News For Advertising

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

These are tough times for much of journalism, and newspaper and broadcasting executives are reacting by resorting to controversial ways to raise revenue.

Journalists called The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for answers to these examples: A North Caroline publisher said he has a conflict with his editor over an advertiser suggesting stories. A Michigan newspaper offered free news stories about any company that bought an advertising package. A New York broadcasting station’s management told its news staff to give favorable news coverage to local advertisers.

These are a few of many cases like it. Has the traditional firewall between the news and business departments broken down, and is that good or bad?

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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 ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

Pedophile Priest Threatens Publisher

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Ethics case study: A pedophile pastor and a publisher.

In his first interview with the owner of a small Midwestern newspaper, a local church pastor threatened to vilify the newspaper owner from the pulpit if she printed anything derogatory about him.

The publisher thought that strange until she learned the priest had been accused of raping a 14-year-old boy in New York. She wrote about that, and lost readers and advertisers who complained the publisher was trying to destroy the popular priest.

Then the publisher learned that the priest had been involved in another incident of sexual misconduct in Florida and was reassigned twice before landing in the publisher’s parish.

The publisher called the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, asking if she should reveal the priest’s history of continuing sexual misconduct. But doing so could cause another community backlash, with further loss in circulation and advertising which could force the publisher out of business.

Put yourself in AdviceLine’s place. What advise would you give to the worried publisher? Report the facts, or withhold them in an attempt to protect her newspaper and staff?

This is an actual case handled by AdviceLine.

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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 ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

Presidential Debates Mirror Civil Discord

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

As presidential debate moderators go, they didn’t stack up to the likes of revered Walter Cronkite.

Moderators of the 2020 Donald Trump and Joe Biden debates were critiqued, criticized, chastised and lampooned.

Gone are the days when such moderators were unquestionably beyond reproach and in charge of the debates. Those who served as moderators were lofty media figures of their time.

The first televised presidential debate (of four) in 1960 between Sen. John F. Kennedy and Vice President Richard Nixon was moderated by Howard K. Smith of CBS. Twenty-nine media figures have filled that role, including esteemed broadcasters Edwin Newman, Pauline Frederick, Barbara Walters, Bill Moyers, Jim Lehrer, Bernard Shaw and Tom Brokaw, to name a few. Cronkite served on a panel during one of the debates, but not as moderator.

Played by the rules

Those debates largely were cordial and played by the rules, respecting time limits. Not until 2020 would one of those debates be described as an undisciplined brawl.

Three presidential debates were scheduled for 2020. But one was canceled, leading the candidates, President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden, to schedule competing town hall meetings on the date of the canceled presidential debate that had viewers switching from one channel to the other. Trump was on NBC and Biden on ABC.

The first 2020 presidential debate on Sept. 29 in Cleveland was moderated by Chris Wallace of Fox News. It went so badly, the headline on an article by conservativedailynews.com read: “Chris Wallace Lost the First Presidential Debate.”

Even Wallace admitted it was a disaster, largely because President Trump refused to stop talking when his time was up and because he repeatedly interrupted when Wallace tried to ask questions.

A train wreck

Media reports described the debate as “off the rails,” “chaos,” “unwatchable,” “a train wreck,” a “hot mess” and a “shoutfest” overwhelmed by interruptions and disregard for the moderator, largely by the president.

Wallace is the anchor of “Fox News Sunday” and the son of legendary “60 Minutes” reporter Mike Wallace. He also moderated a 2016 presidential debate between Trump and former secretary of state Hillary Clinton.

After the debate, Wallace appeared on “Bill Hemmer Reports” to reflect on that debate.  His first reaction, said Wallace, was “this is great” because the explosive interaction between Trump and Biden suggested “we were gonna have a real debate here.”

 Bitter frustration quickly set in, with Wallace holding up a copy of the debate rule book that both sides had accepted but were ignoring. 

Interrupted 145 times

“It became clear, and clearer over time that this was something different and that the president was determined to try to butt in or throw Joe Biden off…. I saw another Fox analysis that indicates the president interrupted either Biden’s answers or my questions a total of 145 times, which is way more than one a minute. And he bears the primary responsibility for what happened on Tuesday night.”

Wallace said he had prepared for a serious debate. “I had baked this beautiful, delicious cake and frankly, the president put his foot in it,” so that the American people “didn’t get the debate they wanted and that they deserved. And that’s a loss for the country.”

The second presidential debate on Oct. 22 in Nashville, Tennessee, was different, in part because new rules imposed by the Commission on Presidential Debates included a mute button on each candidate’s microphone to prevent interruptions and enforce time limits.

Moderator declared winner

“Moderator Kristen Welker Won the Presidential Debate,” declared the headline on a huffpost.com story about the second presidential debate. An NBC News correspondent, Welker “did an exceptional job that received wide praise,” wrote Alanna Vagianos. “She asked tough, substantive questions while ensuring that the debate moved at a productive pace. Many colleagues applauded her for being respectful, but not backing down from fact-checking both candidates on big issues.”

Wallace admitted on Fox News, “I’m jealous,” according to a report on The Daily Beast. NPR said it was “a real debate.”

“Kristen Welker is putting on a master class in how to moderate a presidential debate,” tweeted Philip Rucker, the Washington Post’s White House bureau chief. She is the second Black woman to moderate a presidential debate solo.

