Category Archives: Case Study

Naming A Boy in Sex Case

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

A church youth leader is accused of having a sexual relationship with a boy, a minor at the time of the alleged crime.

The youth is 18 years old by the time the case reaches trial. His mother is the first witness in the case, using her full name. In court, the boy is identified as John Doe.

The reporter covering the case calls the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, asking if his California newspaper should print the mother’s name, which would identify the boy. They live in a small town.

The reporter is concerned about potential harm to the boy from being identified.

“I asked if the news organization has any policies or precedents that are relevant” to the case, the AdviceLine advisor said in his report on this case. The advisor also mentioned the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics, which urges journalists to minimize harm while seeking truth.

The reporter responded that his newspaper had no policies or precedents that could help answer the question.

Looking for a second opinion, the AdviceLine ethicist contacted a member of the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists staff who is a professional journalist. Most of the questions AdviceLine gets are answered by a staff of ethicists who teach or taught ethics at universities. But the ethicists sometimes reach out to professional journalists to ask how the news media typically handle some ethics issues.

“I wanted to get a second opinion on this since the boy is now at the legal age of an adult, and his mother is allowing herself to be named,” said the ethicist. The journalist “agreed with my initial inclination to err on the side of caution without a compelling reason to identify him.”

The journalist pointed out that even though the complainant is 18 years old, he is still young and warrants some additional protection.

“That’s in keeping with what the SPJ code and ethics scholars would say about being sensitive to vulnerable parties, including young people,” said the ethicist in his report. When the ethicist called back, he learned that the reporter had discussed the case again with his editor and they had come to the same conclusion.

Here’s what the SPJ code of ethics says: “Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent. Consider cultural differences in approach and treatment.”

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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.

Lawyer Seeks Advice

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Journalists typically call the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists seeking advice about knotty ethics issues.

But not all callers are professional journalists. A lawyer called AdviceLine with a question that sometimes puzzles reporters, too: Does a journalist have a duty to inform an interviewee that his answers to questions will appear in an article, along with his name and title?

The lawyer said he was writing an article for a law review and gathering interviews as background. Part way through his research, it occurred to the lawyer that he had not told his sources that he intended to quote them in the article.

Would it be ethical, asked the lawyer, to quote his sources without their permission?

The AdviceLine ethicist saw this case as a potential dilemma in both journalism ethics and in academic ethics.

On the academic side, the advisor explained the definition of academic plagiarism, using the ideas or phrases of others without attribution. In that case, the lawyer “was certainly doing the right thing by citing his sources by name,” said the AdviceLine advisor. In academic practice, the advisor added, permission is not always required but “it would be professionally courteous to do so.”

The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists team consists of two groups of advisors, including university professors who teach ethics and professional journalists. University professors answer the bulk of questions posed to AdviceLine. In some cases, like this one involving the lawyer, the ethics journalism ethicsprofessor asked a professional journalist on the team to join in answering the question.

Occasionally, journalists who call AdviceLine simply want to know how other journalists would typically handle a particular situation. In that case, it’s more a matter of established journalism practice rather than ethics.

Interviewing sources is a key skill in journalism. In part, the lawyer who called AdviceLine seemed to be asking how a professional journalist would handle the question of identifying sources.

Professional journalists generally learn to develop a clear set of ground rules for interviewing sources. One of those rules is to say immediately that everything is on the record. That should be clear at the start. If there is any hesitation about that, it should be discussed before the interview begins.

“If somebody gets a call from a reporter asking questions, it should be assumed the reason for the call is that the information is likely to be published,” said the journalist involved in this discussion. “I know it sounds like a given, but I’ve had a few cases, after an article was published, that somebody interviewed called back and complained that they did not expect to be identified or quoted. Ideally, the reason for the interview should be made clear at the outset, and maybe again at the end of the interview. The reporter could say something like, ‘I intend to identify you and intend to use your comments in a story,’ just to be perfectly clear, especially when dealing with people who are not accustomed to talking to reporters.”

A mayor or other public officials would understand why a reporter is interviewing them. So this also is a matter of sophistication. A wise, ethical reporter should be more careful when interviewing members of the public and identifying them.

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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.

Racism Riles Newsroom

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

A reporter/columnist for a North Carolina newspaper gave a speech to members of the League of the South, telling them how to get their white supremacy message out through media.

