Category Archives: Case Study

Ideals for next century

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

As The Guardian newspaper celebrates its 200th anniversary and looks forward to its next century, covid is seen as a rehearsal for climate breakdown.

Editor-in-chief Katharine Viner offers five ideals to guide the Guardian to help create a better kind of world than the one we had before.

One: We will develop ideas that help improve the world, not just critique it.

Two: We will collaborate with readers, and others, to have greater impact.

Three: We will diversify, to have richer reporting from a representative newsroom.

Four: We will be meaningful in all of our work.

Five: We will report fairly on people as well as power, and find things out.

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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

Journalistic Values

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

So, a new study says many Americans don’t support journalistic values.

No ______. (Fill in the word.)

When do many Americans agree with anything journalists do, especially at a time when studies show they only value their own opinions? They think anything that differs from their opinions is wrong, or that reports to the contrary are biased.

Remember that bit about killing the messenger? Lots of messengers are being killed off these days as newspapers across the country go belly up with little help from the reading public. They have their echo chamber social media devices to keep them informed. Billionaires are not interested in rescuing newspapers.

How would this new study help that? Let’s see.

Only one of the five core journalism values named in the survey was supported by a majority of those who responded: The idea that facts help get us closer to the truth. That was called “factualism.”

The other four values were:

Giving voice to the less powerful: Whether people want to amplify the voices of people who aren’t normally heard.

Oversight: How strongly a person feels the need to monitor powerful people and know what public officials are doing.

Transparency: The idea that society works better when information is out in the open and the public knows what is happening.

Social criticism: A measure of how people feel about the importance of casting a spotlight on a community’s problems to solve them versus celebrating what is right and working well to reinforce the good things.

Factualism was most popular in the survey, followed by giving voice to the less powerful, which should not be surprising in our suddenly “woke” society confronted by racial and social inequality.

Some might say factualism and transparency are the same thing.

The others values were not considered important, which tells me that journalists are more caring, quizzical, believe in democracy and concerned as a group than the population in general. Journalism is a stressful, low-paying job that is often considered a calling to public service. The public just doesn’t get that, and probably never will.

The study was released by the Media Insight Project, a collaboration of the American Press Institute and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, causing extensive commentary.

So what can journalists and media do? The API study recommends manipulating stories to appeal to multiple groups, and emphasizing moral attributes in each group. Some might call that precision propaganda.

Why not be guided by the one thing everyone seems agreed upon: Just give them the facts.

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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

Defenses Against Plagiarism

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

The editor and the publisher of an auto magazine decide to dismiss a long-time writer after discovering unattributed quotes in his articles that appeared to be lifted from other sources, giving the impression the writer had been in Iraq although he was not.

The writer said it was his original work or data in the public domain that he corroborated, except for one quote in a piece about China.

Given these discoveries that could damage the magazine’s editorial integrity, the publisher asked the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists what it should do to strengthen its defenses against plagiarism.

If you were the AdviceLine advisor, what would you suggest?

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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

Fairness to the Dead

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Hikers find the body of a 36-year-old man drowned in the Adirondack wilderness.

The victim had Huntington’s disease, which also afflicted his mother and two brothers.

An Arizona reporter writing about the death discovers that the drowning victim had served eight years in prison for kidnapping a young woman in Arizona, and the man was listed as a sexual predator. The newspaper’s manager editor calls the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists asking if it is necessary to tell about the man’s criminal history in his obituary.

Put yourself in the editor’s place. What would you do? What is most ethical? Mention the man’s criminal past or omit it?

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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

April Fool Again

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From the files of the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

The April 1, 1985 edition of Sports Illustrated magazine carried a story by the late George Plimpton saying that a New York Mets rookie pitcher named Siddhartha (Sidd) Finch could throw a baseball more than 160 miles an hour.

It was a hoax, and Sports Illustrated later admitted that the story was an April Fools’ joke. Plimpton was famous for taking turns as a Yankee baseball pitcher, a Baltimore Colts football player and boxing Archie Moore — then writing about the experience from an amateur’s viewpoint. It was an example of what today might be described as participatory journalism. Plimpton did a lot of that.

A sports publication journalist called the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, saying he had an idea for an April Fools’ Day story in the Plimpton tradition, but wanted to know if that would be ethical.

The AdviceLine adviser remembered the story about fireball pitcher Sidd Finch, and was skeptical at the time he saw it in 1985.

“This was due to the very well-known reputation of Plimpton as a writer who went in for bizarre experiences and writing having to do with sports,” said the adviser, who also recalled that Plimpton and Sports Illustrated at the time “came in for little serious criticism once the hoax was divulged.”

Most readers thought it was “fun” in keeping with the kind of work Plimpton did during his career. But the adviser suggested that, just like fastball pitchers, not all writers can deliver a change-up:

“Without this background and past reputation, a true journalist risks his/her reputation and the reputation of his/her news media using this device. A direct answer is, the creation or promulgation of a known false story is unethical, Plimpton notwithstanding.”

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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.

The Vanishing Who

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

It’s sad to see a word go practically extinct through incorrect usage.

The word is “who.”

It’s one of the time-honored Five Ws and an H taught in every journalism school.

These days, and for quite some time, people say “that” instead of “who.” Even broadcasters and journalists who should know better.

Dean Richards, a WGN-TV announcer in Chicago, recently said “he was the guy that made things happen” while profiling someone in the entertainment business. But he’s not the only one. You hear it all the time: “people that…,” or “she was the one that…,” “he was the baseball pitcher that….”

I cringe.

When I write about correct word usage, I usually get an email from somebody saying, “who cares?” That’s the problem. People don’t care about words, as if they don’t matter. Words do matter.

