All posts by cbukro

About cbukro

Casey Bukro was inducted into the Chicago Journalism Hall of Fame in 2008 for outstanding contributions to Chicago journalism, after a 45 year career with the Chicago Tribune. Bukro retired from the Tribune in 2007 as overnight editor. He had pioneered in environmental reporting and in 1970 became the first full-time environment specialist at a major metropolitan newspaper in the United States and covered major developments on that beat for 30 years. He won the newspaper’s highest editorial award in 1967 for a series on Great Lakes pollution. The Society of Professional Journalists awarded Bukro its highest honor, the Wells Key, in 1983 for writing that organization’s first code of ethics. He is a past president of SPJ’s national ethics committee and a past president of the Chicago Headline Club. Bukro graduated with bachelor and master degrees from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism. In 1998, he received the Northwestern University Alumni Association’s alumni service award for 17 years of volunteer service to the university. He has lectured in environmental journalism and journalism ethics at Northwestern, the University of Chicago, DePaul University, Loyola University Chicago, Columbia College, Columbia University and others. Before joining the Tribune staff, Bukro worked at the former City News Bureau of Chicago and the Janesville Gazette, Janesville, Wis.

American Indian Ethics

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Showing respect is a basic law of life, says a Native American traditional code of ethics.

This might sound soothing to Americans watching the hyper-polarization and mean-spirited castigations rampaging across the nation these days over politics, abortion, war and inflation.

American Indians, also known as the First Americans, are among those who can lay claim to a history of terrible suffering and carnage. If suffering brings wisdom, American Indians can lay claim to that, too.

It shows in the Native American Indian Traditional Code of Ethics. The original version was printed in 1982 in the book, “The Sacred Tree,” by the Four Worlds Development Project, dedicated to eliminating alcohol and drug abuse by Canadian natives. It can be found at https://onewhitehorsestanding.com/resources/native-american-indian-traditional-code-of-ethics. The “Inter-Tribal Times” adapted and reprinted the original version in 1994.

I can’t vouch for the authenticity of this code as being traditional, since native Americans in the United States alone consist of 574 federally recognized tribes, about half of which are associated with 326 Indian reservations. They have inhabited the United States at least 15,000 years. Their tribal customs and beliefs differ.

But the code’s sentiments seem worthy of consideration, offering a peaceful perspective. This is a shortened version of that code, presented as it appears on the website where it is found:

Each morning upon rising, and each evening before sleeping, give thanks for the life within you and for all life, for the good things the Creator has given you and for the opportunity to grow a little more each day…Seek for the things that will benefit others (everyone).

Respect means “to feel or show honor or esteem for someone or something; to consider the well being of, or to treat someone or something with deference or courtesy.” Showing respect is a basic law of life.

  1. Treat every person from the tiniest child to the oldest elder with respect at all times.
  2. Special respect should be given to elders, parents, teachers and community leaders.
  3. No person should be made to feel “put down” by you; avoid hurting other hearts as you would avoid a deadly poison.
  4. Touch nothing that belongs to someone else (especially sacred objects) without permission, or an understanding between you.
  5. Respect the privacy of every person, never intrude on a person’s quiet moment or personal space.
  6. Never walk between people that are conversing.
  7. Never interrupt people who are conversing.
  8. Speak in a soft voice, especially when you are in the presence of elders, strangers or others to whom special respect is due.
  9. Do not speak unless invited to do so at gatherings where elders are present (except to ask what is expected of you, should you be in doubt.)
  10. Never speak about others in a negative way, whether they are present or not.
  11. Treat the earth and all of her aspects as your mother. Show deep respect for the mineral world, the plant world and the animal world. Do nothing to pollute our mother. Rise up with wisdom to defend her.
  12. Show deep respect for the beliefs and religion of others.
  13. Listen with courtesy to what others say, even if you feel that what they are saying is worthless. Listen with your heart.
  14. Respect the wisdom of the people in council. Once you give an idea to a council meeting it no longer belongs to you. It belongs to the people. Respect demands that you listen intently to the ideas of others in council and that you do not insist that your idea prevails. Indeed you should freely support the ideas of others if they are true and good, even if those ideas are quite different from the ones you have contributed. The clash of ideas brings forth the spark of truth.

