Fake News Trumps True News

Boston Globe fake news page.
The Boston Globe publishes fake news as an editiorial-page spoof in April, 2016.

By Casey Bukro

Fake news might have proved more interesting to readers than the factual stuff.

This sobering thought has churned angst over whether social-media falsehoods contributed to Donald Trump’s presidential victory, not to mention whether the upset win could have been foreseen.

News consumers tend to believe reports that support their personal beliefs — an effect that psychologists call confirmation bias. People like to believe they’re right. In the election run-up, they clicked their way across the internet to prove it.

As President-elect Trump selects the people who’ll help him govern, observers are picking through the rubble trying to understand the forces behind a Republican victory. Here our concern is news-media accuracy and ethics.

Let’s start with something basic. What is fake news?

“Pure fiction,” says Jackie Spinner, assistant professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago, appearing on WTTW-Channel 11 in Chicago in a “Chicago Tonight” program devoted to separating fact from fiction in internet news feeds.

“It’s something made up,” adds Spinner. “It’s fake.”

But as the WTTW program points out, “fake news is on the rise, and it’s real news.” Some false reports, such as campaign endorsements from Pope Francis, survived many a news cycle.

People like to believe they’re right. In the election run-up, they clicked their way across the internet to prove it.

A sophisticated consumer carefully examines the veracity of news reports and the reliability of their sources. But how much can a reader or viewer verify? Sharing the news on social networks heightens the concern.

“People want to feel good about what they think about the world,” explains Spinner. This might seem benign, but it brings impact to specious reports.

“Confirmation bias confirms what you think, and you look for information that confirms what you think about the world,” says Spinner.

Don’t expect the younger generation to act any better. According to a Stanford study, preteens and teenagers don’t know when news is fake. “They’re often clueless about evaluating the accuracy and trustworthiness of what they find” on social media, writes Sue Shellenbarger in the Wall Street Journal. They absorb social media reports without considering the source.

Craig Silverman, who covers hoaxes and online misinformation for Buzzfeed, reports that the top fake election news stories generated more reactions or comments on Facebook than top election stories from mainstream media.

Silverman compared the top 20 legitimate news stories with the top 20 fake news stories in three three-month periods, beginning in February 2016 and ending on election day. In the beginning, mainstream news beat the fake news. But by election day, fake news got more attention and reaction. Of the 20 fake news stories, he writes, “all but three were overtly pro-Donald Trump or anti-Hillary Clinton.”

Facebook, Google and Twitter were criticized for influencing the outcome of the election by giving a platform to fake and misleading news stories, and by profiting from paid advertising associated with those stories. Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg said it’s “crazy” to say fake news determined the election, but vowed to make changes.

Responsibility for correcting or controlling false reports lies with media and internet companies, says Edward Lee, professor of law at Chicago-Kent College of Law, appearing on the “Chicago Tonight” broadcast.

A sophisticated consumer carefully examines the veracity of news reports and the reliability of their sources. But how much can a reader or viewer verify?

On National Public Radio’s “On the Media” program, Silverman admits that his analysis is based on data from Facebook.

Moderator Brooke Gladstone notes that Facebook last summer tweaked its algorithm to make it more responsive to people’s personal networks and their personal interests, and that heightened engagement with fake news. So is that a media problem, a Facebook problem or a human problem? she asks.

“Maybe it’ll sound like a copout but I’m gonna check all three boxes,” answers Silverman, but adds that he sees no evidence that fake news gave Trump the election.

Facebook and Google are taking steps to stop ads from appearing on fake news sites. A CNN online story by Ivana Kottasova reports the two tech giants no longer will allow fake news sites to use their ad-selling services.

The Washington Post suggests that fake news stories were a problem throughout the presidential campaign. “We’re not talking about reports that are merely flawed or thinly sourced,” wrote Callum Borchers. “We’re talking about stuff that is completely made up.”

Bochers cites examples of bogus stories: Donald Trump is dead, Hillary Clinton will be indicted, a postal worker in Ohio is destroying absentee ballots cast for Trump, President Obama is thinking about fleeing the country if Trump wins and an FBI agent investigating Clinton died under suspicious circumstances.

