Category Archives: Case Study

Troubling News Source

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

The Minnesota reporter said she had a “strange and not-disclosable” relationship with a news source, but it was not sexual, not even a friendship.

The source, an elected official, gives the reporter insights into stories on the county beat, but the reporter is conflicted over where to ethically “draw the line” when using the source. She is becoming uncomfortable with the nature of the relationship and is not certain she can remain objective if the source is part of the story.

Told of this conflict, the reporter’s editor suggests taking the reporter off the county beat, or having someone else cover a story that involves the problematic source.

The reporter called the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, asking what she should do.

Take a moment and reflect on what you might suggest to the troubled reporter. She wants to be objective, but feels she is being drawn into a relationship she has trouble defining, and one that could lead to a more serious ethical dilemma in the future.

The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists advisor recognized that the reporter wants to do the right thing, but is reluctant to give up the source or the county beat, where she has deep experience. She values the “inside” information but has used the source so often, the relationship has become ethically uncomfortable. She fears a time might come when she might be required to report unfavorably on the source.

The safer course, reasoned the advisor, would be for someone else to interview the source when necessary, with the reporter’s coaching, rather than abandoning the county beat. The advisor complimented the reporter for her self-examination in trying to reach an ethical solution to a matter that was bothering her.

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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.

Roe vs. Wade Leak

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists.

A soothsayer warned Julius Caesar to beware the ides of March, sometime around 44 BC.

Daniel Ellsberg leaked the Pentagon Papers to newspapers in 1971, revealing that the Johnson administration had systematically lied about the United States’ political and military involvement in Vietnam from 1945 to 1967.

WikiLeaks, launched in 2006, publishes news leaks and classified media provided by anonymous sources. The international non-profit organization said it released online 10 million documents in its first 10 years.

Leaks of sensitive, sometimes shocking, information are a time-honored tradition in history and the United States. It’s done, often by whistle-blowers, who believe the public is entitled to know something that is being kept secret.

The latest example is the explosive report by Politico that a U.S. Supreme Court draft opinion proposes to overturn the landmark 1973 Roe vs. Wade decision that made abortion legal in every state. Politico reported: “No draft decision in the modern history of the court has been disclosed publicly while a case was still pending.”

The 98-page draft was written by Justice Samuel Alito, who says abortion is not mentioned in the U.S. Constitution. This argument might appeal to constitution originalists, although the high court rules on cases involving jet planes, which also are not mentioned in the constitution.

That might be among the many issues the revelation unleashed, including highly emotional protests that largely eclipsed news about the Russian invasion of Ukraine for a day or two. It opened layers of concerns about legal abortion availability, the honesty of justices who said they supported Roe vs. Wade as established law at their confirmation hearings and the authenticity of the draft opinion. A day after the disclosure, Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts confirmed that the leaked draft ruling was authentic, but did not represent the court’s final decision in the case.edia ethics

Among the troubling concerns raised by the leak was how Politico obtained the draft ruling, and from whom. This is in the realm of journalism ethics. The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics cautions journalists against using undercover methods to obtain information, promising anonymity, favors to news sources or paying for information.

“The ethics behind Politico’s decision to publish the document will likely become a case study for future generations of journalists,” writes Kelly McBride, senior vice president of the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in St. Petersburg, Florida. “Politico offers very few details about how they got the copy…..(and) what the newsroom did to confirm that it’s real or even if it’s the most current draft.”

Politico reporters Josh Gerstein and Alexander Ward said in their 2,500-word story that Politico received a copy of the draft opinion from a person familiar with the case along with details supporting the authenticity of the document. They did not elaborate.

McBride wrote further: “Editors at Politico would help dubious readers if they explained why they are so confident the document is real and how they made the decision to publish it. When confronted with an unprecedented leak like this, news consumers are understandably skeptical in this era of mis-and disinformation. When journalists behind the work don’t signal that they have gone through an ethical process, consumers may conclude that ethics don’t matter to journalists.”

But McBride had no doubts that it was newsworthy. “Clearly, “ she wrote, “an unprecedented leak that could overturn a five-decade-old divisive national issue is news.”

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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.

Facebook Social Issues

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

They’re at it again, those Facebook algorithms that act more like mischievous gremlins.

I wrote a post about the first Earth Day 52 years ago, and attempted to boost it with advertising. Meta for Business, the corporate parent of Facebook, rejected the boost, saying the Earth Day post doesn’t comply with advertising policies against “social issues, elections or politics.”

Imagine that. Facebook, an online social media and social networking service owned by Meta Platform,  doesn’t want posts about social issues.

Earth Day

True, Earth Day was a huge social issue. On April 22, 1970, an estimated 20 million Americans conducted a day-long environmental awareness campaign, including students from thousands of colleges and universities. Americans of all ages joined in rallies, marches and “teach-in” education programs identifying the kinds of pollution tainting the air, land, water and food across the nation. It was the biggest demonstration in the nation’s history.

That event made a huge impact on the United States, starting a revolution that snowballed and produced new environmental laws and regulations intended to protect all Americans. But it’s not the sort of thing Meta wants discussed on its platform. It’s too relevant.

Ethics is cheating

That’s annoying, since it’s the second time in recent weeks that Meta blocked an ad for an AdviceLine post. An April 15 post explained how an ethicist tells the difference between a genuine ethical dilemma and a difficult ethical choice. It’s about journalism ethics. Meta rejected the boost saying it did not comply with Meta’s cheating and deceitful practices policy. It considered a report on ethics to be cheating and deceitful conduct.

This either is hilarious, or proof that Facebook is descending into algorithm madness.

That social media are swamps of misinformation and bias is fairly well established. Calls for regulation usually focus on social media content, including unproven conservative complaints that Silicon Valley is anti-conservative. Let them take their lumps like everyone else.

Man-machine interface

My gripe is with what could be described as the man-machine interface. How the algorithmic machines treat people, like me. My recent encounters with Facebook demonstrate a lack of commonsense. Maybe that is too much to expect from machines.

A mass media critic, or readers’ representatives, might help. This is an idea from the past, when newspapers and television stations employed staff members to be sure media served the public interest and were open to complaints or suggestions. They were a check on old-fashioned customer satisfaction.

As deeply invasive social media are in modern society, their operators seem distant and unreachable.