Once a council has decided something in unity, respect demands that no one speak secretly against what has been decided. If the council has made an error, that error will become apparent to everyone in its own time.

Be truthful at all times, and under all conditions.

Always treat your guests with honor and consideration. Give of your best food, your best blankets, the best part of your house and your best service to your guests.

The hurt of one is the hurt of all, the honor of one is the honor of all.

Receive strangers and outsiders with a loving heart and as members of the human family.

All the races and tribes in the world are like the different colored flowers of one meadow. All are beautiful. As children of the Creator they must all be respected.

To serve others, to be of some use to family, community, nation and the world is one of the main purposes for which human beings have been created… True happiness comes only to those who dedicate their lives to the service of others.

Observe moderation and balance in all things.

Know those things that lead to your well-being, and those things that lead to your destruction.

Listen to and follow the guidance given to your heart. Expect guidance to come in many forms, in prayer, in dreams, in times of quiet solitude and in the words and deeds of wise elders and friends.

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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.

Politicians Driving Drunk

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

A team of reporters with a Minnesota newspaper wonder if it would be unfair to report that three candidates for public office were convicted for driving while under the influence and driving while intoxicated.

Two candidates are running for county attorney and one for the county board. Two of the convictions date to the 1990s and one from three years ago. The newspaper covered the convictions when they happened.

The newspaper’s editor called the Ethics AdviceLine, saying his reporters cannot agree on whether the convictions, some of them dated, should be mentioned in news reports about the candidates. The editor asked an AdviceLine adviser for an opinion.

“Yes,” answered the adviser. “DWI and DUI are serious convictions enough to influence their votes and the voting public has a right to know about them. The paper’s job is to seek and print the truth.”

The editor pressed further. “Should we investigate, then, all candidates running for office and possible past convictions?”

The adviser responded: “If not you, who?” An informed public makes the best voters.

“That’s a good way to put it,” answered the editor.

Although the editor was asking about political candidates running for office, ethicists might take it a step further and consider the consequences of electing officials with drunken driving records.

The Alcohol Problems and Solutions website reports that many politicians are arrested for drunken driving, although dozens of members of Congress each year escape arrests by invoking their congressional privilege of immunity.

“The privilege was originally provided over 200 years ago to protect members of Congress from politically-motivated arrests,” said the organization, adding that the privilege of immunity “serves no useful purpose today and is an affront to law-abiding citizens.”

The organization lists politicians arrested for drunk driving, beginning with former president George W. Bush when he was 30 years old and Dick Cheney, the former vice president, when he was 22 years old. The website names other politicians arrested for drunk driving state-by-state.

Charges usually involve alcohol, but abuse of legal and illegal drugs might be an even bigger problem, according to the website, but estimates of the extent of the problem “are virtually non-existent.”

Drunk driving kills and injures thousands of people each year, said the organization. “Therefore, it’s especially important for elected officials to be good role models. However, politicians arrested for drunk driving set a poor example. Yet is appears that voters tend not to vote their disapproval of this crime. Perhaps that’s because so many voters drive intoxicated themselves.”

Police arrest over 1.5 million people annually for driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs.

What do you think? Should reporters publish details about candidates and elected officials arrested and convicted for drunken driving?

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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.

Leaked Abortion Decision

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists.

The Supreme court verdict to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the landmark ruling establishing a constitutional right to abortion, came almost two months after a leaked draft of the decision was first reported by Politico.

The leak seemed as historic as the ruling itself. It was called “unprecedented,” mainly because all 98-pages of a first draft of an opinion written by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito was leaked May 2, 2022, and published by Politico in full. It signaled that the court would overturn the 1973 landmark Roe vs. Wade decision, which it did.

According to the draft, Alito came to the “inescapable conclusion” that “a right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the nation’s history and traditions.” Given the leak, the court’s final ruling appeared to be a foregone conclusion. In a 5-4 decision, the high court finally decided that individual states should establish their own abortion laws, which would make some states havens for abortions while others banned or penalized them.

Court observers said parts of previous Supreme Court decisions had been leaked or speculated upon before a final decision was rendered, but never the full text of a proposed decision as in the abortion case. It was described as a first in the court’s modern history.