As for sources, Borchers describes one, a fake news site named WorldPoliticus. It’s one of more than 100 pro-Trump websites originating from one town in Macedonia.

Taking an anti-establishment stance with fake news and innuendo can make you rich, according to another Washington Post article by Terrence McCoy. He describes how two former unemployed restaurant workers created LibertyWritersNews, a website that got 300,000 Facebook followers in October alone.

“We’re the new yellow journalists,” says one of them, Paris Wade. He caters to an audience that “does not trust mainstream media,” hooking it with short messages of violence, chaos and aggressive wording, “what people are attracted to.”

The New York Times describes “How Fake News Goes Viral: A Case Study.” It traces how a false report about protesters being bused to demonstrations against president-elect Trump fueled a nationwide conspiracy theory.

Another Times article reposts “a barrage of false articles on social media and fake news sites” saying a Washington pizzaria was a front for a child-trafficking ring led by Hillary Clinton and her campaign chief, John Podesta.

The Columbia Journalism Review gave an election postmortem citing reporting as the root of “journalism’s fundamental failure.”  Later it produced a massive oral history of campaign coverage in partnership with The Guardian US. The Trump election, says the report, “upended much of America — not least the establishment press.”

Finally there’s this comment from Margaret Sullivan, Washington Post media columnist: “The worst of the media is on full display, as if someone had set out to show just how terrible we hacks could look in these last moments before Election Day.

“To be sure, some great journalism has been published over the course of the campaign. But it largely had been drowned out by the unsavory.”

A Chicago writer recently told me that the staff of his newspaper was gathered together to talk about how to cover the Trump presidency. There was a sense of a new beginning and a need for reassessment of strategy, by going back to the basics of fairness, accuracy, objectivity and neutrality. It is a time for soul-searching.

This sense of a new beginning also is reflected in an open letter to Trump from the National Press Club, co-signed by 28 other American media organizations.

“We, a group of diverse journalism associations representing thousands of journalists from the nation’s capital to every corner of the country, begin this letter on a hopeful note,” said the letter written by Thomas Burr, National Press Club president. “Your administration is a blank slate and we are eager to work with you to perpetuate one of this nation’s great strengths: our freedom of the press.”

The letter calls for continuation of presidential press pools covering “all of the president’s movements,” regular press conferences and open access to key decision-makers “for the sake of transparency.” Rapid response to Freedom of Information requests also was mentioned, “as a way to show the American people, and the world, that the republic belongs to the people.”

“A great America depends on having sunlight on its leaders,” the letter concluded.

It sets a conciliatory and hopeful tone. Possibly Trump will respond in kind. In a meeting with the New York Times, he called the newspaper a “great American jewel,” adding, “I hope we can all get alone.”

This is a step back from his media-bashing statements during the election campaign. All involved appear to be willing to hit the reset button.

It’s a good time to be a journalist. There’s more than enough real news to go around.

Edited by Stephen Rynkiewicz. Comment below in the “Leave a Reply” box. For advice from our ethics advisers, submit a question.

Rolling Stone In the Penalty Phase of a Faulty Rape Story

Rolling Stone article
Rolling Stone retracted the article in its December 2014 issue months later.

By Casey Bukro

Rolling Stone retracted its 2014 story about an alleged gang rape in a University of Virginia fraternity house after admitting post-publication doubts about the story’s accuracy. You might wonder what a blunder like that might cost a publication, and now we know.

The magazine was hammered by lawsuits. In November 2016, a federal court jury in Charlottesville, Va., awarded $3 million in damages to a former U.Va. associate dean, Nicole Eramo. The jury found that the Rolling Stone article damaged her reputation by reporting she was indifferent to allegations of a gang rape on campus. Eramo oversaw sexual violence cases at U.Va. at the time the article was published.

The jury concluded that the Rolling Stone reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, was responsible for defamation with “actual malice,” which usually means a reckless disregard for the truth.

Continue reading Rolling Stone In the Penalty Phase of a Faulty Rape Story

Digital Journalism: Another Failed Business Model?

H. Iris Chyi.
University of Texas media researcher H. Iris Chyi says heavy shift to digital news was a mistake. Chyi photo.

By Casey Bukro

Here’s an interesting idea: The rush of newspaper management from print to digital journalism was a terrible mistake.