This touched off some friction in the newsroom, causing a staff writer for the newspaper to call the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, asking if what her colleague did was ethical?

The League of the South is an American white nationalist, neo-Confederate, white supremacist organization headquartered in Killen, Alabama. Its ultimate goal is a ” free and independent Southern republic.” The group defines the Southern United States as the 11 states that made up the former Confederacy. The Southern Poverty Law Center calls the league a hate group.

The newspaper’s management did not know about the reporter/columnist’s speech, which was given several years earlier, until recently, but was considering publishing a story that mentioned the league, along with a disclaimer mentioning the speech.

“My editor spoke with her and she claimed she didn’t know at the time what the group was about — an explanation that defies credulity given that she is a reasonably intelligent woman who writes about politics, lives in the south and has Internet access,” the staff writer told an AdviceLine advisor. “But the editor took this at face value,” she added, saying the disclaimer might be shelved, partly because the reporter/columnist “was outraged that the editor wanted her to account in print for why she’d been there.

“While we’re given considerable latitude to speak before groups, I am outraged that someone I work with would speak before what is essentially a white supremacist group. When I voiced my concerns to my editor, he became angry at me for bringing him problems without offering solutions.

“He does not seem to want to deal with this. This whole incident is affecting my perceptions of my paper and my role here. Alternative weeklies are typically ‘progressive’ publications, and I most certainly don’t want to work for a publication that harbors people who appeal to racist neo-Confedrate groups. How might I deal with this?”

The AdviceLine advisor asked a few questions about what she knew about the content of her colleague’s speech, and if she is accusing the reporter/columnist of being sympathetic to the league’s views and doubts she was not aware of the league’s goals. The writer said she does not believe her colleague is “an outright racist, but she appeals to a certain segment.”

The AdviceLine advisor responded: “I said I see nothing unethical in what her colleague did, but there is great danger in any ‘implied association’ news reporters may establish. There is less concern if the person is an opinion commentator.” It seemed clear the writer was upset about her colleague’s actions, and that the editor might not publish a proposed story on hate groups, including mentioning the league.

“An ethical perspective gives even ‘crazy ideas’ a right to be heard,” said the advisor. “Access to the media is for all ideas… I said the whole idea is to get the ‘crazy’ ideas out as well as those ideas that oppose the ‘crazy’ ones so the public can decide which ideas are craziest.” The writer responded that she doesn’t object to the league being covered and to allow their voice to get out there.

“My opinion,” wrote the advisor in his report on this call: The writer who called “is upset about her colleague’s views and is looking for an ethical reason and our support to use with her editor. She is basing her objections on her personal suspicions about her colleague. I refused to fall into this trap. I found nothing in what she said to support her opinion that her editor is ‘harboring racist, neo-Confedrate groups.”

The writer sent an email thanking the advisor for his advice, although he suspects she was not pleased with his opinion.

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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.

American Indian Ethics

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Showing respect is a basic law of life, says a Native American traditional code of ethics.

This might sound soothing to Americans watching the hyper-polarization and mean-spirited castigations rampaging across the nation these days over politics, abortion, war and inflation.

American Indians, also known as the First Americans, are among those who can lay claim to a history of terrible suffering and carnage. If suffering brings wisdom, American Indians can lay claim to that, too.

It shows in the Native American Indian Traditional Code of Ethics. The original version was printed in 1982 in the book, “The Sacred Tree,” by the Four Worlds Development Project, dedicated to eliminating alcohol and drug abuse by Canadian natives. It can be found at https://onewhitehorsestanding.com/resources/native-american-indian-traditional-code-of-ethics. The “Inter-Tribal Times” adapted and reprinted the original version in 1994.

I can’t vouch for the authenticity of this code as being traditional, since native Americans in the United States alone consist of 574 federally recognized tribes, about half of which are associated with 326 Indian reservations. They have inhabited the United States at least 15,000 years. Their tribal customs and beliefs differ.

But the code’s sentiments seem worthy of consideration, offering a peaceful perspective. This is a shortened version of that code, presented as it appears on the website where it is found:

Each morning upon rising, and each evening before sleeping, give thanks for the life within you and for all life, for the good things the Creator has given you and for the opportunity to grow a little more each day…Seek for the things that will benefit others (everyone).