In a statement, Chief Justice John Roberts confirmed that the leaked document was “authentic,” but went on to say it “does not represent a decision by the court of the final position of any member on issues in the case.” The court launched an investigation into the source of the leak. By the time of the final decision, no culprit was discovered. Some speculated it was a democrat or a republican with political motives who wanted the supreme court to protect abortion rights or abandon them. Either way, it appeared the leaker intended to influence the justices either to change their opinions or to stand fast on the Alito interpretation.

Court officials must honor their own rules and regulations governing conduct and confidentiality. Whether such rules were violated cannot be determined until the leaker is identified.

For journalists, leaks are a time-honored way to get information on stories of interest to the public. But is it ethical for journalists to use information obtained through leaks?

A reporter for an Illinois newspaper contacted AdviceLine, asking about the ethics behind publishing information gained from a person who attended an executive session by a local government body. The leaked information involved contract talks with school officials.

The newspaper already published the story, but the reporter wanted to know if it was ethical to use the information. Here is how the AdviceLine adviser answered the question:

“I asked how the information was obtained. Convinced it was obtained without deception and the source gave it up willingly to known reporters, I said there is nothing ethically wrong with publishing the documents. In fact, it seems to me to be good journalism to report on public officials about public matters when the information is obtained properly. The use of information from ‘leaks’ when there is no personal harm involved is proper.”

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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.

Photos of Dead Children

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

One of the leading journalism ethics issues to emerge from the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting is whether to show photos of the bullet-torn bodies of children.

It’s an old question, but gaining in fervor as mass shootings with assault rifles and ammunition designed to blow human bodies apart became the preferred instrument for mass murder.

“Should journalists publish pictures of the grisly aftermath of gun violence, so that Americans can’t duck the consequences of our permissive gun laws?” asks Joel Mathis in The Week magazine. “Or do such images invade the privacy of grieving families and harm them even further?”

Temple University journalism dean David Boardman tweeted: “It’s time – with the permission of a surviving parent — to show what a slaughtered 7-year-old looks like.

A parent approves of photos

Some parents of slaughtered school children might agree. Lenny Pozner’s 6-year-old son was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. Images of the horrific damage an assault rifle did to his child might change minds about gun laws. “It would move some people,” he told The Week magazine.

The death toll at Uvalde was 19 children and two teachers. The 18-year-old shooter was killed by a Border Patrol tactical unit.

Taboos governing what is socially acceptable change over time, especially in a world coarsened by exposure to a constant stream of erotica and death of all sorts, including mangled casualties of war. But how far can, or should, journalists go to show the gore and mutilation of murdered children? That is a taboo that still causes some restraint or hesitation.

In an effort to explore this territory, AdviceLine in 2013 posted “The Limits of Gruesome,” a report about a video aired by British media of an attack on an off-duty British soldier who was hacked and stabbed to death in London. An amateur photographer with a mobile phone showed one of the assailants, his bloody hands holding a knife and a clever, explaining why he killed the soldier. The video prompted more than 700 complaints to the United Kingdom’s media regulator.

Heart-breaking drownings

Another AdviceLine post, “Photos of Dead Bodies,” in June, 2019, mentioned the heart-breaking images of a man and his daughter drowned in the Rio Grande River. An ethicist said it was an example of journalists showing a truth about immigration the public would prefer not to see. “Don’t hide them,” she said.

An AdviceLine post on “Justifying Photos of Death” in January, 2019, reported on New York Times photos of a terror attack on a Nairobi hotel, leaving 21 dead. The photos were criticized as distasteful. The Times responded: “It is important to give our readers a clear picture of the horror of an attack like this,” to give a real sense of the situation.

No doubt, the right images at the right time can launch public outcries and changes, including jailing police officers.

Emmett Till murder photos

It would be difficult to top the Emmett Till case for gruesomeness, and could serve as an example of the public’s tolerance for seeing the horrifying details of murder.

Born and raised in Chicago, Till in 1955 was a 14-year-old African American boy visiting relatives in Mississippi when he was kidnapped, tortured and shot in the head after being accused of offending a white woman in her family’s grocery store. His mother, Mamie Till Bradley, insisted on a public funeral service with an open casket, showing the boy’s mutilated and bloated body, which had been dumped in the Tallahatchie River.

Tens of thousands attended the funeral or viewed his open casket. Images of his disfigured body were published in magazines and newspapers. Till posthumously became an icon of the civil rights movement. Two white men were charged with his murder, but an all-white jury found them not guilty. Protected from double jeopardy, the two men admitted in a 1956 interview with Look magazine that they tortured and murdered Till. The Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act, signed into law on March 29, 2022, made lynching a federal hate crime.

