Ethics of disclosing loot image

By Casey Bukro

EthicsAdviceLine for Journalists

When professional journalists contact the EthicsAdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics, AdviceLine advisors don’t tell them what to do.

That’s not how AdviceLine works. Journalists engage in a phone or online conversation with experts in journalism and professional ethics who lead the journalists to their own conclusions about the right course of action. The goal of that conversation is to assist the journalist in making ethical decisions that:

  1. Are well informed by available standards of professional journalistic practice, especially the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics.
  2. Take account of the perspectives of all parties involved in the situation.
  3. Employ clear and careful ethical thinking in reaching a decision.

AdviceLine is a free service to professional journalists.

Exactly how this works can be shown through an actual case report on a call from a Massachusetts editor-in-chief. Her newspaper is doing a story on a local bank robbery. Her reporter learned a lot about the robbery through police and court documents, including the name of the person charged, the charges against the defendant and the amount allegedly stolen, about $5,000.

Bank officials begged the reporter and the newspaper to refrain from reporting the amount stolen; they feared disclosing that amount might encourage more bank robberies.

The editor-in-chief asked AdviceLine if the newspaper would be acting unethically by publishing the amount stolen?

Here is the exchange that followed:

AdviceLine advisor, Hugh Miller – This was all obtained from public documents, correct?

Editor – Yes.

Advisor – Is this information newsworthy?

Editor – It certainly surprised me when I read the figure.

Advisor – Then it is certainly newsworthy. If you were surprised, the public will almost certainly be. And the primary ethical mission of journalism is, after all, to report the news to the public. The material is fair game; but you might want to consider the responsibility to “minimize harm.” (Mentioned in the SPJ code of ethics.)

There might be circumstances under which it would be the ethical thing to do to withhold otherwise newsworthy and publishable facts. But, according to the code, and as a general rule, those circumstances should be few and tightly circumscribed. For example, private citizens and especially minors should be treated with greater consideration for their privacy than public individuals, government organizations, or even corporations (which are, after all, chartered creatures of law). Does the bank seem to fall into one of those former categories, or something like one of them?

Editor – Doesn’t seem so to me.

Advisor – In light of the recent controversy about the NSA (National Security Agency) and whistleblowing, are any state secrets or matters of grave national security at stake?

Editor – (Laughing): Hardly.

Advisor – So, what do you think?

Editor – I think we’re good to go with it. Thanks very much!

In his written report on the call from the editor, the advisor added these comments: “I don’t think much of the bank’s reason for asking the newspaper to sit on the figure involved. I think they’re merely trying to minimize embarrassment, and possibly prevent customers from suspecting that their security measures aren’t all they should be, and transferring their accounts to another, presumably more prudent bank.”


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

Lying Journalists image

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Journalists lie.

That’s the truth.

The furor over the Fox News audience-pleasing, distorted election reports about the 2020 presidential race is only the latest example in a long list in a walk of shame. Notice that journalists are most disturbed; the public doesn’t seem to care much.

That’s because journalists have the most to lose, their credibility, when other journalists are caught fabricating or playing loose with the facts. Although, it might be argued that the bloviating opinion-shouters at Fox News do not qualify as real journalists who follow codes of ethics and keep their opinions to themselves.

It might be argued that the American public never did have a good idea about how objective journalism operates, or where to find it. They look for echo chambers, instead. It’s ironic that segments of the public who accuse media of bias are vehemently biased themselves. If they don’t see their entrenched point of view reported, they consider that bias.

The Fox News fuss still is playing out; remaining to be seen is whether its tawdry performance leads to new legal restrictions on all media in the United States, including softening protections under the First Amendment and standards for winning defamation suits against the media.

Freedom of speech and the press are hallmarks of the American way of life. They could be jeopardized by the Fox News case. But let’s not kid ourselves. It’s not the only rotten apple in the barrel. There have been other rotten apples. Over time, we tend to forget them.

Rotten apple awards

Who would get some of the top rotten apple awards? Usually, we talk about the best in the business. The Fox News scandal prompts some thoughts about the worst examples of journalism, even the most shameful. Like any contest, it depends on personal judgment. Some might come to different conclusions. But here are some of the worst that come to my mind:

Janet Cooke and the Washington Post – Never before in the history of American journalism did a newspaper win a Pulitzer Prize, then return the prize because the award-winning story was found to be fabricated by the reporter. That’s what happened in 1981.