Respect means “to feel or show honor or esteem for someone or something; to consider the well being of, or to treat someone or something with deference or courtesy.” Showing respect is a basic law of life.

  1. Treat every person from the tiniest child to the oldest elder with respect at all times.
  2. Special respect should be given to elders, parents, teachers and community leaders.
  3. No person should be made to feel “put down” by you; avoid hurting other hearts as you would avoid a deadly poison.
  4. Touch nothing that belongs to someone else (especially sacred objects) without permission, or an understanding between you.
  5. Respect the privacy of every person, never intrude on a person’s quiet moment or personal space.
  6. Never walk between people that are conversing.
  7. Never interrupt people who are conversing.
  8. Speak in a soft voice, especially when you are in the presence of elders, strangers or others to whom special respect is due.
  9. Do not speak unless invited to do so at gatherings where elders are present (except to ask what is expected of you, should you be in doubt.)
  10. Never speak about others in a negative way, whether they are present or not.
  11. Treat the earth and all of her aspects as your mother. Show deep respect for the mineral world, the plant world and the animal world. Do nothing to pollute our mother. Rise up with wisdom to defend her.
  12. Show deep respect for the beliefs and religion of others.
  13. Listen with courtesy to what others say, even if you feel that what they are saying is worthless. Listen with your heart.
  14. Respect the wisdom of the people in council. Once you give an idea to a council meeting it no longer belongs to you. It belongs to the people. Respect demands that you listen intently to the ideas of others in council and that you do not insist that your idea prevails. Indeed you should freely support the ideas of others if they are true and good, even if those ideas are quite different from the ones you have contributed. The clash of ideas brings forth the spark of truth.

Once a council has decided something in unity, respect demands that no one speak secretly against what has been decided. If the council has made an error, that error will become apparent to everyone in its own time.

Be truthful at all times, and under all conditions.

Always treat your guests with honor and consideration. Give of your best food, your best blankets, the best part of your house and your best service to your guests.

The hurt of one is the hurt of all, the honor of one is the honor of all.

Receive strangers and outsiders with a loving heart and as members of the human family.

All the races and tribes in the world are like the different colored flowers of one meadow. All are beautiful. As children of the Creator they must all be respected.

To serve others, to be of some use to family, community, nation and the world is one of the main purposes for which human beings have been created… True happiness comes only to those who dedicate their lives to the service of others.

Observe moderation and balance in all things.

Know those things that lead to your well-being, and those things that lead to your destruction.

Listen to and follow the guidance given to your heart. Expect guidance to come in many forms, in prayer, in dreams, in times of quiet solitude and in the words and deeds of wise elders and friends.

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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.

Politicians Driving Drunk

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

A team of reporters with a Minnesota newspaper wonder if it would be unfair to report that three candidates for public office were convicted for driving while under the influence and driving while intoxicated.

Two candidates are running for county attorney and one for the county board. Two of the convictions date to the 1990s and one from three years ago. The newspaper covered the convictions when they happened.

The newspaper’s editor called the Ethics AdviceLine, saying his reporters cannot agree on whether the convictions, some of them dated, should be mentioned in news reports about the candidates. The editor asked an AdviceLine adviser for an opinion.

“Yes,” answered the adviser. “DWI and DUI are serious convictions enough to influence their votes and the voting public has a right to know about them. The paper’s job is to seek and print the truth.”

The editor pressed further. “Should we investigate, then, all candidates running for office and possible past convictions?”

The adviser responded: “If not you, who?” An informed public makes the best voters.

“That’s a good way to put it,” answered the editor.

Although the editor was asking about political candidates running for office, ethicists might take it a step further and consider the consequences of electing officials with drunken driving records.

The Alcohol Problems and Solutions website reports that many politicians are arrested for drunken driving, although dozens of members of Congress each year escape arrests by invoking their congressional privilege of immunity.

“The privilege was originally provided over 200 years ago to protect members of Congress from politically-motivated arrests,” said the organization, adding that the privilege of immunity “serves no useful purpose today and is an affront to law-abiding citizens.”

The organization lists politicians arrested for drunk driving, beginning with former president George W. Bush when he was 30 years old and Dick Cheney, the former vice president, when he was 22 years old. The website names other politicians arrested for drunk driving state-by-state.

