Freelancer Aims to Fib image

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

The freelancer decided he had found an innovative way to create articles for sale, but he was not sure if it was ethical.

The idea was to “outsource” some of the work by hiring a ghost writer for an article he intended to write about ghost writers. He put an ad on a writers’ web page asking for a writer to write two true stories for him: One about marrying his wife and the other about the day his child was born. The freelancer got 15 responses.

The freelancer was about to hire one of them to write those two stories. But then he felt a pang of guilt that he would be “using” the hired writer for his own story about the process of hiring and managing ghost writers. He did not intend to tell the hired writer why the writer was hired.

So the freelancer called the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, asking if what he was about to do was ethical.

“We talked for a long time about lying,” said the AdviceLine advisor. “We discussed how his article might be changed if he did tell the ghost writer what he was doing.”

The advisor also mentioned the 1999 Food Lion versus ABC case involving undercover reporting. Reporters from ABC’s Primetime Live submitted false resumes so they could be hired in Food Lion’s meat departments. They found unsanitary practices in various stores and used hidden cameras for the report. It was an act of deception.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics says: “Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public.”

The Food Lion grocery chain sued ABC in July 1995 in federal court in North Carolina, alleging fraud, breach of the duty of loyalty, trespass and unfair trade practices. Food Lion contended that ABC used illegal newsgathering methods.

A jury in 1996 found ABC guilty of fraud, trespass and disloyalty. It awarded Food Lion $1,400 in compensatory damages and $5.5 million in punitive damages for fraud. The District Court judge found the punitive award excessive and reduced it to $315,000.

ABC and Food Lion appealed. The U.S. Court of Appeals in Richmond, Virginia rejected the fraud claim but upheld a $2 award for breach of loyalty and trespass. The appellate judges decided the grocery chain failed to prove it suffered any injury because of misrepresentation by the broadcasters on their job applications.

The judges concluded that the ABC producers trespassed, but had permission to be in the stores because they were hired by Food Lion. But they did not have permission to secretly videotape in non-public areas of the stores for ABC’s use, because the stores did not consent to that.

Deception was one of the key points in the Food Lion case. The AdviceLine advisor asked the freelancer if he would want to be treated as he intended to treat the ghost writer he was hiring unwittingly for an article about ghost writers?

“He decided to tell the ghost writer what he was actually doing, telling him the truth,” said the AdviceLine advisor.


The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or

Accident Photo Ethics

sheboygan image.

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

A news photo can tell a powerful story, and it can cause pain.

Journalists know this, and they usually follow guidelines to guard against posting photos that might be disturbing or shocking.

The editor of a small daily newspaper in central Illinois acknowledged that, but wanted to know how immediate they should be. Journalists often pride themselves on being first with the news, with competition being one of the reasons for immediacy. But it’s not that simple.

“There’s been a debate in our newsroom about how soon we should post online pictures of potentially fatal accidents,” said the editor. “Although we’re small, so is the community. A large proportion of our readers either follow us online — or will see what we post when it’s shared.

Our standards

“We often arrive at the scene of bad accidents nearly as quickly as rescue workers, and our policy has been to post photos from the scene on our website and link to them from Facebook and Twitter. Editors always check the photos before posting to make sure they adhere to our standards – no blood, no bodies or other graphic imagery. Although damage done to the vehicle can be shown, we do not show license plates.

“Some readers feel that in a small community, vehicles can be identified  by relatives. So, this may be how they learn that a loved one has been involved in a possibly fatal wreck. Whenever we post such pictures there are many who complain online and in calls to the newsroom that we are out of line and that we should remove the photos. There have been an increasing number of readers who chime in to say that the photos have news value and that we are doing what newspapers are supposed to do.


“No one in our newsroom questions the news value of the photos or suggests that they should not be published in the paper. But some say that the posting of photos that show any portion of a vehicle should be delayed – perhaps by an hour or two, until families can be notified about a fatal accident. During that delay we could post photos that show backed up traffic, or that focus only on emergency vehicles.