Rodney King beating

Crowd sourcing made a huge impact on recorded modern life and death. An early example is the Rodney King case. In 1991, he was beaten by Los Angeles Police Department officers during an arrest for driving while intoxicated. A bystander filmed the beating from his nearby balcony and sent the footage to a local news station, causing a public furor around the world over police brutality.

Four of the officers were tried on charges of using excessive force. Three were acquitted; the jury failed to reach a verdict on one charge for the fourth police officer. Within hours of the acquittals, the 1992 Los Angeles riots broke out, sparked by outrage among racial minorities. Rioting lasted six days, killing 63 people and injuring 2,383 others. The federal government charged the four police officers with violating King’s civil rights. Two of the officers were found guilty in 1993 and sentenced to prison. Two were acquitted. In a separate civil lawsuit in 1994, a jury found the City of Los Angeles liable and awarded King $3.8 million in damages.

George Floyd death

George Floyd was a similar, but more deadly, case. On May 25, 2020, Floyd, a 46-year-old African American, was arrested by four Minneapolis police officers on suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 bill. During the arrest, Floyd was forced face-down in a street while officer Derek Chauvin knelt with his left knee on Floyd’s neck. Floyd pleaded he could not breathe, then died.

The next day, videos by witnesses and security cameras became public, causing worldwide consternation over police brutality. All four officers were fired and Chauvin, charged with various counts of murder and manslaughter, was sentenced to 22.5 years in prison. The three other officers also were charged. Two autopsies ruled Floyd died by homicide. On March 12, 2021, Minneapolis agreed to pay $27 million to settle a wrongful death lawsuit brought by Floyd’s family.

Each of those cases demonstrate the mounting influence of photographic or video evidence in crimes. Anyone with a cell phone can record the truth of a situation. But how much truth can the public tolerate?

Children a sticking point

The United States appears to have arrived at a sticking point where children are involved, and an intersection with the development of weapons that demolish their victims. Such devastation was described in reports saying that bodies of murdered Uvalde children could only be identified by DNA or clothing they were wearing.

Journalists who produce photos of mangled children likely will be accused of sensationalism by an American public whose trust in media is near record lows, according to the Gallup Poll. Or a media challenge to Constitutional rights to own firearms. American polarization has made the search for a middle ground almost impossible, and demonization of American media is part of that mind-set. Society must decide how much it is willing to see. As with pornography, community standards might be needed to decide what is obscene.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics is marginally helpful. It warns journalists to “use special sensitivity when dealing with children” and “show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.” But the code is silent on the delicate issue of photos of bullet-riddled children.

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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.

Mass Shootings

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

It’s called “the Texas massacre,” the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting that left 19 children and two teachers dead. The 18-year old gunman was killed by police.

That came 10 days after another 18-year-old shot 10 African Americans at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, and injured three others, livestreaming his attack on Twitch.

The Uvalde shooting came just three years after the 2019 “Texas Walmart shooting” in El Paso, where 20 people were killed and 26 injured. Gov. Greg Abbott called it “one of the most deadly days in the history of Texas.” It was believed to be the eighth deadliest in modern U.S. history at the time.

The Texas Walmart shooting came less than 24 hours before another mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, where a 24-year old man shot and killed nine people, including his sister, and wounded 17 others near the entrance of a bar in Dayton. The shooter was killed by police.

Deadliest high school shooting

In 2018, an expelled student entered the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and opened fire, killing 17 people and wounding 17 others. It was described at the time as the deadliest high school shooting in United States history.

In 2017, a gunman opened fire inside the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, killing 26 people and wounding 20 others.

Texas stands out at the scene of several mass shootings.

Typically, in the wake of such slaughter, come pleas for action, including gun control. You might think, given recent history, even citizens of the Lone Star State might lean in that direction.

But a 2013 study found “Texans’ dueling attitudes on guns.”

Guns and culture

“Guns are a major piece of both the present and historical state culture,” said The Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “And they are believed to be enshrined in the Constitution as a right — people tend to hold some of their strongest attitudes about topics related to their identities and/or rights.”