Silicon Valley behemoths

A Tech Policy Greenhouse report by Matthew Feeney put it this way: “Centralized content moderation also suffers from a perceived lack of transparency and process, with Silicon Valley behemoths considered by many to be secretive, distant institutions with few incentives to care about an individual case when their empires include millions or billions.”

In such a communications landscape, individuals don’t matter. And nonsensical algorithms seem to make that apparent.

Feeney ends the report by pointing out that “we are still in the early years of online speech,” and activists and lawmakers seem to have forgotten that firms once dominant in online speech, search or entertainment — like MySpace and AOL instant messenger — fell into obscurity or are gone.

Facebook, Twitter and Google are dominant today, writes Feeney, “but their continued success is not an axiom of history.” That could be especially true if users contending with algorithm nonsense appear to be an afterthought.

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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.

Earth Day 2022

Earth Day flag 1970 http://www.buffalorising.com image

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Even 52 years later, the dynamic energy of the first Earth Day that swept downtown Chicago on April 22, 1970 is still vividly remembered.

“Give earth a chance!” demonstrators chanted as they chain-danced in the streets, while denouncing polluters. Some of them wore gas masks to protest smoggy skies and bashed autos with sledgehammers. They vented anger, peacefully, over beaches too filthy for swimming and water too contaminated to drink. Some spent the day picking trash out of rivers and streams.

The biggest demonstration in the nation’s history, an estimated 20 million Americans took part in the carnival-like celebration dedicated to environmental protection. Workers and students took the day off to conduct curb-side or classroom teach-ins to identify and explain the kinds of pollution that tainted the air, land and water across the nation. Broadcasters gave the story their full attention.

Ethics and social justice

A clean environment is a matter of ethics and social justice.

This first citizen uprising against pollution focused on pollution that was visible in our skies and waterways. Further study, research and investigation revealed invisible toxic chemicals in our air, food and water, making the struggle against pollution far more complicated than many understood.

Many of the protesters were young and idealistic. They were dismissed as tree-hugging “ecofreaks”. Their leaders, Dr. Barry Commoner, Dr. Paul Ehrlich, Denis Hayes and Wisconsin Sen. Gaylord Nelson, were branded apocalyptics for spreading messages of doom. But almost overnight, ecology became a household word.

Impressed by the national uproar, President Richard Nixon declared it was time to “make our peace with nature.” The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency was created in 1970, and the Clean Air Act was adopted that year. The Clean Water Act was adopted in 1972.

Environmental decade

The 1970s were dubbed the environmental decade, with hopes that the campaign against pollution would last a full ten years. But the jubilation was cut short in 1973 by the Arab oil embargo, which taught Americans a lesson in energy conservation as they waited in line for gasoline and turned down their thermostats to conserve fuel.

The 1980s brought types of pollution that scientists could not even detect in 1970s, including invisible toxic wastes that tainted drinking water, dangerous chemicals sprayed on food and air pollution that threatened to change the Earth’s climate. The 1980s accentuated the global scope of pollution and brought nations together to fight it.

Twenty years after that first Earth Day, Sen. Nelson, considered the father of Earth Day, said: “Every issue we talked about 20 years ago is still with us. And you can add to it another group that either we didn’t know about or didn’t pay attention to.” By then, an estimated $1.1 trillion had been spent in the United States on pollution control.

Half century after

And now, 52 years after first Earth Day, the outlook is much as Senator Nelson described it. Despite all the money spent and all the fanfare about environmental protection, the Earth can’t seem to catch a break, including its inhabitants.

Mark Hertsgaard and Kyle Pope, co-founders of Covering Climate Now, conclude:

“By all scientific accounts, the environmental crisis that activists highlighted more than half a century ago is much more dire today, and the need for far-reaching action more urgent. And yet those network news anchors from 1970, dismissed as anachronisms in our digital age, were in many ways ahead of where journalists are now. Just imagine each of America’s big three networks leading their broadcasts with the recent UN climate report, packaged under headlines like ‘A Question of Survival’ and then spending the entire program explaining the problem and exploring solutions.

Gone backward

“It is tragic that, until very recently, the media’s treatment of the environment story has gone backward from 50 years ago in every conceivable metric: less urgency, less space, fewer minutes on the air. The fact that journalism is finally beginning to give the story the attention it deserves probably says more about the state of the weather than it does about a newfound media commitment to chronical what’s happening.”

These climate change activists believe we are sleep-walking through an environmental crisis, although President Joe Biden came into office saying there is no greater challenge facing our country and our world and proposed governmental plans to tackle it.

People sometimes ask what happened to those energetic folks who chain-danced in the streets to call attention to environmental degradation? They got old and lost their enthusiasm for something from their past. They got jobs and raised families.

Generational choices

Maybe it’s a generational thing. People like to make their own choices about what to get excited about. Pollution control can be seen as an old issue, their grandparent’s cause. And it’s tough to get people to actually DO something, other than talk.

People tend to react to what they can see and touch. That was something the first Earth Day had. Pollution was so bad, it was obvious. Photographers could take photos of it. Reporters could stick their hands into a polluted river and the pollution would stick to their hands. Much of that gross pollution was cleaned up, leaving the largely invisible pollution to contend with. Climate change is largely invisible, at least until recently. If it gets bad enough, people will pay attention to raging forest fires, floods, stifling heat and unseasonal temperatures. Climate zones might shift, giving Minneapolis Miami weather.

It’s human nature to wait until you can’t ignore it. The mantra from those who warn against climate change has been to act before it’s too late. Skeptics say they are crying wolf, or that people are an adaptable species. They will deal with it.

An asteroid heading for Earth might get more attention.

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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.

Ethics and Algorithms

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

George Orwell was right. Big Brother is watching, only now they are called algorithms, the list of instructions and rules that a computer needs to do a task.

In Orwell’s book, 1984, Big Brother included totalitarian forces that governed the thoughts and actions of people living in a dystopian science fiction society under mass surveillance and regimentation. In Orwell’s imagined future, Thought Police persecute individuality and independent thinking. Big Brother is the dictatorial leader.

Now, 73 years after the English writer’s book was published in 1949, rigid and mindless computer algorithms do the job of governing human behavior. But now it’s not science fiction.

Orwell might be surprised to learn that Big Brother became senile.

Here’s an example: On April 6, I posted on Facebook a report explaining how an ethicist tells the difference between a genuine ethical dilemma and a difficult ethical choice. This is about ethics in journalism. I tried to boost that report, aiming to get a bigger audience through advertising.