“I disagree. The photos with the strongest news value should be posted. Showing the severity of a wreck is the information we have at that moment, and as long as the photo complies with the standards above, it should be used. The idea that someone might identify the make of a vehicle as belonging to a loved one seems too tenuous to withhold a photo that otherwise has news value. It’s a small town, but there are plenty of people driving the same make of vehicle. Can’t it be said we’re assuring people that their relative is safe because he drives a different vehicle than the one in the picture? When all other detail is lacking, that information at least can be shared.

Other views

“I’m open to hearing other views. One reporter who grew up in this area gets some particularly nasty feedback when his byline is on such photos. That harsh treatment from his own friends and acquaintances affects him – but to his credit, he still provides the photos for editors to choose from.”

AdviceLine does not offer easy answers to tough ethics issues. Through a conversation, AdviceLine advisors try to guide journalists to a decision based on standards of professional journalism practices, taking into consideration the perspectives of all parties involved while using clear and careful ethical thinking.

“A discussion needs to be held,” said the advisor.”Ethical behavior is not always black and white. Have you considered the fact that your small community might have a different culture, so to speak, than larger communities?

Greater good

“Consider if you are acting for the ‘greater good.’ Do those photos do more good than harm? If you think of the quantity versus quality argument, perhaps the news value of these accident photos does not have the quality that the community expects from the news people in your organization (such as the photographer who gets nasty comments.)

“I believe if you and your staff meet and discuss clearly what this dilemma is, what the alternatives are to this situation and why you do what you do (justification for your actions), you will be able to explain this to your readers.

Able to explain

“Then, when you are on the same page after your discussion — because this is very important when community members complain about what the newspaper has done, all staff members need to be able to explain — even if you stick to the same standards you already have in place. You as the editor should write an editorial explaining why the newspaper does what it does. Take the time to explain to your readers why you do what you do whenever you can.

“So, I am not telling you what to do, but I am telling you what to discuss so you and your staff can explain to your readers. I think this is important because it shows that you care enough about them to write to them.”


The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or

Unethical Media Managers image

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Management for a large Mid-Atlantic television station is telling the news staff to give favorable “news” coverage to local advertisers.

The assignment editor knows this is unethical, but what can he do about it? He called the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists.

An AdviceLine advisor confirmed the editor’s judgement that management’s action’s are unethical.

“He was hoping we knew how he could contact some sort of ethics police,” said the advisor. “I told him we were not in the policing business, but that I would be willing to talk it out with him and we went from there.”

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

“I first told him where to find the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics on the web,” said the advisor. The code says “deny favored treatment to advertisers.”

“As to his next steps, I suggested that he contact the local SPJ chapter, which in New York City is likely to be both active and populated by some journalistic heavy-hitters” who might be willing to pressure the editor’s bosses into stopping their unethical ways, “or at least ask questions about it.”

The editor asked if there is any legal resource. The advisor gave him contact information for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press in Washington, D.C. The phone number is 202-795-9300 and The advisor also suggested searching the Federal Communications Commission website for regulations that might be helpful.

“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, such as to competing TV stations. He 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.”

What kind of advice would you give the editor? Do you agree with the advice he was given?


The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or

Bad Ethics Advice image

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Can a journalist go too far in trying to be ethical?

“Following the ethical rules I’ve believed in for decades are now making it almost impossible for me to do my job,” said a freelance photojournalist, who appealed to AdviceLine for guidance.

When she began her journalism career 30 years ago at a major metropolitan newspaper, “it was drilled into my head by an editor that we can’t support any causes.” As an example, the editor said, “If a Girl Scout comes to your door with a fundraiser, you can’t give them any money.”

As a result, said the photojournalist, “I stayed true to this for 30 years. I don’t sign any petitions. I don’t opinionate on Facebook, I don’t give money to any organizations or fundraisers.”

The photojournalist now runs an independent news site, where she takes a lot of photos for animal welfare stories. When organizations ask for permission to use one of her animal images in public relations campaigns, she refuses, “because ethically I believe I can’t accept their money.”

As a result, “my little news site makes no money.”

Conflict of interest

This is a case of conflict of interest, a very subtle issue that requires careful thinking, rather than a slogan.