Complaints

But that does not mean Welker went unscathed. Before the debate, Trump described Welker as “extraordinarily unfair,” “a radical left Democrat” and “a very biased person.” He was genial toward her during the debate.

Though the Oct. 15 dueling town hall meetings don’t qualify as presidential debates, they drew their share of heat and controversy.

“Savannah Guthrie, George Stephanopoulos Draw Praise, Hate After Trump-Biden Town Halls,” read the headline on a story by Cydney Henderson in USA Today.

NBC News’ Savannah Guthrie hosted Trump’s town hall meeting in Miami, Florida, “which proved to be contentious from the start as moderator and candidate sparred over questions on COVID-19 and white supremacy,” wrote Henderson.

Moderator debates candidate

Trump “pretty much debated Savannah Guthrie,” Fox News host Sean Hannity said. Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani called Guthrie “hostile, argumentative and contradictory.”

The Guardian praised Guthrie for “keeping Trump in check” and a tight rein on the meeting, but she was criticized for monopolizing time intended for questions from the audience.

“While many of the voters asked carefully crafted questions that were focused on Trump’s policy stances concerning hot topics….., Guthrie took it upon herself to interrupt and even steer the question in a different direction,” wrote Jordon Davidson of thefederalist.com.

Conspiracy theory

Guthrie and Trump clashed when she asked the president about his retweet of a conspiracy theory that Biden orchestrated to have Seal Team Six killed to cover up the fake death of Osama Bin Laden. It was described by Kathryn Watson of CBS News.

“Why would you send a lie like that to your followers?” asked Guthrie. “I know nothing about it,” Trump said. “You retweeted it,” Guthrie pointed out. “That was a retweet, that was an opinion of somebody, and that was a retweet. I’ll put it out there, people can decide for themselves, I don’t take a position,” the president responded.

“I don’t get that,” Guthrie countered. “You’re the president — you’re not like someone’s crazy uncle who can just retweet whatever.” Guthrie was accused of “grilling” the president.

“Totally crazy”

Later, Trump retaliated, saying that Guthrie had gone “totally crazy” during the interview. “Everyone thought it was so inappropriate. Savannah – it was like her face, the anger, the craziness.” He called Guthrie “unfair.”

Simultaneously, in contrast to the Guthrie “grilling” in Miami, the Biden town hall meeting moderated by ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos in Philadelphia was called a “smoochfest.” It featured no ill-tempered outbursts or answers running long beyond the time allowed.

USA Today reported the Biden-Stephanopoulos back-and-forth was calm in comparison with their counterparts. Stephanopoulos took some flack, though, for allegedly taking it easy on Biden. Giulianii said: “Stephanopoulos let Biden speak endlessly and never interrupted him.”

Pressing questions

Stephanopoulos turned questions almost immediately over to the audience, but periodically interjected questions, such as pointing out that Biden did not call for social distancing and mandatory face masks early in the pandemic. Several times, Stephanopoulos asked to “press you” on topics, including the economy, the supreme court, fracking and the Green New Deal. Overall, the tone was professional and cordial, as in the Walter Cronkite days.

Those addicted to political debates no doubt tuned into the vice presidential debate Oct. 7 in Salt Lake City, Utah, moderated by Susan Page, Washington bureau chief for USA Today. The debate between Vice President Mike Pence and Sen. Kamala Harris proved to be as difficult to control as it was for Wallace to control the Trump/Biden debate.

Page had trouble keeping Pence and Harris within their allotted speaking times and often resorted to saying “thank you” as a prod to stop them, without success as they continued to talk over her.

Scolding

Practically scolding the candidates, Page said at one point: “Your campaigns agreed to the rules for tonight’s debate…. I’m here to enforce them, which involves moving from one topic to another, giving roughly equal time to both of you, which I’m trying very hard to do right here.”

Civil discord, it is said, is a result of the contentious polarization that divides Americans. The presidential and vice presidential debates mirrored that breakdown.

There was a time when being asked to moderate a presidential debate was considered a high honor, a sign of respect for those who achieved eminence in journalism. Today, it’s a job that should come with hazard pay.

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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 ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

Minute Ethics Quiz

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists.

A reporter for a military publication contacted the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists and asked this question in 2008:

“May I reprint information in our newspaper that is from websites if I provide proper attribution, but without permission? There is no guidance about this in the AP style book; but we have tried before to get permission and it takes too long for people to respond and we have to go to press.”

You be the ethicst. What would you say to that reporter?

AdviceLine is a free service, staffed by four university professors who are experts in ethics. AdviceLine advisors do not tell professional journalists what to do, but engage them in a discussion of benefits and harms involved in the case, leading journalists to reach decisions based on best journalism ethics practices.

AdviceLine is partnered with the Chicago Headline Club, a professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

Our goal is to assist each caller make ethical decisions that:

*Are well informed by available standards of professional journalistic practice, especially the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics.

*Take account of the perspectives of all the parties involved in the situation.

*Employ clear and careful ethical thinking in reaching a decision.

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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 ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

Civic Groups Beckon Journalists

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Journalists face many responsibilities toward their communities. Sometimes they conflict.

Foremost is the responsibility to report news and information.  This makes journalists highly informed about the politics and needs of their cities and towns, making them desirable candidates to serve on civic organizations. Sometimes an unspoken goal of these civic groups is the hope of getting some favorable publicity.