The response from Meta for Business, the new corporate name for Facebook, said: “Your ad was rejected.” It went on to say the ad was rejected “because it doesn’t comply with our Cheating and Deceitful Practices policy.” Imagine that. Meta considers a report about ethics, the study of right or good conduct, as cheating or deceitful conduct.

Meta algorithms must have overheated a circuit or two to arrive at that conclusion. Or Facebook and its algorithms are unfamiliar with the term “ethics.” That might be the reason, a year ago, the CEOs of Facebook, Twitter and Google faced congressional lawmakers who criticized them for algorithms that promote misinformation and online extremism, such as baseless election fraud claims and anti-vaccine content.

Back to the issue of ethics being cheating or deceitful conduct, Meta stated further: “Ads may not promote products or services that are designed to enable a user to engage in cheating or deceitful practices.” The rejection notice gave eight examples of cheating or deceitful practices. None of them mentioned ethics.

One of the prohibited examples: “Ads many not promote fake documents, such as counterfeit degrees, passports, immigration papers, or fake currency.” Another discouraged “Incentivizing or soliciting reviews in exchange for free products.”

None of them seemed to justify banning an ad about ethical practices intended to help journalists.

It appears Facebook and its algorithms need to be smarter about ethics, including the welfare of their users.

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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.

Blogging Ethics

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists.

Case study: Is it ethical to publish, in an online magazine, emails and blog posts forwarded to the magazine?

That was the question an Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists advisor got from a student who is the executive editor of an online magazine that provides space for bloggers.

The magazine published an email conversation between a student and a professor, which first appeared in the student’s blog. The professor is threatening to sue the student who posted the contents of their email exchange, saying he had no right to do that.

Some of this is a legal issue, which AdviceLine is not equipped to answer. State laws may differ.

The AdviceLine advisor wanted to know if the professor contends that his email conversation was confidential and the executive editor did not know. The editor wanted to know if it was ethical for the offending student and the magazine to publish email messages?

The AdviceLine advisor believes the executive editor is not responsible for what the blogger put on his site, and cannot be held ethically responsible for the student’s action on his own blog.

As for the offending student, “I said his action may be rude, insensitive, even reprehensible, but I am pressed to say unethical (borderline maybe).” On a broader issue, the advisor said: “Anyone using email is naïve if they do so without knowing they are creating a written document that can be forwarded, copied and even placed on blog sites. Users use email at their own peril. While certainly not condoning what the student did, without getting into the student’s own mind and motive, I cannot call his/her action unethical.”

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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.

Branding: Meta and WMX

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Rebranding is a big deal for any company, a decision that can make or break a company.

It’s also an occasion for a company leader to show how powerful he or she is. It’s usually their decision.

Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg last October announced that the giant tech company was changing its name to “Meta,” which included a new corporate logo: A distorted, sideways figure eight similar to the mathematical symbol for infinity, blue on a white background.

The Facebook logo, a white letter F on a blue background, is one of the most recognizable corporate logos in the world. The new logo, says Zuckerberg, signals that the company is shooting for the “metaverse.” In Greek, the word “Meta” translates to “beyond,” reflecting Zuckerberg’s belief “there is always more to build.” The company, he believes, should not be identified only with what it is doing today. He sees a future digital universe combining online, virtual and augmented worlds that users can traverse seamlessly.

While announcing the new name, the company said it will change its stock ticker from FB to MVRS.

Monopoly power

It might be relevant, or not, that the identity transformation came a year after a congressional investigation into Amazon, Apple, Google and Facebook found they hold “monopoly power” in the digital marketplace.

“To put it simply, companies that once were scrappy, underdog startups that challenged the status quo have become the kinds of monopolies we last saw in the era of oil barons and railroad tycoons,” said the report from the subcommittee on antitrust, commercial and administrative law of the committee on the judiciary.

“Although these firms have delivered clear benefits to society, the dominance of Amazon, Apple, Facebook and Google has come at a price,” said the subcommittee. “These firms typically run the marketplace” while setting rules for others and playing by another set of rules, so that they are “unaccountable to anyone but themselves.”

The findings potentially set the stage for future legislation and action by the Justice Department and the Federal Trade Commission.

Government attention

Big and powerful companies always attract governmental attention.

Silicon Valley tech giant leaders Zuckerberg, Jack Dorsey of Twitter and Sundar Pichai of Google took what amounted to a tongue-lashing while appearing at a U.S. Senate hearing in October, 2020.

“The three witnesses we have before this committee today collectively pose, I believe, the single greatest threat to free speech in America and the greatest threat we have to free and fair elections,” said Republican Senator Ted Cruz of Texas. Democrat Senator Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota accused Facebook of promoting divisiveness with algorithms that push users to polarizing content. Zuckerberg said the system directs users to content most likely to be of interest to them.

In his opening remarks, Zuckerberg stated that both political parties are pushing tech companies to make changes, but in opposite directions. Democrats, he said, say Facebook does not remove enough content while Republicans say the company removes too much.

Bloggers likely have run afoul of Facebook’s policing algorithms, including this one. A recent attempt to boost a post with a paid ad was answered with, “your ad won’t run.” The reason, said Facebook, was violations of policies against “ads about social issues, elections or politics.”

The post was about journalism ethics. Journalism by its very nature is about social issues. That’s like blaming a dog for being a dog, or a cat for being a cat. It’s the nature of the beast.

But puzzled or frustrated users probably are the least of Facebook’s worries. Governmental regulators have far more clout, and U.S. officials are not the only ones focusing on Facebook or Meta practices. Ireland’s Data Protection Commission in March fined Meta $18.9 million for 12 data breaches, saying the company violated several articles of the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation to protect EU users’ data.

This has the earmarks of a gathering storm, one that might change the tech companies in unexpected ways.

Recalling Waste Management, Inc.

Although the comparisons are not exact, some of what Facebook is doing seems reminiscent of Waste Management, Inc., the giant waste disposal company once based in the Chicago area.

The company’s fortunes seemed to change after it, too, switched its name in 1993 to WMX Technologies, Inc., WMX being its stock ticker symbol.

The new name “really reflects more for our shareholders that they own WMX Technologies, which is a full-service company,” explained Dean Buntrock, chairman and chief executive officer. “I think we are really raising our profile by what we are doing.”

