All posts by ethicsadviceline

An Editor’s Dilemma image

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

The editor-in-chief of an Idaho newspaper calls the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists to say a county commissioner urged him to assign a reporter to a commission meeting where he expects some “monkey business” on the agenda as a result of a conflict with the county clerk.

The editor says he cannot afford to send a reporter to the meeting. The commissioner offers to arrange for a friend to pay for the reporter’s presence at the meeting.

Should the editor accept the offer so the reporter can attend the meeting and report on an issue that might be important to the public? What is the ethically correct course of action for the editor?


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

Sneak Journalism image

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Journalists sometimes go undercover in search of information, or consider doing so in the public interest.

Journalists call the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists asking about the wisdom of this practice. Here are some of those cases:

A Colorado broadcaster asked if there were any ethical problems with entering several schools in Colorado undercover with a concealed camera to see if he would be stopped and questioned. This would be in connection with recent school shootings.

In another case, a staff writer for an Arizona newspaper asked if it would be ethical to do a story showing how easy it would be to buy drugs by sending a reporter and a photographer out with $20 bills.

In a third case, a Canadian TV network asked about the wisdom of testing airport security by trying to sneak a weapon through security.

If you were an ethics advisor, what would you tell these journalists?


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

Mug Shot Fairness image


By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

In a history spanning centuries of reporting the news, newspapers have never been good at forgetting or looking away.

But now they are beginning to learn how to do that for humanitarian reasons, or to curtail their interest in past practices that could tarnish a person for life.

The Chicago Tribune is the latest to announce new policies aimed at fairness in the way it reports on people. It announced a change in how it handles mug shots of people arrested for crimes but have not gone to trial.


“As part of an ongoing examination of the fairness in how we report on people — a bit of introspection that is both shared across the news media industry and long overdue — we are adopting guidelines aimed at the restrained and consistent use of mug shots with news stories,” Colin McMahon, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief and chief content officer of Tribune Publishing. The four publication guidelines are:

*The default is to avoid using a mug shot, except in cases of public safety or high news value.

*Exceptional cases should be rare, and only with the permission of the managing editor or editor-in-chief.

*For enterprise or follow-up coverage.

*Mugshots in older stories pose a challenge, but the newspaper is exploring ways to remove them from publication.

Punitive coverage

This reexamination by media companies, said the newspaper, “is particularly critical in recognizing how their work might reinforce racial stereotypes and amount to punitive coverage of people who enter the criminal justice system — the majority of whom come from underprivileged backgrounds.”

The use of mugshots tends to imply guilt of individuals who are charged but not convicted. Some defendants will never be convicted of a crime, the Tribune pointed out.

On similar grounds, the Boston Globe earlier announced its “Fresh Start” initiative.

“Following the nationwide reckoning on racial justice,” the newspaper said, “the Globe is looking inward at the impact its coverage has had on communities of color. As we are updating how we cover the news, we are also working to better understand how some stories can have a lasting negative impact on someone’s ability to move forward with their lives.”

Erasing history

The Globe provides online applications in which individuals may request deleting stories or removing names from stories. Although this amounts to erasing history, the Globe said, “we’re considering this on a case-by-case basis but we think the value of giving someone a fresh start often outweighs the historic value of keeping a story widely accessible long after an incident occurred. People’s lives aren’t static, they’re dynamic.”

The offer to expunge information does not apply to companies.

Two University of Michigan Law professors, J.J. Prescott and Sonja B. Starr, wrote in the New York Times that a new study shows the benefits of giving people a clean slate.

Consequences persist

“The consequences of a run-in with the law can persist for decades after the formal sentence has been served,” they wrote. “People with records face major barriers to employment, housing and education, effectively condemning them to second-class citizenship.”

At least 36 states have laws allowing expungement, they write, but they tend to be narrow in scope. Typically it depends on the number of convictions and the type of crime. After completing their sentences, people often wait years while going through an elaborate process to have their records cleared.


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

Two Views of Objectivity



By Hugh Miller and Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Think of objectivity as a philosopher, by definition a person engaged in the study of reality.

Now think of objectivity as a journalist concerned with ethics, the search for right or good conduct.

This article will travel down these two roads, explored by Hugh Miller and Casey Bukro. Miller is professor of philosophy emeritus, Loyola University Chicago, and long-time AdviceLine advisor who takes calls from professional journalists seeking guidance on ethics. Bukro manages AdviceLine. He is a former national ethics chair for the Society of Professional Journalists.

The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists has reported on objectivity before. But it is a controversial topic, one that manages to avoid much attention for a time until it explodes to the surface.

Reexmination time

This is one of those times, brought on by the Trump presidency and roiling discontent among journalists over diversity in the ranks of news gatherers. The Trump presidency forced journalists to struggle over whether to call Trump a liar. Black journalists led a reckoning over objectivity.

But what is objectivity? Let’s start with Miller’s thoughts on that subject, as a philosopher might see it. As a discipline, philosophy goes back centuries, beyond the time of Socrates and Plato. Here is what Miller says:

What do modern philosophy and science have to say about objectivity? To be sure, this is an enormous question. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say that the attempt to ground and secure genuine objectivity of knowledge and perception is pretty much coextensive with most of modern philosophy, and figures prominently in the methodologies of the modern sciences.

But some reflection on the historical origins of the modern problem of the objectivity of knowledge might help shed some light on current controversies concerning contemporary issues such as diversity in the workplace of a journalistic outlet.

“Natural philosophy” in the seventeenth century (as the sciences called themselves at that time) was deeply concerned with finding a method that would allow reliable, reproducible and accurate knowledge to be winnowed from the chaff of the rest of human experience — emotions, passions, beliefs, dogmas. Geometry was the great key: unlike other intellectual disciples, it alone seemed to provide a rigorous, axiomatic, structured, “truth-preserving” structure for knowledge, a structure which could scaffold the rest of the sciences.

Consensus appears

Across a wide spectrum of philosophical schools, a converging consensus began to appear: only those aspects of experience which could be measured and quantified, and thus subjected to mathematical analysis, would count as “objective.” All others would be relegated to the realm of the merely “subjective.” The objective properties of lemon, for example, might be its mass, its size, its density, its physical components and chemical composition, all of which could be analyzed, measured and quantified in standard ways. But its warm yellow color, its citrony fragrance, the acid-sweet bite of its juice upon the tongue – these were to be excluded as merely “secondary” subjective elements, not the stuff of real knowledge.