The AdviceLine advisor said: “I pondered all this for several days, deciding whether to tell her she had been given and lived for 30-plus years with bad — because severely over-simplified — advice about conflicts of interest.”

It all comes back to that advice about Girl Scouts and cookies. The advisor could easily imagine an editor 30 years ago simplifying the ethics of conflicts of interest. Even with several revisions, the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics says, “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.”

“But I have been teaching that this way of stating how to respond ethically when interests conflict is mistaken because it oversimplifies things far too much. The problem is that everyone has conflicting interest all the time and simply saying ‘avoid them’ is not helpful. Anyone who works for pay or even pro bono but gets credit for it somehow, or just satisfaction, has an interest in the pay/credit/satisfaction as well as in doing the work according to relevant standards. We could not function if that were not true. So the idea of ‘simply avoiding’ is not helpful.

Real question

“The real question is to ask whether the ‘other interests’ are likely to outweigh, or are already doing so, the interests of the people we as professionals are supposed to be serving, which in journalism is our audience (readers, listeners and viewers). Is the ‘other interest’ likely to cause us to not serve them as well as we ought. For example, the reporter holds back facts that are really important to the readers and viewers because they will reflect badly on the reporter’s brother-in-law.” Or worse, is serving the “other interest” likely to harm those whom we as professionals serve?

“So, I fear you have been motivated by your editor back then to forego many situations in which you could very ethically have supported good causes.”

Buying Girl Scout cookies could be relevant if a reporter is reporting on the Girl Scouts.

See the editor

“If one’s reporting does not touch on something one has, as we all normally do, some interest in, then the chance of misleading the readers and viewers is, I think, almost non-existent. And when one is assigned a task that one does have a significant “other” interest in, ordinarily the resolution is to talk to the editor to see if someone else who does not have that interest can do the task.”

Yes, journalism is in the integrity business, and journalists should think about what readers and viewers will think about their actions.


The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or

Google Accuracy Challenge

tittlepress.commedia ethics image

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists.

What does Google do, and how does it work?

Sure, you type a question and you get a load of information.

If you Google what Google does, here’s the answer you get: “Search engines like Google follow links. They follow links from one web page to another. Google consists of a crawler, an index and an algorithm. The crawler follows the links on the web. It goes around the Internet 24/7 and saves the HTML-version of all pages in a gigantic database called the index.”

That’s a nuts and bolts answer that appeals to technicians. But it says nothing about accuracy. Is the information true? And if not, what can you do about it?

Google starts

From the time in 1998 when two Stanford University PhD students started Google, users were pretty much powerless against what is known today as “the most powerful company in the world.”

That changed somewhat on Dec. 7, 2022, when the European Union’s top court ruled that search engines must “dereference information” if a person making the request can show that the material is “manifestly inaccurate.”

Google said it welcomed the decision.

EU case

In the case before the EU, two managers of a group of investment companies, who were not identified, asked Google to remove search results based on their names that linked to articles criticizing the group’s investment model. They said the articles made false claims. Google refused because it didn’t know whether the articles were accurate. The court disagreed, saying if someone submits evidence proving “the manifest inaccuracy” of the information, the search engine must grant the request. To avoid making it too hard to get false statements removed, the court said people may provide evidence “that can reasonably be required.”

The ruling is seen as applying to Europeans in the 27-nation bloc in the European Union. It’s believed that removing a person’s name might be sufficient to comply with the court order, while the accompanying article can still be found.

Remove parts

Search engines would not need to investigate the facts of each case to determine whether the content is accurate, the court said. They could remove the parts proven to be inaccurate.

Internet accuracy advocates lauded the court’s ruling for potentially paving the way toward greater investments for a trained workforce to handle deletion requests.

“This will hopefully push Google and similar Big Tech firms to invest in a sufficiently trained and well-employed workforce capable of handling such requests, instead of outsourcing crucial content curation work to underpaid workers or an unaccountable algorithm,” said Jan Penfrat, senior policy advisor at European Digital Rights (EDRi), an international advocacy group headquartered in Brussels, Belgium.

To be forgotten

Under a principle known as “right to be forgotten,” Europeans have the right to ask Google and other search engines to delete links to outdated or embarrassing information about themselves, even if it is true. These regulations often pit data privacy concerns against the public’s right to know.

