All posts by David Craig

About David Craig

Professor and associate dean, Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication, University of Oklahoma. I teach and write about journalism ethics.

Publish unverified documents? Consider these ethical questions

By David Craig

BuzzFeed’s decision last week to publish a 35-page dossier containing allegations about President-elect Donald Trump’s relationships with Russia has prompted a great deal of discussion among journalists and journalism organizations about the ethics of the decision.

A number of those weighing in – such Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan and Poynter Institute for Media Studies ethicist Kelly McBride – have argued that BuzzFeed was out of line for publishing unverified information. But some – including Watergate reporter and now CNN analyst Carl Bernstein and Columbia Journalism Review managing editor Vanessa M. Gezari – supported the decision.

donald_trump_august_19_2015
BuzzFeed has defended its publication of a dossier including unverified allegations against Donald Trump. Photo by Michael Vadon [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
I think the fact that thoughtful people have landed on different sides is evidence of the fact that there are multiple ethical considerations involved, some of them potentially conflicting. Although verification is at the core of ethical journalism, exceptional situations like this one may arise where the decision on publishing is not so easy, particularly if the documents have surfaced in some official setting.

I have been thinking beyond this situation to similar ones that may arise in the future and the ethical questions involved.

Below is a list of questions I’m suggesting to help in thinking through the ethical issues in these situations. I have grouped the questions under the headings of the principles of the Society of Professional Journalists ethics code, as well as other considerations – public relevance and journalistic purpose – that relate to the mission of journalism.

In writing these questions, I’m inspired by some lists that Poynter has done to help journalists in other areas of ethical decision-making such as going off the record and, recently, using Facebook Live. Two co-authors and I also raised some of these issues in a question list in an academic study on data journalism.

I welcome any comments from readers on how these questions might be used or revised.

Questions to consider in deciding on whether and how to publish unverified documents involving public officials:

Public relevance and journalistic purpose

Have the documents been discussed or used in any official settings (e.g. intelligence briefings, committee hearings)? Have they otherwise been discussed on the record by any public officials?

Is there a compelling reason for the public to know about the information in the documents?

Seeking truth and reporting it

Have you or others tried to verify the information? Where verification has been possible for specific pieces of information, has the information proved to be true?

Are the sources of the documents reliable? Why or why not?

Acting independently

Is your decision to publish based on your own independent judgment of the ethics of publishing or on competitive pressures or other considerations?

Minimizing harm

If the documents contain sensitive allegations, what potential harms could result if you release the documents in their entirety or publish those details and they prove to be false or impossible to verify?

If potential harm is a valid concern if you release the documents in their entirety or report details such as these, how could you minimize harm (e.g. redacting some details, summarizing)?

Being accountable and transparent

Are you explaining the process you used in your decision-making including any conflicting ethical considerations and the ethical reasons for making the decision you did?

Are you explaining any efforts you made to verify the content of the documents and the outcome of those efforts?

By thinking through these questions, journalists can uphold the importance of verification while also considering when and how to report on unverified documents there may be a compelling reason for the public to see.

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Brian Williams, Virtue and the Culture of Network TV News

IMG_9935Correspondent and professor Mike Boettcher, left, with public TV anchor Dick Pryor and professor and editor Yvette Walker (photo by Collier Hammons)

By David Craig

Who’s to blame for Brian Williams’ exaggerations about covering the Iraq war? Clearly he’s to blame because they were his choices. But Mike Boettcher, a longtime foreign correspondent for CNN and NBC who now does work for ABC, had an interesting take on that question during a panel I participated in last week at a conference at the University of Oklahoma.

Boettcher, who is now my colleague on the faculty at the Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication, said we can blame Edward R. Murrow and Walter Cronkite. “They became the biggest stars in television news” based on the history they built as war correspondents – Murrow covering the blitz in Britain during World War II and Cronkite flying combat missions in B-17s. Thanks to their work, being a war correspondent became a rite of passage in TV news, Boettcher told the audience at the midwinter conference of the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication.

In our era, Boettcher said, anchors are developed “in a very accelerated way, and I think that’s partly to blame for what happened.” He said Williams was the weekend anchor at WCBS in New York and the head of talent recruitment at NBC had his eye on him. After he came to NBC, the network “began to build the narrative around him,” parachuting him into the sites of major stories so he could build his “promotional reel.” Boettcher said Williams “started believing that narrative that was built around him,” and may have felt pressure to tell stronger stories because he didn’t believe his were good enough.