“Objective” was honorific, “subjective” pejorative. Under Isaac Newton and his successors, physics and the other “hard sciences,” with their mathematical theories, quickly became the gold standard for knowledge. The construction of scientific knowledge and of the body of individual sciences became a quest to describe natural beings in quantifiable ways, using careful experiment and measurement. And those experiments and measurements had to be devised so as to exclude subjective bias and idiosyncrasy by the investigators, as contaminants that would vitiate inquiry and block scientific advance.

Consider the telescope of Galileo. With it, what had previously seemed an inverted dome of dim twinkling lights that moved in a precise, clockwork fashion, with the earth at the center, turned out, upon inspection, to be a vast field of celestial objects which bore startling resemblances to terrestrial phenomena. (Jupiter even had moons, like earth!) Surely this meant that it was made of the same kind of stuff as earth, and no longer entitled to any divine status.) And as Newton proved in his Principia Mathematica, celestial bodies and terrestrial ones alike could all be described with a single mathematical model of motion, universally applicable and open to use by everyone with sufficient intelligence and education, without exception. Here at last was “objective” knowledge. Wholly impersonal, purged of all the dross of subjectivity, it alone could count as the royal road to the future.

Model prevails

This model of the relation between objective knowledge and subjective error prevailed for several centuries. The sciences which were founded upon it made such strides that they seemed invincible. But by the end of the nineteenth century, the model was tottering. Thinkers like Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche provided, each in their own way, trenchant criticisms of this way of conceiving of the relationship between objective and the subjective. In the early twentieth century, physics itself underwent an epistemological crisis with the development of the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics, whose results, while experimentally validated, seemed to defy all traditional intuitive “objective” sense.

In biology, physiology and neurology, the study of the human brain and sense organs, began to lay bare the mechanisms by which perception and thought were constructed, as well as the apparent contingency of what had previously been thought to be necessarily true – the so-called “laws of thought” themselves. Darwin’s theory showed that the development of thought had itself been a contingent historical event, and remained contingent, despite its having already occurred. Modern psychology, too, has shown that what we commonly think to be the sanctum sanctorum of scientific reason is, in fact, riddled with various forms of unreason.

Readers of Michael Lewis’s book, The undoing Project will be familiar with the work of Amos Twersky and Daniel Kahneman, whose research uncovered the regular and systematic ways in which everyday clear and convincing reasoning turns out to be systematically erroneous. This seemingly hardwired tendency to make predictable mistakes can be observed, and corrected for; but its ingrained nature and persistence is unnerving.

Modern philosophy and the sciences remain in this latter-day condition of disenchantment. But the old model of “objectively good” and “subjectively bad” continues to have a strong influence over our thought. Contemporary thought seeks to try to bridge the gap between this early modern model and later critiques of it. Truth, it is thought, must somehow be made out by understanding the interplay between objectivity and subjectivity, without casting either side in a necessarily negative light in advance.

Objectivity in journalism

It is in this context that we can perhaps appreciate, from the standpoint of the history of modern philosophy and science, the problem posed by the ideal of “objectivity” in a practice like journalism. Journal like to style itself “the first draft of history.” History itself is a modern human science, and sets itself the goal of recording, as the German historian von Ranke said, “how things really happened” (wie es eigentlich gewesen ist)—not how we would like them to have, or think they should have, happened. History and its apprentice, journalism, have not themselves been immune to the glamour of the mathematical model of the hard natural sciences, with its coolheaded and impartial scientific investigator at the wheel. But, as our all too brief narrative above indicates, this model has its deficiencies. 

The journalist Jelani Cobb reminded us, in 2018, that after massive civil unrest in the United States in 1967 and ’68, the Kerner commission recommended, among its conclusions, that the ranks of journalists should be diversified, so as to include more journalists of color. The scarcity of such journalists, with their distinctive journalistic viewpoints, had greatly contributed to the shock and surprise at those disturbances on the part of white Americans. White reporters had missed what was quite literally before their eyes and under their noses, but which was as plain as the nose on their noses to black Americans: namely that America was, and had always been, a land of violent, coercive, oppressive white supremacy. By assuming that their reporters could adopt what the philosopher Thomas Nagel later called “the view from nowhere,” a perfectly impartial, neutral, impersonal – and race-free – standpoint, white Americans had deceived themselves.

In his polemical book, On the Geneology of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, in 1887:

Let us be on guard against the dangerous old conceptual fiction that posited a “pure, will-less, painless, timeless knowing subject;” let us guard against the snares of such contradictory concepts as “pure reason,” “absolute spirituality,” “knowledge in itself:” these always demand that we should think of an eye that is completely unthinkable, an eye turned in no particular direction, in which the active and interpreting forces, through which alone seeing becomes seeing something, are supposed to be lacking; these always demand of the eye an absurdity and is nonsense. There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective “knowing;” and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our “concept” of this thing, our “objectivity,” be.

Nietzsche is not saying that there is no truth, no knowing, no concepts, no objectivity. All of these things are real, he is saying. But they do not flow from some transcendental ego or disembodied, ahistorical scientific observer. They are built up by a collaboration and occasional conflict between different interpretive “eyes.” Not only values, but facts themselves come into existence only by means of an interpretive act. The key here is not to limit the scope of interpretive acts to one type of vision, or one mode of hearing. A multiplicity of visions is the surest road to truth.

A journalist

Here is where Casey Bukro takes over this narrative, after a 63 year history as a journalist – as a reporter, writer and an editor, most of that time at the Chicago Tribune.

I’ll say it right up front: I always believed the essence of objectivity is to remove ourselves from the story – to stand apart from it, except for the wisdom and the experience we can bring to it. For most of my time at the Tribune, I was the environment writer, the Tribune’s first reporter assigned to cover the environment full-time. People sometimes asked me if I was the Tribune’s environmental crusader. No, I said, I was a reporter like the rest of them, looking for the truth. I did not favor environmentalists any more than I favored polluters.

