Category Archives: Case Study

Fairness to the Dead

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

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

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

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

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

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional Journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org

April Fool Again

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From the files of the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional Journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

The Vanishing Who

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

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

The word is “who.”

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

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

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

I cringe.

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

I care. 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional Journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

Words That Hurt

 

 

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Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

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

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

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

Racial slurs

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

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

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

An apology

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

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

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

Newsroom lost

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

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

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

Resignation

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

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

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

Encourages support

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

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

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

Building character

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

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

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

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional Journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

An Editor’s Dilemma

 

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

The editor-in-chief of an Idaho newspaper calls the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists to say a county commissioner urged him to assign a reporter to a commission meeting where he expects some “monkey business” on the agenda as a result of a conflict with the county clerk.

The editor says he cannot afford to send a reporter to the meeting. The commissioner offers to arrange for a friend to pay for the reporter’s presence at the meeting.

Should the editor accept the offer so the reporter can attend the meeting and report on an issue that might be important to the public? What is the ethically correct course of action for the editor?

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional Journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

Sneak Journalism

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Journalists sometimes go undercover in search of information, or consider doing so in the public interest.

Journalists call the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists asking about the wisdom of this practice. Here are some of those cases:

A Colorado broadcaster asked if there were any ethical problems with entering several schools in Colorado undercover with a concealed camera to see if he would be stopped and questioned. This would be in connection with recent school shootings.

In another case, a staff writer for an Arizona newspaper asked if it would be ethical to do a story showing how easy it would be to buy drugs by sending a reporter and a photographer out with $20 bills.

In a third case, a Canadian TV network asked about the wisdom of testing airport security by trying to sneak a weapon through security.

If you were an ethics advisor, what would you tell these journalists?

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional Journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

Mug Shot Fairness

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

In a history spanning centuries of reporting the news, newspapers have never been good at forgetting or looking away.

But now they are beginning to learn how to do that for humanitarian reasons, or to curtail their interest in past practices that could tarnish a person for life.

The Chicago Tribune is the latest to announce new policies aimed at fairness in the way it reports on people. It announced a change in how it handles mug shots of people arrested for crimes but have not gone to trial.

Introspection

“As part of an ongoing examination of the fairness in how we report on people — a bit of introspection that is both shared across the news media industry and long overdue — we are adopting guidelines aimed at the restrained and consistent use of mug shots with news stories,” Colin McMahon, the newspaper’s editor-in-chief and chief content officer of Tribune Publishing. The four publication guidelines are:

*The default is to avoid using a mug shot, except in cases of public safety or high news value.

*Exceptional cases should be rare, and only with the permission of the managing editor or editor-in-chief.

*For enterprise or follow-up coverage.

*Mugshots in older stories pose a challenge, but the newspaper is exploring ways to remove them from publication.

Punitive coverage

This reexamination by media companies, said the newspaper, “is particularly critical in recognizing how their work might reinforce racial stereotypes and amount to punitive coverage of people who enter the criminal justice system — the majority of whom come from underprivileged backgrounds.”

The use of mugshots tends to imply guilt of individuals who are charged but not convicted. Some defendants will never be convicted of a crime, the Tribune pointed out.

On similar grounds, the Boston Globe earlier announced its “Fresh Start” initiative.

“Following the nationwide reckoning on racial justice,” the newspaper said, “the Globe is looking inward at the impact its coverage has had on communities of color. As we are updating how we cover the news, we are also working to better understand how some stories can have a lasting negative impact on someone’s ability to move forward with their lives.”

Erasing history

The Globe provides online applications in which individuals may request deleting stories or removing names from stories. Although this amounts to erasing history, the Globe said, “we’re considering this on a case-by-case basis but we think the value of giving someone a fresh start often outweighs the historic value of keeping a story widely accessible long after an incident occurred. People’s lives aren’t static, they’re dynamic.”

The offer to expunge information does not apply to companies.

Two University of Michigan Law professors, J.J. Prescott and Sonja B. Starr, wrote in the New York Times that a new study shows the benefits of giving people a clean slate.

Consequences persist

“The consequences of a run-in with the law can persist for decades after the formal sentence has been served,” they wrote. “People with records face major barriers to employment, housing and education, effectively condemning them to second-class citizenship.”

At least 36 states have laws allowing expungement, they write, but they tend to be narrow in scope. Typically it depends on the number of convictions and the type of crime. After completing their sentences, people often wait years while going through an elaborate process to have their records cleared.

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional Journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

Two Views of Objectivity

 

 

By Hugh Miller and Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Think of objectivity as a philosopher, by definition a person engaged in the study of reality.