Charges usually involve alcohol, but abuse of legal and illegal drugs might be an even bigger problem, according to the website, but estimates of the extent of the problem “are virtually non-existent.”

Drunk driving kills and injures thousands of people each year, said the organization. “Therefore, it’s especially important for elected officials to be good role models. However, politicians arrested for drunk driving set a poor example. Yet is appears that voters tend not to vote their disapproval of this crime. Perhaps that’s because so many voters drive intoxicated themselves.”

Police arrest over 1.5 million people annually for driving under the influence of alcohol and drugs.

What do you think? Should reporters publish details about candidates and elected officials arrested and convicted for drunken driving?

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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.

Leaked Abortion Decision

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists.

The Supreme court verdict to overturn Roe vs. Wade, the landmark ruling establishing a constitutional right to abortion, came almost two months after a leaked draft of the decision was first reported by Politico.

The leak seemed as historic as the ruling itself. It was called “unprecedented,” mainly because all 98-pages of a first draft of an opinion written by Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito was leaked May 2, 2022, and published by Politico in full. It signaled that the court would overturn the 1973 landmark Roe vs. Wade decision, which it did.

According to the draft, Alito came to the “inescapable conclusion” that “a right to abortion is not deeply rooted in the nation’s history and traditions.” Given the leak, the court’s final ruling appeared to be a foregone conclusion. In a 5-4 decision, the high court finally decided that individual states should establish their own abortion laws, which would make some states havens for abortions while others banned or penalized them.

Court observers said parts of previous Supreme Court decisions had been leaked or speculated upon before a final decision was rendered, but never the full text of a proposed decision as in the abortion case. It was described as a first in the court’s modern history.

In a statement, Chief Justice John Roberts confirmed that the leaked document was “authentic,” but went on to say it “does not represent a decision by the court of the final position of any member on issues in the case.” The court launched an investigation into the source of the leak. By the time of the final decision, no culprit was discovered. Some speculated it was a democrat or a republican with political motives who wanted the supreme court to protect abortion rights or abandon them. Either way, it appeared the leaker intended to influence the justices either to change their opinions or to stand fast on the Alito interpretation.

Court officials must honor their own rules and regulations governing conduct and confidentiality. Whether such rules were violated cannot be determined until the leaker is identified.

For journalists, leaks are a time-honored way to get information on stories of interest to the public. But is it ethical for journalists to use information obtained through leaks?

A reporter for an Illinois newspaper contacted AdviceLine, asking about the ethics behind publishing information gained from a person who attended an executive session by a local government body. The leaked information involved contract talks with school officials.

The newspaper already published the story, but the reporter wanted to know if it was ethical to use the information. Here is how the AdviceLine adviser answered the question:

“I asked how the information was obtained. Convinced it was obtained without deception and the source gave it up willingly to known reporters, I said there is nothing ethically wrong with publishing the documents. In fact, it seems to me to be good journalism to report on public officials about public matters when the information is obtained properly. The use of information from ‘leaks’ when there is no personal harm involved is proper.”

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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.

Photos of Dead Children

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

One of the leading journalism ethics issues to emerge from the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting is whether to show photos of the bullet-torn bodies of children.

It’s an old question, but gaining in fervor as mass shootings with assault rifles and ammunition designed to blow human bodies apart became the preferred instrument for mass murder.

“Should journalists publish pictures of the grisly aftermath of gun violence, so that Americans can’t duck the consequences of our permissive gun laws?” asks Joel Mathis in The Week magazine. “Or do such images invade the privacy of grieving families and harm them even further?”

Temple University journalism dean David Boardman tweeted: “It’s time – with the permission of a surviving parent — to show what a slaughtered 7-year-old looks like.

A parent approves of photos

Some parents of slaughtered school children might agree. Lenny Pozner’s 6-year-old son was murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. Images of the horrific damage an assault rifle did to his child might change minds about gun laws. “It would move some people,” he told The Week magazine.

The death toll at Uvalde was 19 children and two teachers. The 18-year-old shooter was killed by a Border Patrol tactical unit.

Taboos governing what is socially acceptable change over time, especially in a world coarsened by exposure to a constant stream of erotica and death of all sorts, including mangled casualties of war. But how far can, or should, journalists go to show the gore and mutilation of murdered children? That is a taboo that still causes some restraint or hesitation.