A poll on Texans’ attitudes toward gun control found “the same ambivalence about gun regulation that was made apparent in the recent failure of the U.S. Senate to pass background check legislation ostensibly supported by 90 percent of Americans in national polls,” according to the report.

It would be wrong to call all Texans gun-lovers, since 78 percent said they supported background checks, although only 54 percent said they would like to see stricter gun control laws. Ten percent said they would like to see gun control laws relaxed.

“Taken together, about half of the background check supporters registered something akin to a general opposition to more gun control laws, or at least seriously questioned their effectiveness,” said the Texas Politics Project.

Gun violence hot spot

Given recent history, Texas might be seen as a hot spot for gun violence. It seemed reasonable to consider what Texans think about guns, and the toll in life they take. The poll indicates that Texans treasure their gun-toting culture and are not likely to change their minds about that.

The Washington Post found that the Uvalde shooting caused some Texans to question their long-time romance with guns, while others did not.

But let’s not single out Texas.

Nevada set a record for the number of mass shooting casualties on Oct. 1, 2017, when a 64-year-old gunman opened fire on a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip from his 32d-floor suite in the Mandalay Bay Hotel, killing 60 people and wounding 411 others. Panic brought the number of injured to 867. The gunman killed himself in the hotel room. His motive for the shooting is unknown.

Defenseless children

Gun violence in schools has been going on for a long time in the United States.  What seems so tragic about them is that the victims often are innocent, defenseless children. Maybe that’s one of the reasons shooters target them. Killing children causes unimaginable grief and loss. Another potential reason is that schools might be the setting where the shooters seek revenge for bullying, slights or their own grievances.

One of the first highly publicized mass school shootings happened at Pearl High School, in Pearl, Mississippi, on Oct. 1, 1997. There probably were others before, but Pearl was a sign of things to come. The 16-year-old killer began by fatally stabbing and bludgeoning his mother, then went to the local high school and opened fire on his classmates, killing three and wounding seven.

Not insane, angry

The teenaged shooter allegedly gave this message to a friend: “I am not insane, I am angry. I killed because people like me are mistreated every day. I did this to show society, push us and we will push back. All throughout my life, I was ridiculed, always beaten, always hated. Can you, society, truly blame me for what I do?”

Motives seldom are as clear as that appears to be. Shooters often die soon after their attacks, leaving the world to wonder what drove them to commit such heinous acts.

School shootings continued. A 23-year-old senior and English major at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University shot and killed 27 students and five faculty members on April 16, 2007, then later died by suicide. Shooting scenes often are chaotic. Unaware of the gunman’s identity, police pursued the boyfriend of one of the female victims, believing the shooting was an isolated domestic violence crime.

On Dec. 14, 2012, a 20-year-old man killed 20 first graders and six school employees at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, then turned the gun on himself. Earlier that day, he killed his mother in their home.

At the time, Sandy Hook was the second-deadliest mass shooting in the United States, after the 2007 Virginia Tech assault in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Confronting shootings

Such outbursts of gun violence often are followed by suggestions to confront the growing wave of school shootings.

Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, Emily Richmond suggested “It’s time to rethink coverage of school shootings,” on Feb. 14, 2019.

“Schoolhouses are becoming fortresses equipped with surveillance cameras and bulletproof desks, with teachers serving double duty as armed guards,” she wrote. “Children are being pushed into terrifying drills to prepare for the possibility of a mass shooting that is statistically unlikely.”

The 2022 Uvalde shooting showed soon enough that such attacks are more than theoretical.

Sensational coverage

“Some of those trends may be fueled in part by sensational coverage of such violence,” Richmond wrote. “And a growing chorus of voices – including those of survivors, victims’ families and researchers – is urging the news media to rethink the way they approach mass shootings, including those that occur at K-12 campuses and colleges.”

Richmond points to a 2018 article appearing in a special issue of the American Behavioral Scientist journal examining implications of media coverage of mass killers.

Major media organizations in recent years have wondered if their coverage of mass shooters actually increases the risk of future attacks, and asked how their reporting can be improved, said the article’s authors,  Adam Lankford and Eric Madfis.

They found that 149 experts urged media to stop publishing the names and photos of mass killers, except during searches for suspects, but continue reporting the other details of these crimes as needed. They found that a high percentage of mass killers are suicidal and also urged media to avoid covering the shootings in a way that might invite potential imitators, or “copycat” killers.