Now think of objectivity as a journalist concerned with ethics, the search for right or good conduct.

This article will travel down these two roads, explored by Hugh Miller and Casey Bukro. Miller is professor of philosophy emeritus, Loyola University Chicago, and long-time AdviceLine advisor who takes calls from professional journalists seeking guidance on ethics. Bukro manages AdviceLine. He is a former national ethics chair for the Society of Professional Journalists.

The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists has reported on objectivity before. But it is a controversial topic, one that manages to avoid much attention for a time until it explodes to the surface.

Reexmination time

This is one of those times, brought on by the Trump presidency and roiling discontent among journalists over diversity in the ranks of news gatherers. The Trump presidency forced journalists to struggle over whether to call Trump a liar. Black journalists led a reckoning over objectivity.

But what is objectivity? Let’s start with Miller’s thoughts on that subject, as a philosopher might see it. As a discipline, philosophy goes back centuries, beyond the time of Socrates and Plato. Here is what Miller says:

What do modern philosophy and science have to say about objectivity? To be sure, this is an enormous question. Indeed, I think it’s fair to say that the attempt to ground and secure genuine objectivity of knowledge and perception is pretty much coextensive with most of modern philosophy, and figures prominently in the methodologies of the modern sciences.

But some reflection on the historical origins of the modern problem of the objectivity of knowledge might help shed some light on current controversies concerning contemporary issues such as diversity in the workplace of a journalistic outlet.

“Natural philosophy” in the seventeenth century (as the sciences called themselves at that time) was deeply concerned with finding a method that would allow reliable, reproducible and accurate knowledge to be winnowed from the chaff of the rest of human experience — emotions, passions, beliefs, dogmas. Geometry was the great key: unlike other intellectual disciples, it alone seemed to provide a rigorous, axiomatic, structured, “truth-preserving” structure for knowledge, a structure which could scaffold the rest of the sciences.

Consensus appears

Across a wide spectrum of philosophical schools, a converging consensus began to appear: only those aspects of experience which could be measured and quantified, and thus subjected to mathematical analysis, would count as “objective.” All others would be relegated to the realm of the merely “subjective.” The objective properties of lemon, for example, might be its mass, its size, its density, its physical components and chemical composition, all of which could be analyzed, measured and quantified in standard ways. But its warm yellow color, its citrony fragrance, the acid-sweet bite of its juice upon the tongue – these were to be excluded as merely “secondary” subjective elements, not the stuff of real knowledge.

“Objective” was honorific, “subjective” pejorative. Under Isaac Newton and his successors, physics and the other “hard sciences,” with their mathematical theories, quickly became the gold standard for knowledge. The construction of scientific knowledge and of the body of individual sciences became a quest to describe natural beings in quantifiable ways, using careful experiment and measurement. And those experiments and measurements had to be devised so as to exclude subjective bias and idiosyncrasy by the investigators, as contaminants that would vitiate inquiry and block scientific advance.

Consider the telescope of Galileo. With it, what had previously seemed an inverted dome of dim twinkling lights that moved in a precise, clockwork fashion, with the earth at the center, turned out, upon inspection, to be a vast field of celestial objects which bore startling resemblances to terrestrial phenomena. (Jupiter even had moons, like earth!) Surely this meant that it was made of the same kind of stuff as earth, and no longer entitled to any divine status.) And as Newton proved in his Principia Mathematica, celestial bodies and terrestrial ones alike could all be described with a single mathematical model of motion, universally applicable and open to use by everyone with sufficient intelligence and education, without exception. Here at last was “objective” knowledge. Wholly impersonal, purged of all the dross of subjectivity, it alone could count as the royal road to the future.

Model prevails

This model of the relation between objective knowledge and subjective error prevailed for several centuries. The sciences which were founded upon it made such strides that they seemed invincible. But by the end of the nineteenth century, the model was tottering. Thinkers like Hegel, Marx and Nietzsche provided, each in their own way, trenchant criticisms of this way of conceiving of the relationship between objective and the subjective. In the early twentieth century, physics itself underwent an epistemological crisis with the development of the theories of relativity and quantum mechanics, whose results, while experimentally validated, seemed to defy all traditional intuitive “objective” sense.

In biology, physiology and neurology, the study of the human brain and sense organs, began to lay bare the mechanisms by which perception and thought were constructed, as well as the apparent contingency of what had previously been thought to be necessarily true – the so-called “laws of thought” themselves. Darwin’s theory showed that the development of thought had itself been a contingent historical event, and remained contingent, despite its having already occurred. Modern psychology, too, has shown that what we commonly think to be the sanctum sanctorum of scientific reason is, in fact, riddled with various forms of unreason.