In an effort to explore this territory, AdviceLine in 2013 posted “The Limits of Gruesome,” a report about a video aired by British media of an attack on an off-duty British soldier who was hacked and stabbed to death in London. An amateur photographer with a mobile phone showed one of the assailants, his bloody hands holding a knife and a clever, explaining why he killed the soldier. The video prompted more than 700 complaints to the United Kingdom’s media regulator.

Heart-breaking drownings

Another AdviceLine post, “Photos of Dead Bodies,” in June, 2019, mentioned the heart-breaking images of a man and his daughter drowned in the Rio Grande River. An ethicist said it was an example of journalists showing a truth about immigration the public would prefer not to see. “Don’t hide them,” she said.

An AdviceLine post on “Justifying Photos of Death” in January, 2019, reported on New York Times photos of a terror attack on a Nairobi hotel, leaving 21 dead. The photos were criticized as distasteful. The Times responded: “It is important to give our readers a clear picture of the horror of an attack like this,” to give a real sense of the situation.

No doubt, the right images at the right time can launch public outcries and changes, including jailing police officers.

Emmett Till murder photos

It would be difficult to top the Emmett Till case for gruesomeness, and could serve as an example of the public’s tolerance for seeing the horrifying details of murder.

Born and raised in Chicago, Till in 1955 was a 14-year-old African American boy visiting relatives in Mississippi when he was kidnapped, tortured and shot in the head after being accused of offending a white woman in her family’s grocery store. His mother, Mamie Till Bradley, insisted on a public funeral service with an open casket, showing the boy’s mutilated and bloated body, which had been dumped in the Tallahatchie River.

Tens of thousands attended the funeral or viewed his open casket. Images of his disfigured body were published in magazines and newspapers. Till posthumously became an icon of the civil rights movement. Two white men were charged with his murder, but an all-white jury found them not guilty. Protected from double jeopardy, the two men admitted in a 1956 interview with Look magazine that they tortured and murdered Till. The Emmett Till Anti-lynching Act, signed into law on March 29, 2022, made lynching a federal hate crime.

Rodney King beating

Crowd sourcing made a huge impact on recorded modern life and death. An early example is the Rodney King case. In 1991, he was beaten by Los Angeles Police Department officers during an arrest for driving while intoxicated. A bystander filmed the beating from his nearby balcony and sent the footage to a local news station, causing a public furor around the world over police brutality.

Four of the officers were tried on charges of using excessive force. Three were acquitted; the jury failed to reach a verdict on one charge for the fourth police officer. Within hours of the acquittals, the 1992 Los Angeles riots broke out, sparked by outrage among racial minorities. Rioting lasted six days, killing 63 people and injuring 2,383 others. The federal government charged the four police officers with violating King’s civil rights. Two of the officers were found guilty in 1993 and sentenced to prison. Two were acquitted. In a separate civil lawsuit in 1994, a jury found the City of Los Angeles liable and awarded King $3.8 million in damages.

George Floyd death

George Floyd was a similar, but more deadly, case. On May 25, 2020, Floyd, a 46-year-old African American, was arrested by four Minneapolis police officers on suspicion of using a counterfeit $20 bill. During the arrest, Floyd was forced face-down in a street while officer Derek Chauvin knelt with his left knee on Floyd’s neck. Floyd pleaded he could not breathe, then died.

The next day, videos by witnesses and security cameras became public, causing worldwide consternation over police brutality. All four officers were fired and Chauvin, charged with various counts of murder and manslaughter, was sentenced to 22.5 years in prison. The three other officers also were charged. Two autopsies ruled Floyd died by homicide. On March 12, 2021, Minneapolis agreed to pay $27 million to settle a wrongful death lawsuit brought by Floyd’s family.

Each of those cases demonstrate the mounting influence of photographic or video evidence in crimes. Anyone with a cell phone can record the truth of a situation. But how much truth can the public tolerate?

Children a sticking point

The United States appears to have arrived at a sticking point where children are involved, and an intersection with the development of weapons that demolish their victims. Such devastation was described in reports saying that bodies of murdered Uvalde children could only be identified by DNA or clothing they were wearing.

