Category Archives: Case Study

Visual Forensics

Visual forensics distinguished the New York Times from its competitors, writes Pete Vernon, about the Las Vegas shooting.

Millions of posts to social media are “acts of journalism” if accurate.

Publish unverified documents? Consider these ethical questions

By David Craig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public relevance and journalistic purpose

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

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

Seeking truth and reporting it

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

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

Acting independently

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

Minimizing harm

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

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

Being accountable and transparent

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

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

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

Reporter’s Dilemma: Naming Owners of Tainted Water Wells

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

By Casey Bukro

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

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

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

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

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

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

Photo of Halloween Display Challenges Editor’s Ethics

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

By Casey Bukro

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading Photo of Halloween Display Challenges Editor’s Ethics

Mizzou Students and Faculty Flunk Press Freedom Test

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

Photographer Tim Tai explains First Amendment

By Casey Bukro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading Mizzou Students and Faculty Flunk Press Freedom Test

A Reporter Discovers the Pain of Being Ethical

By Casey Bukro

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Continue reading A Reporter Discovers the Pain of Being Ethical

Health Care Freelancers Face Tough Ethics Challenges

By David Ozar and Casey Bukro

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

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

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

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

Tara Haelle
Tara Haelle

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

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

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

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

Continue reading Health Care Freelancers Face Tough Ethics Challenges