Readers of Michael Lewis’s book, The undoing Project will be familiar with the work of Amos Twersky and Daniel Kahneman, whose research uncovered the regular and systematic ways in which everyday clear and convincing reasoning turns out to be systematically erroneous. This seemingly hardwired tendency to make predictable mistakes can be observed, and corrected for; but its ingrained nature and persistence is unnerving.

Modern philosophy and the sciences remain in this latter-day condition of disenchantment. But the old model of “objectively good” and “subjectively bad” continues to have a strong influence over our thought. Contemporary thought seeks to try to bridge the gap between this early modern model and later critiques of it. Truth, it is thought, must somehow be made out by understanding the interplay between objectivity and subjectivity, without casting either side in a necessarily negative light in advance.

Objectivity in journalism

It is in this context that we can perhaps appreciate, from the standpoint of the history of modern philosophy and science, the problem posed by the ideal of “objectivity” in a practice like journalism. Journal like to style itself “the first draft of history.” History itself is a modern human science, and sets itself the goal of recording, as the German historian von Ranke said, “how things really happened” (wie es eigentlich gewesen ist)—not how we would like them to have, or think they should have, happened. History and its apprentice, journalism, have not themselves been immune to the glamour of the mathematical model of the hard natural sciences, with its coolheaded and impartial scientific investigator at the wheel. But, as our all too brief narrative above indicates, this model has its deficiencies. 

The journalist Jelani Cobb reminded us, in 2018, that after massive civil unrest in the United States in 1967 and ’68, the Kerner commission recommended, among its conclusions, that the ranks of journalists should be diversified, so as to include more journalists of color. The scarcity of such journalists, with their distinctive journalistic viewpoints, had greatly contributed to the shock and surprise at those disturbances on the part of white Americans. White reporters had missed what was quite literally before their eyes and under their noses, but which was as plain as the nose on their noses to black Americans: namely that America was, and had always been, a land of violent, coercive, oppressive white supremacy. By assuming that their reporters could adopt what the philosopher Thomas Nagel later called “the view from nowhere,” a perfectly impartial, neutral, impersonal – and race-free – standpoint, white Americans had deceived themselves.

In his polemical book, On the Geneology of Morals, Friedrich Nietzsche wrote, in 1887:

Let us be on guard against the dangerous old conceptual fiction that posited a “pure, will-less, painless, timeless knowing subject;” let us guard against the snares of such contradictory concepts as “pure reason,” “absolute spirituality,” “knowledge in itself:” these always demand that we should think of an eye that is completely unthinkable, an eye turned in no particular direction, in which the active and interpreting forces, through which alone seeing becomes seeing something, are supposed to be lacking; these always demand of the eye an absurdity and is nonsense. There is only a perspective seeing, only a perspective “knowing;” and the more affects we allow to speak about one thing, the more eyes, different eyes, we can use to observe one thing, the more complete will our “concept” of this thing, our “objectivity,” be.

Nietzsche is not saying that there is no truth, no knowing, no concepts, no objectivity. All of these things are real, he is saying. But they do not flow from some transcendental ego or disembodied, ahistorical scientific observer. They are built up by a collaboration and occasional conflict between different interpretive “eyes.” Not only values, but facts themselves come into existence only by means of an interpretive act. The key here is not to limit the scope of interpretive acts to one type of vision, or one mode of hearing. A multiplicity of visions is the surest road to truth.

A journalist

Here is where Casey Bukro takes over this narrative, after a 63 year history as a journalist – as a reporter, writer and an editor, most of that time at the Chicago Tribune.

I’ll say it right up front: I always believed the essence of objectivity is to remove ourselves from the story – to stand apart from it, except for the wisdom and the experience we can bring to it. For most of my time at the Tribune, I was the environment writer, the Tribune’s first reporter assigned to cover the environment full-time. People sometimes asked me if I was the Tribune’s environmental crusader. No, I said, I was a reporter like the rest of them, looking for the truth. I did not favor environmentalists any more than I favored polluters.

To those who say we all have our biases, I say yes, and a professional journalists should recognize that and keep them out of a story.

I was born in Chicago to a Polish-American family, and raised in the Humboldt Park neighborhood made up largely of people with European backgrounds. I thought of it as the best of Chicago neighborhoods, like a small United Nations. It was a mix of nationalities and religions. Everyone was different, and we learned to get along with each other. That is one of the first recollections of my early life.