Cyber media was supposed to be the next big thing, the answer to plummeting circulation, advertising and readership. Soon it became clear that digital journalism got off on the wrong foot with a “bad business model,” this new way to get the news for free. That set an expectation of reluctance to pay for it.

“What if almost the entire newspaper industry got it wrong?” asks Jack Shafer on Politico.com.  He is Politico’s senior media writer.

“What if, in the mad dash two decades ago to repurpose and extend editorial content onto the web, editors and publishers made a colossal business blunder that wasted hundreds of millions of dollars? What if the industry should have stuck with its strengths–the print editions where the vast majority of their readers still reside and where the overwhelming majority of advertising and subscription revenue come from–instead of chasing the online chimera?”

Fascinating speculation, and Shafer admits it’s a contrarian viewpoint, but he bases it on a study of 51 U.S. newspapers by two University of Texas researchers, H. Iris Chyi and Ori Tenenboim. They published a paper in Journalism Practice, an academic journal.

That paper, said Shafer, “cracks open the watchwords of the newspaper industry to make a convincing case that the tech-heavy web strategy pursued by most papers has been a bust.” That strategy, Shafer adds, “has been a losing proposition for most newspapers.”

Come to think of it, history shows an “all eggs in one basket” strategy can lead to disappointment. The U.S. economy’s reliance on petroleum led to high costs and disruptions by unreliable sources. The electric power industry relied heavily on coal until air pollution and other problems forced the industry to turn to alternative and cleaner energy sources, like solar power. Nuclear power was heralded as the technology that would turn deserts green, but safety concerns derailed some of those hopes.

The nation becomes enchanted with new technology, and throws a lot of money at them. Of course, some technologies are life-changing, like the auto, flight, computers and air conditioning.

So what did Chyi and Tenenboim have in mind? Chyi is an associate professor and new media researcher at the University of Texas, Austin. Tenenboim is her graduate research assistant.

They studied 51 “larger” local daily newspapers, not nationally circulated publications like the Wall Street Journal or the New York Times.

Titled “Reality Check,” their paper concluded: “Results indicated that the (supposedly dying) print product still reaches far more readers than the (supposedly promising) digital product in these newspapers’ home markets, and this holds true across all age groups.” The quote includes the parenthetical comments.

“In addition, these major newspapers’ online readership has shown little or no growth since 2007, and more than half of them have seen a decline since 2011,” the authors state. “The online edition contributes a relatively small number of online-only users to the combined readership in these newspapers’ home markets. These findings raise questions about U.S. newspapers’ technology-driven strategy and call for a critical reexamination of unchecked assumptions about the future of newspapers.”

Borrowing a quote, the authors said the transition from print to online is, in the business sense, “spending analog dollars to get digital pennies.”

Chyi wrote a 2013 book, in which she states that readers avoid online newspapers because “they’re an inferior good” compared with print versions. Also, online editions tend to be perceived as inferior, she believes, because they’re free. They’re also cluttered with intrusive ads.

The book, titled “Trial and Error: U.S. Newspapers’ Digital Struggles Toward Inferiority,” contends that during 20 years of digital trial and error, bad decisions were made, unwise strategies were adopted, audiences were misunderstood and product quality deteriorated.

In her interview with Shafer, Chyi offered an analogy to illustrate the current online crisis newspapers are facing.

“Newspapers had been running the equivalent of a very nice high-end steakhouse,” she told Shafer. Then McDonald’s moved to town and sold a lot of cheap hamburgers. Newspapers decided, in the metaphorical sense, to compete by dropping steak and selling hamburgers, although they had no expertise in selling hamburgers.

“What they should have done is improve the steak product,” Chyi told Shafer. Later, she added, “It’s not too late. There’s some hope if they rethink their strategies.”

Chyi and Tenenboim noted a mass migration of news consumers to the web, but said that most readers go to news aggregators, like Yahoo News and Google News.

In an earlier Politico story, which Shafer called his “valentine to newsprint,” titled “Why Print News Still Rules,” the reporter pointed out that “the newspaper has refined its user interface for more than two centuries” in thousands of newspapers over hundreds of millions editions.