The Williams situation and Boettcher’s comments make me think of what philosophers call virtue ethics, a line of thought that goes back to Aristotle. Many discussions of journalism ethics focus on ethical dilemmas – hard choices involving balancing of principles such as seeking truth and minimizing harm. But a key element of ethics is connected with character and traits such as honesty and courage that people develop as habits and reflect in their decisions.

Did Williams’ conduct reflect a character flaw? That’s hard to say without being inside his head or being around him regularly, but the evidence of a pattern of exaggeration makes me wonder. Surely a key part of NBC’s investigation will be to see whether more evidence of a pattern exists.

Alongside the idea of virtue ethics comes a concept from Notre Dame philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre. He talks about a concept he calls external goods – achievements that accompany practices (including journalism and other professions) but are not part of the substance of what these practices do. External goods – such as status, power and profit – have the potential to corrupt practices. They get in the way of virtuous conduct.

Did desire for status corrupt Williams’ pursuit of honesty? As with consideration of his character itself, that is a difficult question to judge at a distance. Regardless, though, his story is a cautionary tale for journalists and journalism students. That is particularly true in the age of celebrity journalism. Building one’s brand individually, and building a corporate brand and ratings, can overshadow honest and courageous pursuit of the truth.

Dick Pryor, an anchor on public television in Oklahoma who was on the panel with Boettcher, agreed it’s easy for anchors to get “wrapped up in who they are,” to start thinking they can’t apologize and to think they are “bigger than the news.” He said it’s important to use the “truth filter” and remember what you’re there for – not to make money or create a persona but to provide news and interpretation as a public service.

The ethical bar is higher than ever today for anchors and for other journalists because, as with the soldiers who helped bring Williams down via Facebook, every member of the public can instantly question the truth of what any journalist does. As Yvette Walker, an editor for The Oklahoman who teaches journalism ethics at the University of Central Oklahoma, put it, “Someone will find you out.” And as Boettcher said, there is a “new check and balance” where a little guy can bring down an anchor.

In the end, what NBC does with Williams will probably be driven by public feedback, said Todd Spessard, news director for KWTV in Oklahoma City. The “citizen ombudsman” helped create the situation, and “for better or for worse it will probably be the viewing public that in the end decides how this plays out.”

3 Ethical Pressure Points for Journalists on Twitter

Twitter shades of gray

Shades of gray: Rumor, intent and context in reporting on social media

By David Craig

This post is a condensed version of an article I wrote on the website Mediamorals.org.

For many journalists and news organizations, Twitter has shifted in a few years from being an oddity and add-on to a key tool for gathering and reporting news.

The thinking about ethics and best practices in journalistic use of Twitter has sharpened and evolved since the platform’s early days. But the ethical challenges persist, and the boundaries of best practices are difficult to nail down. Here, I will look at three continuing ethical pressure points for journalists using Twitter.

Handling unverified information

The continuous flow and immediate spread of information on social networks make this part of journalists’ work, which has always been challenging, more difficult. The consequences of incorrect information – whether about individuals, companies or governments – can be devastating and global. And with journalists occupying only a small space in the larger network of information flow, the pressure to pass on and amplify information prematurely becomes much greater.

My interactions with journalists, tracking of Twitter discussion, and reading suggest that journalists’ understanding of best practices with unverified information sits on a continuum from not tweeting until verified to acknowledging on Twitter while simultaneously checking. (For contrasting perspectives, see this AdviceLine post.)

The notion of reporting information in the process of being verified is in line with what City University of New York journalism professor and blogger Jeff Jarvis calls “process journalism,” which emphasizes being transparent about what one does and does not know, rather than waiting for a final finished product – which he argues is never perfect itself. I think the key challenge with this approach – and the lingering question for journalists – is how to be transparent in the midst of the larger network flow while maintaining truthfulness and minimizing harm.

What is the proper balance among these principles? Transparency alone doesn’t guarantee truthful information. Focus on minimizing harm alone can keep reports out of the public eye, even though members of the public might be able to help corroborate or dismiss them in an open network. Paying attention to the importance of the truth that is being reported alongside the extent of the harm that may result – a common balance in journalism ethics – helps in sorting out whether to transparently acknowledge unverified information on Twitter.

Beyond this, it’s important to use all available resources to verify content. As BBC News social media editor Chris Hamilton has told me, that means making the most of both technical tools such as Google Earth and reverse-image searches to check content shared through tweets and other means. But it also means using critical thinking to look for evidence of falsity and ask questions of human sources.