Editors and publishers especially are targeted for such invitations, which is why an editor of a Minnesota newspaper in 2004 called the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for advice.

Pressures to join

Editors, especially in smaller cities, regularly are pressured by management to become involved in community service, like the United Way board, she said. A benefit for the editor is learning more about the community. It also supports the newspaper’s message to the community that the paper cares about the community. Those are good things. But, said the editor, it sends a mixed message to your reporters because, at a minimum, it looks like you are breaking the barrier between editorial and business, that you are schmoozing with the community’s power brokers like a publisher does, rather than staying on the news side of the organization. So what, asked the editor, should she do about this?

Clearly, much has changed since 2004. The Covid-19 epidemic for one, restricts the kind of public gatherings that were common almost 20 years ago. And volunteering time toward civic organizations today is less common at a time of staff cuts and vanishing news organizations.

An historical footnote

But the answer that David Ozar, an Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists staff advisor, gave to the Minnesota editor could be helpful to journalists or media executives who continue to be asked to serve on civic groups. Or even as an historical footnote to an earlier time in the history of journalism, when requests of that kind were more common.

“The first thing to say is that an editor who has to do such things needs to make sure she does not influence reporting about these organizations at all, because that would clearly break the barrier between reporting and business influence,” wrote Ozar in his report on this case. The editors comment “was that she is scrupulous about not being involved in reporting about them, by leaving that entirely to the reporters assigned to those beats. Her concern is not that this activity is actually compromising anything in that way, but that her staff see her going out to these things and wonder if there is compromise involved.

Sit down and talk

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

Ozar taught ethics at the time at Loyola University Chicago. He was professor of social and professional ethics in the Department of Philosophy.

Usually, AdviceLine does not know what journalists do after getting guidance from AdviceLine. In this case, AdviceLine’s manager called the Minnesota newspaper six months later and spoke to the managing editor.

What happened

AdviceLine’s manager wanted to know if the newspaper adopted any policies on staff members or executives joining civic groups. The managing editor said he discussed the issue with the editor who called AdviceLine, but “I can’t remember if we put anything in writing.”

But that changed in 2005, when a privately owned publishing company with a handbook on ethics and standards bought the Minnesota newspaper.

“In general, it says it encourages journalists to be involved in the community,” said the managing editor. “It says any involvement that is a conflict of interest or appears to be a conflict of interest should be avoided. We have a photographer who teaches a photo class at the university in town. He gets a paycheck. Is that a conflict? We leave it up to the editor and publisher. If it appears to be a conflict of interest, we say we can’t do it. For that one, (involving the photographer) we’re letting it go.”

Pressures, great and small, besiege newspapers. Some are old and some are new.  Journalists probably always will be targets of invitations to join one group or another because they know a lot about their cities, towns and villages.

AdviceLine is a free service, staffed by four university professors who are experts in ethics. AdviceLine advisors do not tell professional journalists what to do, but engage them in a discussion of benefits and harms involved in the case, leading journalists to reach decisions based on best journalism ethics practices.

AdviceLine is partnered with the Chicago Headline Club, a professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

Our aim is to assist each caller make ethical decisions that:

*Are well informed by available standards of professional journalistic practice, especially the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics.

*Take account of the perspectives of all the parties involved in the situation.

*Employ clear and careful ethical thinking in reaching a decision.

Put yourself in our shoes. What advice would you have given to the Minnesota editor? Was there a better way to answer her dilemma? You be the ethicist. What ethics resources would you cite to answer her query?

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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 ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

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Ethical Interviewing

 

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

 

Keeping control of an interview is one of a journalist’s basic jobs.

That might sound easy, but it can be difficult if the ground rules are not spelled out in advance so both the journalist and the person being interviewed know what to expect.

This was the key issue in a 2018 call to the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists from a magazine editor in New Zealand.

Making ethical decisions in journalism can be difficult. That’s why the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, founded in 2001, exists. It serves as a sounding board for journalists who want to do the right thing, but are not always sure how to do that. Written reports are kept on every inquiry.

Audio recording and notes

“I conducted an interview with an individual who knew that an audio recording was being made, in addition to my note-taking,” said the editor. “I wrote up the article and gave him the opportunity fact-check it. He removed several key statements because he said that they could result in him losing his job. At no point did he say that I had misquoted him or taken his comments out of context, merely that the statements were controversial.

“The comments he made on tape are an accurate representation of his actual feelings, but I know for a fact that he tells different things to different people in order to ingratiate himself with them. Am I required to run his approved version of the article, or can I run my original? Am I permitted to let anyone else listen to the taped conversation? It’s a dilemma which is weighing pretty heavy on my mind, so I’d really appreciate any advice you can offer.”

The call-taker in this case was David Ozar, who taught ethics at Loyola University Chicago, and was professor of social and professional ethics in the Department of Philosophy.

“There are a bunch of professional ethical issues here,” Ozar wrote in an email to the editor. For starters, he suggested consulting the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics, where “you might find a number of them referred to and advice offered.”

A mutual understanding

“My first thought is that it does not sound like you and the interviewees had a clear mutual understanding of what was going on. He clearly did not expect you to publish what you heard, but only what he accepted for publication. So the SPJ’s advice to ‘be cautious when making promises, but keep the promises you make’ is relevant. If you were to reveal his actual words without informing him, you would almost certainly be violating the unstated agreement he though you and he were making. So there is an ethical question whether the shortfall in the agreement was yours or his, and my instinct is that it was yours for not making your intentions clearer.