Waste Management was founded in 1968 as a regional waste hauler. Based in Oak Brook, Illinois, it grew into a giant international environmental-services firm with nine subsidiaries, and the nation’s biggest waste hauler. Buntrock said he named the company in 1968 himself. It became the world’s first global environmental services company.

I covered this transition as a reporter for the Chicago Tribune.

The reason Buntrock gave for the name change seems similar to the one given by Zuckerberg, that the company was changing and growing into activities unforeseen by its founders. Zuckerberg changed the stock ticker symbols.

Experts in crafting corporate names said the change to WMX Technologies was a terrible idea, because “Waste Management” perfectly described the company and its mission in a few words. It was instantly recognizable worldwide.

Corporate names

What’s in a corporate name?

“Everything,” said Naseem Javed, president of ABC Namebank, a global naming and branding consulting firm with offices in New York and Canada. “Heart, soul, body. Names are like people. Some are successful and some are not. They have to be cultivated. If you want a legendary name, it must pass the acid test. It must be powerful, unique, user-friendly. But most important, it must belong to you.”

Javed frowned on corporate initials, considering them passé because “initials belong to everybody.”

A poor name, said the expert, “is the fastest way to hit oblivion.”

And WMX Technologies did hit oblivion, although you couldn’t pin it all on the name change.

On March 12, 1998, WMX announced a merger with Houston-based USA Waste Services, Inc., a merger that looked like a minnow swallowing a whale. WMX had 58,800 employees worldwide at the time, and generated $9.2 billion in revenues the previous year. USA Waste, the third-ranked company in the waste industry after Browning Ferris Industries, employed 17,700 and had $2.6 billion in revenues in 1997. Combined, they became the world’s largest garbage company, controlling 20% of the U.S. market.

Unusual merger

The New York Times described it as “an unusual merger” that valued WMX at more than $13 billion, leaving its shareholder owning a majority of stock in the troubled market leader, but with USA Waste’s top management in charge. WMX lost control of its own company, once a Wall Street darling.

Deposed, WMX CEO Buntrock said in a statement: “This merger is a powerful combination and should enable shareholders, customers and employees of both companies to benefit.”

Peter Huizenga, a long-time Waste Management director whose family built the garbage-hauling giant, was less laudatory.

“It’s sad to see the end of a company as we had built it. It’s a shame that the wonderful company we built was not able to be sustained. What happened was the leadership that we were able to put together in the early days drifted away and new leadership was not put in place with the same quality….to take it to the next plateau.”

Leading up to the merger, WMX went through a period of turmoil in the board room, management purges and resignations and angry shareholders.

A colorful, outspoken man, Huizenga was a lawyer and helped to take Waste Management public in 1972 and served as a director for 30 years. He described himself as the “go-to guy.” Growing up in the Chicago area in a family of garbage haulers, he worked as an adolescent on a garbage truck daily from 2 a.m. to noon. He left WMX in 1990, but remained on the company’s board of directors until 1997.

“I would say Waste Management failed leadership,” said Huizenga. “The leadership failed Waste Management.” He died in 2018.

Failures

The extent of those failures soon became evident. Later in the same month WMX announced the merger with USA Waste Services, it said that the Securities and Exchange Commission was investigating the company for dubious accounting practices and internal controls. A month earlier, WMX said changing its accounting systems resulted in a $1.18 billion loss for 1997. The company also restated earnings back to 1992, erasing another$1.7 billion in profits. 

This was more than a change in accounting practices.

On March 26, 2002, the SEC filed a complaint in federal district court against Buntrock and five other top company executives with “a massive financial fraud motivated by greed and a desire to preserve professional and social status.”

Buntrock, the leader of the scheme, made false and misleading statements about the company’s financial performance, allowing them to unload company stock on unsuspecting investors, who lost more than $6 billion when the company’s bogus accounting was later revealed and the stock price dropped by more than 33 percent. When the company’s new management announced what was then the largest restatement in history, the company admitted that its profits had been overstated by $1.7 billion. The WMX executives falsified company results between 1992 and 1997.

A simple scheme

“Defendants’ scheme was simple,” said the SEC. “They improperly eliminated or deferred current period expenses in order to inflate earnings.” The company’s highest ranking officers also collected bonuses on what appeared to be outstanding company performance.

“For years, these defendants cooked the books, enriched themselves, preserved their jobs and duped unsuspecting shareholders,” said an SEC lawyer. “It is one of the most egregious accounting frauds we have seen.”

The merged waste disposal company agreed to pay $26.8 million to settle the SEC suit. That included $17.1 million on behalf of founder and former chairman Dean Buntrock, who paid another $2.3 million out of his own pocket. SEC accused him of leading the accounting hoax.

Arthur Andersen, the auditor for the two merged companies, paid $7 million to settle with SEC over allegations that it helped cook the books.

The scheme came to light after the new corporate CEO ordered a review of financial records.

And what do you suppose was the name of the newly merged trash hauling company? They called it Waste Management, resurrecting the perfect name that had been jettisoned by Buntrock, the discredited CEO. A good name just won’t die.

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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.

Bigfooting At The Times

Sarah Palin talks about New York Times libel trial. newyorklatestnews.com image

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

The New York Times’ editorial page editor went bigfooting into an editorial about the dangers of violent political rhetoric, setting the stage for a cringe-worthy series of fumbled editing events that landed the storied newspaper in federal court charged with defamation.

Bigfooting: Defined as a powerful or important person taking control of a situation, barging in and pushing others aside. Powerful editors do it. They can’t resist meddling. But they call it editing.

The gist: The courtroom drama stars the Times, the highly respected national newspaper known as The Gray Lady, and Sarah Palin, former Alaska governor and 2008 Republican vice presidential candidate, a colorful political glamour girl who lashes out at “the lamestream media” and lost her allure by talking too much and making outlandish statements.

In a suit filed June 27, 2017, Palin contends that the June 14, 2017 Times editorial, titled America’s Lethal Politics, alleged her political action committee “incited” the 2011 mass shooting of 18 people at a political rally in Tucson, Arizona, killing six of them. Among the wounded was Democratic congresswoman Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot in the head and left brain impaired.

Palin argues that the then-editorial editor, James Bennet, added the incitement language to the editorial and knowingly published false claims about her because “stories attacking Gov. Palin inflame passions, which drives viewership and Web clicks.” She contends the editorial damaged her reputation, and asked for $421,000 in damages.