In a statement, Google said: “Since 2014, we’ve worked hard to implement the right to be forgotten in Europe, and to strike a sensible balance between people’s rights to access to information and privacy.”

The United States lags behind the European Union in the drive to provide people with deletion power. About 70 million U.S. adults have criminal records, including those who were arrested but not convicted. According to Pew Trusts, as of April 2021, at least 11 states have automatic expungement laws over public records, but nothing stops the media from reporting the existence of an expunged arrest or conviction.

The Big Five

Google went public through an initial public offering in 2004. In 2015, it reorganized as a wholly owned subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., a holding company that is one of the Big Five American information technology companies, including Amazon, Apple, Meta and Microsoft.

Google and YouTube are the two most visited websites worldwide, followed by Facebook and Twitter. Google also is the largest search engine, mapping and navigation application and email provider.

Its prominence and size drew criticism. In 2020, Google executives faced questions from federal lawmakers on digital competition. Later that year, the Department of Justice announced filing a suit in federal court accusing Google of illegally maintaining a monopoly over digital search through exclusive business contracts and agreements that lock out competition. That included a contract in which Google paid billions of dollars to Apple to make Google the default search engine for iPhone and iPads.

Monopoly changes

Google “has maintained its monopoly power through exclusionary practices that are harmful to competition,” said Jeffery Rosen, a deputy attorney general. “Google is the gateway to the Internet and a search advertising behemoth.”

Two decades earlier, said the DOJ suit, Google started as a scrappy Silicon Valley start-up with an innovative way to search the emerging Internet. “That Google is long gone. The Google of today is a monopoly gatekeeper for the Internet, and one of the wealthiest companies on the planet.”

A decision in the case is expected to take years.


The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or

Mental Illness and Privacy

St. Patrick’s Mental Health Services image

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists.

Mental illness places a special responsibility on journalists to be sensitive to those involved in a story, which can become unusually complicated.

For example, the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was contacted in a case involving a missing 23-year-old woman last seen in a Lake Placid, New York, hotel. Her father posted information about her disappearance on his Facebook page.

A reporter for the Adirondack Daily Enterprise in Saranac Lake, New York, interviewed the father, who said his daughter had been on anxiety medications and exhibited “bizarre behavior” during a Skype call with her. The missing woman was off her medications, her best friend told the father.

“We had some reservations about publishing all this information about her,” the newspaper’s managing editor told AdviceLine, “but we went ahead and published it anyway.”

Missing person stories pose a familiar dilemma for journalists. They sometimes are criticized for waiting too long to inform the public about a missing person. Worried families want immediate action from media. Experienced journalists know that the missing person in most cases is found safe and unharmed, although not always. Sometimes people are reported missing because of misunderstandings about where they were expected to be.

In the Adirondack Daily Enterprise case, the missing woman was found a few hours after the print edition hit the street.

“Subsequently, we received a phone call from the young woman’s best friend, in which she claimed she had communicated with her friend’s father in confidence, and would not have spoken so freely had she known that her statements would find their way into print,” said the managing editor.

The caller said that her friend, the formerly missing young woman, would be greatly upset to see such private information about herself made public, and that it might do her some harm. She asked the newspaper to redact the online story to remove references to her medical condition, and what the friend had told the woman’s father.

The managing editor asked the AdviceLine adviser if the newspaper should let the record stand, or if the story should be redacted.

In his report on the query, the AdviceLine adviser wrote: “We spoke at some length about the conflict between refusal to alter an already-published story and the ‘minimize harm’ issues raised by the case.

“The most troubling bit had to do with the communication of the woman’s best friend to her father being made public. But the whole question of her privacy, particularly regarding sensitive personal medical information, was an important one.

“She is a private individual, with a greater presumptive right to privacy and consideration of that privacy from journalists. Future employers doing an Internet search of her name, for example, might come up with the story in its unedited form, and it might raise unnecessary red flags for her.

“The issue is: does she have a particularly strong case for special consideration here? Would the public be harmed if the information about her medical condition were to be deleted? Did it really need to know that information at the time the story was first issued.”