“So I think you need to inform him of the problem and get his OK to publish what he said rather than the redacted version he provided. If he fails to agree and you want to publish (or otherwise take that information beyond just you and him by showing it to someone else), the only exception to doing what he asks that I can think of is identified in this advice from SPJ: ‘Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public.’ That is, you have to determine if acting surreptitiously (by publishing what he has not in confidence (said) to you and has not approved being published) involves information vital to the public, and ‘vital’ is a pretty strong criterion.

“And even if you do that, your report would need to say that you were publishing this against the will of the person being quoted. Those are my first thoughts, but obviously I don’t know any more about the situation than you left in your brief message online. I would be happy to chat more by email if I have missed anything important about the situation. Let me know if that is the case.”

Editor’s response

The New Zealand editor responded by email, saying: “Thank you so much for replying to my query. I certainly appreciate your insights and the additional resources, and will be sure to bear these pointers in mind in the future. His ‘approved’ version of the content is the one which went to print. It felt like the morally appropriate thing to do.”

This case demonstrates the type of ethical issues confronting professional journalists, and what the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists does to help them.

From a journalist’s perspective, showing a story to a source before it is published carries risks. Before doing so, it would be wise to stress that you want to check facts, or the accuracy of specific descriptions or explanations. It is not an open invitation to rewrite the story as the source might have written it. Another way to do this would be to read back to the source a sentence or paragraph of the story that the journalist wants fact-checked. This keeps the focus on what you want fact-checked. Otherwise, when confronted with their own candid words, sources sometimes decide they want to put their own spin on the story to sound smarter, diplomatic, funnier or politically correct.

AdviceLine is a free service, staffed by four university professors who are experts in ethics. AdviceLine advisors do not tell professional journalists what to do, but engage them in a discussion of benefits and harms involved in the case, leading journalists to reach decisions based on best journalism ethics practices.

AdviceLine is partnered with the Chicago Headline Club, a professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

Our aim is to assist each caller make ethical decisions that:

*Are well informed by available standards of professional journalistic practice, especially the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics.

*Take account of the perspectives of all the parties involved in the situation.

*Employ clear and careful ethical thinking in reaching a decision.

Put yourself in our shoes. What advice would you have given to the New Zealand editor? Was there a better way to answer her dilemma? You be the ethicist. What ethics resources would you cite to answer her query?

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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 ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

Election Ethics Dilemma

 

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Elections often are seen as a chance to toss the rascals out of office.

But what if a reporter is worried that his work might allow a rascal to get into office?

That was the dilemma facing Victor Crown, assistant editor of Illinois Politics Magazine years ago. It was a dilemma that often faces political reporters: How information harmful to one political candidate might favor an opposing candidate.

Crown called the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, a free service partnered with the Chicago Headline Club, a professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. It was among the first calls to AdviceLine, which began operating on Jan. 22, 2001.

Something Bad to Happen

“I am about to do a story that may cause something bad to happen,” Crown told Dr. David Ozar, an AdviceLine call-taker who taught ethics at Loyola University Chicago.

Crown was writing an article about alleged conflicts of interest by republican U.S. senator Peter Fitzgerald of Illinois — described by Crown as a banking lawyer, a bank stockholder and a bank director — and his voting record on banking bills.

Publishing the story could prove helpful to a Fitzgerald political rival, and Crown feared that might be the worst of two evils.

“So he is wondering if he should sit on the story and not publish it, in order to avoid the potentially good consequences for a (rival) public official he does not trust or respect,” Ozar wrote in his report on this case.

AdviceLine cases usually are considered confidential, but Crown gave his permission for his case to be made public.

Someone To Talk To

As in most calls from journalists, Crown was looking for somebody to talk to about his ethics-in-government dilemma. Journalists sometimes call to confirm whether the manner in which they handled a story was ethically correct.

“We talked at length about weighing the professional obligation to tell the truth with courage against the potential negative effects of doing so…,” wrote Ozar. “Since conflict of interest on the part of the person being investigated is in itself a subtle ethical matter, there was also a lot of conversation between us about harmful versus non-harmful conflicts…”

In effect, Ozar urged Crown to follow one of the leading concepts of the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics: Seek the truth and report it.

Releasing The Information

In the end, Crown put all of his investigative information on a web site, so it could be examined by other journalists and the public to determine how well his evidence supported his report on Fitzgerald.

Crown took this action after discussing it with Ozar, who wrote: “I also judged that this is the most impartial way to release this information.”

Ozar concluded that Crown decided to publish “because it is the professionally right thing to do and because the other moral/ethical considerations in the matter are not sufficiently weighty to outweigh his professional commitments.”

Fitzgerald served in the U.S. senate from 1999 until his retirement in 2005, when he decided not to run for reelection. He was followed by democrat Barack Obama, who won in a landslide, becoming the senate’s only African-American member.

The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists has handled about 1,000 inquiries since it began operating in 2001.

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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 ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

 

 

Ethics Quiz Answers

 

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists.

No doubt you’ve been waiting for the answers to that journalism ethics quiz posted earlier featuring samples of questions answered in the past by the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists.

Some people just can’t resist matching their wits with AdviceLine ethics gurus who answer queries from professional journalists, some of them on deadline. That’s what AdviceLine, a free service, does.