To those who say we all have our biases, I say yes, and a professional journalists should recognize that and keep them out of a story.

I was born in Chicago to a Polish-American family, and raised in the Humboldt Park neighborhood made up largely of people with European backgrounds. I thought of it as the best of Chicago neighborhoods, like a small United Nations. It was a mix of nationalities and religions. Everyone was different, and we learned to get along with each other. That is one of the first recollections of my early life.

I doubt my Polish-American heritage had anything to do with being hired at the Chicago Tribune after a stint at the City News Bureau of Chicago, a grueling training ground for young reporters. Before that, I had worked for the Janesville (Wis.) Gazette, after graduating from the Medill School of Journalism, at Northwestern University. I was schooled and trained for journalism, where I spent most of my life.

First SPJ code

I believed in objectivity, and said so when I wrote the Society of Professional Journalists first code of ethics, adopted in 1973, with the help of members of the national Professional Development committee, which I chaired. After the adoption of the code of ethics, I became the society’s first national ethics chair.

The 1973 code said journalists should perform “with intelligence, objectivity, accuracy and fairness.” The code was revised several times, and in 1996 the word “objectivity” was stricken from the code. My recollection is that academics largely pushed for that change, saying human beings are captives of their biases and cannot be objective.

Not only academics resisted calling journalists objective. My own boss at the Tribune, the late Jack Fuller, wrote a book on News Values, Ideas for an Information Age. He was the Tribune’s president and publisher. In the book, Fuller wrote: “No one has ever achieved objective journalism, and no one ever could. The bias of the observer always enters the picture, if not coloring the details at least guiding the choice of them.” Fuller won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. I sometimes wonder if that taught him the value of opinion over objectivity. He was a man of opinions.

For years, news organizations staffed their newsrooms with specialists in covering the environment, education, science, government, politics, sports and other beats that required their talents and ability to recognize critical developments on their beats. And to attract trustworthy sources of reliable information. These are not the activities of remote automatons. It takes engagement and thought about what is important.

Diversity brings change

The recent emphasis on diversity brought new meaning to a reporter’s ethnic background, and racial insights. This is based on the belief that a newsroom should reflect the diversity of communities reporters are covering, so that they understand the customs and the trials of that community. But how is that playing out?

The Pew Research Center in 2019 reported that the public places high value on journalists’ connection to the community, but Americans offer a more mixed assessment of journalists’ actual connection to their community.

This disconnect, of minority journalists actually making an impact in their workplaces, came clearer in an op-ed appearing in the New York Times, written by Wesley Lowery, a Times reporter.

“Black journalists are publicly airing years of accumulated grievances, demanding an overdue reckoning for a profession whose mainstream repeatedly brushes off their concerns; in many newsrooms, writers and editors are now also openly pushing for a paradigm shift in how our outlets define their operations and ideals.”

Black journalists

In an article headlined “A reckoning over objectivity, led by Black journalists,” Lowery writes that “while these two battles may seem superficially separate, in reality, the failure of the mainstream press to accurately cover black communities is intrinsically linked with its failure to employ, retain and listen to black people.”

To listen. In the past, reporters were told to keep their opinions to themselves. Now, as they see it, they are being hired for the opinions and insights they bring to their jobs. Editorial writers, of course, always wrote opinion pieces, which distinguished them from the news pages.

It’s a treacherous, changing landscape. Sometime after Lowery’s op-ed appeared, Lauren Wolfe, a New York Times freelancer, appeared to be dismissed for expressing a political opinion, although the newspaper said that was not true, but offered no further explanation.

Lowery’s boss, Dean Baquet, executive editor of the Times, told Jon Allsop of the Columbia Journalism Review that he believed Lowery’s op-ed was “terrific,” and didn’t believe that he and Lowery were far apart on the objectivity question.

Fair and independent

“Baquet — who has repeatedly stressed the importance of objectivity in the past —said that he doesn’t love the term, and that he would rather frame his view of journalism around ‘fairness’ and ‘independence,’ wrote Allsop. “The independent and fair reporter, he said, ‘gets on an airplane to pursue a story with an empty notebook, believing that he or she doesn’t fully know what the story is, and is going to be open to what they hear.’”

Objectivity, and the appearance of bias, was at the root of a long hesitation by the New York Times and other media to say flat-out that President Trump was a liar.

“It’s not just his outrageous stuff…he says things that are just demonstrably false,” Baquet told Ken Doctor in an interview appearing in “I think he’s challenged our language. He will have changed journalism, he really will have.”

It took a long time, Baquet admitted, to understand how to deal with falsehood. “We didn’t know how to write the paragraph that said, ‘This is just false.’ We struggle with that. I think that Trump has ended that struggle. I think we now say stuff. We fact-check him. We write it more powerfully that it’s false.”

Liar presidents

This hesitancy to call a president a liar is strange, since it would not be the first time.

“When Richard Nixon was president, most journalists knew he was a thoroughly dishonest man,” wrote David Greenberg in “Notably, though, it wasn’t until the Watergate investigations proved that Nixon had deliberately uttered his falsehoods with the intent to deceive the public that journalists rolled out the heaviest rhetorical artillery available to them: Calling the president a liar.”

As generations of journalists change, some lessons must be leaned anew.

In the Washington Post, Paul Farhi reported that news organizations across the country were starting to describe Trump’s falsehoods that way.

“It’s (almost) official: The president of the United States is a liar,” wrote Farhi.

Other news media hesitate to use “lie” for Trump’s misstatements, writes David Bauder in It’s a question of intent. Editors believe it’s important to establish whether someone is spreading false information knowingly, intending to deceive, and it’s hard to get inside a person’s head, writes Bauder.

Let facts speak

At the Associated Press, “we feel it’s better to say what the facts are, say what the person said and let the audience make the decision whether or not it’s an intentional lie,” said John Daniszewski, the news cooperatives’s standards editor.

“Lie” is considered a loaded word. However, Trump’s birther movement questioning former President Barack Obama’s citizenship led both the New York Times and AP  to use the word “lie.”

Clearly, the controversy over objectivity rages on. Andrew Kirell in, writes: “There is no such thing as objectivity in journalism. And it’s time to get over it.”