“Reading a newspaper is a contemplative exercise that can’t be matched by a screen,” he insists. By contrast, “As bad as they are, news websites are getting worse and have been getting worse since the commercial web took off in late 1995 and mid-1996, and sites like Salon, Slate, Feed and others started experimenting with the form.”

Those are opinions. Hard numbers offer no solace.

Columbia Journalism Review reports that journalism jobs at newspapers continue to disappear. “But in a disturbing development, digital news jobs that had been replacing some of the legacy positions appear to have hit a plateau.”

According to Bureau of Labor Statistics Occupational Employment Statistics, since 2005, newspapers laid off about 25,000 journalists and digital publishers hired about 7,000 journalists.

“While the growth of digital-only publishers has created jobs for thousands of journalists, it has not offset steep job losses at newspapers,” said the CJR report by Alex T. Williams.

“Indeed, the combined number of journalists at newspapers or digital-only publishers has declined sharply in the past decade,” CJR reports. “In 2005, there were 69,900 journalists employed in these two industries. In 2015, there were 51,980, a decline of 26 percent. As a result, Americans have fewer journalists to provide news information.”

The Wall Street Journal looked at these trends another way.

Rapid drops in print advertising, already under stress, is forcing some publishers to consider significant cost cuts and dramatic changes to their print and digital products, according to the Journal article by Suzanne Vranica and Jack Marshall.

Global spending on newspaper print ads is expected to drop 8.7 percent to $52.6 billion in 2016, said the Journal. That would be the biggest drop since the recession, when world-wide spending fell 13.7 percent.

“Newspapers have been in a race against time to grow their digital revenues to make up for the collapse of print advertising,” said the Journal. “They have made strides, but face challenges on that front, including the dominance of Facebook and Google in the digital market and difficulty making money on mobile products.

“During the past decade, marketers have fled newspapers for a variety of reasons, including declining circulation, aging readership and the need to fund their digital initiatives.”

Chyi and Tenenboim probably would argue that strategy continues the trend of feeding digital and starving print. They are voices in the wilderness.

I’m going to resist that cliche: Time will tell.

Something like 20 years has passed, long enough to gain some insight. In a world still battered by an economic recession, maybe expectations were too high for a digital rescue. Maybe fat and happy newspaper managers waited too long to respond to needs to change a money-guzzling industry dependent on heavy machinery and a cumbersome delivery system. Maybe they were too eager to grab anything that looked like a rescue. Few newspaper leaders twenty years ago understood how computers worked. They were flying blind.

The Chicago Tribune, where I worked, hired a computer consultant to build a custom-made system, named the Edit Five, that was supposed to serve the editorial department and the accounting department. It was buggy and overloaded almost immediately, so the editorial department got full use of the computer system and the Tribune bought another number-crunching system for accounting. An all-purpose computer system seemed to make sense at first, but experience showed that systems should be designed for specific tasks.

To be fair, the Chicago Tribune was a huge editorial operation, and there were not a lot of computer options then for large newspapers in the late 1970s and early 1980s. Digital publishing in library databases dates to 1985. The Tribune expanded to AOL in 1992 and the web in 1996.

That early computer consultant retired to a home in Maine overlooking the ocean. But he was the only person who understood the Tribune’s computer system. So when there was a serious computer problem, he was summoned from Maine.

I was working in the Tribune newsroom as all this was happening. An incoming CEO pledged to replace the custom system with off-the-shelf computer equipment that could be serviced in-house. He did.

The CEO sat two executives side-by-side on a couch in his office and told them before the meeting was over, one of them would be fired. After questioning them, he fired the man he considered most responsible for buying a computer system that only one man fully understood.

Digital technology can backfire in strange ways.

Edited by Stephen Rynkiewicz. Comment below in the “Leave a Reply” box. For advice from our ethics advisers, submit a question.

In Trump’s Locker Room Culture, Billy Bush Caught the Fungus

By Casey Bukro

Usually, a journalist at the center of an explosive story would be congratulated. Not Billy Bush.

Billy Bush.
Billy Bush suspended in wake of Donald Trump making lewd comments. Wikimedia photo

He’s the one cackling and giggling in the background of the 2005 tape as Donald Trump brags about kissing and groping beautiful women. “I just start kissing them,” Trump says. “It’s like a magnet. I just kiss. I don’t even wait.”