Journalists who produce photos of mangled children likely will be accused of sensationalism by an American public whose trust in media is near record lows, according to the Gallup Poll. Or a media challenge to Constitutional rights to own firearms. American polarization has made the search for a middle ground almost impossible, and demonization of American media is part of that mind-set. Society must decide how much it is willing to see. As with pornography, community standards might be needed to decide what is obscene.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics is marginally helpful. It warns journalists to “use special sensitivity when dealing with children” and “show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.” But the code is silent on the delicate issue of photos of bullet-riddled children.

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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.

Mass Shootings

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

It’s called “the Texas massacre,” the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting that left 19 children and two teachers dead. The 18-year old gunman was killed by police.

That came 10 days after another 18-year-old shot 10 African Americans at a supermarket in Buffalo, New York, and injured three others, livestreaming his attack on Twitch.

The Uvalde shooting came just three years after the 2019 “Texas Walmart shooting” in El Paso, where 20 people were killed and 26 injured. Gov. Greg Abbott called it “one of the most deadly days in the history of Texas.” It was believed to be the eighth deadliest in modern U.S. history at the time.

The Texas Walmart shooting came less than 24 hours before another mass shooting in Dayton, Ohio, where a 24-year old man shot and killed nine people, including his sister, and wounded 17 others near the entrance of a bar in Dayton. The shooter was killed by police.

Deadliest high school shooting

In 2018, an expelled student entered the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida and opened fire, killing 17 people and wounding 17 others. It was described at the time as the deadliest high school shooting in United States history.

In 2017, a gunman opened fire inside the First Baptist Church in Sutherland Springs, Texas, killing 26 people and wounding 20 others.

Texas stands out at the scene of several mass shootings.

Typically, in the wake of such slaughter, come pleas for action, including gun control. You might think, given recent history, even citizens of the Lone Star State might lean in that direction.

But a 2013 study found “Texans’ dueling attitudes on guns.”

Guns and culture

“Guns are a major piece of both the present and historical state culture,” said The Texas Politics Project at the University of Texas at Austin. “And they are believed to be enshrined in the Constitution as a right — people tend to hold some of their strongest attitudes about topics related to their identities and/or rights.”

A poll on Texans’ attitudes toward gun control found “the same ambivalence about gun regulation that was made apparent in the recent failure of the U.S. Senate to pass background check legislation ostensibly supported by 90 percent of Americans in national polls,” according to the report.

It would be wrong to call all Texans gun-lovers, since 78 percent said they supported background checks, although only 54 percent said they would like to see stricter gun control laws. Ten percent said they would like to see gun control laws relaxed.

“Taken together, about half of the background check supporters registered something akin to a general opposition to more gun control laws, or at least seriously questioned their effectiveness,” said the Texas Politics Project.

Gun violence hot spot

Given recent history, Texas might be seen as a hot spot for gun violence. It seemed reasonable to consider what Texans think about guns, and the toll in life they take. The poll indicates that Texans treasure their gun-toting culture and are not likely to change their minds about that.

The Washington Post found that the Uvalde shooting caused some Texans to question their long-time romance with guns, while others did not.

But let’s not single out Texas.

Nevada set a record for the number of mass shooting casualties on Oct. 1, 2017, when a 64-year-old gunman opened fire on a music festival on the Las Vegas Strip from his 32d-floor suite in the Mandalay Bay Hotel, killing 60 people and wounding 411 others. Panic brought the number of injured to 867. The gunman killed himself in the hotel room. His motive for the shooting is unknown.

Defenseless children

Gun violence in schools has been going on for a long time in the United States.  What seems so tragic about them is that the victims often are innocent, defenseless children. Maybe that’s one of the reasons shooters target them. Killing children causes unimaginable grief and loss. Another potential reason is that schools might be the setting where the shooters seek revenge for bullying, slights or their own grievances.

One of the first highly publicized mass school shootings happened at Pearl High School, in Pearl, Mississippi, on Oct. 1, 1997. There probably were others before, but Pearl was a sign of things to come. The 16-year-old killer began by fatally stabbing and bludgeoning his mother, then went to the local high school and opened fire on his classmates, killing three and wounding seven.

Not insane, angry

The teenaged shooter allegedly gave this message to a friend: “I am not insane, I am angry. I killed because people like me are mistreated every day. I did this to show society, push us and we will push back. All throughout my life, I was ridiculed, always beaten, always hated. Can you, society, truly blame me for what I do?”