Navigating boundaries between personal and professional identities

The dual and overlapping uses of social media for personal and professional purposes create ambiguity about the identity of journalists using Twitter and other social platforms. One can signal intentions to some extent with a Twitter profile listing professional affiliations alongside some personal information, but not everyone will see the profile or the larger context of the kinds of things being tweeted.

I don’t think it’s necessary or helpful to agonize over whether journalists should offer routine tidbits about their personal lives in the same feeds they use for their journalism. As some journalists argue, doing that just shows they are human like their audiences. This may serve to increase rather than diminish their credibility. The bigger issue becomes how to handle opinion, especially opinion associated with what one is writing about.

Kelly Fincham, a professor at Hofstra University on Long Island, New York, studied a number of major news organizations’ social media policies for a chapter in Ethics for Digital Journalists, a book I co-edited. She found that although there were “some small signs” that “opposition to transparency about viewpoints is weakening,” overall the guidelines still warn against stating opinions on social media.

In the guidelines she studied, Fincham found that there has been a substantial shift since early days, from the expectation of separate Twitter profiles for personal and professional activity to a consensus that journalists should have single accounts. But single accounts do leave open the possibility that different people coming from one’s personal or professional worlds will assume different things about the intent of the account holder.

There is no foolproof way to navigate the challenges that come from the ambiguity of professional versus personal on Twitter. In ethical terms it’s important to be transparent by signaling the scope of the social world represented by including both professional and personal elements in the profile, or only professional elements if the focus will really be limited to those.

Providing context and narrative structure

From my own use of Twitter, I have seen how difficult it is to include structure and context. The character length limit makes it challenging to provide context for the meaning and significance of individual words. Other challenges involve connecting multiple tweets in a coherent way, especially given that many people get thousands of tweets a day and move in and out of the platform. It’s almost guaranteed that some followers will miss some tweets. From an ethical standpoint, this means that the truth users take away from these messages is fragmented and often missing some of the intended pieces.

Journalists have had several years of Twitter use to gain experience looking for ways to provide context and a coherent narrative. Jonathan Hewett, in another chapter in Ethics for Digital Journalists, notes the simple approach of numbering each segment of a series of related comments, in ways such as “1/3,” “2/3,” etc. (if the number is known). Parallel wording can also help, as he noted in an example of multiple tweets introduced by “Survivor of boat sinking:” or, in subsequent tweets, simply “Survivor.” He said BBC journalist Dominic Casciani has been trying “signposting” of tweets – “alerting users at the start of the day to what he’ll be covering later, for example, or providing a reminder of key points to add context and/or to help those who have not been following the story.”

Twitter hashtags also can help to provide context by keeping related tweets connected with one another.

On a larger scale, Storify has enabled journalists and others to combine tweets and other social posts in a single document and, if desired, add explanatory sentences of introduction and connection. But the tweets can end up in different contexts than the originals did by being selected for inclusion when related tweets were not.

All of these approaches using Twitter and related tools provide means to meet the ethical goal of truth telling to the greatest extent possible within the format.

 

Three Ethics Takeaways From ONA Conference

Alberto Cairo
Alberto Cairo of the University of Miami says ethics have not kept pace with data visualization techniques. (Stephen Rynkiewicz photo)

By David Craig

The Online News Association annual conference, which I attended September 24-27 in Chicago, always provides great updates on trends and issues in digital journalism. But it’s also a great place to hear about ethical challenges, both new and continuing.

Ethical issues were the focus of three sessions, including a challenge session in which audience members had to react quickly to ethical scenarios on topics such as use of user-generated content. But ethics also came up in sessions that were primarily about other topics.

Here are three ethics takeaways from the conference:

1. Content that disappears will create new ethical challenges. Amy Webb, founder of Webbmedia Group, delivered her annual talk on “10 Tech Trends for Journalists.” One of them was “ephemeral content,” an increasingly popular kind of social media communication.

Webb said Snapchat, an app developed to share photos that’s popular with young people, provided a way to send private content that users might not want to stay around, but “it’s also a way to clear up our cluttered social streams.” She said other companies are providing messaging services with content that disappears, appears anonymously or is even encrypted. She predicted that most messaging apps will have some kind of means of making content ephemeral in the next 24 months.

Ephemeral content is relevant to journalism because some news organizations including The Washington Post are experimenting with it. But Webb pointed to an ethical difficulty: “Ephemeral content can be used for publishing news. But it can’t be corrected, because no record is left.”

This kind of communication raises questions of accountability for the accuracy of content because once it’s gone, there’s no way to amend a false message or even verify what the message said.