Bennet leaves Times in 2020

Photos of Bennet show a bald man with close-cropped mustache and beard, dark-eyed with a piercing look under thick eyebrows. He left the Times in 2020 after another editorial got him in trouble, though he admitted he had not read it before it was published. It was an op-ed by Sen. Tom Cotton, a Republican from Arkansas, who wrote that military troops should be called in against racial justice protesters. That caused a newsroom furor. The Economist magazine hired Bennet as a visiting senior editor on Jan. 26, 2021.

No one denies the Palin editorial contained errors; Bennet admits inserting those errors about inciting violence into the editorial written by a Times editorial writer. Times lawyers called those errors “honest mistakes,” pointing out that the newspaper quickly published two corrections digitally and in print as readers complained about the false accusations.

In its Twitter account, @NYTOpinion, the Times apologized to readers for its lapses.

“We got an important fact wrong, incorrectly linking political incitement and the 2011 shooting of Giffords. No link was ever established,” said a June 15, 2017, tweet. Another tweet said, “We’re sorry about this and we appreciate that our readers called us on the mistake. We’ve corrected the editorial.”

Journalists talk about the power of the press. In this case, the power of the people to point out mistakes in the press was clearly demonstrated, and effective.

Palin said the Times never apologized to her, although “apology” can be a loaded word. Some lawyers fear that an apology can be considered a legal admission of guilt. The Times typically does not offer apologies along with its corrections, considering that unnecessary.

An odd case with big potential

What seemed to be taking shape was one of those quirky cases involving unlikely combatants and circumstances that potentially could lead to major changes in media law.

The 1964 landmark New York Times vs. Sullivan case established strong protections for the media, especially where celebrities and public figures like Palin are concerned. The decision by the U.S. Supreme Court held that First Amendment freedom of speech protections limit the ability of public officials to sue for defamation. Even if the press makes false statements, a public official must prove they are made with “actual malice” and “with reckless disregard of whether it was false or not.” Ordinary citizens are not required to make that case, only that statements about them were false.

Intentionally, the Supreme Court set the burden of proof bar high for public officials so the press in a democracy could fearlessly report on the activities of public officials without the danger of legal reprisal and nuisance lawsuits.

It would be ironic if the New York Times now played a role in weakening the press protections it helped create in 1964 by way of the Palin case. That would make the newspaper bookends to the hallowed landmark ruling.

Critics of the standard, almost 60 years old, say it is antiquated and too generous in a digital age of split-second communication decisions ushered in by a revolution in media technology and an internet filled with acrimony, abusive language and misinformation.

It could be argued, though, that although the technology of communication changes, the central role of journalism to keep people informed in a fair and accurate way does not change.

Creating a Palin legacy

Palin appears determined to create a legacy by taking her grievances all the way to the Supreme Court. Waiting there is a court unlike the one in 1964, including two conservative justices who might be eager to settle scores with the badgering media, Neil Gorsuch and Clarence Thomas. Both have said they want the court to overturn the Sullivan precedent.

Justice Gorsuch wrote that the internet caused the 1964 Sullivan standard to evolve “into an ironclad subsidy for the publication of falsehoods by means and on a scale previously unimaginable.”

Before taking office, former President Trump vowed to “open up” libel laws.” Once in office, he aimed much of his invective against the media and those he considered disloyal.

Critics of the Sullivan standard often see it as a shelter for big corporate media, but observers point out that dismantling it might lead to unintended consequences, such as libel judgments against millions of people on social media and websites.

The Palin case is the first libel lawsuit against the Times to go to trial in nearly 20 years and the Times has not lost a defamation case in the U.S. for more than 50 years. While much of the attention focuses on the legal push and pull, journalists are likely to be drawn to Bennet, the New York Times editing process and the blunders that led to a lawsuit aimed at rewriting press law.

All journalists know that stomach-churning moment upon discovering they’ve made an error, and must correct it. In broadcasting and online journalism, that can be done fairly quickly. It’s more difficult for newspapers. Once printed, a mistake cannot be unprinted and is permanent if the newspapers are already delivered. Newspapers with online editions respond more quickly.

Mistakes derail careers

Mistakes are made, and sometimes they derail a career, which was the case for Bennet. Joining the New York Times in 1991, he rose through the reporting ranks to serve as a White House correspondent and Jerusalem bureau chief. He enhanced his reputation in 2006 by leaving the Times to become editor-in-chief of The Atlantic magazine, founded in Boston in 1857, and aimed at serious national readers and “thought leaders.” Under his leadership, The Atlantic in 2010 had its first profitable year in a decade.

Impressed by Bennet’s buzz-chasing skill in the new and difficult digital age, the Times welcomed him back in April, 2016, as editorial page editor with a mandate to shake up the sober opinions section. Bennet took charge of the editorial page with orders to “move faster” and “make changes that are more disruptive,” according to one performance review.

Cringe. Be careful what you wish for. Disrupt: To throw into confusion or disorder. Called dynamic tension, there is a management style that pits journalists against each other, expecting the competition to bring out the best in them. Or the call for disruption might be seen as making journalism into some kind of exciting video game with flashing lights and sound effects that might appeal to a younger generation. It was not an appeal for higher standards. Bennet broadened the range of viewpoints by hiring conservative writers.

Bennet was 50 when he became editorial page editor. His name surfaced among those considered as a potential candidate to succeed Dean Baquet, the executive editor. That changed when Bennet was engulfed by confusion and disorder of his own making.

A political shooting

On June 14, 2017, James Hodgkinson, 66, known to hate Republicans and President Trump, opened fire with a pistol and a rifle on 24 Republican congressmen practicing for a congressional baseball game at an Alexandria, Virginia, ball field, after asking bystanders if the players were Republicans. Hodgkinson, a Bellville, Illinois, owner of a home inspection business, engaged in a ten-minute shootout with police before he was mortally wounded and died in a hospital. Four people were wounded, including U.S. House Majority Whip Steve Scalise, none fatally.

A few hours after the shooting, Elizabeth Williamson, a Washington-based Times editorial writer, emailed colleagues asking if an editorial about the armed attack on Republican congressmen was planned. For the next few hours, Williamson and other staffers, including Bennet, traded emails on their research into motives for the shooting.