I doubt my Polish-American heritage had anything to do with being hired at the Chicago Tribune after a stint at the City News Bureau of Chicago, a grueling training ground for young reporters. Before that, I had worked for the Janesville (Wis.) Gazette, after graduating from the Medill School of Journalism, at Northwestern University. I was schooled and trained for journalism, where I spent most of my life.

First SPJ code

I believed in objectivity, and said so when I wrote the Society of Professional Journalists first code of ethics, adopted in 1973, with the help of members of the national Professional Development committee, which I chaired. After the adoption of the code of ethics, I became the society’s first national ethics chair.

The 1973 code said journalists should perform “with intelligence, objectivity, accuracy and fairness.” The code was revised several times, and in 1996 the word “objectivity” was stricken from the code. My recollection is that academics largely pushed for that change, saying human beings are captives of their biases and cannot be objective.

Not only academics resisted calling journalists objective. My own boss at the Tribune, the late Jack Fuller, wrote a book on News Values, Ideas for an Information Age. He was the Tribune’s president and publisher. In the book, Fuller wrote: “No one has ever achieved objective journalism, and no one ever could. The bias of the observer always enters the picture, if not coloring the details at least guiding the choice of them.” Fuller won a Pulitzer Prize for editorial writing. I sometimes wonder if that taught him the value of opinion over objectivity. He was a man of opinions.

For years, news organizations staffed their newsrooms with specialists in covering the environment, education, science, government, politics, sports and other beats that required their talents and ability to recognize critical developments on their beats. And to attract trustworthy sources of reliable information. These are not the activities of remote automatons. It takes engagement and thought about what is important.

Diversity brings change

The recent emphasis on diversity brought new meaning to a reporter’s ethnic background, and racial insights. This is based on the belief that a newsroom should reflect the diversity of communities reporters are covering, so that they understand the customs and the trials of that community. But how is that playing out?

The Pew Research Center in 2019 reported that the public places high value on journalists’ connection to the community, but Americans offer a more mixed assessment of journalists’ actual connection to their community.

This disconnect, of minority journalists actually making an impact in their workplaces, came clearer in an op-ed appearing in the New York Times, written by Wesley Lowery, a Times reporter.

“Black journalists are publicly airing years of accumulated grievances, demanding an overdue reckoning for a profession whose mainstream repeatedly brushes off their concerns; in many newsrooms, writers and editors are now also openly pushing for a paradigm shift in how our outlets define their operations and ideals.”

Black journalists

In an article headlined “A reckoning over objectivity, led by Black journalists,” Lowery writes that “while these two battles may seem superficially separate, in reality, the failure of the mainstream press to accurately cover black communities is intrinsically linked with its failure to employ, retain and listen to black people.”

To listen. In the past, reporters were told to keep their opinions to themselves. Now, as they see it, they are being hired for the opinions and insights they bring to their jobs. Editorial writers, of course, always wrote opinion pieces, which distinguished them from the news pages.

It’s a treacherous, changing landscape. Sometime after Lowery’s op-ed appeared, Lauren Wolfe, a New York Times freelancer, appeared to be dismissed for expressing a political opinion, although the newspaper said that was not true, but offered no further explanation.

Lowery’s boss, Dean Baquet, executive editor of the Times, told Jon Allsop of the Columbia Journalism Review that he believed Lowery’s op-ed was “terrific,” and didn’t believe that he and Lowery were far apart on the objectivity question.

Fair and independent

“Baquet — who has repeatedly stressed the importance of objectivity in the past —said that he doesn’t love the term, and that he would rather frame his view of journalism around ‘fairness’ and ‘independence,’ wrote Allsop. “The independent and fair reporter, he said, ‘gets on an airplane to pursue a story with an empty notebook, believing that he or she doesn’t fully know what the story is, and is going to be open to what they hear.’”

Objectivity, and the appearance of bias, was at the root of a long hesitation by the New York Times and other media to say flat-out that President Trump was a liar.

“It’s not just his outrageous stuff…he says things that are just demonstrably false,” Baquet told Ken Doctor in an interview appearing in niemanlab.org. “I think he’s challenged our language. He will have changed journalism, he really will have.”

It took a long time, Baquet admitted, to understand how to deal with falsehood. “We didn’t know how to write the paragraph that said, ‘This is just false.’ We struggle with that. I think that Trump has ended that struggle. I think we now say stuff. We fact-check him. We write it more powerfully that it’s false.”

Liar presidents

This hesitancy to call a president a liar is strange, since it would not be the first time.

