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.” 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 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 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

Roger Ailes’ Eye for News: Lawsuit Draws Look at Fox News Legacy

Roger Ailes
Fox News boss Roger Ailes resigns after he’s accused of sexual harassment. (Wesley Mann/Fox News photo)

By Casey Bukro

As chairman of Fox News, Roger Ailes peddled sex appeal.

News anchors often were chosen for their looks: young, pretty, blonde, leggy and shapely. That’s the way Ailes liked them. A lot. Maybe too much.

It’s a formula that led to his downfall, apparently because he could not resist temptation or the raptures of the casting couch. Ailes resigned amid sexual harassment allegations after a 20-year reign as head of Fox News, where he devised a highly successful broadcast formula of vitriolic partisan right-wing commentary.

Ailes’s own alleged comments are part of a lawsuit against him by former Fox News Anchor Gretchen Carlson.

“I think you and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago,” Ailes supposedly “>told Carlson. Carlson charges that Ailes sabotaged her career in retaliation for rebuffing his sexual advances and complaining about a hostile work environment. In a statement, Ailes contended her contract was not renewed due to low ratings and her lawsuit was her retaliation for the dismissal. Her lawyer claims the suit was considered even before the firing.

Carlson’s lawsuit prompted 25 women to come forward with what they describe as similar harassment claims against Ailes over five decades.

The Washington Post reported that interviews with four of the women “portray the 76-year-old television powerhouse as a man who could be routinely crude and inappropriate, ogling young women, commenting about their breasts and legs, and fostering a macho, insensitive culture.” One women accused Ailes of groping her. Ailes’s lawyer said the accusations are false.

Continue reading Roger Ailes’ Eye for News: Lawsuit Draws Look at Fox News Legacy

Melania Trump ‘Plagiarism’: Cribbing From Michelle Obama

Melania Trump
Melania Trump, speaking at Republican National Convention, is accused of plagiarism. “CBS This Morning” image.

By Casey Bukro

Politicians are a notoriously slippery tribe. Almost by definition they are seen as shifty and two-faced. A 2013 poll found Congress less popular than cockroaches and traffic jams.

So what explains the umbrage over Melania Trump’s warmup speech at the Republican National Convention, extolling Trump family values and virtues of her husband, Donald, the Republican nominee for president?

“From a young age, my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise, that you treat people with respect,” said Trump to warm applause.

By the next day, political writers were pointing out that passage and others were almost exactly what First Lady Michelle Obama said at the 2008 Democratic National Convention.

“Plagiarism,” declared David Brooks, New York Times political columnist, during PBS-National Public Radio convention coverage. Others called it a “ripoff” or more politely “borrowing” or “cribbing.”

From a young age, my parents impressed on me the values that you work hard for what you want in life, that your word is your bond and you do what you say and keep your promise, that you treat people with respect.

Trump told NPR that she wrote the speech herself “with as little help as possible.”

The world is awash with political writers and commentators and does not need another. My brief is journalism ethics, which considers plagiarism a firing offense. Words are sacred in journalism, and journalism ethics demands giving credit for the work of others.

But politics is not journalism.

Long ago while working for the Chicago Tribune, I noticed that a speech given by a Chicago city hall official was almost exactly the same given earlier by another official. I wrote a story about that word theft. The word thief called me and said he saw no problem with what he did.

Journalists and politicians view the use of words differently. One might be trying to explain, the other might be trying to exhort. In either case, there are hacks and there are maestros. The best can inform or change public opinion. The worst see words as harmless things that tumble from our lips or fingertips.

Trying to find a politician’s code of ethics, I found none. Wikipedia states that “so called political realists argue that ethics has no place in politics. If politicians are to be effective in the real world, hey cannot be bound by moral rules. They have to pursue the national interest.”

This is not generally the way journalists see it. Their reactions to the Trump speech ranged from stern to humorous.

The New York Times offered a side-by-side comparison of the speeches by Trump and Obama, saying questions over Trump’s speech “set off finger-pointing.”

Because we want our children in this nation to know that the only limit to your achievements is the strength of your dreams and your willingness to work for them. reported “looks like Melania Trump really did rip off Michelle Obama’s speech,” then toned it down later to say Trump was accused of plagiarism.