Motives seldom are as clear as that appears to be. Shooters often die soon after their attacks, leaving the world to wonder what drove them to commit such heinous acts.

School shootings continued. A 23-year-old senior and English major at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University shot and killed 27 students and five faculty members on April 16, 2007, then later died by suicide. Shooting scenes often are chaotic. Unaware of the gunman’s identity, police pursued the boyfriend of one of the female victims, believing the shooting was an isolated domestic violence crime.

On Dec. 14, 2012, a 20-year-old man killed 20 first graders and six school employees at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, then turned the gun on himself. Earlier that day, he killed his mother in their home.

At the time, Sandy Hook was the second-deadliest mass shooting in the United States, after the 2007 Virginia Tech assault in Blacksburg, Virginia.

Confronting shootings

Such outbursts of gun violence often are followed by suggestions to confront the growing wave of school shootings.

Writing in the Columbia Journalism Review, Emily Richmond suggested “It’s time to rethink coverage of school shootings,” on Feb. 14, 2019.

“Schoolhouses are becoming fortresses equipped with surveillance cameras and bulletproof desks, with teachers serving double duty as armed guards,” she wrote. “Children are being pushed into terrifying drills to prepare for the possibility of a mass shooting that is statistically unlikely.”

The 2022 Uvalde shooting showed soon enough that such attacks are more than theoretical.

Sensational coverage

“Some of those trends may be fueled in part by sensational coverage of such violence,” Richmond wrote. “And a growing chorus of voices – including those of survivors, victims’ families and researchers – is urging the news media to rethink the way they approach mass shootings, including those that occur at K-12 campuses and colleges.”

Richmond points to a 2018 article appearing in a special issue of the American Behavioral Scientist journal examining implications of media coverage of mass killers.

Major media organizations in recent years have wondered if their coverage of mass shooters actually increases the risk of future attacks, and asked how their reporting can be improved, said the article’s authors,  Adam Lankford and Eric Madfis.

They found that 149 experts urged media to stop publishing the names and photos of mass killers, except during searches for suspects, but continue reporting the other details of these crimes as needed. They found that a high percentage of mass killers are suicidal and also urged media to avoid covering the shootings in a way that might invite potential imitators, or “copycat” killers.

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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.

NYT Editors’ Regrets

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Regrets, they’ve had a few.

They occupy the highest rungs of journalism leadership, the executive editors of the New York Times. The newspaper’s footprint on American journalism is so big, changes in its leadership is news.

As when the Times announced recently that, after an eight-year stint, Dean Baquet will step down as executive editor, succeeded by Managing Editor Joseph F. Kahn. Photos of the smiling men accompany such moments, along with assurances about the incoming editor’s leadership abilities.

Under Baquet’s leadership, the Times took 18 Pulitzer Prizes, one of journalism’s highest accolades. Not mentioned, though, is the Pulitzer Prize entry that the Times submitted, but withdrew upon discovering it was seriously flawed even though it already was named a finalist in the international reporting category for 2019. The Pulitzer Prize Board stripped the Times of its finalist status four days later.

Learning from failure

Failure often is cited as an opportunity to learn, and the failed Pulitzer entry is one of those occasions.

The discredited Times entry was called “Caliphate,” a 12-part audio documentary about the Islamic State, and included a related report, “The ISIS Files,” by the podcast’s co-host Rukmini Callimachi. The Times started examining the podcast after one of its main subjects, Shehroze Chaudhry, a Canadian who said he took part in atrocities, including two killings in Syria, was arrested by Canadian authorities who charged him with a terrorism hoax.

After a two-month review, the Times decided “Caliphate” did not meet the standards for Times journalism and accuracy. This is especially meaningful, coming from a newspaper that cannot claim a shortage of staff or resources, as do many newspapers across the country stricken by an economic tailspin. With more than 1,700 journalists, the New York Times is a media giant.

Leaders blamed

Baquet said the blame falls on newsroom leaders, including himself. These reportedly are some of the smartest people in the business.

“When The New York Times does deep, big, ambitious journalism in any format, we put it to a tremendous amount of scrutiny at the upper levels of the newsroom,” he said in a podcast interview posted by the Times. “We did not do that in this case. And I think that I or somebody else should have provided that same kind of scrutiny, because it was a big, ambitious piece of journalism. And I did not provide that kind of scrutiny, nor did my top deputies with deep experience in examining investigative reporting.”