“Talk internally about the implications,” Webb suggested to news organizations.

Even for journalists who don’t use this kind of content, the discussion points to ongoing questions about what it means to ethically handle incorrect content in social media messages.

2. Algorithms shape the truth that people learn about the world and point to new ethical obligations for journalists. Kelly McBride, vice president for academic programs at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, and Nick Diakopoulos, a journalism professor at the University of Maryland and an expert in computational journalism, presented a session titled “Algorithms are the New Gatekeepers.”

McBride said algorithms, because they shape how news is distributed and to whom, have a powerful influence on what gets attention in the marketplace of ideas. As one of the presentation slides showed, they also affect a huge number of other areas of life including search rankings, online recommendations, advertising and relationships.

Diakopoulos talked about the power of algorithms in influencing the information we receive because of their ability to prioritize, classify, associate and filter it. He argued that the power they carry suggests new responsibilities – and opportunities – for journalists in reporting because they can help hold algorithms accountable. Stories might address issues including discrimination, mistakes that deny service, censorship, illegal activity or false predictions.

This kind of reporting isn’t easy. He pointed to several possible approaches to “auditing” algorithms – reviews of computer code, surveys of users about their experience, analysis of input and output, having users report data and (with ethical problems he acknowledged) impersonating users with programs.

Despite the difficulties, the social and economic impact of algorithms make it important for journalists to try new ways of reporting.

3. The power and availability of data visualization tools call for increasing attention to the ethics of visualization messages. Alberto Cairo, a professor at the University of Miami who teaches on informational graphics and data visualization, gave a session called “The Journalist, the Artist and the Engineer: The Ethics of Data Visualization.”

Cairo argued that the core goal of journalism ethics is to improve the public’s understanding of issues “relevant for their conducting good lives” while minimizing any potential harm. He said tools to create interactive charts, maps and other informational graphics are becoming more popular and widely available but that ethics is not keeping pace. He said that helping the public understand what good, ethical visualizations look like can help to better society and avoid the impact of misleading messages.

Even though great data visualizations are beautiful as well as functional, Cairo said, they must hold to a high standard of truthfulness that doesn’t oversimplify or distort the information being represented. Using the example of a graphic from the National Cable Television Association, he talked about going from showing things that are true but may leave out important information to showing a picture that’s more complicated but also truer and more accurate.

Cairo urged the audience not to hide complexity from the public or point to patterns that really aren’t there. In doing so, he is rightly pointing to a standard of care in visualization that is as high as the standards used in good investigative writing.

Handling Rumors on Social Media

By David Craig

How should journalists deal with rumors on social media?

Answering this question in practice isn’t as simple as it might seem. A good discussion of the topic broke out Friday during the latest #EdShift Twitter chat on PBS MediaShift.

The biweekly chats draw in both journalists and journalism professors to talk about topics important to the future of journalism education. This one focused on ethical issues on social media. Excellent comments, including resources for good ethical practice, emerged on several topics. But the most intense debate centered on rumors.

Steve Fox, a journalism professor at the University of Massachusetts, took this view:

Fox said the approach used by Andy Carvin, formerly of NPR and well-known for his engagement with Twitter sources during Arab Spring, can’t be generalized to other reporting. But Carvin, who joined in the discussion, said that if journalists are just passing along unverified rumors, that’s the wrong way to work. He posted links to several tweets he wrote after the school shootings in Newtown, Connecticut, to show the approach he takes to verifying information:

With this approach, Carvin challenges assumptions and highlights the likelihood that early reports are wrong – whether they come from individuals or news media.

The research he’s been doing as a fellow at the Tow Center for Digital Journalism at Columbia University also provides a caution for journalists using law enforcement sources.

Where does all of this leave us on the question of how journalists should handle rumors on social media?

I share Fox’s caution on any communication by journalists about rumors. In ethical terms, minimizing harm – a mainstay of ethics including the Society of Professional Journalists code – calls for great care because of the potential of false information to do damage.

But in the social media sphere, where the public is immediately awash in good and bad information, journalists often best meet another duty – seeking truth – by aggressively questioning rumors openly in real time. (For another case study on this, see a 2011 blog post by Daniel Victor, now a social media editor at The New York Times, about two journalists on Twitter in the middle of a shooting scare in Philadelphia.)

In another tweet,  Carvin said that if a rumor spreads on social media, journalists’ duty is  “to acknowledge it, pick it apart, prove/debunk it.”

Well-said. That means being ethical on social media involves not just asking hard questions but asking them in the open.