The conversation highlighted the “minimize harm” issues of the case, and touched on the possibility that it also could serve as a public forum topic on how the media should cover cases involving people with mental illness.

The managing editor responded: “Oh, wow, this is even better advice than I expected. Thank you so much – I do in fact know a professor who would love to help moderate a discussion.” He also agreed to AdviceLine’s use of the Adirondack Daily Enterprise case “as a teaching example.”

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics urges journalists to minimize harm in news reports.


The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or

Rare Ethics Feud

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Seldom do Chicago journalists quarrel in public over ethics, especially when all of them are retired broadcasters from the same Chicago TV station.

But that happened when Charles Thomas, former ABC7 political reporter, appeared in a series of TV ads lauding GOP Illinois gubernatorial candidate Darren Bailey, an Illinois state senator, on the eve of the November 8 election.

Every ad starts with: “For 25 years, ABC7 political reporter Charles Thomas gave you the straight news. Now, he’s giving you real talk on the governor’s race.” They emphasize his former career as a journalist giving “straight news,” which seems to allude to his credibility. This is what Thomas says about the Republican candidate:

“Darren Bailey, I met the man. He’s a family farmer. Somebody who understands what it’s like to go to work every day. Somebody who, who is fair-minded. I can trust this guy. I trust this guy. Yeah. A farmer from Southern Illinois. Yeah. Yeah. A farmer from Southern Illinois.”

Farmer and billionaire

A resident of Xenia, Illinois, Bailey was a member of the Illinois House of Representatives for two years before becoming an Illinois state senator on Jan. 13, 2021. His incumbent opponent is Jay Robert “J.B.” Pritzker, a billionaire businessman and a member of the wealthy Pritzker family that owns the Hyatt hotel chain. Pritzker has been the Illinois governor since 2019.

Thomas retired from WLS-TV, known as ABC7, owned by the ABC Owned Television Station subsidiary of the Walt Disney Company, on March 3, 2017. He left, saying: “Right now, we do a lot of stories about shootings and murders and such. We talk about the South and West sides of Chicago, which is a euphemism for the black community. I’m going to begin working to change that narrative to show some of the great things that are happening for African Americans in this region, in this state. That’s a mission for me moving forward. I have some fuel left in the tank, and I’m going to use it for that.”

In 2022, he was appearing in political attack ads aimed at Pritzker. “J.B. Pritzker? What’s he ever done, outside of being born on third base and telling the world he hit a triple?” It’s a tired political joke, used before against George H.W. Bush and Donald Trump, both born to wealthy families. People do not choose their parents, so it seems unfair to criticize people for the circumstances of their birth. But Charles goes on in another ad:

“J.B Pritzker promised what he called equity with the new recreational cannabis industry opened in Illinois. Blacks got nothing. Zero. Nothing. He needs to be punished for that. Black people should not vote for J.B. Pritzker, because he didn’t live up to that promise.”

A media feud

This led to a social media feud on Twitter between Charles and former Channel Seven colleagues.

Mark Giangreco, former WLS-TV sports director and lead sports anchor, called “sellout shill Charles Thomas’ campaign ads for Darren Bailey” ridiculous. Replying to Giangreco, Thomas shot back: “FREE Black man runs off the Democrat plantation and the White liberal Twitter dogs are barking! Run, Charles, Run.”

During a talk-radio WVON interview, Charles admitted being paid $50,000 to do the ad campaign, after being contacted by Dan Proft, a conservative strategist who runs the People Who Play By the Rules PAC that is backing Bailey.

“The reason I’m doing what I’m doing right now is not because they’re paying me $50,000,” Charles said during the interview. “Keep in mind, I got expenses, too. I got to pay people that work with me. But why I’m doing this is because of this ‘if you ain’t a Democrat, you ain’t Black.’ This (President) Joe Biden BS. I’m tired of that.” Thomas said he was shocked to see that Giangreco called him a sellout and asked, “Who am I selling out?”

Misleading promotion

Giangreco answered that by saying: “Obviously, you’re more than entitled to your political views. The issue is the misleading & unethical way you & Proft are promoting your guy .. using your former station’s call letters & images of its anchors to try to enhance your credibility.”

