Ethics Confidential: As AdviceLine Wins Awards, Critic Recalls Its Origins

By Casey Bukro

It might pain Michael Miner, media critic for the Chicago Reader, to know that he can claim some responsibility for how the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists handles confidentiality.

From the start, Miner has assumed that anyone who presumes to tell journalists what to do about ethics is a bit daft, silly or pretentious. He tends to be in the camp of those who believe that journalism ethics is an oxymoron.

“The old solution to journalism’s intractable contradictions was to build newsrooms no more than 100 feet from a bar,” Miner wrote in a column published March 9, 2001, a month after AdviceLine’s advent. Instead of a bar, wrote Miner, journalists now could pick up a phone and say, “Hello, sweetheart. Get me ethics.”

It’s good for journalists, and ethicists too, to have an unsympathetic, cold-eyed lampooner.

And Miner continues prodding, even when he wrote a column mentioning that AdviceLine had been awarded a Peter Lisagor Award May 8 by the Chicago Headline Club as best independent continuing blog. The Lisagor awards are given for exemplary journalism. Miner was not impressed.

Lisagor Award“But as life is richer when Bukro’s around to disagree with, I’m pleased to report he hasn’t gone away,” wrote Miner. It’s good to have a media critic, even after the passage of 14 years, who still closely follows developments in journalism and ethics with a wry bent.

The Lisagor award, named for the late Washington correspondent and PBS commentator, was the second in a few weeks given to AdviceLine. The Society of Professional Journalists announced in April that AdviceLine won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online independent column writing. The award will be presented in June in Washington, D.C.

Miner writes for the Reader, which describes itself as “Chicago’s Free Weekly/ Kicking Ass Since 1971.”

Miner is a good kicker. He wrote one of the first pieces about AdviceLine, saying in the 2001 column that a Chicago Tribune columnist beat him to using “a smart-alecky tone … forcing me to scramble for higher ground.”

Miner is also a very good reporter. He interviewed me in 2001 about what kind of calls we were getting from journalists, and I described some of our first. I thought I was being careful about identifying callers or details that could not be disclosed under our confidentiality policy.

Miner has a soothing voice on the telephone, teasing out information in a way that non-journalists might find disarming. He told others on the AdviceLine team that I had described some of the cases we handled, and encouraged them to do the same. And they did.

What followed was what I called a Miner uproar. After reading the Miner column, one AdviceLine member wrote in an email “I hardly know what to say about the extent to which confidences and commitments have been violated” in response to Miner’s questions.

The first reaction from some AdviceLine members was to say they had said too much, especially me for “spilling the beans,” causing others to follow suit.

This was virgin territory. How much can be said about ethics cases? Nothing at all, some argued. And, if you are not accustomed to being interviewed, it can be shocking to see your comments in print.

It was a tumultuous beginning for AdviceLine.

Even Miner was criticized for being too informative about the AdviceLine cases he described.

“I’m stunned, stunned, stunned to read that the contents of the phone calls to the ethics line were reported openly,” was one reaction that appeared in Jim Romenesko’s media news site.

The president of an SPJ chapter, not identified by name, had called AdviceLine with a question, and his question was described. He later told Romenesko that he had not expected his phone call to result in a news story.

My take at the time: “On the face of it, it looks as though some members of our team lost their moral bearings and we had an ethical meltdown as a result of the Miner article. How could that happen with a group trained in ethics?”

It was not ethics at fault. It was learning to communicate effectively. It was a hard-won lesson, one that rattled some members of the AdviceLine team.

At the core was knowing our standard on confidentiality, and sticking to it. Yet one of AdviceLine’s goals is education – learning what ethics issues plague professional journalists, and the advice given to help solve those dilemmas. There can be no education if the cases cannot be described publicly, even without names and places.

An AdviceLine staff member at the time, the late Mary Myers, reminded all of us of our mission: “We not only want to man an AdviceLine, but contribute to the greater discussion, understanding and body of knowledge regarding ethics and journalism.”

AdviceLine has refined its confidentiality policies periodically. Here are the questions asked every time AdviceLine gets a call or query.

1. Do I have your permission to share the details of your case, including your name and organization, with the AdviceLine team?

2. Education in journalism ethics is one of the AdviceLine’s core missions, so may we have your permission to discuss the nature of your case anonymously in the AdviceLine’s educational reports, books or online blogs, but without identifying you or your organization?

3. Real-life case reports are very important resources for education in journalism ethics, so may we have your permission to use the content of your case and our discussion of it, including using your name and organization, in the AdviceLine’s educational reports, books or online blogs?

The goal is to be clear on what AdviceLine can say publicly about the cases. Thanks, Mike!

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