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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.

NYT Editors’ Regrets

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Regrets, they’ve had a few.

They occupy the highest rungs of journalism leadership, the executive editors of the New York Times. The newspaper’s footprint on American journalism is so big, changes in its leadership is news.

As when the Times announced recently that, after an eight-year stint, Dean Baquet will step down as executive editor, succeeded by Managing Editor Joseph F. Kahn. Photos of the smiling men accompany such moments, along with assurances about the incoming editor’s leadership abilities.

Under Baquet’s leadership, the Times took 18 Pulitzer Prizes, one of journalism’s highest accolades. Not mentioned, though, is the Pulitzer Prize entry that the Times submitted, but withdrew upon discovering it was seriously flawed even though it already was named a finalist in the international reporting category for 2019. The Pulitzer Prize Board stripped the Times of its finalist status four days later.

Learning from failure

Failure often is cited as an opportunity to learn, and the failed Pulitzer entry is one of those occasions.

The discredited Times entry was called “Caliphate,” a 12-part audio documentary about the Islamic State, and included a related report, “The ISIS Files,” by the podcast’s co-host Rukmini Callimachi. The Times started examining the podcast after one of its main subjects, Shehroze Chaudhry, a Canadian who said he took part in atrocities, including two killings in Syria, was arrested by Canadian authorities who charged him with a terrorism hoax.

After a two-month review, the Times decided “Caliphate” did not meet the standards for Times journalism and accuracy. This is especially meaningful, coming from a newspaper that cannot claim a shortage of staff or resources, as do many newspapers across the country stricken by an economic tailspin. With more than 1,700 journalists, the New York Times is a media giant.

Leaders blamed

Baquet said the blame falls on newsroom leaders, including himself. These reportedly are some of the smartest people in the business.

“When The New York Times does deep, big, ambitious journalism in any format, we put it to a tremendous amount of scrutiny at the upper levels of the newsroom,” he said in a podcast interview posted by the Times. “We did not do that in this case. And I think that I or somebody else should have provided that same kind of scrutiny, because it was a big, ambitious piece of journalism. And I did not provide that kind of scrutiny, nor did my top deputies with deep experience in examining investigative reporting.”

A Times editor’s note on the “Caliphate” podcast cited two main problems: The Times’s failure to assign an editor well versed in terrorism to keep a close watch on the series, and the “Caliphate” team’s lack of skepticism and rigor in its reporting on Chaudhry.

One source

In effect, the Times podcast reporters placed too much trust in one man’s unverified account of events, a pitfall that snared even the Times, when they should have known better. Experienced journalists recognize the dangers of depending on one source for a big story, and they know the dangers of really, really wanting the story that source is telling them to be true. It is a siren song, deceptively alluring, that causes them to crash upon the rocks of credibility.

In a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation interview, Chaudhry was asked why he told the Times he had participated in atrocities. “I was being childish,” he replied. “I was describing what I saw and, basically, I was close enough to think it was me.”

Baquet believes no other executive editor has admitted to owning up to as many mistakes as he has. With 20/20 hindsight, he explains how rigorous examination of a complicated story should work.

Chewing, pro and con

“A really good piece of journalism not only chews on the stuff that supports the story — it chews on the stuff that refutes the story,” he said in a podcast. “And in the end, good journalism comes from some sort of internal debate over whether or not the stuff that supports the story is more powerful than the stuff that refutes the story. And to the signs that maybe our story wasn’t as strong as we thought it was.”

Signs, signals, hunches. They are part of news-making judgment. Sometimes a lot of time passes before the picture is clear, including worthiness of the 133 Pulitzer Prizes the Times has won, including the first awarded in 1918. In recent years, the Times has won one or more Pulitzers almost every year, a testament to its size and influence with the Pulitzer Prize Board. No other news organization has reaped so many Pulitzer Prizes.

The Times acted rather swiftly to decline a Pulitzer Prize for “Caliphate.” But it steadfastly refuses to return a highly controversial Pulitzer awarded 90 years ago that even Bill Keller, a Times executive editor from 2003 to 2011, considers without merit.