Egged on by Bush, Trump adds the remark about grabbing women by the genitals, using an obscene term, saying, “I can do anything.”

Released on the eve of the 2016 elections, the tape has been played countless times as commentators speculate about its likely impact on Trump’s chances of being elected president as the GOP contender.

No need to wonder about Bush, Trump’s enabler in that episode. NBC suspended him as a co-host of the “Today” show.

Bush was co-anchor of “Access Hollywood” at the time the tape was made. NBCUniveral Television Distribution, with NBC-owned station KNBC, has been solely responsible for producing “Access Hollywood” since 2004.

Bush was a rising star until the video train wreck. It might be a stretch to call him a journalist.

Television personalities often consider themselves entertainers or performers who want to put on a show. Brian Williams, for example, gave himself credit for doing things he did not do, making his reports more exciting until NBC learned of his fabrications, then suspended and reassigned him. Makes you wonder if these guys ever heard of journalism ethics.

William Hall “Billy” Bush is the nephew of former President George H.W. Bush and cousin of former President George W. Bush and former Florida Gov. John Ellis “Jeb” Bush.

The website MediaShift says Bush’s story “should serve as a cautionary tale for our modern age of journalism, where social media and reality television have oblitered the line between reporting the news and becoming part of it.”

Bush was a rising star until the video train wreck. It might be a stretch to call him a journalist.

Still making comparisons with journalism, MediaShift writer Maggie Quale says “Bush violated one of the oldest and most taboo tropes of professional journalism: Don’t make yourself part of the news.”

Bush issued a statement saying: “Obviously I’m embarrassed and ashamed. It’s no excuse, but this happened 11 years ago—I was younger, less mature and acted foolishly in playing along. I’m very sorry.” Bush is 44.

“The leak leads to larger questions about journalism ethics,” insists the Law Street blog. Bush, writes Bryan White, “withheld knowledge of a presidential nominee admitting to sexual assault.”

Andrew Seaman, Society of Professional Journalists ethics chair, says NBC News should be independent from other divisions of the parent organization. “Also, does NBC News know of any similar conversations caught on tape for other NBC programs, such as ‘The Apprentice?'” he writes on the SPJ ethics blog Code Words.

The fallout and the questions mount as Trump explains his crude remarks by saying they were merely “locker room talk.”

First Lady Michelle Obama said Trump’s remarks cannot be ignored, to “dismiss this as everyday locker room talk is an insult to decent men everywhere.”

Trump denies charges of sexual harassment. His lawyers sent a letter to the New York Times, demanding a retraction of a story about two women who accuse Trump of sexual misconduct. The letter signed by Marc E. Kasowitz said the story was “reckless, defamatory and constitutes libel.”

One of the ironies of the “locker room talk” argument is that only two months ago Roger Ailes resigned as CEO of Fox News amid charges of sexual harassment and promoting a news organization with a locker room mentality.

A Washington Post report on Ailes bore the headline, “He made Fox News his ‘locker room’ — and now women are telling their stories.”

Odd that Trump defended himself by using a term associated with Ailes’ terminable offense as Fox News boss. Fox News anchor Gretchen Carlson sued Ailes for sexual harassment and got a $20 million settlement, with apologies from the company.

Video: Trump tape starts national conversation about sexual assault | PBS NewsHour

If there is an upside to Trump’s locker room talk statement, it is that it triggered a national discussion about misogyny and sexual assault. The PBS News Hour broadcast such a discussion, featuring Anita Hill, a law professor at Brandeis University who once accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment.

Author Kelly Oxford told of her own sexual assault experience on social media and encouraged others to do the same. She got 30 million responses.

“A lot of women have sexual assault and rape in their families, their grandmothers, their mothers, their aunts, their sisters. And the internet is a place where everybody has a voice and everybody can contribute. And it’s happening.”

The huge response, she said, “says that women are being abused. It’s such an overwhelmingly huge problem that we ignore it, as we often do when things are this large.”

Hill’s charges against Judge Thomas came 25 years ago, before social media. It sparked an early discussion of sexual harassment. Hill said she got many letters, and still gets them, describing harassment in the workplace, on the streets or in schools.