The opening image of Thomas at the ABC7 news desk in the ads includes Ron Magers, former ABC7 Chicago news anchor, who retired in 2016. Magers Tweeted: “Oh my, what appeared to be a judgment about reputation and ethics gets a race card response? Says a lot about you, Charles.” The ABC7 logo appears clearly in the ad with Thomas.

In the Twitter exchange with Giangreco, Thomas points out that Giangreco’s brother, Peter, is a political consultant, some of whom “get paid a LOT more (than Thomas). You could probably use a few extra bucks. How long has it been?”

Colleague surprised

Former ABC7 political reporter Andy Shaw, who worked with Thomas, said in an emailed statement: “I was surprised to see Charles, my longtime ABC7 colleague and successor as political reporter, starring in a political ad and on a candidate’s payroll because former newsies rarely engage in high-visibility partisan politics, and that’s one reason several of our former colleagues were so critical.”

Shaw said he was shocked by the general assumption that Thomas was a liberal Democrat. “Our bad for stereotyping, and beyond that, Charles doesn’t represent ABC7 any longer, so he’s free to support any candidate in any way he chooses, as are the rest of us.”

Responding to Shaw’s comment, Thomas said that general assumption was interesting. “Maybe they thought that because I was in journalism…somehow I had to be a liberal Democrat too. Well, I’m a moderate independent. That’s what I think of myself as, but maybe that’s who they think I was selling out: The fraternity of liberal journalists.”

Illinois corruption

This is not a column about ethics in government. That would be too much to expect in Illinois, given its corruption history and the number of former governors who went to prison. It is about a subject not covered in the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics, which advises active journalists how to conduct themselves. The code does not address how former journalists should conduct themselves.

This is a column about how a respected former Chicago journalist seems to be lending his credibility to a political cause that does not appear to help his mission, to change the narrative about African Americans living on Chicago’s South and West sides. I could be wrong about that, but I don’t see how adding to political polarization helps. It’s a good mission, though.

The liberal use of the ABC7 logo during those attack ads also is disturbing. It gives the impression that the television station supports what Thomas is saying. Journalists are forbidden to use company stationery for their volunteer work. It, or anything else with the company’s identification, should be used for company business.

In these times when media credibility is under attack, there should be no confusion about media ethics standards or false representations of support for causes.

Thomas reacts hotly to his critics, which tends to be typical of thin-skinned journalists who enjoy watching a good fight, and reporting about it, as long as it does not involve them. Since Thomas covered Illinois politics for a long time, he should know it’s hazardous to a person’s reputation.


The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or

Fake or Fact image

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

The Crain’s Chicago Business editorial headline said it all: “When is a newspaper not a newspaper?”

Publications with the look and feel of newspapers containing politically charged articles were cropping up in mailboxes all across Illinois before the Nov. 8 gubernatorial election, appearing to favor state senator Darren Bailey, a downstate farmer and Republican rival to the incumbent governor, Democrat and billionaire businessman J.B. Pritzker. Chicago mayor Lori Lightfoot and other democrats appeared to be targets for criticism too.

The eight-page ersatz newspapers focus on Illinois property taxes, calling them higher than in other states, Chicago crime and violent offenders getting “out of jail free” cards to prowl city neighborhoods and illegal immigrants arriving to stay indefinitely in Elk Grove Village.

The would-be newspapers tout themselves as “real data, real news,” but contain no contact information. A note “from the publisher” says, “the data presented in this issue was generated from public records and has been reviewed for accuracy. If we inadvertently presented any data in error, please alert us via email or phone.” But no email address or phone number is given. The publisher is not identified.

Shaw Local News Network was the first to shed light on that mystery, identifying the publisher as Local Government Information Services. Its website contends the organization “covers nearly every corner of Illinois” with 20 digital newspapers and 11 print editions offering “candid and concise local government news” and “a real media watchdog.” The print version is mailed unsolicited to large numbers of registered voters.

Further investigation revealed a force behind LGIS is far-right activist Dan Proft, co-host of a morning radio show, though his exact affiliation is not clear. Crain’s says LGIS is owned by Proft. The Proft newspapers printed unflattering and false stories about Governor Pritzker and his high school-aged daughter.