The 1932 Pulitzer

That is the 1932 Pulitzer awarded to New York Times reporter Walter Duranty for a glowing series of dispatches highly favorable to Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union’s communist dictator who ordered confiscation of food and grain from peasant families under a five-year “collectivization” plan. Duranty neglected to mention the plan led to the starvation deaths of millions of Ukranians and more than a million Russians in 1932-33, according to estimates. Stalin used collectivization to crush nationalist sentiments in Ukraine and pay for his efforts to industrialize the Soviet Union, while arresting, exiling or killing dissidents.

Getting rare interviews with Stalin, Duranty was unwavering in his defense of the Russian leader and his policies, even as the famine unfolded. A front-page Times story said: “The excellent harvest about to be gathered shows that any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda.” Privately, Duranty reportedly told a British diplomat that as many as 10 million people might have died from lack of food in a single year. Duranty died in 1957.

Pulitzer board declines

The New York Times began to assess Duranty’s work in 1986 and 1990. In 2003, public pressure led the Times and the Pulitzer Board to review his work and the prize. The board found no “clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception” and decided against withdrawing the award. Then-Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said stripping Duranty’s award would be like airbrushing history. The Pulitzer Board again in 2021 declined to withdraw the award.

In a 2022 interview on National Public Radio with David Folkenflik, former executive editor Keller added his voice to the cause. Keller is a 1989 Pulitzer Prize winner for reporting on the Soviet Union.

Keller looks back with some regret that he did not push harder for the award to be returned, he told NPR. He says the Pulitzer board should rescind it.

“I mean, I can articulate a case for not revoking the prize and saying this is a teachable moment,” Keller said. “Hold the prize out there, but surround it with the shame it deserves. But I thought the Pulitzer board’s reasoning in not doing away with the prize was pretty lame. 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.”

Regrets? They had a few. But not too few to mention.

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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.

Troubling News Source

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

The Minnesota reporter said she had a “strange and not-disclosable” relationship with a news source, but it was not sexual, not even a friendship.

The source, an elected official, gives the reporter insights into stories on the county beat, but the reporter is conflicted over where to ethically “draw the line” when using the source. She is becoming uncomfortable with the nature of the relationship and is not certain she can remain objective if the source is part of the story.

Told of this conflict, the reporter’s editor suggests taking the reporter off the county beat, or having someone else cover a story that involves the problematic source.

The reporter called the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, asking what she should do.

Take a moment and reflect on what you might suggest to the troubled reporter. She wants to be objective, but feels she is being drawn into a relationship she has trouble defining, and one that could lead to a more serious ethical dilemma in the future.

The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists advisor recognized that the reporter wants to do the right thing, but is reluctant to give up the source or the county beat, where she has deep experience. She values the “inside” information but has used the source so often, the relationship has become ethically uncomfortable. She fears a time might come when she might be required to report unfavorably on the source.

The safer course, reasoned the advisor, would be for someone else to interview the source when necessary, with the reporter’s coaching, rather than abandoning the county beat. The advisor complimented the reporter for her self-examination in trying to reach an ethical solution to a matter that was bothering her.

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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.

Roe vs. Wade Leak

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists.

A soothsayer warned Julius Caesar to beware the ides of March, sometime around 44 BC.

Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to newspapers in 1971, revealing that the Johnson administration had systematically lied about the United States’ political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967.

WikiLeaks, launched in 2006, publishes news leaks and classified media provided by anonymous sources. The international non-profit organization said it released online 10 million documents in its first 10 years.

Leaks of sensitive, sometimes shocking, information are a time-honored tradition in history and the United States. It’s done, often by whistle-blowers, who believe the public is entitled to know something that is being kept secret.

The latest example is the explosive report by Politico that a U.S. Supreme Court draft opinion proposes to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that made abortion legal in every state. Politico reported: “No draft decision in the modern history of the court has been disclosed publicly while a case was still pending.”

The 98-page draft was written by Justice Samuel Alito, who says abortion is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. This argument might appeal to constitution originalists, although the high court rules on cases involving jet planes, which also are not mentioned in the constitution.

That might be among the many issues the revelation unleashed, including highly emotional protests that largely eclipsed news about the Russian invasion of Ukraine for a day or two. It opened layers of concerns about legal abortion availability, the honesty of justices who said they supported Roe vs. Wade as established law at their confirmation hearings and the authenticity of the draft opinion. A day after the disclosure, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts confirmed that the leaked draft ruling was authentic, but did not represent the court’s final decision in the case.edia ethics

Among the troubling concerns raised by the leak was how Politico obtained the draft ruling, and from whom. This is in the realm of journalism ethics. The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics cautions journalists against using undercover methods to obtain information, promising anonymity, favors to news sources or paying for information.