In many cases, answering ethics questions is like walking a tight-rope. AdviceLine advisors don’t tell callers what to do. Instead, the advisors engage callers in a discussion of benefits and harms involved in each case, leading journalists to make their own decisions.

For those just tuning in, let me explain. AdviceLine is staffed by four university professors trained in ethics. AdviceLine is partnered with the Chicago Headline Club, a professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

Our goal is to assist each caller make ethical decisions that are well informed by standards of professional journalistic practice. So let’s get started.

Case One

Case one involved a woman who got into a conflict with security guards for riding topless on public transit. She asked the news editor of a major metropolitan daily to remove her name from a high-interest story about the conflict. In a similar case, a California editor says he is getting requests to remove old stories from the paper’s electronic archives. They include a person who became divorced, a person convicted of a felony five years ago and a beauty shop that wants the name of a former beautician removed from an old story about the shop. Is there anything unethical about news organizations keeping electronic archives, or is there an ethical requirement to honor such requests?

AdviceLine advisors write a detailed report on each query. David Ozar, emeritus professor of philosophy at Loyola University Chicago, was the advisor in this case. The call came from the executive editor of a California community newspaper.

“We discussed the reason for archives as the starting point for sorting out the ethics here,” Ozar wrote, “since this is an issue of benefit/harm and the first issue is what benefit the archives offer the community. The answer is the benefit of an historical record, which of its very nature is therefore historical (and) has information in it which is now outdated.”

Ethics of Archives

Ozar discussed with the editor whether there is a significant ethical difference between a paper archive and an electronic archive? The answer is two-fold: The electronic archive is much more useful to the community because it is so much more easily accessed and searched. It is of greater benefit to the community than a paper archive would be. But by the same token, searching each of them means that old information that some individuals might prefer to not have so accessible is readily accessible.

But now we can ask if there is an ethical difference between paper and electronic archives that leads to an obligation to block access when requested in the electronic one and not so in the paper one? “The answer seems to be no,” writes Ozar. If newspapers want to assist concerned individuals,  they “should not do so by removing information from the historical record.”

A newspaper may choose to see if Google will assist these people, or may choose to cooperate with Google if Google decides to help these people. But, the paper has no obligation to bear great expense to help these people block access, and in fact should view it as being, at most, an act of kindness (that is not unethical) rather than something they are ethically bound to do.

“All of this assumes, of course,” writes Ozar. “that the paper has taken the usual care in publishing only news that is supported by the evidence and has taken care also to correct any errors in its publishing.” Corrections should be electronically linked to the original stories so searchers see the corrections.

Case Two

Case two: The publisher of a Tennessee newspaper called AdviceLine, saying “I have a difficult confidentiality problem.” He is a member of the board of directors of the local United Way, a national coalition of charitable organizations. The publisher learned at an emergency board meeting called by the organization’s new executive director that the previous executive director failed to file federal IRS forms for not-for-profits and the local owes the federal government more than $20,000. The local would be fined $90 a day and risks losing its not-for-profit status if it fails to act within six weeks.

The publisher wants to know if it would be unethical to refrain from reporting the United Way problems until the situation is fixed? A United Way fund-raising campaign was under way at this time.

This case proved to be vexing to the AdviceLine volunteer staff, which includes both the university ethics experts who answer queries and professional journalists who understand newsroom practices. This case showed how ethicists themselves can disagree on what is ethical. The university ethicists and the professional journalists periodically met to review the cases to discuss how well the university ethicists responded to queries. In this case, they clashed.

In his report on the case, Ozar said, “we talked at length about benefit and harm.” They agreed that the public will likely be upset at this situation, but “there is no great loss to the public in not knowing this right at this time, whereas there is good reason to believe that, even with the corrective action already taken…, many people might reduce their contributions and many potential beneficiaries of United Way might suffer accordingly. That is, reporting this matter right now seems to produce more harm than benefit to the public.”

Confidentiality

Ozar reported that the publisher wondered if preserving the board’s confidentiality might appear to them and later to the public that he was involved in covering up something that, as a journalist, he should have reported. But Ozar talked him out of it, saying withholding the information for a time could be justified “from a professional ethics point of view” and even by the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics.

Ozar and I exchanged emails on this report, and I told him that his advice was “flat-out wrong.” The publisher’s responsibilities, I argued, were to his newspaper and to the community, not to United Way. Malfeasance at the United Way is a story the community deserves to know immediately. And, I added, Ozar was wrong about his interpretation of the SPJ code of ethics. It says: “Seek Truth and Report It.”

This case was a clear example whereby publishers who join civic groups open themselves to conflicts of interest. The credibility of the paper and the publisher could be seriously damaged once the public learns the paper delayed reporting the story.

Even one of the AdviceLine advisors who takes calls disagreed with Ozar’s advice, saying, “I am afraid I would not have given the same advice. The journalist’s job is to seek the truth and report it. Sitting on this kind of information can only deepen the public’s suspicion of cover-up and now by the new administration” at the local United Way. “I feel strongly the best approach for United Way is to be completely honest and forthcoming, so it follows I would believe the journalist should not sit on the story. When it finally comes out and it surely will, the speed with which the United Way acted will be a question and the journalist who knew will be subject to the same inquiry.”

