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.

Ethics Codes

 

By Casey Bukro

Codes of ethics sound like such noble things.

They can be inspirational and aspirational, statements of our highest moral and professional conduct.

Like any description of what is good, the devil is in the details.  And where journalists are involved, the effort can bring out the devil in them. Some seem to handle it better than others.

For instance, three journalism groups are considering revising or creating codes of ethics: The Society of Professional Journalists, the Radio Television Digital News Association and the Online News Association.

The SPJ effort stands out because of the degree of conflict that erupted over charges by one of SPJ’s regional directors, Michael Koretzky, that the organization’s national ethics committee has conducted the code revision process largely in secrecy. Koretzky is a member of SPJ’s national board.

“It’s been difficult to get answers,” Koretzky said in an e-mail to SPJ leaders. Koretzky  launched his attack against the national ethics committee by e-mailing his “journoterrorist” blog illustrated with 11 panels that graphically compares SPJ’s code revision efforts with ONA’s.

Kevin Smith, SPJ’s national ethics committee chair,  denied “this conspiracy theory of secrecy in revising the code,” adding “we have nothing to hide.”

Koretzky replied that he never said anything about a conspiracy, but “the fact remains that no one has explained to the SPJ board (or anyone else) how the first draft of the code revision was compiled” and who was involved.

David Cuillier, SPJ’s president, added this to the chain of e-mails: “You’re absolutely right, Michael, that we have not communicated the process, or engaged members and non-members, as effectively as ONA.” No conspiracy or secrecy, he added, “but the ultimate outcome is a much more low-key effort on our part. All true.”

SPJ adopted its present code in 1996.

The American Journalism Review described the struggles over SPJ’s proposed code revision.

The Online News Association is working on a novel approach, which it calls “Build Your Own Ethics Code,” a crowdsourced ethics code.

ONA describes it as a toolkit “to help news outlets, bloggers and journalists decide on ethical guidelines that match their own ideas about reporting and journalism.”

The ethics guide would be a constantly updated online document. Reporters will be encouraged to publish the ethics codes they create, and to hold themselves and their news outlets accountable to them, said ONA. In other words, it would be largely voluntary.

RTDNA’s ethics code was last updated in 2000, “and I don’t need to tell you how greatly our technology and our newsrooms have changed in 14 years!” said Mike Cavender, RTDNA”s executive director.

One of the central questions in revising or creating codes of ethics is whether they should reflect changing technology, or state undying principles that apply regardless of technological changes.

RTDNA asked its members to complete a survey. “The goal is to insure that a new code fits our business as it stands today, without straying from the principles that define outstanding journalism.”

All three code-writing efforts are in the round one stage, with more rounds to follow. SPJ’s national ethics committee is expected to report its findings at the organization’s annual convention in September.

All three are worth watching to see if they end in a win, or in a knockout.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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A Squirmable Moment

By Casey Bukro

That squirmable moment comes when a journalist racing to get it fast, discovers that he got it wrong.

The stomach lurches, and if it’s bad enough, you might even throw up.

Think the Richard Jewell story. Or two innocent by-standers shown in a front-page photo as possible Boston Marathon bombing suspects. Or the man falsely identified as the Washington Navy Yard shooter because his identification card was found at the scene of 12 murders in Philadelphia.

“Verify before you villify,” says Ben L. Kaufman in CityBeat.Com, recalling the experience of Rollie Chance, mistakenly identified by NBC and CBS as the Navy Yard shooter. Chance said the falsehood took a toll on him.

At least Chance was cleared quickly, unlike the case of Richard Jewell. He was a security guard portrayed as an heroic first responder at the 1966 Olympic Park bombing which took one life and injured more then 100. Then Jewell became the bombing suspect and was identified, but not charged, in what had been described as a “media circus.”

Jewell was cleared by the federal government after nearly three months of coverage that often focused on him, his appearance, personality and his background. Almost a decade later, Eric Rudolph, a violent anti-abortionist, pleaded guilty to the bombing. Jewell died in 2007.

Looking back on that episode, a New York Times reporter, Kevin Sack, who covered the Atlanta bombing, told of his frustration when the Times executive editor at the time, Joseph Lelyveld, ruled against naming Jewell in the newspaper, while the Atlanta Journal and other media named him.

Later, the reporter praised Lelyveld for his “rabbinical wisdom” in resisting heavy competitive pressure to name Jewell as a suspect.

