any journalist does. As Yvette Walker, an editor for The Oklahoman who teaches journalism ethics at the University of Central Oklahoma, put it, “Someone will find you out.” And as Boettcher said, there is a “new check and balance” where a little guy can bring down an anchor.

In the end, what NBC does with Williams will probably be driven by public feedback, said Todd Spessard, news director for KWTV in Oklahoma City. The “citizen ombudsman” helped create the situation, and “for better or for worse it will probably be the viewing public that in the end decides how this plays out.”

When Media Are the News: Brian Williams’ Mistake

 

 

 

 

  • Brian Williams under fire: Cartoons of the day
            Bob Englehart, Hartford Journal

 

By Casey Bukro

The news has been the news in recent weeks, starting with Rolling Stone, then Charlie Hebdo and now NBC’s Nightly News anchor Brian Williams.

Usually, journalists try to avoid being the story, although Williams demonstrated that television celebrities might see no harm in a little self-promoting embellishment even if it’s  untrue.

After challenges from military witnesses, Williams now admits he was mistaken or had “gone crazy” when he said that he was in a helicopter that was shot down in 2003 while he was covering the Iraq war. Williams often repeated that scenario, making himself look intrepid.

Whoops. It was another helicopter that was forced down by a rocket hit, not the one Williams was riding. Williams and military witnesses give different accounts of the incident.

Williams apologized.

Caught in a fabrication that was widely mocked on the internet, Williams said he was stepping down for a few days from his post as managing editor and anchor of Nightly News, a post which ethics expert Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute described as “the primary arbiter of the facts.”

Let’s get one thing straight: Williams was in a helicopter in a war zone, which was dangerous and laudable. Witnesses vouch for that. So I give the guy credit for doing a reporter’s job.

But he went a step too far and landed in the shoals of fabrication and deceit, which ended the careers of Jayson Blair of the New York Times, Janet Cooke of the Washington Post and Stephen Glass of The New Republic. Their careers crashed and burned.

Dan Rather left CBS News after 44 years for “a mistake in judgment.”

NBC management said they were considering “the best next steps.” They should consider the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics. It says “journalists should be honest….” They also should not cast doubt on the credibility of other journalists working to gain the trust and respect of the public.

NBC suspended Williams for six months without pay.

For some people, Williams will be living proof that “reporters make it all up.”

Williams told the false story of his heroics often, and one unanswered question is whether NBC knew the story was fake and did nothing about it. Where were the editors? Or was Williams so untouchable that nothing he said could be challenged? Television crew members with Williams also witnessed the event. Did anyone bother to question them?

To complicate matters, Williams’ 2005 coverage of Hurricane Katrina also is being challenged since he reported seeing a body floating past his hotel room in the French Quarter of New Orleans.

A local newspaper reported that flood waters did surround the Ritz-Carlton where Williams was staying. And a former sheriff’s sergeant working with the anchor during the Katrina floods says he believes Williams.

Charlie Hebdo was a far more tragic story, in which two gunmen killed 12 people in or near the offices of the satirical magazine, which had published cartoons of the Prophet Mohammed.

Two philosophers who are staff members of the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists wrote blogs about the event. You can read their comments at http://www.ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

David Ozar and Hugh Miller agreed that no religion condones killing people over religious or philosophical differences.  But they saw the Charlie Hebdo massacre turning on the issue of offense, and what should be done to avoid offending the beliefs of others.

A step in that direction came when al-Jezeera English banned the use of certain words that could be offensive in other cultures, such as “terrorists,” “Islamists” or “jihad.”

Nancy Matchett, also an AdviceLine staff member, had this to say about Charlie Hebdo:

” I too think the most interesting and difficult issues raised by satire have to do with the concept of ‘offense.’  One thing I might emphasize a bit more (and here I would be paraphrasing Eleanor Roosevelt’s famous line) is that no one can offend another person without that other person’s consent.

“That does not, of course, obviate the point that a person can, through deliberate malice or carelessness or even cluelessness, say or do things that are extremely likely to be taken offensively by specific others (and here again, I agree with both Dave and Hugh that such sayings and doings constitute ethical failings).

“It is just to note that the mere fact that one person ‘took offense’ does not, by itself, show that the purportedly offensive action was the result of a clearly blameworthy motive like malice, etc. Applied very briefly to Charlie Hebdo, it’s my sense that the magazine was trying to deliberately provoke (if not outright offend) in ways that make the taking of offense by various communities justified. But of course a murderous response to even the most highly offensive speech act is inexcusable in any context.”

And I would add one more thought about Charlie Hebdo. And that is to be true to your standards about giving offense. Think hard about it, and decide on your standards. Then stick to them. Charlie Hebdo intentionally offended. It was their standard. Journalists should decide where they draw the line.

Enough time has passed to show that Rolling Stone magazine clearly shot itself in the foot by reporting a story based on a single source, with no attempt at in-depth investigation, about an unnamed woman who said she had been gang raped by seven men at a fraternity party on the University of Virginia campus in 2012.

The story began unraveling almost immediately after it was printed as times, dates, places and people mentioned in the story did not match reality.

The author, Sabrina Rubin Erdely,  said she had agreed with a request from the alleged rape victim to avoid interviewing anyone else who might have been involved, thereby violating a standard journalism practice to seek as many viewpoints as possible to check the validity of the allegations.

Erdely and Brian Williams have this in common: They should have checked their facts.

Rolling Stone editors later issued a statement saying that in light of new information, “there now appear to be discrepancies,” and the editors concluded their trust in the young woman’s story “was misplaced.”

“The truth would have been better served by getting the other side of the story,” tweeted Rolling Stone managing editor Will Dana.

The university and the fraternity mentioned in the story were seriously smeared by the allegations, and the legitimate cause of campus rape prevention was damaged.

Charlie Hebdo represented an assault on freedom of expression.

Brian Williams and Rolling Stone represent an assault on professional standards in journalism, and a subversion of simply telling the truth.