 

 

 

Ethical Issues in Mobile Reporting

It was great to see ethical issues come up Friday in a Twitter chat about doing journalism with mobile devices.

Katy Culver, an assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin and visiting faculty member at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, moderates biweekly #EdShift chats for PBS MediaShift on innovation in journalism education. Much of Friday’s chat, involving both journalists and journalism professors, focused on tips and tools for mobile reporting. But Culver, who is also associate director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at Wisconsin, included a question about ethical concerns.

The tweets in response addressed both specific challenges and broader points about navigating the ethics of mobile journalism.

A reporter from Appleton, Wisconsin, raised an issue in covering accidents that comes with the instant capability of mobile devices:

Steve Buttry, who does training for Digital First Media, pointed to challenges related to accuracy. They are connected both with size and features of mobile devices and the sense of urgency that goes with mobile reporting.

He also noted the need to identify oneself clearly as a journalist:

A journalism professor from Germany pointed out an issue related to photographic features that come with mobile phones.

In only a few words, these journalists highlighted a range of ethical challenges in mobile journalism. A radio reporter from Washington, D.C., noted the broader issue of the great power of these small tools and the responsibility that goes with it:

Another D.C. radio reporter did a good job of pointing out that the specifics of mobile journalism ethics are a work in progress:

I don’t think we’ve received any calls on the Ethics AdviceLine about issues in mobile journalism, but we’d love to be a sounding board for journalists thinking through decisions about reporting and editing on their phones.

When to Quit, When to Fight

By David Craig

How do you respond when your boss asks you to do something you think is unethical?

A web editor for several business-to-business publications told me she was facing that question after a brief item she wrote drew a complaint from sales staff because an advertiser was not mentioned. She said her editor was pressuring her to add information about the advertiser even though it didn’t fit with the original story.

She was looking for confirmation that this was an ethical problem and trying to decide how to respond.

We talked about the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, and I agreed that there was an ethical problem based on the principle of acting independently. That was the easy part.

The hard part: what to do about it. She was considering quitting her job – a decision no one should take lightly.

I asked her whether this kind of request was part of a pattern or an isolated incident. That’s an important question when the personal stakes are this high. And if nothing like this had happened before, that suggests it might be better to stay and try to do things right than lose the opportunity. I also asked her whether she thought the incident itself was serious enough to justify quitting immediately.

She said nothing like this had happened before. But she was troubled by the support for the advertiser’s view.

She read me an email she had drafted saying she thought the decision was unethical. I suggested she explain why based on the SPJ code so it was clear this was not just her individual judgment but reflected the standards of the profession. As a result, she decided to raise the point about acting independently and (her idea) to include a link to the SPJ code.

I found out later that the editor did not agree and ran the story anyway with the added information from the advertiser. As of the time of this post, the caller was still working there but was trying to line up enough freelance work to leave.

Weapon in a Newspaper War: Politicians

By David Craig

At a time when many cities are watching one newspaper fight to stay afloat, New Orleans sits in the middle of a newspaper war.

The Times-Picayune, which angered many residents last year by going to three days a week in print, is now battling The Advocate, which is based in Baton Rouge but producing a New Orleans edition – now with its own New Orleans name. And The Times-Picayune is fighting back with new print products.

In the thick of this competition, The New Orleans Advocate made an unusual decision to use local politicians in television ads for the paper. Kevin Allman, a reporter for the New Orleans weekly Gambit, called me to ask my opinion for a story he was doing about the decision.

This was a new one to me. As his story points out, the campaign also uses other well-known locals such as musicians and sports figures. But among the people appearing are two parish presidents, a sheriff and the vice president of the New Orleans City Council.

As I often do, I pointed out a relevant principle in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics – in this case, acting independently. Allman did a good job in the story highlighting two specific elements: “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived” and “Remain free of associations that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.”

I was more concerned here about perception than reality. I don’t have any reason to think journalists at The New Orleans Advocate will be swayed to distort their coverage and favor one side in issues  involving these officials. But what will the public think?

I think damaged credibility is a real danger if politicians promote news organizations, especially at a time when many in the public have a low view of journalists’ credibility and see media outlets as biased. Kelly McBride from the Poynter Institute put it well in Allman’s story: “The Advocate obviously has a competitive relationship with The Times-Picayune,” McBride said. “If the politicians join The Advocate in sharing that message, what does that say about The Advocate’s ability to critically examine those politicians?”

I’m all for creative thinking about new ways to promote newspapers in an intensely competitive journalism environment. But using politicians in the promotion raises too many questions for me.