No rabbinical wisdom appeared to be involved when the New York Post ran a front page photo of two men, calling them “Bag Men” and saying they were being sought by authorities in the April Boston Marathon bombing. The men later sued the tabloid for defamation.

Three people died and an estimated 264 were injured in the April bombing, in which brothers Dzhokar and Tamerlan Tsarnaev later were identified as the suspects. Tamerlan was killed by police and Dzhokar was wounded before his capture.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics says “test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error.” Good advice.

Rules of the Code

By Casey Bukro

The Society of Professional Journalists is thinking about amending or replacing its code of ethics, the current version of which was adopted in 1996.

One before that was adopted in 1973 and amended a couple of times with some word changes.

Some documents stand the test of time, others do not. SPJ is trying to decide in which category its present code belongs.

The society is surveying its members, asking what they think: Keep the code, replace it or change it?

Some members argue that in the 17 years since the code was adopted, journalism in the United States has changed a lot, including the technology journalists use, such as cell phones and social media.

Others say ethical standards, like honesty, fairness and accuracy are not governed by changes in technology. They are constants even in changing times.

We’ll see how that plays out.

Meanwhile, the Joplin Globe points out in a piece on “guiding words” that Walter Williams, the first dean of the Missouri School of Journalism, wrote what now is known as the “Journalist’s Creed” in 1914.

The Globe printed the “Journalist’s Creed” in full “to remind our readers and ourselves why these ethics are as timely today as they were almost 100 years ago.” And just as important.

The words are a bit flowery, reflecting a writing style that was fitting 100 years ago. The creed makes no mention of horses, buggies, pens or ink.

It begins, “I believe in the profession of journalism.” Such implacable resolve in the importance of journalism in a Democracy is as vital today as it was 100 years ago.

“60 Minutes” Trips on Truth

By Casey Bukro

“60 Minutes” built a towering reputation as the TV news magazine that gets it right, but now is apologizing for getting it wrong in its report about the terrorist attack last year on the U.S. diplomatic mission in the Libyan port city of Benghazi.

Lara Logan, who reported the story, said it was a mistake to highlight a supposed eyewitness account of the attack by a security contractor who later was found to be lying about being at the scene of the attack, and seeing the body of U.S. ambassador J. Christopher Stevens at a local hospital.

“We made a mistake, and that’s very disappointing for any journalist,” said Logan.

The mistake involves an interview with Dylan Davies, a security contractor whose firm worked for the U.S. government, who was identified by “60 Minutes” by his pseudonym, Morgan Jones. He gave Logan a dramatic account of his role in fighting the terrorists, even smashing a terrorist in the face with a rifle butt. Logan appeared to coach him in describing the encounter.

“It was a mistake to include him in our report. For that, we are very sorry,” she is quoted in a New York Times story.

Actually, Davies/Jones told FBI investigators and his employer that he never left his villa the night of the attack because it was too dangerous. He did not visit the attack scene until the next morning. The conflicting government report caused the “60 Minutes” report to unravel.

From a journalist’s point of view, one can wonder about the CBS report, admittedly in retrospect. Why was Davies allowed to use a fake name on camera? And was any attempt made to prove that Davies was at the attack scene or at the local hospital, as he alleged?

The Times reported that CBS News Chairman Jeff Fager called the Logan report “as big a mistake” as “60 Minutes” has made in its 45-year history, but that its televised apology would be its last word on the issue.

This is seen as a “defensive crouch” by a news organization with a hard-hitting reputation and little pity for those caught in its cross-hairs. Fager also is executive producer of “60 Minutes.”

Marvin Kalb, a former CBS news correspondent, said in Politico.com that an apology from CBS is not enough.

“What has CBS learned, if anything?” asks Kalb, a senior adviser to the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting.

Following the apologies, said Kalb, “perhaps CBS (and other networks, too) will engage in a wide-ranging, no-holds-barred self-analysis of its reporting standards, starting one hopes with the unholy alliance it has formed with book publishers pushing their hot exclusives,” he wrote.

Davies/Jones had a book deal with Simon & Schuster, which is owned by CBS’s parent corporation.

If an apology is all CBS News can muster, clearly it is not being as tough on itself as it is on others.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics encourages journalists to “abide by the same high standards to which they hold others.”

On the upside, “60 Minutes” admitted its mistake and apologized, a rarity in TV journalism.  SPJ says “admit mistakes and correct them promptly.” The admission phase is done; the correction remains to be seen.

Later, CBS announced that Logan and her producer were placed on leave of absence.