Other publications pointed out that accusations of plagiarism are fairly common in political speeches.

Farida Fawzy in listed 10 political figures, foreign and domestic, who have been accused of plagiarism, beginning with Vice President Joe Biden, who was a 1988 presidential candidate. He was accused of mimicking a speech by a British Labor Party figure and copying  parts of speeches by Humbert Humphrey, Robert Kennedy and John F. Kennedy.

Even President Obama gets mentioned; he admits to trading ideas with Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. ran its own list of political plagiarism offenders, while observing that “talent borrows, but genius steals.”

Taking a humorous slant, Mary Schmich in the Chicago Tribune filled her column with every memorable quote she could think of, including “I have a dream,” as examples of what Melania Trump really meant to say.

Schmich ended her column by writing: “And I’ll leave you with this completely unoriginal thought: When someone else finds better words than you can find to say what you mean, spare yourself some pain. Remember to attribute. Use quotation marks. Heed my advice, and you shall overcome.”

Their integrity, compassion and intelligence reflects to this day on me and for my love of family and America.

Also on the humorous side, the New York Daily News described Trump as hip by borrowing a lyric or two from Rick Astley’s 1987 song, “Never Gonna Give You Up.” She “rickrolled” the Cleveland convention audience, said reporter Jessica Schladebeck, referring to the 1987 pop hit. Unlabeled links to the song’s music video are a popular internet prank.

“He will never, ever give up,” said Trump, referring to her husband in the manner of the Astley song. “And, most importantly he will never, ever let you down.”

Chicago Tribune columnist Rex Huppke said apparent plagiarism was one part of a truly bizarre and disturbing day at the convention. It was mean-spirited, occasionally unhinged and angry, he said.

“Trump’s fan won’t care,” Huppke wrote. “But the people he needs to win the presidency will, because they know that nothing in all the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.”

David A. Graham, a staff writer at the Atlantic, saw it this way: “As the old political axion goes, it’s not the crime but the cover-up. The plagiarism is a strange unforced error, but how many voters really care about Melania Trump borrowing a few sentences? With a quick apology, the story might fade quickly. But the Trump campaign’s insistent denials are taking some of the wind out of an otherwise successful speech that was the high point of an otherwise inconsistent first night in Cleveland.”

After two days of refusing to admit fault, Donald Trump’s campaign released a letter from a speech writer who apologized for inadvertently lifting parts of Mrs. Obama’s speech while working with Melania on a draft of her remarks.

He will never, ever give up. And, most importantly he will never, ever let you down.

Scholars might tend to step back and look at the Melania Trump plagiarism ruckus in a more dispassionate way, as part of the national learning process. A scholar like Philip J. Auter, professor of communication at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette.

Plagiarism happens, wrote Auter in an email.

“If they were in my class, they would have failed the paper (speech), and probably the class. However, society (and the internet) have generally made it easier and easier to borrow, appropriate, accidentally copy others’ work with little or no consequence – unless they are a famous person (usually a politician) whose views you happen to oppose.

“In my several decades in higher ed and observing teaching in K-12, I’ve noticed that many in teaching (and administration?) have erred on the side of giving the student a second and third and fourth and fifth chance — rather than hurting their self esteem. This does not help.”

Veterans of the political campaign trails point out that speeches typically are rigorously vetted these days to guard against errors or embarrassments. That appeared to be lacking in Melania Trump’s speech. Something bad can happen.

“But every time it’s done, it’s a rookie PR move that is almost always NOT the speaker’s fault” said Auter. “Rather the fault often lies in a junior staff of writers that are not used to vetting and offering attribution — but are more used to copying and pasting often un-referenced memes onto their Facebook page.

“Communication is important. PR, advertising, speech, organizational, group and mass comm at this level benefit from management by trained, experienced people. (So consider hiring a bachelor’s, master’s or Ph.D. graduate in communication.)”

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

Mother Jones Goes Undercover

My Four Months as a Prison Guard
Mother Jones senior reporter Shane Bauer took a job at a state prison run by Corrections Corporation of America. His account is in the July-August 2016 issue.

By Casey Bukro

Just when you think an ethics issue has been put to rest, a Mother Jones magazine reporter spends four months working undercover as a guard at a corporate-run prison in Louisiana.