“So this is really a social problem,” she said. It requires policies and procedures that lead to a trusted process, including women, where “there are fair investigations that get to the truth, and then there is appropriate punishment when abuse occurs.”

ESPN sportswriter Mike Wise admits he has heard locker room jokes “that went beyond dirty.” Resistance too easily is dismissed.

“In some ways,” said Wise, “I’m really more worried about the enabling culture we have that it’s so permissive to say these things and to say, oh, we’re too politically correct today. And until we get into a mind-set of, no, that’s wrong and the friends around you that are supposed to tell you what you need to hear, other than what you want to hear, tell you it’s wrong, we’re going to still have this kind of culture.”

Both the Trump and the Ailes controversies suggested that a permissive culture fosters predatory behavior. In their cases, the culture grew in the familiar old boys’ club of the corporate boardroom. Not many women in those clubs. Maybe it’s to spare them locker room talk.

Edited by Stephen Rynkiewicz. Comment below in the “Leave a Reply” box. For advice from our ethics advisers, submit a question.

Do Short Attention Spans Lead the News?

By Casey Bukro

The public’s shifting attention has implications across the media landscape, from CBS’ plans to sell its historic radio division to the expanding influence of topical comedy on TV and the internet.

CBS Radio News.
CBS organized its radio network in 1928.

Radio historian Frank Absher appeared on NPR’s “All Things Considered” to talk about the heyday of CBS radio. The broadcast described CBS as one of the first networks to truly realize the power of news and develop its uses. Established in 1928, the network owns 117 stations and has an illustrious news-breaking history.

Voices were key to that development—the calm, measured and authoritative voices of correspondents like Edward R. Murrow and Lowell Thomas.

What was the state of broadcast journalism when CBS started? “There wasn’t any,” said Absher, a member of the Radio Preservation Task Force and the St. Louis Media History Foundation. “Broadcast journalism did not exist, not even as a concept. In fact, the early, early radio stations would simply grab a newspaper because a lot of them were owned by newspapers. And they would read stories on the air out of today’s edition.”

Ironically, John Oliver, host of HBO’s “Last Week Tonight,” argues that much of today’s TV news still depends on what journalists find in daily newspapers. But back to Asher’s perspective.

Continue reading Do Short Attention Spans Lead the News?

Times Public Editor Blasts Sneak Interview

Suki Kim
Author Suki Kim complains of unfair treatment by New York Times writer. Sukikim.com photo.

By Casey Bukro

Ambush interviews usually are not the way journalists conduct business. Seasoned professionals identify themselves as journalists and tell sources they intend to quote them, or ask permission to quote them. They make clear that remarks are “on the record.”

That’s the way it’s usually done. Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists occasionally get calls or inquiries, usually from young reporters, who don’t know that.

In 2012, a reporter doing an article on a controversial homeless shelter in New York asked: “Would it be unethical to call and not disclose that I am press?”

The answer from Hugh Miller, an AdviceLine consultant, was short and sweet: “Don’t. It would be unethical.”

Implicit in this exchange are questions of candor, disclosure and transparency. They raise the question of getting information under false pretenses.

Continue reading Times Public Editor Blasts Sneak Interview

Journalists Helping Police: Is It Unethical?

News helicopter
Police hitched a ride on a news helicopter in pursuit of a shooting suspect. Wikimedia Commons photo.

By Casey Bukro

People sometimes think police and reporters are alike. Both chase criminals and other kinds of crooks to protect the public.

But they’re not the same, and a case involving a news helicopter in Boulder, Colorado, made that clear.

Boulder police were chasing a shooting suspect when they asked reporters aboard a helicopter shared by Denver TV stations for an airborne lift at the scene to search for the suspect.

A police officer boarded the copter. From his aerial vantage point, the officer was able to nab a suspect in cooperation with a SWAT team on the ground.

A police spokeswoman called the assist instrumental in the arrest, according to the Boulder Daily Camera, and noted that the news team got direct access to the police action.

Boulder police requested the ride from reporters after failing to get assistance from Denver Police or the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

A win-win, or an ethics foul?
Continue reading Journalists Helping Police: Is It Unethical?

Bankruptcy Ends Gawker’s Stare

Gawker’s slogan: “Today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news.” Gawker.com image.