I care. 

Words have a purpose. We use them to communicate, to say or write what we mean or intend. A love letter would be meaningless if it failed to contain endearing, meaningful words. Exactly the right words, to sway and beguile. 

The wrong word can cause confusion or even anger because it was not what you meant to say. Does inflammable mean something will not burn or is not combustible? Don’t bet on it. Knowing the difference can be life-saving. Flammable and inflammable mean the same thing.

As for “who,” the Associated Press Stylebook makes it quite clear: “Who is the pronoun used for references to human beings and to animals with a name.”

Who is for people, not inanimate objects. “That” is for things.

In the Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White give an example: “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”

Maybe it was a year of Covid captivity that makes me hyper-sensitive to “who.” The word does not get the respect it deserves. I know over time, in the history of the world, words fall out of favor and new ones appear. “Ain’t” is “beyond rehabilitation” and carries a stigma according to the American Heritage Dictionary, considered acceptable in speech but not in writing. 

“Who” has a rightful place in our vocabulary, especially if it is used correctly. It should not fall from usage because people just don’t know any better.

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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.

Words That Hurt

 

 

McNeil — http://www.idnes.cz image

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Two New York Times journalists got in hot water over ethics infractions; one was forced to quit his job and the other was not.

One of them erred in a way that was considered unforgiveable, the other did not. Let’s look at the differences.

In the first case, Donald G. McNeil Jr., the newspaper’s specialist on plagues and pestilences, including Covid-19, was accused of using a racial slur, the N-word, while serving as an expert guide on a Times-sponsored trip for high school students to Peru in 2019.

Racial slurs

At least six students or their parents, out of 26 on the trip, complained about McNeil’s comments. The Times confirmed, in a statement, that McNeil had used a racial slur during a conversation about racist language.

In an email to staff, Dean Baquet, the executive editor, said that when he first heard about the complaints against McNeil, “I was outraged and expected I would fire him.” After an investigation, though, Baquet “concluded his remarks were offensive and that he showed extremely poor judgment, but that it did not appear to me that his intentions were hateful or malicious.” Baquet concluded:

“I believe that in such cases people should be told they were wrong and given another chance. He was formally disciplined. He was not given a pass.”

An apology

But that second chance did not last long. McNeil wrote a long article for medium.com giving his side of the story. He said he had written a letter of apology when he got a conference call from Baquet and a deputy managing editor.

“You’ve lost the newsroom,” Baquet said, according to McNeil. “A lot of your colleagues are hurt. A lot of them won’t work with you. Thank you for writing the apology. But we’d like you to consider adding to it that you’re leaving.” It was an invitation to resign, igniting a controversy.

“What?” shouted McNeil. “Are you kidding? You want me to leave after 40-plus years? Over this? You know this is bullshit. You know you looked into it and I didn’t do the things they said I did. I wasn’t some crazy racist, I was just answering the kids’ questions.”

Newsroom lost

Baquet repeated: “Donald, you’ve lost the newsroom. People won’t work with you.”

The exchange continued, but that’s the gist of it, and what appears to be a verified case of journalists turning their backs on a fellow journalist over an ethical lapse with racial overtones, if Baquet is correct. It also comes at a time when newspapers are changing practices to focus on racial and social justice.

The second New York Times ethics scandal involves David Brooks, a Times columnist since September, 2003, and frequent commentator on newscasts.

Resignation

Brooks resigned from a paid position at the Aspen Institute, an international nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., after BuzzFeed News revealed conflicts of interest. Brooks became involved with Aspen in 2018, when he launched a project called Weave, a “Social Fabric Project” aimed at establishing connections between communities to build relationships and offer care.

A spokesperson for the Times said Times editors approved of Brooks’s involvement with Aspen, but current editors were not aware that he was receiving a salary for Weave. They concluded that holding a paid position at Wave while writing in the Times about the project, donors or its issues was a conflict of interest.

Although Brooks resigned his position at the institute, he will remain a volunteer for the project.

Encourages support

BuzzFeed News also learned that Weave funders include Facebook, the father of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and other wealthy individuals and corporations. BuzzFeed said that Brooks, on a Meet the Press appearance, encouraged support for Nextdoor, a social network for neighborhoods, without mentioning that Nextdoor had donated $25,000 to Weave.

Brooks also appeared in a Walton Family Foundation video and did not disclose that the organization, run by the billionaire family that founded Walmart, also funds his project, according to BuzzFeed News.

“Brooks’s failure to disclose these conflicts of interest added to the string of ethically questionable actions by the columnist and author related to his work on Weave,” reported BuzzFeed News.

Building character

It’s fair to wonder at this point, “What was Brooks thinking?” He is the author of books on morality and building character. One of his books, The Second Mountain, is subtitled, “The Quest for a Moral Life.” Anyone who writes about “moral ecologies” might be expected to notice red flags springing up at questionable decisions, like drawing a second salary that is unknown to your bosses.

Ethical choices are a matter of the times in which they occur, and being sensitive to what is socially acceptable or not. This is not a time for using the N-word or for performing in black face because it can be hurtful throughout the society in which we live, and not an isolated case that affects a few people.

From that perspective, the McNeil case is more significant. The New York Times decided McNeil should leave the Times because of what he said. Journalists should study it and learn from it. More than the Brooks case, it shows how words matter, choosing the right words matters, especially when our society is wakening to words that hurt.

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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.

An Editor’s Dilemma

 

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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?

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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.

Sneak Journalism

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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?

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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.

Mug Shot Fairness

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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.

Introspection

“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.

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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.