Cooke wrote “Jimmy’s World,” a 1980 story that began: “Jimmy is 8 years old and a third-generation heroin addict, a precocious little boy with sandy hair, velvety brown eyes and needle marks flecking the baby-smooth skin of his thin brown arms.”

Cooke suckered her desk-bound editors into believing a story so beautifully written, they wanted it to be true. Editors should be suspicious, a trait taught in Chicago journalism, where reporters are told to doubt their mother’s love. Cooke concocted a story that made her editors swoon, with the kind of beguiling details editors love. Here is more of Cooke’s story:

“He nestles in a large, beige reclining chair in the living room of his comfortably furnished home in Southeast Washington. There is an almost cherubic expression on his small, round face as he talks about life – clothes, money, the Baltimore Orioles and heroin. He has been an addict since the age of 5.”

All bullshit. 

Staffer doubts

Some staffers had doubts about the story, which was based on anonymous sources. But assistant managing editor Bob Woodward submitted it for a Pulitzer Prize, and it won for feature writing. It all started to unravel when Post editors were notified that Cooke had fabricated her education background. Post editors then told Cooke to prove Jimmy’s existence, and show where he lived. She couldn’t, and eventually admitted she felt pressured by newsroom competition and wrote the story to satisfy her clueless editors.

Even after Cooke was discredited and resigned, Woodward said: “It is a brilliant story – fake and fraud that it is.” Love of beautifully written words that sway dies hard in journalism, even when they are used for betrayal. It’s a kind of love best understood by journalists. The story winning the Pulitzer Prize, said Woodward, was “of little consequence.”

My next candidate for a blockbuster journalism bad apple is Walter Duranty, a name most journalists would not recognize today, especially young journalists who believe history began with the date of their own births.

This story also has a Pulitzer Prize connection. Duranty was the New York Times Moscow bureau chief for 14 years, from 1922 to 1936. In 1932, Duranty won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of reports about the Soviet Union, 11 of which were published in June 1931. Later, Duranty was criticized for denying widespread famine in the USSR from 1930 to 1933, which reportedly caused 5.7 million to 8.7 million deaths. He covered up one of the worst disasters in history.

Stalin’s forced plans

Duranty lauded Soviet Leader Joseph Stalin’s First Five-Year Plan, which forced collectivization of Soviet Agriculture, rapid industrialization which decreased the agricultural workforce and forced grain procurement — all major contributing factors to the famine.

A Stalinist lapdog, Duranty was accused of reporting the Soviet Union’s official propaganda instead of the news, going so far as to denounce reports of a Soviet famine as “a big scare story” and condemn a Welsh journalist, Gareth Jones, who said he witnessed starving in Ukraine. Jones was the first Western journalist to report the devastation.

In a 1933 New York Times article, Duranty was resorting to Soviet-style double-talk. The article said: “Any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda. The food shortage, however, which has affected the whole population in the last year and particularly in the grain-producing provinces – the Ukraine, North Caucasus (i.e. Kuban Region) and the lower Volga – has, however, caused heavy loss of life.” Duranty admitted Stalin’s brutality, but defended it. In 1934, Duranty privately reported to the British embassy in Moscow that as many as 10 million people might have died, directly or indirectly, in the Soviet Union famine the previous year.

Despite conflicting stories about the Russian famine, Duranty in his day enjoyed great esteem, although the Manchester Guardian’s Moscow correspondent called him “the greatest liar I ever knew.”

Growing doubts

Since the late 1960s, Duranty’s work came under growing fire for his failure to report the famine. The controversy led to a move in 1990 to strip him of the Pulitzer Prize posthumously. He died in 1957. The Pulitzer Board reconsidered the prize but decided to preserve it. Another challenge arose in 2003, with an inquiry by the New York Times. Publisher Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Jr. called Duranty’s work “slovenly” and said it “should have been recognized for what it was by his editors and by his Pulitzer judges seven decades ago.”

Sig Gissler, Puliter Prize Board administrator, declined to revoke the award, saying “there was not clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception, the relevant standard in this case.” The 2022 Russian invasion of Ukraine led to renewed attention in the case. New York Times executive editor Bill Keller publicly expressed remorse that he failed to do more to return the award in 2003, saying: “A Pulitzer Prize is not just an accolade for an isolated piece of work. It at least implies an accolade for the reporter’s performance, and Duranty’s performance was shameful.”

Duranty could be described as a world class liar, one who ignored millions of deaths while reporting falsehoods that benefited one of the world’s most brutal dictators. It is a matter of scale and consequence. What changes in world events might have happened if Duranty told the truth? It is a reminder that journalists have that power to change world history, but Duranty squandered it.