A Times editor’s note on the “Caliphate” podcast cited two main problems: The Times’s failure to assign an editor well versed in terrorism to keep a close watch on the series, and the “Caliphate” team’s lack of skepticism and rigor in its reporting on Chaudhry.

One source

In effect, the Times podcast reporters placed too much trust in one man’s unverified account of events, a pitfall that snared even the Times, when they should have known better. Experienced journalists recognize the dangers of depending on one source for a big story, and they know the dangers of really, really wanting the story that source is telling them to be true. It is a siren song, deceptively alluring, that causes them to crash upon the rocks of credibility.

In a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation interview, Chaudhry was asked why he told the Times he had participated in atrocities. “I was being childish,” he replied. “I was describing what I saw and, basically, I was close enough to think it was me.”

Baquet believes no other executive editor has admitted to owning up to as many mistakes as he has. With 20/20 hindsight, he explains how rigorous examination of a complicated story should work.

Chewing, pro and con

“A really good piece of journalism not only chews on the stuff that supports the story — it chews on the stuff that refutes the story,” he said in a podcast. “And in the end, good journalism comes from some sort of internal debate over whether or not the stuff that supports the story is more powerful than the stuff that refutes the story. And to the signs that maybe our story wasn’t as strong as we thought it was.”

Signs, signals, hunches. They are part of news-making judgment. Sometimes a lot of time passes before the picture is clear, including worthiness of the 133 Pulitzer Prizes the Times has won, including the first awarded in 1918. In recent years, the Times has won one or more Pulitzers almost every year, a testament to its size and influence with the Pulitzer Prize Board. No other news organization has reaped so many Pulitzer Prizes.

The Times acted rather swiftly to decline a Pulitzer Prize for “Caliphate.” But it steadfastly refuses to return a highly controversial Pulitzer awarded 90 years ago that even Bill Keller, a Times executive editor from 2003 to 2011, considers without merit.

The 1932 Pulitzer

That is the 1932 Pulitzer awarded to New York Times reporter Walter Duranty for a glowing series of dispatches highly favorable to Joseph Stalin, the Soviet Union’s communist dictator who ordered confiscation of food and grain from peasant families under a five-year “collectivization” plan. Duranty neglected to mention the plan led to the starvation deaths of millions of Ukranians and more than a million Russians in 1932-33, according to estimates. Stalin used collectivization to crush nationalist sentiments in Ukraine and pay for his efforts to industrialize the Soviet Union, while arresting, exiling or killing dissidents.

Getting rare interviews with Stalin, Duranty was unwavering in his defense of the Russian leader and his policies, even as the famine unfolded. A front-page Times story said: “The excellent harvest about to be gathered shows that any report of a famine in Russia is today an exaggeration or malignant propaganda.” Privately, Duranty reportedly told a British diplomat that as many as 10 million people might have died from lack of food in a single year. Duranty died in 1957.

Pulitzer board declines

The New York Times began to assess Duranty’s work in 1986 and 1990. In 2003, public pressure led the Times and the Pulitzer Board to review his work and the prize. The board found no “clear and convincing evidence of deliberate deception” and decided against withdrawing the award. Then-Times Publisher Arthur Sulzberger Jr. said stripping Duranty’s award would be like airbrushing history. The Pulitzer Board again in 2021 declined to withdraw the award.

In a 2022 interview on National Public Radio with David Folkenflik, former executive editor Keller added his voice to the cause. Keller is a 1989 Pulitzer Prize winner for reporting on the Soviet Union.

Keller looks back with some regret that he did not push harder for the award to be returned, he told NPR. He says the Pulitzer board should rescind it.

“I mean, I can articulate a case for not revoking the prize and saying this is a teachable moment,” Keller said. “Hold the prize out there, but surround it with the shame it deserves. But I thought the Pulitzer board’s reasoning in not doing away with the prize was pretty lame. A Pulitzer Prize is not just an accolade for an isolated piece of work. It at least implies an accolade for the reporter’s performance, and Duranty’s performance was shameful.”

Regrets? They had a few. But not too few to mention.

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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.

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.