Category Archives: Case Study

Publish unverified documents? Consider these ethical questions

By David Craig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public relevance and journalistic purpose

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

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

Seeking truth and reporting it

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

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

Acting independently

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

Minimizing harm

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

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

Being accountable and transparent

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

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

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

Reporter’s Dilemma: Naming Owners of Tainted Water Wells

Zenith City Weekly
Zenith, an alternative paper in Duluth, Minnesota, faced an ethical dilemma reporting on water quality.

By Casey Bukro

Ethics is not only a matter of what a journalist should do, but also what she should not.

That was the dilemma facing Jennifer Martin-Romme, co-owner with her husband Taylor of the Zenith News in Duluth, Minnesota.

Back in 2012, a trusted source leaked a report to Martin-Romme showing that the drinking water wells of eight families in northern St. Louis county were tainted with manganese, a chemical that in high concentrations potentially could cause nerve and brain damage, especially in children.

“It seems almost impossible to publicize this information without identifying the affected individuals,” Martin-Romme said when she called Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance. “Even if they weren’t named, this pollution is fairly contained geographically in a low-population rural area. It would be easy to identify them and such a story is essentially branding them as at-risk for mental deficiencies or retardation. The negative impact that could have on their lives is obvious and enormous. What do I do? Help!”

Today, lead in the Flint, Michigan water supply has made water safety a national concern. This follow-up story reports the outcome of her dilemma, and whether the call to AdviceLine was helpful. Since it started taking calls from journalists in 2001, AdviceLine has handled more than 900 inquiries. Periodically, we contact journalists who called us to learn the rest of the story.

Continue reading Reporter’s Dilemma: Naming Owners of Tainted Water Wells

Photo of Halloween Display Challenges Editor’s Ethics

Halloween display at Fort Campbell taken down after complaints.
Halloween display at Fort Campbell taken down after complaints. Contributed photo from clarksvillenow.com.

By Casey Bukro

Lynching is no joking matter in the United States. News manager Robert Selkow found himself in the middle of a controversy over a Halloween display featuring three figures hanging from a tree.

“I got a photo on a smartphone,” recalled Selkow, who is site manager and news director of clarksvillenow.com, an online hyperlocal website affiliated with six radio stations serving Middle Tennessee and southern Kentucky.  “It looked like a scene out of (the movie) ‘Mississippi Burning,’ black figures being hanged.”

He said it turned out to be “the most powerful image we ever published.”

Selkow contacted Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists in facing this sensitive issue, and agreed to discuss details of the case publicly.

The offensive Halloween display was in the residential area of the Fort Campbell military base on the Kentucky-Tennessee border near Clarksville.

Continue reading Photo of Halloween Display Challenges Editor’s Ethics

Mizzou Students and Faculty Flunk Press Freedom Test

Heated: Activists at the University of Missouri were caught on camera forcing photographer Tim Tai (left) off the public quad on Monday, during their celebrations over the resignation of President Tim Wolfe

Photographer Tim Tai explains First Amendment

By Casey Bukro

Amid the chaos of student and faculty protests over racial tensions at the University of Missouri, student photographers Tim Tai and Mark Schierbecker stood out as young men who understood their First Amendment rights to photograph and videotape the historic event in a public place.

Sadly, Tai and Schierbecker were badgered, harassed and bullied by students and faculty while trying to do their jobs.

Schierbecker videotaped Tai as he was harangued, surrounded and pushed by a crowd of students and older individuals who held their hands in front of his camera and would not allow him to move forward.

“We will just block you,” says one. “You need to go.”

Others chanted, “hey, hey, ho, ho. Reporters have got to go.”

Another says, “You gotta go, bro. You lost this battle, bro. Just back up.”

To his credit, Tai stood his ground and explained patiently, “The First Amendment protects your right to be here and mine.” He added, “I’ve got a job to do.”

Continue reading Mizzou Students and Faculty Flunk Press Freedom Test

A Reporter Discovers the Pain of Being Ethical

By Casey Bukro

It’s hard to be good and ethical. Sometimes it comes at a cost.

Amelia Pang, metro reporter for Epoch Times in New York, discovered this when she called the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists in 2012 and asked a question that AdviceLine gets sometimes:

When calling a news source, is it necessary for reporter to admit to being a reporter? That is, not say that she is a reporter, unless asked?

It is a question that arises among young reporters, those learning the ropes or those who work for organizations without printed standards or spelled out ethical guidelines that can leave a reporter wondering what to do.

In Pang’s case, she called AdviceLine on advice from a colleague.