Other rotten apples on this list of liars are not world class like Duranty, but they deserve some recognition.

Jayson Bliar was a New York Times reporter caught lying about stories he wrote and making up quotes and scenes that never happened, including stories about the Beltway sniper shootings. The New York Times called Blair’s long list of fabrications and plagiarism a “low point in the 152-year history of the newspaper” and fired him on May 1, 2003.

Stephen Glass worked for The New Republic from 1995 to 1998 until the discovery that many of his published articles about events and human beings were fabrications.

Rolling Stone Magazine retracted a story titled “A Rape on Campus” after learning that it was false. The story, published in 2014, about a University of Virginia student who said she was gang raped at a fraternity party, was retracted in 2015. After other journalists found major flaws in the report, Rolling Stone issued multiple apologies for the story.

Brian Williams, NBC Nightly News anchor, was lying when he said during a broadcast that he was a passenger on a helicopter hit by a rocket-propelled grenade in Iraq in 2003. In 2015, NBC suspended him for six months without pay, sending his career into a tailspin. Williams said he “made a mistake in recalling the events of 12 years ago.” He left the network in 2021.

A short list

This is not an exhaustive list, but serves to show that liars have tarnished journalism in many ways, fabrication being one of the most common. Making things up is a lot easier than doing the hard, shoe leather work of digging up reliable information, whether it’s elegantly written or not.

Another list could be drawn of broadcasters brought low by sexual harassment allegations, and payments of millions of dollars to hush them. But that is for another time.

The $1.6 billion defamation case against Fox News, meanwhile, makes its way through court.

Toronto-based Dominion Voting Systems contends that days and weeks after the 2020 election, Fox News executives and its on-air stars did not believe voter fraud allegations made by then-President Donald Trump, but promoted those unfounded claims anyway in a strategy to appeal to Trump loyalists.

Fox has accused Dominion of “cherry-picking soundbites, omitting key context and mischaracterizing the record.”


Whatever the court finds, at least some observers fault Fox News for reporting what it knew was not true.

“It’s really rare, to my knowledge, to have a major news organization, or what claims to be a news organization, willingly broadcast what it knew to be lies,” said Samuel Freedman, a professor at Columbia Journalism School. “It’s an egregious violation of journalism ethics.”

The four key principles in the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics are: Seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable and transparent.

It appears Fox News violated every principle.


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

Reporter Asked to Testify image

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Journalists often become experts on the topics they cover, their in-depth knowledge and experience recognized.

For that reason, journalists are asked to testify on cases in court or at hearings. But should they?

That was the ethics dilemma faced by a journalist in New Mexico. A bill before the state legislature would redact from all public records the names of all victims of stalking and rape.

Request to testify

A lawyer opposing the proposed legislation asked a newspaper reporter to testify at a committee hearing, giving a journalist’s reasons for opposing it and for the sake of informing the public of such crimes.

“My question is whether I should do this and thereby become part of the news myself,” said the reporter, who called AdviceLine for guidance. Her editor said there was value in doing it, not only as a journalist but as an articulate woman since most of the victims of stalking and rape are women. It was not clear if her editor offered an opinion on testifying.

Before calling AdviceLine, the journalist examined the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics, and concluded that passage of the proposed law might cause more harm than her becoming part of the story she was covering. Still, she wrestled with the dilemma and called AdviceLine.

Clarify harm

“I asked her to clarify what harm passage of this legislation would cause,” said the AdviceLine advisor.  She answered that, under such a law, it would be impossible for reporters to verify claims of rape or stalking. Correct reporting of such events, even if names are omitted, depends on verifying such claims. The result, she said, would be that the public would not have correct and verified information about the prevalence of such crimes, which is important for the public to know.

The journalist and the advisor also discussed the possibility that, when her testimony becomes news, her impartiality as a journalist might be questioned by the public and by the committee that heard her testimony. She might be seen as an advocate for one side rather than an impartial expert witness.


“I then asked whether she saw any alternatives to what the lawyer was proposing, other than refusing to testify,” said the AdviceLine advisor. One alternative would be to coach the lawyer on views that might be expressed by a journalist. Another possible alternative would be to testify as a representative of a journalism organization, not as an individual journalist expressing her personal opinions.

The journalist did not make a final decision while talking to the advisor, but favored acting as a member of a journalism organization. If that failed, she indicated, she would refuse to testify because of the hazards to her credibility.


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

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