“I took a $9 an hour job as a private prison guard in Louisiana,” reporter Shane Bauer wrote in a 35,000 word, six-part report accompanied by two sidebar reports and an editor’s note, plus video.

“I saw stabbings, an escape and prisoners and guards struggling to survive,” Bauer wrote.

The publication’s editor-in-chief, Clara Jeffery, wrote that legal intimidation makes investigations of prisons rare, but “it’s time for journalists to reclaim our roots.” She pointed to an 1887 undercover investigation of a women’s mental asylum by New York World reporter Nellie Bly as an early example of the kind of work journalists should be doing. It triggered reforms.

It’s fair to say undercover reporting has fallen into disfavor these days because it often depends on deception, for which a publication can be sued. And it can make journalists look like liars.

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

Continue reading Mother Jones Goes Undercover

Media Rules of Conduct: A Call to Arms

By Casey Bukro

An 18th-century Pirate Code of Conduct was stern but direct: Anyone found stealing from another crewman would have his ears and nose slit open and be set ashore.

A general history of the pyrates
Honor among thieves: Pirates and their captains agreed on codes of conduct. (Boston Public Library)

The penalty for bringing a woman aboard in disguise was death.

Anyone being lazy or failing to clean his weapons would lose his share of booty.

The punishment for hitting a man was 40 lashes on the bare back.

These are among the rules Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts and his crews are said to have adopted in 1722 to keep the peace among his bloodthirsty men and reward good conduct. There are many variations on buccaneer codes, however.

Even 300 years later, rewarding or defining good conduct is the purpose of codes of journalism ethics that continue to emerge.

A new Radio Television Digital News Association Canada code takes effect July 1, replacing a version adopted in 2011.

“This Code of Ethics is based on more than a century of journalistic experience and represents our membership’s guiding principles,” states a preamble that welcomes adoption by all practicing journalists.

Continue reading Media Rules of Conduct: A Call to Arms

Rules Emerge for Writing About Suicides

Raveena Aulakh
Toronto Star Reporter Raveena Aulakh died by suicide. Toronto Star photo.

By Casey Bukro

Writing about suicides can make journalists squirm.

In part, it’s because the topic long was considered taboo or loaded with restrictions on the proper course of action. When I was a reporter and editor at the Chicago Tribune, one of the fears was that a story about someone who took his own life might trigger suicidal thoughts in others. A stigma was attached to suicides and it seemed best to avoid being too intrusive for the sake of the family.

These memories flooded back upon reading about the contortions that the Toronto Star staff suffered while trying to honor instructions left by Star reporter Raveena Aulakh, before she ended her life. She was the paper’s global environment reporter.

“Please don’t talk about me. Please don’t let anyone write about me,” she wrote, not even an obituary in the Star. Her family expressed similar wishes and the Star wanted to respect them.

But the Star could not. An investigation revealed that Aulakh was distraught over a broken relationship with her senior editor. She also revealed in emails that the senior editor was having a relationship with the Star’s female managing editor. Both lost their newsroom jobs. One left the newspaper.

Continue reading Rules Emerge for Writing About Suicides

British Journalists Chastened on Ethics


Ethics violations close Britain’s News of the World. photo.

“Let not England forget her precedence of teaching nations how to live.” —Milton

By Casey Bukro

British journalists are more likely to pay sources for information than American journalists, but journalists in both countries agree that providing reliable information is their chief goal.

These are among the conclusions of a survey of 700 of the United Kingdom’s almost 64,000 professional journalists, by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.

On ethics and standards, said the report:

“There is a close correspondence between U.K. journalists’ views on ethics and their professional codes of practice. However, they are more likely to find justification for ethically contentious practices, such as paying sources, than journalists in the United States.

“Rank and file journalists in the U.K. push ethical boundaries more than their managers, and 25 percent of all journalists believe it is justified, on occasion, to publish unverified information.”

As for misrepresentation and subterfuge, U.K. journalists expressed mixed views about whether claiming to be somebody else is acceptable. Fifty-four percent believe it is never justified and 46 percent think it is justified on occasion. U.S. journalists, according to the study, are more disapproving, with only 7 percent agreeing that misrepresentation is justified on occasion.

Continue reading British Journalists Chastened on Ethics