“I am doing an article about a controversial homeless shelter in New York City,” Pang told AdviceLine adviser Hugh Miller, an assistant professor of philosophy who teaches ethics at Loyola University Chicago.

“The shelter is located in a very rich area, therefore many residents have been quite unhappy about it. The shelter has received a lot of bad press since they opened last year, and now they are reluctant to talk to any media.”

Continue reading A Reporter Discovers the Pain of Being Ethical

Health Care Freelancers Face Tough Ethics Challenges

By David Ozar and Casey Bukro

Freelancing is a tough way to make a living – even tougher as downsized journalists turn to freelancing.

For writers specializing in health care, it’s especially challenging because of the ethics issues faced in navigating the cross connections between clients who want stories written for them or about them. Or both.

“Ethical guidelines for subspecialties may vary,” Tara Haelle in an email exchange with the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists.

A freelancer herself, Haelle traced the obstacles in a story that appeared on the Association of Health Care Journalists website.

Tara Haelle
Tara Haelle

Haelle calls it the conflict-of-interest maze: “Ensuring that work for one client doesn’t create a conflict for another, present or future.” Though that might sound simple, Haelle said it isn’t because freelancers work for companies, journalism publications, universities and foundations or as consultants.

Haelle went to several sources, asking how she can avoid ethical conflicts of interests under the conditions in which she works and found that ethical guidelines vary. One source said “there’s no clear answer.” Another said journalists should “decide for ourselves what we think is ethical behavior.”

That sounded like a challenge for the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, which has a staff of five university ethicists to answer questions of the kind posed by Haelle.

One of them, David Ozar, is professor of social and professional ethics in the department of philosophy at Loyola University Chicago. AdviceLine asked Ozar to read Haelle’s story and offer his perspective on how he would have answered her call for guidance on ethics.

Continue reading Health Care Freelancers Face Tough Ethics Challenges

Ethics of Using Internet Video of Police Conduct

WBEZ video
WBEZ reposted video it credited to YouTube user King-Dubb.

 

From the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists archives

By Casey Bukro

Back in 2011, Chicago radio reporter Steve Edwards was covering gang violence and Chicago police for WBEZ when a video surfaced, showing youths menacing a suspect in the back seat of an open police squad car.

Was it ethical to use that video on a WBEZ broadcast?

That’s what Edwards wanted to know when he called the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists. The video shows two Chicago police officers standing at the parked blue-and-white SUV with the doors open in Chicago’s violence-prone Humboldt Park area. A group of shouting young men, some possibly minors, taunt a suspect cowering in the back seat and trying to cover his face.

Someone tells the photographer, possibly a gang member, “get a close-up.” The photographer posted the video on YouTube and quickly took it down.

Edwards told AdviceLine that WBEZ had been investigating allegations that Chicago police had a history of subjecting gang members to harm by picking them up, then dropping them off in “enemy” gang territory.

The Chicago Police Department told Edwards that it got a complaint about the incident and released this statement:

“The conduct that is alleged does not reflect the behavior and core values of the men and women of the Chicago Police Department nor our commitment to serve the community in a professional manner.” The department said its internal investigations divisions began an investigation.

In 2013, the Chicago Police Department announced that it had dismissed the two police officers involved in the incident, saying the charges included “unlawfully restraining a youth, transporting him without a valid police purpose to the turf of a gang that would threaten him and making a false statement about the incident to an Internal Affairs detective.”
Continue reading Ethics of Using Internet Video of Police Conduct

Ethics of Purging Negative Stories From News Archives

From the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists archives

By Casey Bukro

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.

Would that be ethical, the news executive asked?

It was a small problem then, in its infancy. Today, it’s a hot topic. A French court order holds that search engines must consider requests to remove dated links, including news stories.

In the U.S., search engines entertain appeals to remove links for issues from piracy to “revenge porn” to copyright violations. Editors continue to field requests to “unpublish” stories. “Stay on the phone until you solve the issue,” one company advises aggrieved news subjects.

“There are a number of companies out there in the business of helping people scour themselves out of online archive data,” said the digital news editor of the California media organization from which the AdviceLine question originated 10 years ago. The executive editor who posed the question retired, and a lot more has changed in the news world.

Because the deletion issue is so controversial now, the digital news editor preferred that his identity remain confidential, along with the identity of his news organization.

“It’s been an issue for years,” said the digital news editor, “since Google started indexing news content and since people began to realize that as part of a standard for employers, many look at what you do on social media and what you do on the web.”

Here’s the organization’s policy today:  “What we’ve posted online is part of our record online for publication. Our general rule is we do not remove that. If there is an error in fact, we will correct it. Or if it needs an update, we will update.”