The Media Ethics Initiative recognizes the trend toward “a new understanding of journalism, one which allows for the inclusion of a journalist’s personal voice,” though others believe ditching the ideals of objectivity and neutrality is dangerous.

“For a journalist to include their own voice is to risk exerting influence over their audience,” writes the author. “Whereas the publication of ‘only facts’ allows for the consumers to make judgments for themselves, not be told what to think by a reporter.”

Seeking bias

There are always conflicting views. Kelly McBride, a Poynter Institute expert on journalism ethics and standards, points out that in today’s polarized world, people judge media accuracy by their own biases.

“If a news consumer doesn’t see their particular bias in a story accounted for – not necessarily validated, but at least accounted for in a story – they are going to assume that the reporter or the publication is biased,” McBride said in a story about controversial news media bias charts.

There will never be a final answer to this controversy, which involves opinions about expressing opinions. In my experience, journalists can be a very opinionated bunch. They love to argue and quibble about details. It’s their job.

Let me tell you my long-time bottom line on objectivity: Those who say it is impossible will never be able to achieve it. Once a person says something is unattainable, they usually stop trying. I always keep trying, keeping Roger Bannister in mind.

Record mile run

On May 6, 1954, Bannister, a 25-year-old medical student, ran the mile in three minutes, fifty-nine and four-tenths of a second in Oxford, England. He was the first in recorded track and field history to break the four-minute mile.

Until that time, some doctors and scientists insisted that no human could run the mile in less than four minutes. They said it could be fatal. I remember clearly a perfectly reasoned article at the time written by a doctor explaining why the human body could not reach such a goal. Lactic acid would build up in the blood during extreme exertion, along with oxygen depletion in the heart and lungs. Seemed perfectly reasonable.

But Bannister did not believe it, and avoided conventional coaching and training methods of the time. Wikipedia reports that 1,400 male athletes have broken the “four-minute barrier” since Bannister did it. And breaking that barrier is now the standard of all male professional middle distance runners.

Upon finishing the record-breaking race, Bannister said: “Doctors and scientists said breaking the four-minute miles was impossible, that one would die in the attempt. Thus, when I got up from the track after collapsing at the finish line, I figured I was dead.”

It pays to be skeptical of what people say is impossible.


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

Watch What You Tweet

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

To tweet or not to tweet, that seems to be the question involving Lauren Wolfe, dismissed by the New York Times for reasons not totally explained.

At first, it looked like Wolfe was fired for tweeting she had “chills” watching President-elect Joe Biden’s plane land outside Washington, D.C. She also criticized the Trump administration for failing to fly Biden to Washington for the inauguration in a military aircraft.

The “online condemnation of the Times over Wolfe’s ouster and its timing was fierce,” wrote Thom Geier in

A torrent of criticism

In the Washington Post, Jeremy Barr wrote: “Facing a torrent of criticism on social media, including broadsides from journalists and celebrities, the New York Times on Sunday sought to correct what it called ‘incorrect information’ regarding a freelance editor, Lauren Wolfe, with whom the paper cut ties after a tweet some conservatives claimed showed bias.”

The New York Times said the case was not as simple as that. “There’s a lot of inaccurate information circulating on Twitter,” Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades told the Post. “For privacy reasons we don’t get into the details of personnel matters, but we can say that we didn’t end someone’s employment over a single tweet. Out of respect for the individuals involved, we don’t plan to comment further.”

The newspaper said Wolfe was not a full-time employee and did not have a contract with the publication, contrary to widespread reports, but instead worked as a freelancer.

Sometimes the news is like a run-away freight train — hard to stop once it gets going.

Wolfe deleted the tweet, but she was fired soon afterward.

Dangerous territory

The Wolfe case shows how ethically dangerous social media can be for journalists.

Back in 2014, AdviceLine ethicist David Craig described three ethical pressure points for journalists on Twitter. One was about “navigating boundaries between personal and professional identities.”

The New York Times, like many media organizations, has ethical journalism standards spelled out for its news and editorial departments. It covers 41 pages. A point that appears to apply to the Wolfe case states that “no one may do anything that damages The Times’s reputation for strict neutrality in reporting on politics and government; in particular, no one may wear campaign buttons or display any other form of political partisanship while on the job.”

Confessing to a “chill” on Biden’s arrival can be considered a form of political partisanship while on the job.

Conflicts real or perceived

Like many corporate codes of ethics, the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics urges journalists to “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.” It says journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know. And remain free of activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.

In, Anya Wagtendonk writes: “Whatever happened between the paper and Wolfe, the response to her social media post has become the latest flashpoint in an ongoing conversation about how media organizations apply ethical and objectivity standards, and how they should respond to attacks on reporters in a post-Trump era.”

Social media is all about opinions. Strict rules against expressing personal opinions in the news may be easing here and there as journalists are encouraged to form bonds with the communities they serve. Some journalists challenge those strict rules.


Erik Wemple of the Washington Post opines that “the Times will never achieve a uniformly enforced standard for the social media behavior of its journalists. Each tweet is different from the next; each tweeter occupies a different rung on the paper’s hierarchy; and each controversy comes at a different moment in the national political mood.”

Writer Thom Geier put it this way: “The firing of Lauren Wolfe raises an important issue. If working as a journalist, is it better to: a) have no opinions; b) pretend to have none; or c) own them honestly and still work to be fair? I would chose c. I think it’s phony to pretend to be objective.”

Maybe so. But it’s always wise to check what your employer thinks and act accordingly. Read the corporate policies and ethical standards carefully. Otherwise, you might be out of a job.


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

Erasing News Archives image

By Casey Bukro and Hugh Miller

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

The searing images and reports of the January 6 terrorist mass attack on the nation’s Capital caused a long-simmering debate to resurface over preserving or expunging printed and visual information about people that could be damaging or embarrassing in the future.

Is this political correctness where people do not want to be confronted with their own past actions? Or recognition that media reports are not always fair to people and should be updated and corrected as a matter of social justice?

Just two days after the terrorist invasion, the MIT Technology Review published a story on “The scramble to archive Capitol insurrection footage before it disappears,” although the “global effort to save incriminating evidence raises ethical quandaries.”