Publishing political content in the guise of traditional newspapers was the first red flag in the ensuing controversy. Crain’s Chicago Business called the LGIS publications propaganda “mimicking the look and feel of actual newspapers.”

“We live in a time when independent, nonpartisan journalism is increasingly rare — and more necessary than at any other moment in living history,” said Crain’s.

Then the situation got messier, from a journalism ethics viewpoint.

“It eventually came to light that these imitation newspapers were being printed by Paddock Publications’ commercial printing arm and distributed with a postage permit registered to Paddock,” reported Crain’s.

Based in Schaumburg, Paddock Publications is the parent company of the Daily Herald, third-largest newspaper in Illinois with a circulation of around 150,000 and dating to 1872.

Producing and apparently providing postage for LGIS publications, contends Crain’s, “is pretty much the definition of promoting this message.”

Upon learning of Paddock’s connection with Proft and LGIS, Governor Pritzker backed out of a Zoom gubernatorial forum with Daily Herald editors.

In a letter to Paddock Publisher Douglas K. Ray, Pritzker’s campaign manager, Mike Ollen, expressed “our extreme disappointment and utter shock regarding Paddock Publications Inc., the employee-owned parent company of the Daily Herald, allegedly lending its bulk mail permit to Local Government Information Services.” Allen describes LGIS as “the right-wing organization headed by Republican political strategist Dan Proft that is responsible for the onslaught of fake and misleading newspaper-style mailers that have been arriving in mailboxes across Illinois.

“These mailers are specifically designed to mislead readers into thinking they are legitimate journalism when in reality they are unlabeled ads attacking political candidates.”

The fake newspapers, said Ollen, “represent an existential threat to quality, independent journalism — making it all the more unfathomable Paddock would cast its journalistic responsibility aside in the name of profit” and is “actively undermining the good work that the legitimate reporters at the Daily Herald do every day to combat the rising wave of misinformation and fake news.”

Within hours of getting Ollen’s message, Paddock Publications announced it dropped its printing and mailing contract with LGIS.

“The perception for some has become that the Daily Herald favors one party over another and by printing for LGIS, it’s somehow promoting its message. That is not true,” said a message to Daily Herald readers by Senior Management of Paddock Publications. “Still, we understand that perception matters. And we want to move forward and extract ourselves from this politically charged environment.

“As a result, Paddock Publications has made the decision to cancel commercial printing jobs with LGIS. As an independent newspaper publisher, we want no part of the flame-throwing accusations taking place between Gov. J.B. Pritzker and LGIS. Many critics cannot or refuse to differentiate between a commercial printing operation, for which the parent company Paddock Publications has many customers, and the Daily Herald’s editorial mission to be unbiased and fair.”

The scolding tone of management’s statement seemed to blame others for failing to recognize “it was a business decision to take on the job,” although management’s statement opened by saying: “Perception is everything. Especially in politics.” It appears a public outcry was needed to recognize that, belatedly.

After the contract cancellation, Pritzker agreed to appear in the governor forum.

North Cook News, one of the LGIS publications, reported Paddock’s move “will not disrupt the distribution of LGIS newspapers.” The publication reported that LGIS was founded in 2014 with the DuPage Policy Journal, and lashed back at Paddock.

“Paddock Publications, the employee-owned company which owns the Daily Herald, took million (sic) of dollars in payments from LGIS over a seven year period to publish and distribute the chain’s newspapers from its 24-acre complex in Schaumburg. That ended abruptly after the Pritzker complaint.”

Chicago, Cook County and Illinois have histories of political hanky-panky, and political operatives often are proud of it. Especially if the shenanigans go undetected for a long time. In the Paddock case, LGIS reveals that its printing partnership with Paddock lasted seven years. None of the media reports explained how the LGIS operation is funded.

An LGIS directory listed 33,500 entries, including business groups, law firms, American Legion Posts, government groups and committees, restaurants, high school football teams, election officials, churches, synagogues, judicial districts, school districts and many others. Their role in supporting LGIS is not clear, but there are a lot of them.


The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or

digging further..