Gleaning what’s on a homicidal man’s mind is tricky, but Hodgkinson’s Facebook account and letters he wrote to his local newspaper offered plenty of evidence of anti-GOP rage. ABC News reported that he vented his political frustration for years before crossing the line.

In the email exchange with Williamson, Bennet asks if the 2011 Giffords shooting was linked “to some kind of incitement?” Here is an editor coming to some of his own conclusions.

Williamson wrote an editorial, focused in part on gun control, which mentioned Palin’s map containing gun sight-like cross hairs on 20 districts held by Democrats which should be targeted by Republicans in the next election. One of those districts was held by Giffords. Palin insists the cross hairs were not intended to represent gun sights. The editorial included a link to an ABC News article saying  “no connection has been made between this graphic and the Arizona shooting.”

History of rewriting

Williamson sent her piece to New York headquarters around 4:45 p.m. In a court deposition explaining the process, Williamson said: “I filed my draft, and after that, it was in New York, and they did what they were going to do.” 

The note of resignation is recognizable by anyone who worked with heavy-handed editors. Times editors often went to work on articles to refashion, refine, rephrase and remake them. Jill Abramson, a former Times executive editor, told the Washington Post “the New York Times has long been known as an editor’s paper where there is extensive rewriting of journalists’ stories.”

It’s a tradition, and seems like a lot of wasted effort. Most stories at a newspaper or elsewhere are written after an editorial conference between writers and editors to explain in advance what the story will say, usually after a reporter has gathered the facts. This also is known as a “doping session.” Unless a writer is hopelessly inept, editors or copy readers should not need to overhaul articles if their contents are known in advance.

Every article can benefit from some trimming, tightening and clearer explanation, which happens on the copy desk. And in this time of disappearing newspapers and smaller news staffs, inexperienced writers replace experienced veterans who take buyouts or are laid off. So editing becomes more important when working with inexperienced staffs.

But, as Abramson pointed out, the Times has a culture of rewriting. Unfortunately, it is a culture that spreads. While I was working at the Chicago Tribune, the newspaper hired an editor from the New York Times. He immediately began rewriting everyone’s articles to “punch them up.” I pointed out to him that he had introduced several errors into one of my stories by “punching it up.” He insisted on publishing the article as he had rewritten it, insisting it was more interesting that way.

Such manic rewriting also substitutes an editor’s choice of words over the reporter’s. At the Tribune, writers for a while were encouraged to develop individual writing styles, until rewriting by others made that impossible. Computerization made tinkering easy. The Tribune stopped encouraging writers to find a style of their own.

A first draft

In New York, Bennet read Williamson’s editorial and was not satisfied. “It was very much a first draft and…it wasn’t exactly accomplishing the objectives we had set out that morning to achieve. (It) read to me much more like a summary of the news.” Bennet said he wanted an editorial that “conjured the sense of the horror of the day.” 

Did he tell Williamson that, or is this an afterthought? Good communication is important at a newspaper. Did Williamson deliver the editorial agreed upon earlier that day? Editors sometimes don’t know what they want until they see what a reporter has written, and decide that is not what they wanted. And an idea forms belatedly. Did Williamson and Bennet fail to agree early in the day what that editorial was supposed to say?

The clock ticked closer to the Times print deadline, and Bennet has explained, “I was concerned about the deadlines approaching. We just didn’t have that much time, and I wound up plunging in and just beginning to effectively rewrite the piece.” By some accounts, he finished 45 minutes before the deadline. It’s hazardous to “plunge in” just before deadline, leaving little time for recovery.

The editorial, as Williamson wrote it, said, in part: “Just as in 2011, when Jared Lee Loughner opened fire in a supermarket parking lot, grievously wounding Representative Gabby Giffords and killing six people, including a nine-year-old girl, Mr. Hodgkinson’s rage was nurtured in a vile political climate. Then, it was the pro-gun right being criticized: in the weeks before the shooting Sarah Palin’s political action committee circulated a map of targeted electoral districts that put Ms. Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized cross hairs.”

Williamson avoided suggesting a direct link between the cross hairs map and the Giffords attack.

Bennet deleted that paragraph and replaced it with this: “Was this attack evidence of how vicious American politics has become? Probably. In 2011, when Jared Lee Loughner opened fire in a supermarket parking lot, grievously wounding Representative Gabby Giffords and killing six people, including a nine-year-old girl, the link to political incitement was clear. Before the shooting, Sarah Palin’s political action committee circulated a map of targeted electoral districts that put Ms. Giffords and 19 other Democrats under stylized cross hairs.

“Conservatives and right-wing media were quick on Wednesday to demand forceful condemnation of hate speech and crimes by anti-Trump liberals. They’re right. Though there’s no sign of incitement as direct as in the Giffords attack, liberals should of course hold themselves to the same standard of decency that they ask of the right.”

Incitement

Two paragraphs replaced one, pumping up the political angle, with two references to “incitement,” the part that got him in trouble.

After he finished, Bennet sent an email to Williamson apologizing for bigfooting her: “I really reworked this one,” Bennet writes, as though that was unusual. “I hope you can see what I was trying to do…. I’m sorry to do such a heavy edit.” Minutes later, Williamson responded, “No worries the lede does a much better job of conveying how incredibly awful this was…. And I could tell from your messages that you were keen to take this on! Looks good. E.”

Neither saw the dangers posed by the poison pills that were dropped into the editorial. Bennet’s two references to “incitement” were key to Palin’s lawsuit. Some time to consider contradictory facts in the editorial itself might have helped. But the boss himself had rewritten the editorial, and sometimes that is reason enough to withhold further scrutiny.

The editorial went online around 9 p.m. and Twitter exploded with reactions within an hour or so, as readers of all political stripes recognized the blunder, even some inside the Times. 

Bafflement

At 10:35 p.m., editorial writer Ross Douthat emailed Bennet, saying: “I would be remiss if I didn’t express my bafflement at the editorial we just ran…There was not, and continues to be so far as I can tell, no evidence that Jared Lee Loughner was incited by Sarah Palin or anyone else……” Bennet responded about a half hour later, “I’ll look into this tomorrow. But my understanding was that in the Giffords case there was a gun sight superimposed over her district.”

Cringe. Tomorrow? 