By Casey Bukro

On the Chicago police beat, which I covered at the City News Bureau of Chicago, legend was that police sometimes arrested suspicious characters for mopery with intentions to gawk.

By definition, a gawker is a person who stares openly at someone or something. To gawk is to gape, stare or rubberneck without trying to hide that you’re doing it. A gawker also can be an awkward or clumsy person.

So when Financial Times reporter Nick Denton launched Gawker.com in 2003, I figured I knew what to expect. The website described itself as a media news and gossip blog, one of its goals being to “afflict the comfortable.” Gawker Media became a network of blogs, including Gizmodo, Deadpan, Jezebel and Lifehacker.

Farhad Manjoo, in the New York Times, called Gawker Media “the first publisher that understood the pace, culture and possibilities of online news. And it used that understanding to unleash a set of technical, business and journalistic innovations on the news industry that have altered how we produce, consume and react to media today.”

“Gawker altered how we produce, consume and react to media.”

That sounds pretty impressive. Manjoo ended his piece by pointing out that Gawker criticized people without giving them the benefit of the doubt and vented outrage against ordinary people who didn’t deserve it. “A lot of the internet is wonderful,” writes Manjoo. “A lot of the internet is terrible. For both, blame Gawker.”

But I could not help feeling I’ve seen it before, in college newspapers that trade in insults and poor taste in the name of satire.

The leading example in my memory was the Illini Tumor, calling itself “a growth on the student body.” Later, it become simply “The Tumor.”

It was printed as an annual fundraising gimmick around home-coming at the University of Illinois for the campus chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists. And it did raise a lot of money, some of it used for good causes. But it could be outrageously crude and offensive, as was Gawker.

I was Midwestern regional director for SPJ in the 1970s and 1980s. The Tumor was my first direct confrontation with ethics in journalism, and a painful one.

The Tumor staff argued that with the funds it raised, it could send busloads of its journalists to the annual SPJ conventions. More straight-laced types asked how SPJ could condone such scandalous journalism? What could a regional director do?

University officials held their noses and let students be students, hoping they would learn something in the process. They were entitled to freedom of the press, even though the Tumor was obnoxious. That’s one of the benefits of freedom of expression, even for college students. To be fair, some of the rants were funny. You’d expect that from bright kids with snarky attitudes.

As often happens, the problem solved itself when the Tumor faded into history, as Gawker is now doing. Offensive journalism can be funny and entertaining, but eventually the enemies it makes catch up with it. Satire takes real skill, which over time often degenerates into slapstick fart jokes. Even “Saturday Night Live” has had trouble trying to keep its edge.

“Even the media must obey the law.”

Gawker was sued in 2012 by Hulk Hogan, the TV personality/wrestler born Terry Bollea. Gawker published excerpts of a video tape of Hogan having sex with the wife of a friend.

A jury agreed that was invasion of privacy, resulting in a $140 million judgment against Gawker, $10 million against CEO Denton and $100,000 against Gawker’s editor. Gawker Media was forced into bankruptcy, the New York Post declaring that “even the media must obey the law.”

Univision Communications bought Gawker Media for $135 million, announcing it would shut down gawker.com but continue to operate its other sites.

The site really may have been brought down by PayPal co-founder and billionaire Peter Thiel, who admits secretly funding the wrestler’s lawsuit. Gawker claimed in 2007 that Thiel was gay.

In satire, it’s often a matter of who gets the last laugh. Defiant to the end, Gawker threw a party celebrating its demise and extolling its bravery and independence, Jacob Bernstein reported in the New York Times. Gawker had been a training ground for gifted writers, wrote Bernstein, “and a place where too many of the articles published were not only mean but inconsequential.”

Gawker clearly was unethical, posting not only sex videos but a steady diet of reports on trivial failings of the famous and not so famous. Invasion of privacy is not only illegal—punishable in court—it also robs the targets of their dignity.

“Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness,” the Society of Professional Journalists ethics code says. Gawker made little pretense of tying its targets’ private actions to any public impact. It afflicted its victims simply because they were comfortable.

Gawker’s folly is not identical to the Tumor’s. A generation or more separates them. But their methods were similar—cruelty, insults and humiliation that sometimes passed for humor.