Naming A Boy in Sex Case image

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

A church youth leader is accused of having a sexual relationship with a boy, a minor at the time of the alleged crime.

The youth is 18 years old by the time the case reaches trial. His mother is the first witness in the case, using her full name. In court, the boy is identified as John Doe.

The reporter covering the case calls the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, asking if his California newspaper should print the mother’s name, which would identify the boy. They live in a small town.

The reporter is concerned about potential harm to the boy from being identified.

“I asked if the news organization has any policies or precedents that are relevant” to the case, the AdviceLine advisor said in his report on this case. The advisor also mentioned the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics, which urges journalists to minimize harm while seeking truth.

The reporter responded that his newspaper had no policies or precedents that could help answer the question.

Looking for a second opinion, the AdviceLine ethicist contacted a member of the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists staff who is a professional journalist. Most of the questions AdviceLine gets are answered by a staff of ethicists who teach or taught ethics at universities. But the ethicists sometimes reach out to professional journalists to ask how the news media typically handle some ethics issues.

“I wanted to get a second opinion on this since the boy is now at the legal age of an adult, and his mother is allowing herself to be named,” said the ethicist. The journalist “agreed with my initial inclination to err on the side of caution without a compelling reason to identify him.”

The journalist pointed out that even though the complainant is 18 years old, he is still young and warrants some additional protection.

“That’s in keeping with what the SPJ code and ethics scholars would say about being sensitive to vulnerable parties, including young people,” said the ethicist in his report. When the ethicist called back, he learned that the reporter had discussed the case again with his editor and they had come to the same conclusion.

Here’s what the SPJ code of ethics says: “Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent. Consider cultural differences in approach and treatment.”


The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or

Lawyer Seeks Advice image

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Journalists typically call the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists seeking advice about knotty ethics issues.

But not all callers are professional journalists. A lawyer called AdviceLine with a question that sometimes puzzles reporters, too: Does a journalist have a duty to inform an interviewee that his answers to questions will appear in an article, along with his name and title?

The lawyer said he was writing an article for a law review and gathering interviews as background. Part way through his research, it occurred to the lawyer that he had not told his sources that he intended to quote them in the article.

Would it be ethical, asked the lawyer, to quote his sources without their permission?

The AdviceLine ethicist saw this case as a potential dilemma in both journalism ethics and in academic ethics.

On the academic side, the advisor explained the definition of academic plagiarism, using the ideas or phrases of others without attribution. In that case, the lawyer “was certainly doing the right thing by citing his sources by name,” said the AdviceLine advisor. In academic practice, the advisor added, permission is not always required but “it would be professionally courteous to do so.”

The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists team consists of two groups of advisors, including university professors who teach ethics and professional journalists. University professors answer the bulk of questions posed to AdviceLine. In some cases, like this one involving the lawyer, the ethics journalism ethicsprofessor asked a professional journalist on the team to join in answering the question.

Occasionally, journalists who call AdviceLine simply want to know how other journalists would typically handle a particular situation. In that case, it’s more a matter of established journalism practice rather than ethics.

Interviewing sources is a key skill in journalism. In part, the lawyer who called AdviceLine seemed to be asking how a professional journalist would handle the question of identifying sources.

Professional journalists generally learn to develop a clear set of ground rules for interviewing sources. One of those rules is to say immediately that everything is on the record. That should be clear at the start. If there is any hesitation about that, it should be discussed before the interview begins.

“If somebody gets a call from a reporter asking questions, it should be assumed the reason for the call is that the information is likely to be published,” said the journalist involved in this discussion. “I know it sounds like a given, but I’ve had a few cases, after an article was published, that somebody interviewed called back and complained that they did not expect to be identified or quoted. Ideally, the reason for the interview should be made clear at the outset, and maybe again at the end of the interview. The reporter could say something like, ‘I intend to identify you and intend to use your comments in a story,’ just to be perfectly clear, especially when dealing with people who are not accustomed to talking to reporters.”

A mayor or other public officials would understand why a reporter is interviewing them. So this also is a matter of sophistication. A wise, ethical reporter should be more careful when interviewing members of the public and identifying them.


The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or