The report by Tanya Basu described efforts to protect information before it disappears by Reddit users, the Bellingcat journalism site, a publicly editable Google spreadsheet of links, the Woke collective and Intelligence X, a European search engine.

Preserving information on the Capitol riot became urgent as “livestreams were turned off by platforms and broadcast news networks during the attack on the Capitol, and companies like Facebook, YouTube, Twitch and Twitter have since systematically removed posts that violated policies against violent or incendiary content,” Basu writes.

Without the footage captured by other sources, a substantial part of it would have been lost by being erased or deleted.

Ethical Quandaries

That also creates ethical quandaries. “The data now being archived could haunt people in the photos for years to come, even if they later renounce or pay criminal penalties for their actions,” writes Basu.

It is a quandary with a long and growing history as media consider the personal consequences of their reports in a society developing new awareness in the wake of the Black Lives Matter and Me Too campaigns.

The Boston Globe announced “Fresh Start,” allowing people to ask the newspaper to update or anonymize past coverage of them online. It is part of a broader effort to rethink the Globe’s criminal justice coverage and how it affects communities of color, amid a national reckoning over racial inequality.

It is similar to “right to forget” programs at newsrooms across the country, writes Zoe Greenberg, “meant to address the lasting impact that stories about past embarrassments, mistakes, or minor crimes, forever online and searchable, can have on a person’s life.” Globe editor Brian McGrory said it is an attempt to address the criminal justice system’s “disproportionate impact on people of color.” To apply, people fill out a short form online with an explanation of why they are requesting a review, including relevant court documents.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer launched a similar initiative in 2019.

Responsible, Fair, Respect

In the June, 2020 Quill Magazine, the Society of Professional Journalists former national ethics chair, Lynn Walsh, writes: “The answer is not to stop recording, reporting or take photos at protests and rallies. The answer is to do so responsibly, fairly and with respect. While images of pain, anger and excitement can be powerful, remember the people in them are experiencing these emotions in real time. Documenting this is part of our role and duty to the public and the people in these public demonstrations are an important part of the story.”

Walsh gave 14 pointers journalists should keep in mind.

The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists has been asked repeatedly for advice on this vexing problem of preserving or destroying archived information about distraught folks in the news, past or present.

Back in 2005, the executive editor of a California chain of community newspapers called AdviceLine with a newly emerging problem: People wanted old stories about them removed from the web archives, or blocked from Google searches. They want stories about them “unpublished.” Complicating the issue, companies have gone into business to help people scour themselves out of online archive data.


The AdviceLine ethics consultant, David Ozar, professor of Social and Professional Ethics at Loyola University Chicago at the time, said, “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.” Ozar decided there is no ethical difference between written or digital archives.

The newspaper should not help people remove information from the historical record, the ethicist decided. The paper may chose to see if Google will assist those people, but the paper has no obligation to bear great expense to help these people block access to information about them.

“All this assumes, of course, 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,” said Ozar.

Times change. And, as the Boston Globe’s “Fresh Start” program shows, perspectives and media social sensitivity change. Norms change.

A Fresh Look

AdviceLine asked Hugh Miller, to take a fresh look at the long-smoldering controversy over expunging information from media records or archives. A fresh look leavened with the latest ideas about journalism professionalism and social justice. Miller is professor of philosophy emeritus, Loyola University Chicago, and one of the AdviceLine advisors who takes calls from professional journalists seeking guidance on ethics. Here are his remarks in full:

Should news writers and editors accede to requests by the subjects of their already published stories to expunge those stories, or at least to edit them to remove the names of the subjects, in order to protect those subjects from reputational or other future harm?

Phrased in such stark terms, the answer seems straightforward. Published news pieces are in the public record. Retroactively altering them seems to amount to editing history — Winston Smith’s day job in the “Ministry of Truth” in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Adopting it as a policy would shake, if not destroy, readers’ and listeners’ confidence in the integrity of the outlet’s reporting, and integrity is the coin of the realm in journalism. It would also open the floodgates of appeal by subjects (and their politically powerful or well-connected friends) clamoring to edit their appearance to repair or boost their “brands.” Corrections should be rare, confined to errors of fact, and prominently displayed.

Student Editor

The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists has handled such cases. In one, dating back to 2010, a student newspaper editor was approached by another student about a story in which he had been the subject. Student S. was the son of a prominent business executive who had just been arrested in connection with a criminal investigation. The article treated the son’s reaction to the news. Some days after its publication, S. called, asking that the story be taken down from the website, or at least anonymized, claiming that the article was causing him emotional distress and might be damaging to his career prospects. We discussed the matter with the editor, and reached the conclusion that it was best that the article stand, since retroactive editing would damage the paper’s reputation for integrity of reporting. The time for making decisions about what to say, and how to say it, about the subjects of the story was prior to publication — not after.

Of course, reality is commonly messier than this. Suppose the subject had been the victim of a reputational hit job by a mean-spirited (or even a “crusading”) writer or editor? Or suppose that a group of people – Blacks, indigenous people, persons of color, Muslims, Jews, etc. — had been the target of systematic insensitive reporting that was damaging to their reputations and careers? The Boston Globe recently launched an experimental initiative called “Fresh Start” that seeks to “address the lasting impact that stories about past embarrassments, mistakes or minor crimes, forever online and searchable, can have on a person’s life,” particularly of African Americans. Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel of the Committee for Public Counsel Services in Massachusetts, pointed out that defendants are written about early in the criminal process. Reporters rarely follow up when the initial information turns out to be wrong or less serious than initially reported, said Benedetti. In other cases, people are convicted and serve their sentences, but when they apply for a job, articles about past misdeeds prevent them from being hired. If this amounts to an injustice, as it seems to, why not correct it by means of what I call “retrospective editing?”

When it comes to established past cases, the Globe’s initiative has some moral merit. For better or worse, we live in a world in which employers and others Google prospective employees, and even review their social media accounts, making hiring, promotion and dismissal decisions. While the blame for indiscretions on the latter might rest squarely with the account owner, the same can’t be said for what pops up when an all-seeing and indifferent search engine finds public records of that same person. Over those stories the subject may have had little or no control, and been given little input. The Globe is not accepting appeals from organizations or corporations, only individuals, and applicants must make a case that their coverage has unfairly damaged them, to have their appeal for expungement or anonymization even considered. The emendation of a small, back-page story to give its victim a clean bill of online health seems like a small price to pay.