In a memo to staff, Fager wrote that he asked Logan and Max McClellan, the producer, to take a leave of absence, which they agreed to do.

“When faced with a such an error, we must use it as an opportunity to make our broadcast even stronger,” Fager wrote. “We are making adjustments at 60 Minutes to reduce the chances of it happening again.”

As executive producer, Fager said, “I am responsible for what gets on the air.”

News or Painful Reminders?

By Casey Bukro

News media were divided on whether the the 911 audio recordings in the Newtown, Conn. shootings a year ago that left 26 dead were newsworthy.

That might say something about the ethical sophistication with which the media are judging the news.

Adam Lanza, 20, went to the Sandy Hook Elementary School on December 14, 2012, and fatally shot 20 children and six educators before killing himself. Earlier, Lanza had killed his mother at home.

A year after the shootings, a Connecticut judge ruled that the 911 audio recordings of the event should be released.

“There’s still shooting going on. Please!” said a caller, identified as Custodian Rick Thorne, who was among those  who could be heard pleading for help.

CNN and Fox News broadcast parts of the recordings. CBS said it would use some audio clips. ABC and NBC decided against broadcasting or posting any of the recordings.

Many local residents and officials were against broadcasting the clips.

“I don’t understand the reasoning for the general public to hear them,” said Kaitlin Roig-DeBellis, a Sandy Hook first-grade teacher who survived the attack. “The families, they’ve already experienced such immeasurable pain and loss and sadness.”

These are the sort of decisions confronting news organizations at most disasters, weighing the benefit and harm of reporting details, sights and sounds.

The Sandy Hook 911 phone calls reveal the voices of scared callers, a calm and efficient 911 dispatcher and shots in the background. There are no screams or voices of children.

Jeffrey Toobin, CNN’s senior legal analyst, said it could be argued that the audio reports served a public service by showing how the 911 call-taker handled the calls.  Most of the callers were calm. Toobin believed the contents of the tapes were not as disturbing as the event they represented.

The shootings also were a major event in U.S. history, coming at a time when Congress was considering gun-control measures.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics encourages journalists to “minimize harm.”

Some local residents always are likely to see what the media do as intrusive.

Reuters reported that a hand-painted sign had been fastened to telephone pole saying:  “Vulture media, you got your tapes. Please leave.”

Eventually, the reporters do leave. Seldom is any thought given to the emotional toll they take with them after seeing the slaughter of children.

Looking At Transparency

By Casey Bukro
Two views emerged on transparency in journalism, one strongly in favor and the other not so much.
Transparency now trumps “act independently” as a guiding journalism principle in ethics decision-making because anyone with a computer might be considered a journalist these days, according to Tom Rosenstiel, executive of the American Press Institute.
“Transparency will pull publishers of information toward best practices and also toward the most important kind of independence — intellectual independence,” writes Rosenstiel.
Rosenstiel points to a new book published by the Poynter Institute, “The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century,” in which this shift in guiding principles is explained and promoted. Rosenstiel contributed to the book, which attempts to update a set of ethics principles.
Not so fast says Stephen Ward, who suggests transparency is “over-hyped and replaces important values.”
Ward is a journalism professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication.
Transparency too often “is a magical idea,” Ward insists. “I believe independence should remain a principle of ethical journalism, and not be demoted to a secondary principle, or made a part of some other principle.”
As for the Poynter ethics book, Ward said: “it is better to talk of reforming the idea of independence, not of replacing it.”
“Academic studies indicate that transparency cannot meet our expectations,” Ward insists, although he did not cite any of the studies.
Rosenstiel said the new Poynter ethics book attempts to update a set of ethical guidelines developed by Poynter in the 1990s under the leadership of Bob Steele, now director of the of DePauw University’s Prindle Institute for Ethics.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics also urges journalists to “act independently.”

Mr. Fix-It Eyes Jeff Bezos

By Casey Bukro

Consumer Advocate Ralph Nader says he is speaking for longtime readers of the Washington Post when he asks how independent the newspaper will be under Jeff Bezos’ ownership.

In an open letter to the Post, Nader says the public has been treated to profiles depicting the new boss’s business successes and his personal style and demeanor.

“What we have not been told is how the newspaper is going to shield itself from Mr. Bezos’ far-flung business interests in order to maintain reader credibility and trust,” Nader wrote.

Nader is known for his bulldog tenacity in making corporate leaders sweat over consumer issues like environmental protection and auto safety. He has some advice for Bezos, who acquired ownership of the Washington Post in a $250 million deal in which he would become sole owner of the newspaper and its publishing company.