At an AdviceLine team discussion later, Ozar defended his position. “I work very hard not to give advice, but facilitate thought,” he said. “Right now, I agree with his reasoning. This man (the publisher) was a thoughtful, careful person who was aware of all of the issues being raised. He believed he had serious obligations to the United Way as a member of the board. The only way out was to not be on the board.”

Ozar added that he called the publisher to tell him that other members of the AdviceLine team disagreed with his advice “and presented the concern that he was neglecting certain duties that he has as a journalist. And we hashed through the case again and couldn’t come up with a better decision.”

Case Three

Case three: Journalism sometimes is described as a sexy job, but there are limits. AdviceLine gets many calls about romantic entanglements. Here’s one that was especially interesting, with more details than most.

The managing editor of a California newspaper said one of his reporters was having an affair with the mayor of one of the towns the reporter covers. The editor also learned that she sent the mayor at least two stories about his town prior to publication.

A further complication was the discovery that a competing newspaper learned of the affair between the reporter and the mayor and might run a story about it. The managing editor called AdviceLine for guidance.

The AdviceLine advisor, Hugh Edmund Miller, until recently assistant professor of philosophy at Loyola University Chicago, pointed out that the rerporter violated two standards in the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics: To act independently and to avoid conflicts of interest. She tried to hide her relationship with the mayor and was leaking information to him.

And if the competing newspaper reported the affair, that could seriously damage the paper’s credibility and reputation.

Miller told the managing editor: “I think you should do something decisive and promptly. Either reassign her to an utterly different beat or function, at the minimum, or fire her.”

Either say, said Miller, consider disclosing the matter to the public before the competition does. The editor said that confirmed his instincts.

Calling a Caller

Usually, we at AdviceLine don’t know the outcome of our cases, or if callers take our advice. But occasionally I track down the callers to ask them how the case turned out. I found the former managing editor. He left the newspaper after 22 years and was working for state government.

“I wanted to fire her outright,” said the former managing editor. He took the case to the company’s human resources department, recommending that the reporter be fired. The HR department was not interested in that. It ruled that the reporter was entitled to have sex with whomever she chose. It was a personal matter.

But she was terminated for sending stories to the mayor before she showed them to her editor. Those stories were considered company property.

This case reminds us that the world is a crazy and unpredictable place. Journalists have codes of ethics and it’s usually a good idea to abide by them. Journalists should protect their integrity and the integrity of the media companies they work for.

Corporate HR departments are guided by different standards.

Case Four

Case four: A group of environmental activists in the Phoenix area was setting fire to unoccupied houses under construction in a development near or on a nature preserve. Nobody had been injured by the fires.

The activists called a small newspaper offering to meet a reporter for an interview to explain their reasons for burning the houses. Other media contacted by the activists told police, who were unable to identify the activists or prevent them from burning more houses.

The newspaper published a headline containing a coded message agreeing to meet with the activists. A reporter interviewed the activists in a city park and the newspaper published a story about the arsonists and their motives.

Only later were ethics questions raised about the way the newspaper handled the story. A Phoenix reporter called AdviceLine, asking how his own newspaper should cover the issue.

Should the newspaper have simply told police about the activists’ invitation, as other media groups did? Should it have informed police of an interview meeting where they could arrest the activists? Should the newspaper publish the story so the activists could make their case to the public, giving the public a much clearer and less frightening picture of the group’s aims and intentions? Should the newspaper have published personal information about the activists that might have helped police, putting the activists at greater risk of arrest?

Processing the Issues

“During a lengthy and thoughtful conversation, the caller and I processed the issues,” Ozar writes in his report on this case. “He had already thought through them very carefully, so my role, at his request, was chiefly to play ‘devil’s advocate’ to make sure every side of the issues involved had been explored. In fact, he had already examined the issues quite carefully. I agreed with him that, if the police were not being effective (the newspaper) might well have judged reasonably at the time that interviewing the contact would do the public more good than harm. And it also turned out that way, making the judgment of their actions after the fact even clearer. The caller’s view was that such promises of confidentiality are sometimes essential to news gathering and that this was properly judged to be one of those times. I raised questions about it, but nothing that weakened the caller’s judgment on the matter.”

Those are just four of the more than 1,000 ethics queries handled by AdviceLine since its inception in 2001. Nearly half of the cases involve conflict of interest.

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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 ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

 

 

 

 

 

 

An Ethics Quiz

 

desktop-documentaries.com photo

 

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

A pandemic makes journalism ethics more important.

The truth is more important than ever as rumors and false information swirl.

That’s where making ethical decisions comes into play. It’s hard to do it alone. That’s why the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists exists. Call 866-DILEMMA or go to ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org. It’s a free service, staffed by four university professors who teach ethics.

AdviceLine advisors do not tell professional journalists what they should do. Instead, these trained advisors engage them in a discussion of benefits and harms involved in the case, leading journalists to reach decisions based on best journalism ethics practices. AdviceLine is partnered with the Chicago Headline Club, a professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

Our aim is to assist each caller make ethical decisions that:

*Are well informed by available standards of professional journalistic practice, especially the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics.

*Take account of the perspectives of all the parties involved in the situation.

*Employ clear and careful ethical thinking in reaching a decision.

What sorts of issues come to AdviceLine? Nearly half of the ethical questions presented to AdviceLine concern conflicts of interest. The SPJ code of ethics tells journalists to “act independently,” but it is often difficult to know, when you are in the middle of a complicated situation, what is more compromising of journalistic independence and what is not.