Retrospective Editing Policy

But as an ongoing policy, having a permanent “retrospective editing” policy is inadvisable. As in our 11-year-old case, the time for considering what and how much to say about a subject, and how to say it, is before the story is published, not later. The SPJ Code of Ethics strongly emphasizes the aspect of “minimizing harm,” especially to minors, the victims of sex crimes and subjects who are incapable of giving consent or who are simply inexperienced in dealing with the press, and with appearing in it. It also encourages writers and editors to “consider cultural differences in approach and treatment,” and to “consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication.” These all address the concerns the Globe is seeking to deal with in it “Fresh Start” experiment.

But, again, these important considerations should come before the story goes to press or air. The damage to the integrity and credibility of a news outlet that was known regularly to retrospectively edit its stories would be too great to sustain, especially in a media environment like the one we have been living in for the past few years, where charges of “media bias” and “fake news” have already sadly degraded public trust in the media.

Retrospective editing is no substitute for the real thing — just like retrospective justice.


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

Ethics Quiz photo

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Let’s start the year off right with a journalism ethics quiz, and a reminder that journalists contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists because they want to get it right.

Maybe 2021 will be the year when American journalists are appreciated, rather than demonized.

Since 2001, professional journalists have called the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Here’s one of those cases:

A freelance fashion writer was assigned to research skin care products and make recommendations. She asked a journalism intern from a local university to work with her to research products on the internet.

The intern found web sites with advertising and cut and pasted information into a word text file.

The fashion writer said she mistakenly submitted the intern’s work as her own. Her editor accused the fashion writer of plagiarism, saying he found copy identical to hers on web sites listed in her file.

The fashion writer said she promptly emailed the version she had written and intended to file. She asked AdviceLine if she acted unethically.

Was it just a mistake, or plagiarism?

What do you think?


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

Pandemic Top Word of 2020

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

In just 34 days, “COVID-19” went from being newly minted to a term listed online by the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

That was record time, Peter Sokolowski, Merriam-Webster’s editor at large, told the Associated Press.

“That’s the shortest period of time we’ve ever seen a word go from coinage to entry,” said Sokolowski. “The word had this urgency,” along with a few dozen that were revised to reflect the health emergency. Although “coronavirus” was in the dictionary for decades, ‘COVID-19” was coined in February.

But “pandemic” took the prize as the 2020 word of the year, based on lookup spikes.

“Often the big news story has a technical word that’s associated with it and in this case, the word pandemic is not just technical but has become general,” said Sokolowski. “It’s probably the word by which we’ll refer to this period in the future.”

It also was a word that triggered staggering ethical choices over who got treatment, and eventually who got the first vaccines. On an individual level, it involved those who wore masks and those who refused. Such choices potentially could benefit or harm an entire community.

In such a wild year, the Oxford English Dictionary could not come up with one word of the year. Pandemics strike about once in a lifetime.

On March 11, the World Health Organization declared the novel coronavirus outbreak a global pandemic and online lookups for the term jumped 115,806% higher compared with the same date last year. The word searches began in January and February when the first U.S. deaths and outbreaks on cruise ships became known.

Lookup traffic for pandemic, explained Sokolowski, does not entirely mean searchers did not know the meaning of the word but could be looking for more detail.

Coronavirus was among runners up for word of the year as it jumped into the mainstream. Here are others:

Defund – The term was looked up 6,059% more often than the year before as protesting Americans called for defunding police departments in the wake of police violence against Black Americans.

Quarantine – A period of time spent in isolation or restricted movement to prevent a contagious disease from spreading. In the time of the Black Death plague of the 1300s, ships coming into port would wait outside a city for 40 days to prevent disease. The “quar” in quarantine derives from 40 in Italian.

Asymptomatic – Showing no symptoms of illness. The term became popular in 2020 as the medical community discovered a viral quirk; a person could be infected with the coronavirus, not be ill, but could spread the infection to others.

Mamba – Searches for the word spiked after the January death in a helicopter crash of Los Angeles Lakers basketball player Kobe Bryant, whose nickname was the Black Mamba.

Kraken – Lookups flooded in for kraken in July after Seattle’s new National Hockey League franchise chose the mythical sea monster for its name. The hockey expansion team ended 19 months of speculation over whether it would favor a name that was traditional or eccentric. The team’s colors are light and dark shades of blue. Fans favored kraken.

Antebellum – Country music group Lady Antebellum changed its name to Lady A, driving searchers to the online dictionary in June to check out the name.

Irregardless — Wordsmiths found another reason to haggle when Merriam-Webster decided to accept irregardless as a synonym for regardless, breaking with a long-standing rule that others might decide to keep observing. The Associated Press Style Book has long insisted that irregardless is a useless double negative and regardless is correct.

Icon – A person who is revered or idolized, a symbol. The word was used heavily in headlines after the deaths of U.S. Rep. John Lewis and U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsberg.

Schadenfreude – Enjoyment obtained from the troubles of others. Lookups about the word spiked when it was used in the news about celebrities caught in the college admissions scandal in March, and when President Trump contracted the coronavirus in October and lost reelection in November.

Malarkey – Exaggerated or foolish talk. President-elect Joe Biden used the word during the presidential debates with opponents. Slang. Origin unknown.

The Merriam-Webster site has about 40 million monthly users and about 100 million monthly page views.

Top word searches often signal a world’s worries. In 2019, the year’s top word was “existential,” as in existential threat, dealing with existence. It was applied to climate change, gun violence and democratic institutions. The 2020 pandemic made such threats more up-close and personal. Not only was it the world’s top news story, word searches reflected some interest in pandemic ethical choices that went with it.


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

2021 Predictions and Day Dreams image

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

This is the time of year for predictions, wishful thinking and delusional forecasts for the coming year, 2021.

The 2020 covid-19 pandemic took the globe largely by surprise, showing how puny human prognostication abilities really are and should be humbling, although some scientists were saying for years that the world is ripe for a pandemic. But who was listening? It is the fate of Cassandras to be ignored.