“The ethics behind Politico’s decision to publish the document will likely become a case study for future generations of journalists,” writes Kelly McBride, senior vice president of the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, Florida. “Politico offers very few details about how they got the copy…..(and) what the newsroom did to confirm that it’s real or even if it’s the most current draft.”

Politico reporters Josh Gerstein and Alexander Ward said in their 2,500-word story that Politico received a copy of the draft opinion from a person familiar with the case along with details supporting the authenticity of the document. They did not elaborate.

McBride wrote further: “Editors at Politico would help dubious readers if they explained why they are so confident the document is real and how they made the decision to publish it. When confronted with an unprecedented leak like this, news consumers are understandably skeptical in this era of mis-and disinformation. When journalists behind the work don’t signal that they have gone through an ethical process, consumers may conclude that ethics don’t matter to journalists.”

But McBride had no doubts that it was newsworthy. “Clearly, “ she wrote, “an unprecedented leak that could overturn a five-decade-old divisive national issue is news.”

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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.

Facebook Social Issues

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

They’re at it again, those Facebook algorithms that act more like mischievous gremlins.

I wrote a post about the first Earth Day 52 years ago, and attempted to boost it with advertising. Meta for Business, the corporate parent of Facebook, rejected the boost, saying the Earth Day post doesn’t comply with advertising policies against “social issues, elections or politics.”

Imagine that. Facebook, an online social media and social networking service owned by Meta Platform,  doesn’t want posts about social issues.

Earth Day

True, Earth Day was a huge social issue. On April 22, 1970, an estimated 20 million Americans conducted a day-long environmental awareness campaign, including students from thousands of colleges and universities. Americans of all ages joined in rallies, marches and “teach-in” education programs identifying the kinds of pollution tainting the air, land, water and food across the nation. It was the biggest demonstration in the nation’s history.

That event made a huge impact on the United States, starting a revolution that snowballed and produced new environmental laws and regulations intended to protect all Americans. But it’s not the sort of thing Meta wants discussed on its platform. It’s too relevant.

Ethics is cheating

That’s annoying, since it’s the second time in recent weeks that Meta blocked an ad for an AdviceLine post. An April 15 post explained how an ethicist tells the difference between a genuine ethical dilemma and a difficult ethical choice. It’s about journalism ethics. Meta rejected the boost saying it did not comply with Meta’s cheating and deceitful practices policy. It considered a report on ethics to be cheating and deceitful conduct.

This either is hilarious, or proof that Facebook is descending into algorithm madness.

That social media are swamps of misinformation and bias is fairly well established. Calls for regulation usually focus on social media content, including unproven conservative complaints that Silicon Valley is anti-conservative. Let them take their lumps like everyone else.

Man-machine interface

My gripe is with what could be described as the man-machine interface. How the algorithmic machines treat people, like me. My recent encounters with Facebook demonstrate a lack of commonsense. Maybe that is too much to expect from machines.

A mass media critic, or readers’ representatives, might help. This is an idea from the past, when newspapers and television stations employed staff members to be sure media served the public interest and were open to complaints or suggestions. They were a check on old-fashioned customer satisfaction.

As deeply invasive social media are in modern society, their operators seem distant and unreachable.

Silicon Valley behemoths

A Tech Policy Greenhouse report by Matthew Feeney put it this way: “Centralized content moderation also suffers from a perceived lack of transparency and process, with Silicon Valley behemoths considered by many to be secretive, distant institutions with few incentives to care about an individual case when their empires include millions or billions.”

In such a communications landscape, individuals don’t matter. And nonsensical algorithms seem to make that apparent.

Feeney ends the report by pointing out that “we are still in the early years of online speech,” and activists and lawmakers seem to have forgotten that firms once dominant in online speech, search or entertainment — like MySpace and AOL instant messenger — fell into obscurity or are gone.

Facebook, Twitter and Google are dominant today, writes Feeney, “but their continued success is not an axiom of history.” That could be especially true if users contending with algorithm nonsense appear to be an afterthought.

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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.