So here’s a test, an ethics quiz, based on cases that came to AdviceLine. Journalists sheltering in place during the pandemic might welcome a chance to take an ethics break. You be the judge. What advice would you have given in these cases? On what would your advice be based? Put yourself in our shoes.

Case one: The news editor of a major metropolitan daily says the newspaper published a story about a woman who got into a conflict with security guards for riding topless on public transit. Her name ranks at the top of a Google hit list, and she wants her name removed from the story because it’s difficult to find a job.

Meanwhile, a California editor is getting requests to remove old stories from the paper’s website archives, or block them from Google’s search engine. The requests include a person who became divorced, a person convicted of a felony five years ago and a beauty shop that wants the name of a former beautician removed from an old story about the shop. Is there anything unethical about papers keeping electronic archives, or is there an ethical requirement to honor these requests?

Case two: The publisher of a countywide newspaper is a member of a local United Way board of directors. In an emergency meeting, the new United Way executive director revealed that the previous executive director failed to file the federal IRS forms for not-for-profits, resulting in a $20,000 fine, which could climb higher if the organization’s new executive director fails to file the forms within six weeks.

The publisher wanted to know if it would be unethical to refrain from reporting the United Way problems until the situation was fixed. The national United Way fund drive was under way at the time, and the local group feared donors would be less generous if they learned of the tax problems before it was fixed.

AdviceLine regularly gets calls asking if it is a conflict of interest for editors or publishers to join local civic groups or chambers of commerce.

Case three: Journalism sometimes is described as a sexy job, but there are limits. AdviceLine got a call from a California editor who said one of his reporters was having an affair with the mayor.

A Massachusetts reporter asked how soon she should tell her editor about a growing relationship with an attorney she met while covering court cases. And a Washington, D.C. editor proposed a rule forbidding his staff from dating any person who is a news source, or might become a news source. A reporter complained that would mean reporters could not date anyone, since anyone might become news. Is a rule against dating news sources going too far in the cause of ethics, or is it simply recognition that journalism requires higher standards? Or should journalists have a chance at romance like everyone else?

AdviceLine has gotten a number of calls on romance issues. It’s a hot topic. So in the interest of professional ethics, I’ll let the cat out of the bag on this one. AdviceLine advisors have answered this problem by saying journalists who are romantically involved with news sources could not be trusted to be impartial and neutral toward those news sources. Their partiality might harm the credibility of the newspaper or broadcasting company they work for. In one of the cases, an AdviceLine advisor said journalists should be forbidden to date sources, or if that is not possible, they should be removed from covering that source.

Do you agree? What’s your take on this one?

Case four: A group of environmental activists in the Phoenix area was setting fire to unoccupied houses under construction in a development near or on a nature preserve.

The activists sent a letter to a small newspaper offering to meet a reporter for an interview to explain the reasons for burning the houses. The editors pondered whether to give the letter to police, inform the police of the interview so the activists could be arrested, go ahead with an interview as requested and publish the story that explains the activists’ motives or do the interviews and publish all personal information gained from the activists and let police take it from there?

That’s a sample of what AdviceLine handles. It’s interesting work. Never dull.

Our mission is not only to help individual journalists reach informed ethical decisions, but to contribute to the greater discussion, understanding and body of knowledge regarding ethics and journalism – and to be an influential force in that effort.

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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 ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

 

 

 

 

Lessons From Plagues

 

 

European plague. the guardian.com photo.

 

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

 

The history of plagues and pandemics shows some similarities in the way they spread, and how people react.

Travelers, whether soldiers or traders, often were the super spreaders of their day.

Quarantine is a centuries-old strategy against pandemics. Wearing masks is an old defense too, including public resistance to wearing them.

Another similarity is that millions of people die. Survivors muddle through, sometimes with the help of modern medical treatment. But medicine often was useless against plagues. Blame it all on civilization.

“Plagues and epidemics have ravaged humanity throughout its existence, often changing the course of history,” writes Owen Jarus in livescience.com., offering a list of 20 of the worst epidemics and pandemics in history. At times, they signaled the end of entire civilizations.

The list starts with an epidemic 5,000 years ago that wiped out a prehistoric village in China. Bodies of the dead were stuffed inside a house that was burned down at a site called Hamin Mangha in northeastern China. Prehistoric mass burial sites dating to roughly the same time suggest an epidemic swept the entire region.

Jarus’s list ends with the Zika Virus epidemic dating from 2015 to the present. The impact of the Zika epidemic in South America and Central America won’t be known for several years. It is spread by mosquitoes and can attack infants still in the womb, causing birth defects.

 Learning From the Past

Focusing on what we’ve learned from past pandemics, Tim McDonnell in quartz.com starts with the Antonine plague beginning in 165 AD, one of the world’s first epidemics. A form of smallpox or measles, legionnaires returning from a siege in modern-day Iraq brought it to Rome. It devastated the Roman army, fueled the growing popularity of Christianity and was an early contributor to the empire’s eventual collapse. It also offered an early glimpse into a key tenet of virology: Disease outbreaks are deadliest when introduced to a population for the first time, when people lack immunity.

Genoese traders brought the plague known as the Black Death to Europe after escaping a siege in which a Mongol general used infected corpses as a weapon. Spread by fleas, the plague killed up to 23 million people, one-third of Europe’s population, from 1347 to 1351.