Despite that track record, people keep trying. So here’s a look at some of those predictions for next year, and beyond. Some of them propose action that carries major ethical implications.

Nieman Journalism Lab asked some of the smartest people it knows to predict what 2021 will bring for the future of journalism. It lists 10 entries. I’ll pick one.

Masuma Ahuja, is author of “Girlhood,” a book about the lives of young girls around the world.

The pandemic, writes Ahuja, “taught us how interconnected our world is, as we watched a virus slowly and then very quickly sweep across the planet. It also showed us how universal a lot of our core human experiences are: fear and sickness, loss and grief, isolation and longing.”

Conversations began, she says, about systemic racism, injustice and oppression.

“I hope 2021 brings with it a shift in power structures in journalism,” she writes, toward “a meaningful investment in building institutions that invest in Black and brown and Indigenous and immigrant and non-Western voices, in creating pipelines and opportunities for those who have been systemically disempowered.”

Poynter Institute’s predictions for 2021 included thoughts by Samantha Ragland, a faculty member and director of the Leadership Academy for Women in Media at Poynter.

“I believe 2021 will be the year of the journalist,” writes Ragland, which would be a surprising and welcome change for a profession that has been under attack by President Trump as “fake news” and the “enemy of the people.”

“2021 is the year for journalists from all sides of the newsroom to step into the cultural challenge that is a white-washed, male-dominated media industry and walk into a cultural change,” writes Ragland.

Ragland echoes some of Ahuja’s sentiments for diversity and inclusion in media, a worthy goal that might clash with the powerful white, male media power structure seen as an obstacle to reaching that goal. It might be tough convincing well-paid executives to step aside as part of a cultural shift and vacate their corporate suites.

Think back to the time when the environmental protection became a global issue. Media executives often saw that development as anti-business, a threat to the economy and to advertising. It becomes an issue of self-interest. Something noble-sounding becomes something to fight over.

Covid, vaccines and self-protection against the pandemic are likely to be issues of public concern well into 2021 and beyond.

“Seeing people wearing masks in everyday life is now the norm throughout much of the country,” writes Jillian Wilson in HuffPost, underscoring the importance of wearing a mask in public or close settings. Mask-wearing, hand-washing and social distancing remain key to curbing the viral spread.

But now with vaccines to combat the virus, how long will mask-wearing be needed?

Wilson quotes Marybeth Sexton, assistant professor of infectious diseases at Atlanta’s Emory University School of Medicine:  “I think we should be prepared to wear masks for the foreseeable future, probably for the next year, certainly into that third quarter of 2021 when they expect to really be able to vaccinate large numbers of the general public.”

But the pandemic will end, says Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “It’s going to depend on our success in vaccinating what I would say is an overwhelming majority of the population, between 70 to 85 percent,” he said. “If we can do that, by mid to end of the summer, I think as we get into fall, October, November, times like that, I think we will be very close to a degree of normality.”

Another way of looking at the health of the nation is global approval ratings.

The Gallup poll reports that approval ratings of the United States from countries around the world dipped to an historic low in 2020, under the Trump presidency. Data collected in 29 countries showed median U.S. approval dropped to 18% from 22% in 2017. Such scores are watched by the American business community to gauge the nation’s global reputation, which is expected to take years to recover.

Then there is the workplace, on the human level. A Pew Research Center survey shows that the abrupt closure of many offices and workplaces this past spring ushered in a new era of remote work for millions of employed Americans.

This “may portend a significant shift in the way a large segment of the workforce operates in the future,” says Pew.

Before the pandemic, most workers said they rarely or never teleworked. “Now, 71% of those workers are doing their job from home all or most of the time,” said Pew. And more than half say, given a choice, they would want to keep working from home even after the pandemic.

The research also revealed a clear class divide between workers who can and cannot telework. Sixty-two percent of workers with a bachelor’s degree or more education say their work can be done from home, compared with 23% of those without a four-year college degree.

“While a majority of upper-income workers can do their work from home, most lower- and middle-income workers cannot,” said the report.

Finally, there are predictions for 2021 outdoor living trends.

Being stuck at home for 10 months forced Americans to find new ways to enjoy their dwellings, said a report in Many Americans fled to their back yards.

“Our backyards, patios and gardens have dutifully served greater purposes than ever before” as office spaces, happy hour haunts, gyms and other refuges became off-limits because of the pandemic safety precautions, said Veranda. Fugitives from the pandemic are turning to the beauty of nature for enjoyment and inspiration.

“We’re expecting the popularity of outdoor living spaces to continue to grow in  2021, not only in light of covid-19, but also as many of us pursue more sustainable lifestyles and seek to achieve greater health, both mentally and physically, from home. Plus, our outdoor spaces are sure to remain hot spots for our social gatherings for quite some time – even during the winter.”

The report predicts the use of outdoor living spaces for year-round use, residential gardens for city-dwellers and an interest in earthworms and compost.


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

Trust In Journalism

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By Casey Bukro and Hugh Miller

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

When speaking to an audience about ethics in journalism, it usually does not take long before somebody suggests to the speaker that ethics in journalism is an oxymoron —  incongruous or contradictory terms.

There it is laid out boldly. Naked doubts about journalism and journalists. Skepticism. A snickering challenge to what many regard as a pillar of American democracy. A shrug. A joke.

But it’s no joke to the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford, which recently released a report on trust in news as seen in four countries – the United States, the United Kingdom, India and Brazil.

These questions are at the heart of the study: “Why is trust in news eroding? How does this decline play out across different media environments and among different segments of the public? What might be done about it and at what cost — particularly when audiences may hold divergent views about what trustworthy journalism looks like?”

The report is the first installment of many that will be published over the next three years. This first installment focuses on those who study journalism and those who practice it.

Skip down toward the end of this installment, and the authors admit: “We recognize that as researchers we are traveling along not only a well-worn path but one that cuts through ever-changing terrain. The questions we outline above about (a) the role of the platforms, (b) audience engagement strategies, (c) transparency initiatives, and (d) preconceptions about news will serve broadly as a roadmap, and we will put news users – the people whose trust journalists seek to earn – at the centre (cq) of our work. This roadmap will guide our way forward while allowing us to be steered by the discoveries that hopefully lie ahead.”