“Mr. Bezos would do well to reestablish the longtime ombudsman post which was abolished in March of this year, presumably to save money,” wrote Nader. “For an ombudsman’s role is not just to be an internal critic at the paper but also to be the reader’s coherent voice on the ways the Washington Post is being managed.”

The Post in March said the ombudsman would be replaced by a reader representative, ending a 43-year practice of employing an ombudsman who wrote a long-standing Sunday column.

At the time, Post Publisher Katharine Weymouth wrote that the ombudsman’s “duties are as critical today as ever. Yet it is time that the way these duties are performed evolves.”

Copy Cat Journalists

By Casey Bukro

Here’s an interesting idea:

Journalists should stop mimicking what’s happening on the internet.

Poynter said the idea sprang from the ninth annual Kent State Ethics Workshop in September, which focused on the world of entertainment and how journalists cover it.

You get a pretty good idea that it can be an ethics imbroglio just by some of the topics: Privacy vs. adoration, stalking and paparazzi.

A workshop organizer, Jan Leach of Kent State’s School of Journalism, said they picked entertainment ethics “because there’s so much entertainment and celebrity journalism available in all media…..”

The news, she adds, “is often part truth and part rumor, ” but consumers might not be able to tell the difference. “There’s so much spin from publicity departments.”

And, it might be fair to say, journalists fall for it or go along with it.

It’s easy to cover and does not take much imagination. But how much wall-to-wall coverage does the public need about Lindsay Lohan and Miley Cyrus?

Even while reporting the latest escapades of such human train-wrecks, TV announcers can be heard to say: “Why are we doing this again?” They admit to giving more publicity to people acting odd, because they want the publicity.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics encourages journalists to act independently and “avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.”

Though it’s called entertainment, there doesn’t seem to be much entertaining about it. It’s more like voyeurism.

Here’s an idea for what could be an entertaining story: The funny behavior of men and women in business, commerce and industry.

When’s the last time you saw a funny story about business? It’s all so serious, and people who cover it take it so seriously. There must be some humor in it somewhere, even though economics is called the dismal science.

Corporate publicity departments work overtime to make their CEOs look almost god-like.

Another example of copy cat journalism.

New Words for Old Ideas

By Casey Bukro

Every so often, some new terminology creeps into journalism lingo. Sometimes it’s a new concept, and sometimes it’s an old concept cloaked in different words.

That could apply to the term “sponsored views.”

In an interview with iMediaEthics, Patrick Pexton, former Washington Post ombudsman, said “sponsored views” are new words for “advertorials, messages provided by advertisers in a way that looks like journalism, or slightly cloaked journalism.”

But, he added emphatically, “it ain’t journalism.” Instead, it’s brand journalism.

This became an issue, as iMediaEthics reported, when the Washington Post launched a Sponsored Media program on June 12, allowing special interest groups to buy advertisements that are presented as comments below op-ed pieces on the Washington Post website.

The move came three months after the Post abandoned its ombudsman position and replaced it with a reader represenatative. Pexton was the newspaper’s last ombudsman, serving from 2011 to 2012.

The move was motivated by finance, said Pexton. ” The Post needs more revenue,” he said.

Since then, Jeffrey Bezos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com, bought the Post for $250 million.

One writer wonders if brand journalism and ethics can co-exist?

The Anonymous Photographer

By Casey Bukro

A young freelance photographer who has tight connections with local law enforcement and fire departments submits a photo of a fire in a private business to an Arkansas newspaper but refuses a photo byline.

An editor of the newspaper asked the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists whether his refusal was unethical? Should the photographer have taken the photo, and if the photographer had unfair advantage in taking it, should the newspaper use it?

The AdviceLine advisor pointed out that the case raises issues of transparency, accountability and conflicts of interest, but that the bigger issue was the newspaper’s lack of guidelines for dealing with bylines and credits. The newspaper in question was one of a group of newspapers lacking a code of ethics or standards.

For starters, the advisor suggested that the editor consult the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics “because the code has many guidelines about what she was asking.”

The editor pointed out that “these papers are small and some newspaper personnel work for volunteer fire departments, then take photos while they are on the job — photos that eventually appear in the paper.”

The editor said that she and the rest of the staff planned a meeting to create guidelines and discuss the SPJ code. That resulted in a decision to use “special to” credits for photos submitted exclusively to the newspaper by outside sources.