The first true flu pandemic appeared in the summer of 1580 in Asia, writes McDonnell, and quickly spread over trade routes into Europe and North America. Earlier cases might have occurred among Greek soldiers fighting the Peloponnesian War in 430 BC. The first reference to “influenza” in scientific literature dates to 1650 and comes from the Italian word “influence.”

Possibly the worst medical disaster in history, the 1918 Spanish Flu infected a third of the global population and killed up to 50 million people. It revealed how many lives can be saved by social distancing. Cities that cancelled public events had far fewer cases. The disease spread quickly in the United States and Europe through troop movements during World War I, infecting armies involved in the conflict.

A pandemic occurs when a disease turns into a global outbreak, writes M. David Scott in Listverse.com. Covid-19 is now considered a pandemic. It is causing countries to close their borders, urge people to stay indoors and order businesses to cease operations. Scott lists the top 10 deadly pandemics of the past. This list includes leprosy of the Middle Ages, a bacterial disease that can lead to damaged nerves, skin, eyes and respiratory tracts. Called “the living dead,” lepers were considered “unclean” and had to wear bells to signal their presence. It is believed Europe had about 19,000 leper houses about this time because lepers were forbidden in many locations.

Plagues Spawned By Civilization

Though plagues often are described as threats to civilizations, Andrew Sullivan writes in New York Magazine that plagues are spawned by civilization.

“Plague is an effect of civilization,” writes Sullivan. “The waves of sickness through human history in the past 5,000 years (and not before) attest to this, and the outbreaks often became more devastating the bigger the settlements and the greater the agriculture and the more evolved the trade and travel.”

We live in a genocidal graveyard, he contends, and plagues remind humans of their mortality. The story is far from over.

“As the human population reaches an unprecedented peak, as cities grow, as climate change accelerates environmental disruption, and as globalization connects every human with every other one, we have, in fact, created a near-perfect environment for a novel pathogen-level breakout. Covid-19 is just a reminder of that ineluctable fact and that worse outbreaks are almost certain to come.” He calls Covid-19 “mercifully, relatively mild in its viral impact, even though its cultural and political effects may well be huge.” It could serve as a harbinger.

At times like this, humans scramble for cures and defenses. And those have histories of their own.

Centuries-old Strategy

“In the new millennium, the centuries-old strategy of quarantine is becoming a powerful component of the public health response to emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases,” writes Eugenia Tognotti of the University of Sassari in Italy.

“During the 2003 pandemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome, the use of quarantine, border controls, contact tracing and surveillance proved effective in containing the global threat in just over three months. For centuries, these practices have been the cornerstone of organized responses to infectious disease outbreaks.”

But these methods are controversial and raise political, ethical and socioeconomic conflicts.

Even during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic more than a century ago, resistance to wearing face masks was as controversial as it is today, writes Christine Hauser in the New York Times. Those who objected to the practice were called “mask slackers” and fined or jailed.

“The masks were called muzzles, germ shields and dirt traps,” wrote Hauser. “They gave people a ‘piglike snout.’ Some people snipped holes in their masks to smoke cigars. Others fastened them to dogs in mockery. Bandits used them to rob banks.”

Masks Stoke Division

As the 1918 influenza pandemic raged in the United States, masks of gauze and cheesecloth became the facial front lines in the battle against the virus, she wrote. “But as they have now, the masks also stoked political division. Then, as now, medical authorities urged the wearing of the masks to help slow the spread of disease. And then, as now, some people resisted” while thousands of Americans were dying in a deadly pandemic.

The Covid-19 pandemic behaves in unexpected ways, writes Laura Helmuth in scientificamerican.com, making it difficult to keep up with current findings. People tend to remember the first things they learned of the disease, making it psychologically difficult to replace old information with new knowledge. Helmuth listed nine of the most important things we’ve learned in the past seven months. Among them:

*Covid-19 outbreaks can happen anywhere. Chinese people got it where they buy groceries. Italians got it through their habit of greeting each other with kisses on the cheeks. People on cruise ships got it because of the buffets. People in nursing homes got it because they are frail. People in New York got it because the city is crowded.

*Covid-19 can sicken and kill anyone, not just the elderly but teenagers and children too.

*Contaminated surfaces are not the main danger.

*It’s in the air. When people cough or sneeze, they expel droplets or particles of mucus and saliva that carry the virus.

*Many people are infectious without being sick.

*Warm weather will not stop the virus.

*Masks work.

*Racism, not race, is a risk factor.

*Misinformation kills.

  Infodemic of Misinformation

As governments fight the Covid-19 pandemic, snopes.com is fighting an “infodemic” of rumors and misinformation about the pandemic.

A common phenomenon during crises, said the fact-checking organization, is attempts by people to find patterns in them as a way to control or understand events.

A common misperception, said Snopes, is that plagues happen every 100 years by citing those in 1720, 1820, 1920 and 2020.

“It’s an example of the common technique of creating the impression of a regular pattern by cherry-picking a small amount of (not necessarily relevant) data, while completely ignoring a much larger body of related data that doesn’t fit the desired pattern,” said Snopes. The misperception ignored pandemics in years that did not end in 20.

At this writing, the medical community is struggling to find a vaccine to cure or treat Covid-19. That is another history in the making, likely to be filled with misconceptions and misinformation before it all plays out.

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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 ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.