This report would have benefited from less use of academia speak. And yes, we’ve seen some of this before. It says reporters and presenters should be presented as real, relatable people, not distant, faceless media figures. A similar concern once resulted in a journalism organization suggesting that people “take a reporter out to lunch” to get to know them. Television is adept at showing its reporters and sometimes describing their interests. Print journalism, especially newspapers, has a history of keeping their reporters out of the spotlight so that the emphasis is on the news, rather than the reporter. But that is changing here and there. Celebrated columnists always got plenty of exposure.

“Trust is not an abstract concern but part of the social foundations of journalism as a profession, news as an institution and the media as a business,” states the report. It is both important and dangerous, it says.

Here is what the authors say they know:

  1. There is no single “trust in news” problem. But rather multiple challenges involving the supply of news and the public’s demand for information.
  2. Public understanding of how journalism works is low. Social media isn’t helping.
  3. Some distrust may be rooted in coverage that has chronically stigmatized or ignored segments of the public.
  4. Assessments of trust and distrust are deeply intertwined with politics. Ultimately, many attitudes about news may have little to do with newsrooms.

The authors say they want to know how platforms are damaging news organizations’ brand identities, audience engagement strategies, transparency, where preconceptions about news come from and how they can be changed.

“Distrust in the news for many audiences may be rooted in deeply held preconceptions people hold about bias, motives and how journalism works. Sometimes called ‘folk theories,’ such ideas may be more or less true (and, of course, sometimes demonstrably false). Whether hostile or not, these preconceptions are likely to be based on a combination of factors ranging from personal experiences and partisan or other identities to popular cultural representations of news, whether salutary or less so.”

Such statements should not be accepted at face value, without some evaluation and examination.

That is why the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists exists, to take a closer look at the ethical dimensions of events in journalism. AdviceLine’s mission is to help individual journalists to reach informed ethical decisions, and to contribute to the greater discussion, understanding and body of knowledge regarding ethics and journalism.

AdviceLine asked Hugh Miller, professor of philosophy emeritus, Loyola University Chicago, to assess the Reuters Institute study.  Miller is one of the AdviceLine advisors who takes calls from journalists seeking guidance on ethics. Here are his remarks:

The problem of trust is one of the central issues of journalistic ethics. In a sense, “trust” means the relationship that should exist between a news reader, listener, or viewer, and the news organization reporting, when that relationship is responsibly carried out. One could even go so far as to say that news outlets, if they are acting responsibly, have a “fiduciary duty” to their audience, to carry out reporting that embodies the values of ethical codes like that of the Society of Professional Journalists. The word “fiduciary” comes from the Latin “fides,” which means “faith.” A fiduciary is one in whom one reposes faith, and a dutiful fiduciary is one who lives up to that faith by behaving in a trustworthy way. If that fiduciary duty is violated, the lost trust will be hard to regan, and may never be.

Journalism today is being practiced in a sphere in which such trust is hard to find, to place, and then retain. The rise of the internet has led to an explosion of news and “news-like” information sources, including many that, however much they may want their audience to believe in them, trust them, have faith in them, have little inclination to behave dutifully or responsibly. How does a news outlet that does want to behave responsibly act in such an environment?

The Reuters study, as reported by Poynter, seems to be seeking answers to this and related questions. But it seems to raise a number of questions itself, in turn.

  1. The piece shows little awareness of, or interest in, the history of journalism, in the countries mentioned. But journalism is not only the “first draft of history,” it has a history of its own. Some attention to the kinds and levels of trust placed in news organizations’ products, and how they arise, increase, fall or otherwise change over time would seem indispensable to coming to grips with the problem of trust today.
  2. I find the use of the “brand identity” language problematic, from a journalistic ethics point for view. Certainly, news organizations are competitive and it matters a great deal to them who scoops whom, who gets which exclusive, etc. But perhaps emphasizing “brand” too much gets in the way of producing a trustworthy product. If having “CBS” or “MSNBC” on the screen or getting billable clicks matters as much or more than the quality of the “content” (another fraught term), maybe that’s part of the problem. This is especially true in the internet world, where attention spans are measured in fractions of a second, and where substantive, rigorously fact-checked pieces are often relegated to “long read” sections, and tagged with “tl;dr” (“too long; didn’t read”) one-line summaries. Readers should come away with the story first and foremost in their minds, not the name of the organization that reported it. Let them put that in their browser bookmarks.

      3.  By “platforms” I take the Reuters folks to mean Facebook, Parler, Twitter, etc. I think the rise of these platforms and the way that people get information increasingly via them is a great part of the trust problem. But they write that platforms degrade trust in news by “obscuring differences between information sources.” Indeed, they do; but this seems not to be their main ethical difficulty. Instead, in my view, the problem of the platforms is that their algorithms deliberately and calculatedly work to achieve attachment by users by giving them what the users show they want to hear, driving the “echo chamber” effect. Facebook or Twitter users, shepherded by the “you might be interested” functions of such platforms, might quickly find themselves in a “news” and opinion bubble containing few or no dissenting views to disturb their preconceptions (and drive them, annoyed, to another competing platform).

    4. Finally, there is little here about the rise, and wealth, and backing, of pseudo-news organizations like FoxNews, OANN, Newsmax,, The Drudge Report, Western Journalism Review, et al, which produce “content” which is a blend of infotainment, legitimate stories (often sourced from other services), and vast quantities of political mis- or disinformation, sometimes produced in close consultation with political parties (e.g. Roger Ailes at Fox). Such organizations are allowed to pass themselves off as “news” or “journalism” enterprises, when actually they serve the function, as media theorist Steve Bannon once memorably put it, of “flooding the zone with shit” for the express purpose of degrading trust in mainstream news sources and public discourse generally. Why do we, as a nation, allow this? Why did the Federal Communications Commission abolish the Fairness Doctrine in 1987? Shouldn’t responsible news organizations fight to hold themselves and each other to high professional standards of responsible, truthful reporting and reasoned debate over opinions and values? What can be done about organizations that flout such standards? This is a very serious issue, and it will not be resolved by taking a laissez-faire, hands-off approach to the news reporting environment.


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 in