What we called satire a generation or so ago has evolved into the kind of social media attacks we see today. Technology changed, the times changed, but the hurt inflicted is the same. The internet made that possible. Anonymity plays a role in the mean-spirited tone of social media. The world’s discourse is coarser, and its media reflect that.

Good satire and penetrating social commentary are worthy efforts in a world often soured by death, destruction and mind-numbing, petty political bickering. It helps to be funny, always with an eye for suspicious characters who can be arrested for mopery with intentions to gawk.

Edited by Stephen Rynkiewicz. Comment below in the “Leave a Reply” box. For advice from our ethics advisers, submit a question.

Reporter’s Dilemma: Naming Owners of Tainted Water Wells

Zenith City Weekly
Zenith, an alternative paper in Duluth, Minnesota, faced an ethical dilemma reporting on water quality.

By Casey Bukro

Ethics is not only a matter of what a journalist should do, but also what she should not.

That was the dilemma facing Jennifer Martin-Romme, co-owner with her husband Taylor of the Zenith News in Duluth, Minnesota.

Back in 2012, a trusted source leaked a report to Martin-Romme showing that the drinking water wells of eight families in northern St. Louis county were tainted with manganese, a chemical that in high concentrations potentially could cause nerve and brain damage, especially in children.

“It seems almost impossible to publicize this information without identifying the affected individuals,” Martin-Romme said when she called Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance. “Even if they weren’t named, this pollution is fairly contained geographically in a low-population rural area. It would be easy to identify them and such a story is essentially branding them as at-risk for mental deficiencies or retardation. The negative impact that could have on their lives is obvious and enormous. What do I do? Help!”

Today, lead in the Flint, Michigan water supply has made water safety a national concern. This follow-up story reports the outcome of her dilemma, and whether the call to AdviceLine was helpful. Since it started taking calls from journalists in 2001, AdviceLine has handled more than 900 inquiries. Periodically, we contact journalists who called us to learn the rest of the story.

Continue reading Reporter’s Dilemma: Naming Owners of Tainted Water Wells

Ailes’ Legacy Lingers: Truth and Reconciliation at Fox News

By Casey Bukro

Television bosses normally like stories involving powerful men, beautiful women, sex, intrigue and big money. But the Roger Ailes story hits too close to home.

Roger Ailes
Roger Ailes

The longtime chairman of Fox News resigned in a sex scandal while Fox News parent company 21st Century Fox investigated accusations of sexual harassment and intimidation.

Ailes was sued by former Fox News host Gretchen Carlson for sexual harassment. That triggered more allegations against him, from both named and anonymous sources.

Now add questions about Ailes’ use of company funds “to hire consultants, political operatives and private detectives who reported only to him,” according to a New York magazine report, as part of a campaign to discredit Ailes’ personal and political enemies.

“Highly placed sources” tell Gabriel Sherman that in 2011 Ailes established a “Black Room” to conduct public relations and surveillance campaigns against people he targeted, including journalists. The article asks how Ailes was able to spend millions of dollars quietly to settle sexual harassment claims.

In reporting on the magazine’s allegations, CNN Money suggests the operation could violate of rules against corporate executives using company funds for personal reasons. “If true,” reported Dylan Byers, “such actions could make 21st Century Fox liable to its shareholders.”

Shelley Ross
Shelley Ross

Powerful men leave big trails. Vanity Fair contends that unnamed staffers still fear reprisal if they discuss Ailes.

Ailes cut a wider swath than anyone realized and now could become a poster boy for fixing what has been described as deep-seated sexual harassment habits at Fox, and maybe the rest of the television industry.

Shelley Ross, described as once one of the most powerful women in TV news, offers her “big idea” for addressing sexual harassment in the workplace.

It’s patterned after the South African Truth and Reconciliation Commission. After the official end of apartheid in 1994, victims of brutality were invited to speak publicly about their experiences. Attackers were invited to testify and ask for amnesty from civil and criminal prosecution.

Ross wrote about her idea in The Daily Beast “after watching, dodging and experiencing sexual harassment for 30 years.”

Too bad she did not speak up while in power.

Continue reading Ailes’ Legacy Lingers: Truth and Reconciliation at Fox News