All posts by ethicsadviceline

Minute Ethics Quiz

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional Journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

Civic Groups Beckon Journalists

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

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

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

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

Pressures to join

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

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

An historical footnote

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

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

Sit down and talk

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

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

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

What happened

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

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Ethical Interviewing

 

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

 

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

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

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

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

Audio recording and notes

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

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

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

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

A mutual understanding

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

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

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

Editor’s response

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

**********************************

The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

Election Ethics Dilemma

 

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

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

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

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

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

Something Bad to Happen

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

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

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

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

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

Someone To Talk To

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

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

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

Releasing The Information

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

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

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

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

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

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.