Others on the editorial page sensed a big problem. At 11:11 p.m., editor Jesse Wegman sent an email to Williamson, asking: “Did James add that line about Giffords and Palin?” She responded: “No, I had a version of that in my draft.” Williamson answered accurately to the wrong question. Wegman should have asked if Bennet added the parts about incitement, which Williamson had overlooked. It is an example of how errors can snowball, like a rolling blackout, even as some are trying to grasp the situation.

Williamson went to bed after communicating with Wegman. Unaware of that, Bennet sent an anxious email to her at 11:38 p.m., saying: “Are you up? The right is coming after us over the Giffords comparison. Do we have it right?”

Cringe.

This is remarkable for two reasons. Bennet sees the issue as a political problem, not a major accuracy issue, although Douthat had clearly warned him. Most editors, with red flags flying and nerves tingling with apprehension, would have picked up the phone and called Williamson to ask that important question: Do we have it right? 

Lot of criticism

But he didn’t do that. He called it a night, a very short night.  A 5:08 a.m. email to colleagues said: “Hey guys — We’re taking a lot of criticism for saying that the attack on Giffords was in any way connected to incitement… I don’t know what the truth is here, but we may have relied too heavily on our early editorials and other early coverage of that attack. If so, I’m very sorry for my own failure on this yesterday…. I’d like to get to the bottom of this as quickly as possible this morning and correct the piece if needed.”

Cringe and cringe. Bennet says he does not know the truth. The truth should be known before an editorial is written, not after.

After waking, Williamson texted Bennet , saying: “Hey I’m sorry James. I should have read those grafs more closely and asked more questions. That’s on me. Will get a cx (correction) drafted soonest.”

Cringe. She admits that she did not read the entire rewritten editorial, failing to recognize that Bennet had added erroneous information. If she had, that would have saved the Times a lot of embarrassment. (Williamson now is a feature writer in the Times Washington bureau, no longer a member of the editorial board.)

Bennet texted back: “No worries. I feel lousy about this one – I just moved too fast. I’m sorry. Now what I need…soonest is a rock-solid version of what we should say – that an investigation showed NO link to incitement, or NO DIRECT link or NO CLEAR link.”

Cringe. Actually, what he needed was a rock solid editorial to begin with. But even the correction was botched. It did not mention the Palin map, so a second correction was written.

Corrections

It is the nature of corrections that they sometimes take more time to compile than the time it would have taken to simply do the story right in the first place. At the Chicago Tribune, all corrections required a report to the standards editor explaining how the error occurred and what could have been done to avoid it.

Sarah Palin sued the New York Times 13 days after the botched editorial.

The case landed before Judge Jed S. Rakoff, United States District Court, Southern District of New York. He dismissed Palin’s complaint on August 29, 2017, in an opinion and order that reads almost like an ode to American journalism.

“Nowhere is political journalism so free, so robust, or perhaps so rowdy as in the United States,” he wrote. “In the exercise of that freedom, mistakes will be made, some of which will be hurtful to others. Responsible journals will promptly correct their errors; others will not. But if political journalism is to achieve its constitutionally endorsed role of challenging the powerful, legal redress by a public figure must be limited to those cases where the public figure has a plausible factual basis for complaining that the mistake was made maliciously, that is, with knowledge it was false or with reckless disregard of its falsity.” That sticks strictly to the Sullivan formula.

Palin “fails to make that showing,” Rakoff ruled. Also, he noted that Palin failed to identify anyone at the Times who allegedly acted with actual malice. The Bennet editorial was signed by the Times Editorial Board.

Before ruling, Judge Rakoff held an evidentiary hearing which threw more light on the muddled editorial.

“My fault”

“This is my fault, right?” testified Bennet. “I wrote those sentences and I’m not looking to shift the blame to anyone else, so I just want to say that. But yeah, I mean, this is why we send playback to writers, because they’re the ones who reported the story. They’re the ones who are in possession of the facts and it’s important for them to review pieces to make sure that (others) haven’t introduced errors.”

Playback is what Times staffers call emailing a revised version of a story to the original writer for confirmation that it is accurate as rewritten. The final revised version of the Palin editorial was emailed to Williamson twice.

Wince. It can be argued that anyone who is not entirely familiar with the facts should tread lightly, especially at deadline. Wise editors making major changes in a story will contact the writer and discuss them, to be sure they are accurate and to explain why the changes were made.

A Palin lawyer asked Bennet if he attempted to call Williamson, and the editor replied: “I didn’t call her…”

Williamson testified she failed to read the final version closely. “I did not read it thoroughly. In retrospect, I wish I had.”

Cringe. It was an admission she failed to pay attention to the details of her editorial at a critical time, when she knew it was being changed in major ways by the boss. This was a time for alertness, not resignation or surrender. Both Bennet and Williamson admitted they erred.

Culture of rewriting

Journalists might sympathize with Williamson, who might be seen as struggling in a culture of second-guessing editors. It’s a workplace that treats writers as though their writing is substandard or does not meet Times standards or editors’ expectations. The knowledge that almost anything they write will go through an editorial chopping block can be demoralizing.

Judge Rakoff asked Bennet for his rationale for pumping up Williamson’s editorial, and got a rambling answer. “I am asking a question about grammar and sentence structure, which presumably you have some expertise in,” the judge countered sharply. 

The judge read the first “incitement” passage to Bennet and asked, “Doesn’t that mean as a matter of ordinary English grammar and usage that that sentence is saying that the shooting in 2011 was clearly linked to political incitement?” 

“That is not what I intended it to mean,” answered Bennet.

Moving on, Judge Rakoff says: “You’re saying that this map circulated by Sarah Palin’s political action committee was a direct cause of the kind of political incitement that you think led to various acts of violence?”

Bennet answered: “I would not use the word ‘cause,’ your honor,” saying later, “it wasn’t in my head that that was tantamount to complicity in attempted murder. It’s simply rhetoric.”

Rhetoric? Persuasive use of language?

Palin map

Asked if he ever looked at the Palin map, Bennet said no. “I was not reporting the editorial… I was editing it, and so I was working from the draft that was in front of me on a tight deadline.”

Cringe and double cringe. Bennet pleads ignorance of the facts, and blames a tight deadline. All journalists work on deadlines. They are a fact of life in journalism, and not an excuse for carelessness. Journalists learn to hew to what is proven at deadline time, and reserve what is not yet proven until it can be proven at a later time.

“Negligence this may be; but defamation of a public figure it plainly is not,” ruled  Rakoff in 2017.