The editor pointed out that policies change, and that could change in the future.

For that California executive editor, here’s how it started 10 years ago. One person, now divorced, wanted mention of the marriage removed from the website. A person convicted of a felony five years ago wanted the story removed, and was threatening to sue. A beauty shop owner wanted the name of a beautician removed from a story about the beauty shop because the beautician doesn’t work there anymore.

The editor asked: Is there anything unethical in keeping electronic archives? Is there any ethical requirement to honor requests for deletion? If it’s expensive to do so, would it still be ethically required? Is there an ethical requirement that a newspaper contact Google about selective removal of items from their search engines?

The AdviceLine ethics consultant at the time, David Ozar, professor of Social and Professional Ethics at Loyola University Chicago,  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.”

The ethicist and the editor discussed whether there is any significant ethical difference between a paper archive and an electronic archive. They decided an electronic archive is more useful to the community because it is more easily accessed and searched. Therefore, the electronic archive is of greater benefit to the community than a paper archive.

Both archives, however, might contain old information that some individuals might prefer was not easily accessible.

Ozar decided after that discussion that there was 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 choose 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 of 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 the AdviceLine ethicist.

Although today’s digital news editor at the California publication was not aware of that long-ago exchange, he is following that advice given by the AdviceLine ethicist.

Ethics Confidential: As AdviceLine Wins Awards, Critic Recalls Its Origins

By Casey Bukro

It might pain Michael Miner, media critic for the Chicago Reader, to know that he can claim some responsibility for how the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists handles confidentiality.

From the start, Miner has assumed that anyone who presumes to tell journalists what to do about ethics is a bit daft, silly or pretentious. He tends to be in the camp of those who believe that journalism ethics is an oxymoron.

“The old solution to journalism’s intractable contradictions was to build newsrooms no more than 100 feet from a bar,” Miner wrote in a column published March 9, 2001, a month after AdviceLine’s advent. Instead of a bar, wrote Miner, journalists now could pick up a phone and say, “Hello, sweetheart. Get me ethics.”

It’s good for journalists, and ethicists too, to have an unsympathetic, cold-eyed lampooner.

And Miner continues prodding, even when he wrote a column mentioning that AdviceLine had been awarded a Peter Lisagor Award May 8 by the Chicago Headline Club as best independent continuing blog. The Lisagor awards are given for exemplary journalism. Miner was not impressed.

Lisagor Award“But as life is richer when Bukro’s around to disagree with, I’m pleased to report he hasn’t gone away,” wrote Miner. It’s good to have a media critic, even after the passage of 14 years, who still closely follows developments in journalism and ethics with a wry bent.

The Lisagor award, named for the late Washington correspondent and PBS commentator, was the second in a few weeks given to AdviceLine. The Society of Professional Journalists announced in April that AdviceLine won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online independent column writing. The award will be presented in June in Washington, D.C.

Miner writes for the Reader, which describes itself as “Chicago’s Free Weekly/ Kicking Ass Since 1971.”

Miner is a good kicker. He wrote one of the first pieces about AdviceLine, saying in the 2001 column that a Chicago Tribune columnist beat him to using “a smart-alecky tone … forcing me to scramble for higher ground.”

Miner is also a very good reporter. He interviewed me in 2001 about what kind of calls we were getting from journalists, and I described some of our first. I thought I was being careful about identifying callers or details that could not be disclosed under our confidentiality policy.

Miner has a soothing voice on the telephone, teasing out information in a way that non-journalists might find disarming. He told others on the AdviceLine team that I had described some of the cases we handled, and encouraged them to do the same. And they did.

What followed was what I called a Miner uproar. After reading the Miner column, one AdviceLine member wrote in an email “I hardly know what to say about the extent to which confidences and commitments have been violated” in response to Miner’s questions.

The first reaction from some AdviceLine members was to say they had said too much, especially me for “spilling the beans,” causing others to follow suit.

This was virgin territory. How much can be said about ethics cases? Nothing at all, some argued. And, if you are not accustomed to being interviewed, it can be shocking to see your comments in print.

It was a tumultuous beginning for AdviceLine.

Even Miner was criticized for being too informative about the AdviceLine cases he described.

“I’m stunned, stunned, stunned to read that the contents of the phone calls to the ethics line were reported openly,” was one reaction that appeared in Jim Romenesko’s media news site.

The president of an SPJ chapter, not identified by name, had called AdviceLine with a question, and his question was described. He later told Romenesko that he had not expected his phone call to result in a news story.

My take at the time: “On the face of it, it looks as though some members of our team lost their moral bearings and we had an ethical meltdown as a result of the Miner article. How could that happen with a group trained in ethics?”

It was not ethics at fault. It was learning to communicate effectively. It was a hard-won lesson, one that rattled some members of the AdviceLine team.

At the core was knowing our standard on confidentiality, and sticking to it. Yet one of AdviceLine’s goals is education – learning what ethics issues plague professional journalists, and the advice given to help solve those dilemmas. There can be no education if the cases cannot be described publicly, even without names and places.

An AdviceLine staff member at the time, the late Mary Myers, reminded all of us of our mission: “We not only want to man an AdviceLine, but contribute to the greater discussion, understanding and body of knowledge regarding ethics and journalism.”

AdviceLine has refined its confidentiality policies periodically. Here are the questions asked every time AdviceLine gets a call or query.

1. Do I have your permission to share the details of your case, including your name and organization, with the AdviceLine team?

2. Education in journalism ethics is one of the AdviceLine’s core missions, so may we have your permission to discuss the nature of your case anonymously in the AdviceLine’s educational reports, books or online blogs, but without identifying you or your organization?

3. Real-life case reports are very important resources for education in journalism ethics, so may we have your permission to use the content of your case and our discussion of it, including using your name and organization, in the AdviceLine’s educational reports, books or online blogs?

The goal is to be clear on what AdviceLine can say publicly about the cases. Thanks, Mike!

Journalists Working for Community Groups Face Hazards

From the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists Archives

By Casey Bukro

Editors and publishers often are asked to serve as volunteers on civic groups.

Of course,  community groups might hope to get some publicity, and media management wants to serve their community. But is this symbiotic relationship good for journalism?

That’s what an editor for The Free Press, in Mankato,  Minn., wanted to know. She called AdviceLine in 2004.

She pointed out that an editor, especially in a smaller city, is regularly being pressured by  newspaper owners to be involved in community service like the United Way board. There is benefit, she said, for the editor’s work because you learn a lot about the community this way.

It also supports the paper’s message to the community that the paper cares about the community, she said. These are good things.

But at the same time it sends a mixed message to your reporters because, at a minimum, it looks like you are breaking the barrier between editorial and business; that you are schmoozing with the community’s power brokers like a publisher does rather than staying on the news side of the organization. She wanted to know what to do about this?

The AdviceLine consultant answered this way:

The first thing to say is that an editor who has to do such things needs to make sure she does not influence reporting about these organizations at all, because that would clearly break the barrier between reporting and business influence.

The editor is conscientious about not being involved in reporting about civic groups by leaving that entirely to the reporters assigned to those beats. Her concern is not that this activity is actually compromising anything in that way, but that her staff sees her going out to these things and wonders if there is compromise involved.

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

AdviceLine is always curious about what happened after journalists contacted AdviceLine. So, 11 years later, AdviceLine spoke with Joe Spear, managing editor of The Free Press. The editor who called AdviceLine has since left the newspaper, but Spear recalls working with her.

In 2004, said Spear, it’s possible that the newspaper did not have a policy governing the situation she called about. But in 2005, the newspaper was taken over by new management, Community Newspaper Holdings, Inc.

The new company “does have a handbook and just last week we went through the guidelines,” he explained.

The corporate handbook encourages journalists to “participate in worthwhile community activities, so long as they do not compromise the credibility of news coverage or the independence of the newspaper. Avoid involvement in organizations or activities that could create a conflict of interest or an appearance of conflict.”

Also,  “do not use CNHI or your CNHI paper’s connections to benefit you or your family, or to benefit a third party.”

A leading publisher of local news, CNHI serves more than 130 communities in the United States. The privately owned company is based in Montgomery, Ala.

Some cases are not always clear-cut.

“We have a photographer who teaches a photo class at a university in town,” said Spear. “He gets a paycheck. Is that a conflict? We leave it up to the editor and the publisher. If it appears to be a conflict of interest, we say we can’t do it.”

The AdviceLine consultant who handled the case commented: “The question isn’t whether conflicting interests exist, but whether the result is harmful in that it inhibits the editor’s or reporter’s exercise of sound professional judgment about something (or is highly likely to lead others to assume such harm will occur, as was the question in the original case).”

Another member of the AdviceLine team said it’s unfair to assume that civic boards invite journalists for the publicity.

“In my experience, they’re looking for someone with contacts in the community, or someone who can represent a major employer or its union, or someone who can take minutes or knows the web.

“Of course, they might want publicity eventually — or might NOT want publicity for something on the agenda. The journalist will want to think about how to handle that. But don’t discount the other reasons nonprofits may seek out people of honesty, talent and energy.”