Palin was not done with Bennet. She appealed, and the case came before a three-judge panel of the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit in lower Manhattan in 2018 and was decided in 2019.

The court found that Palin’s amended complaint “plausibly states a claim for defamation….” A plausible picture of an “actual-malice scenario” emerges because of Bennet’s background as an editor and political advocate.

Though the Times view is that Bennet made an unintended mistake by including erroneous facts about Palin, “we disagree,” said the court.

Bennet’s brother

Bennet’s older brother is Michael Bennet, the Democratic U.S. senator from Colorado. Palin’s lawyers said the Times editorial was political “scorekeeping” because two congressmen targeted in the Palin PAC map had endorsed Senator Bennet, and that his editor brother had “a personal connection” to the 2011 Loughner shooting in Arizona through gun-control activities.

Bennet “willfully disregarded the truth,” alleged Palin’s political action committee, by ignoring the link in the editorial mentioning the ABC News article saying “no connection has been made between this graphic and the Arizona shooting.” They insist Bennet knew or should have known that article, contained in the editorial, contradicted the arguments of his editorial.

The appellate court sent the case back to Judge Rakoff. The case, which already took some surprising twists and turns, took another. On Feb. 16, 2022, in a Manhattan federal courtroom, Rakoff invoked Rule 50 of the Federal Rules of Criminal Procedure. He dismissed Palin’s complaint a second time after all the evidence had been heard in a jury trial, but before the jury reached a decision.

Rakoff was concerned, though, that several jurors involuntarily received calls on their cell phones, telling them that the judge dismissed the case, contrary to court instructions to avoid media coverage of the trial. The jurors told a court clerk about getting the calls while they were still deliberating.

Jury’s verdict

Forging ahead, the jury came to its own verdict a day later, agreeing unanimously with the judge that the Times did not libel Palin.

“You decided the facts, I decided the law,” Rakoff told jurors after the verdict. “It turns out they were both in agreement, in this case.”

Palin said she hoped to appeal the verdict to the Supreme Court. But legal experts believe that would be difficult. Under New York law, Palin can’t challenge the jury’s unanimous decision.

Rakoff described the case as “an example of very unfortunate editorializing on the part of the Times,” adding that he was “not at all happy to make this decision” in its favor. “The law sets a very high standard for actual malice, and in this case the court finds that that standard has not been met.”

The assault on the New York Times vs. Sullivan standard failed, this time.

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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.

Cyber-tsunami Hits Ethics

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

The Washington News Council in Seattle showed that journalism ethics is a tough sell.

It was the only news council left in the United States when it called it quits in 2014, after 15 years of taking citizen complaints against media organizations, holding public hearings and deciding on the accuracy, fairness and ethics of print, broadcast and online stories.

The council had no legal power or authority, other than the power to influence public opinion and media conduct by publicizing its findings.

“We had a great 15-year run,” John Hamer told the Seattle Times. Hamer founded the council in 1998 and served as its executive director and board president. “We helped a lot of people who were damaged by media malpractice.”

But if you look at the council’s Facebook home page, you find posts that signal a faint heartbeat. Its fighting spirit refuses to die, despite journalism’s and the public’s indifference. That’s often the fate of people who believe in ethics and high standards. They’re seen as high-minded, impractical scolds. Especially now, when journalism appears to be a matter of professional life or death.

On October 26, 2021, the council Facebook page said: “We tried to hold the news media publicly accountable for 15 years, but they resisted. Too bad. It would have increased their public trust.”

On April 12, 2021, another heartbeat signal on Facebook said: “Last night I dreamed that the WNC was still alive, calling out inaccurate, unfair, unethical news stories and holding the media publicly accountable. Then I woke up.”

On February 21, 2019, the council’s Facebook page pointed out that with national or state news councils, it would not be necessary to revisit the landmark U.S. Supreme Court’s 1964 “New York Times vs. Sullivan” decision requiring plaintiffs to prove “actual malice” in a libel case. “Those who felt damaged by inaccurate, unfair or biased stories about them could take their cases to a news council for a thorough and open airing, rather than file a costly libel suit…”

An April 1, 2019 post said the council urged news media to be transparent, accountable and open. “Past WNC hearings were widely considered the best discussions of journalistic accuracy and ethics ever heard anywhere in the entire history of journalism.”

In his Seattle Times interview, Hammer acknowledged that “the news media have changed tectonically since we began. The eruption of online digital news and information made our mission of promoting high standards in journalism much more difficult, if not impossible. How can anyone oversee a cyber-tsunami?”

In the list of problems confronting journalism today, add that to the list. Surely, there’s a place for high ideals in journalism’s future. Let that be a challenge for young journalists eager to transform the media industry.

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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.

Crime Coverage Guidelines

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

As crime soars across the United States, the Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) issues new newsroom guidelines for covering crime, with four key areas of consideration.

Not only rising gun violence, but a wave of “smash and grab” store invasions by mobs of thieves present challenges to the nation’s media to report crimes ethically.

“If the last couple of years have taught journalists anything, it’s that great care and considered judgment must be used when making decisions about how to cover crime,” said Dan Shelley, RTDNA executive director and chief operating officer on its website. “More than ever before, reporters and news managers should be hypersensitive to societal and other equally important concerns. These new guidelines will help them do that.”

Key areas of concern are mugshots or other images provided by law enforcement, descriptions of suspects or persons of interest, reporting the names of suspects before they are charged and having in-house guidelines for publishing digital content.

RTDNA suggests considering ways to update or remove digital archives when charges are dropped or for other reasons, including passage of time.

Nationally, preliminary data for 2021 show violence crime rising, with homicides up by nearly 30% in 2020. Overall violence and assaults also increased during a surge in police officers leaving law enforcement.

Chicago is an example of how this trend translates locally. Through Dec. 14, 2021, the city recorded 775 homicides, which is 4% higher than the year before, and a staggering 61% over the 479 murders during the same period in 2019. At least 4,328 people were shot in Chicago this year, compared with 4,013 in 2020 and 2,556 in 2019. Carjackings were up 31% to 1,707.

Rising crime and “skyrocketing” commercial property taxes trouble the city’s business leaders, especially crime, said Jack Lavin, president and CEO of the Chicagoland Chamber of Commerce. Chicago’s business community, he said, is clamoring for a “strategy for the short and medium term for how we’re going to reduce retail theft, carjackings, shootings and who is prosecuted.”

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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.