“When Richard Nixon was president, most journalists knew he was a thoroughly dishonest man,” wrote David Greenberg in politico.com. “Notably, though, it wasn’t until the Watergate investigations proved that Nixon had deliberately uttered his falsehoods with the intent to deceive the public that journalists rolled out the heaviest rhetorical artillery available to them: Calling the president a liar.”

As generations of journalists change, some lessons must be leaned anew.

In the Washington Post, Paul Farhi reported that news organizations across the country were starting to describe Trump’s falsehoods that way.

“It’s (almost) official: The president of the United States is a liar,” wrote Farhi.

Other news media hesitate to use “lie” for Trump’s misstatements, writes David Bauder in apnews.com. It’s a question of intent. Editors believe it’s important to establish whether someone is spreading false information knowingly, intending to deceive, and it’s hard to get inside a person’s head, writes Bauder.

Let facts speak

At the Associated Press, “we feel it’s better to say what the facts are, say what the person said and let the audience make the decision whether or not it’s an intentional lie,” said John Daniszewski, the news cooperatives’s standards editor.

“Lie” is considered a loaded word. However, Trump’s birther movement questioning former President Barack Obama’s citizenship led both the New York Times and AP  to use the word “lie.”

Clearly, the controversy over objectivity rages on. Andrew Kirell in mediaite.com, writes: “There is no such thing as objectivity in journalism. And it’s time to get over it.”

The Media Ethics Initiative recognizes the trend toward “a new understanding of journalism, one which allows for the inclusion of a journalist’s personal voice,” though others believe ditching the ideals of objectivity and neutrality is dangerous.

“For a journalist to include their own voice is to risk exerting influence over their audience,” writes the author. “Whereas the publication of ‘only facts’ allows for the consumers to make judgments for themselves, not be told what to think by a reporter.”

Seeking bias

There are always conflicting views. Kelly McBride, a Poynter Institute expert on journalism ethics and standards, points out that in today’s polarized world, people judge media accuracy by their own biases.

“If a news consumer doesn’t see their particular bias in a story accounted for – not necessarily validated, but at least accounted for in a story – they are going to assume that the reporter or the publication is biased,” McBride said in a story about controversial news media bias charts.

There will never be a final answer to this controversy, which involves opinions about expressing opinions. In my experience, journalists can be a very opinionated bunch. They love to argue and quibble about details. It’s their job.

Let me tell you my long-time bottom line on objectivity: Those who say it is impossible will never be able to achieve it. Once a person says something is unattainable, they usually stop trying. I always keep trying, keeping Roger Bannister in mind.

Record mile run

On May 6, 1954, Bannister, a 25-year-old medical student, ran the mile in three minutes, fifty-nine and four-tenths of a second in Oxford, England. He was the first in recorded track and field history to break the four-minute mile.

Until that time, some doctors and scientists insisted that no human could run the mile in less than four minutes. They said it could be fatal. I remember clearly a perfectly reasoned article at the time written by a doctor explaining why the human body could not reach such a goal. Lactic acid would build up in the blood during extreme exertion, along with oxygen depletion in the heart and lungs. Seemed perfectly reasonable.

But Bannister did not believe it, and avoided conventional coaching and training methods of the time. Wikipedia reports that 1,400 male athletes have broken the “four-minute barrier” since Bannister did it. And breaking that barrier is now the standard of all male professional middle distance runners.

Upon finishing the record-breaking race, Bannister said: “Doctors and scientists said breaking the four-minute miles was impossible, that one would die in the attempt. Thus, when I got up from the track after collapsing at the finish line, I figured I was dead.”

It pays to be skeptical of what people say is impossible.

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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.

Watch What You Tweet

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

To tweet or not to tweet, that seems to be the question involving Lauren Wolfe, dismissed by the New York Times for reasons not totally explained.

At first, it looked like Wolfe was fired for tweeting she had “chills” watching President-elect Joe Biden’s plane land outside Washington, D.C. She also criticized the Trump administration for failing to fly Biden to Washington for the inauguration in a military aircraft.

The “online condemnation of the Times over Wolfe’s ouster and its timing was fierce,” wrote Thom Geier in Yahoo.com.

A torrent of criticism

In the Washington Post, Jeremy Barr wrote: “Facing a torrent of criticism on social media, including broadsides from journalists and celebrities, the New York Times on Sunday sought to correct what it called ‘incorrect information’ regarding a freelance editor, Lauren Wolfe, with whom the paper cut ties after a tweet some conservatives claimed showed bias.”

The New York Times said the case was not as simple as that. “There’s a lot of inaccurate information circulating on Twitter,” Times spokeswoman Danielle Rhoades told the Post. “For privacy reasons we don’t get into the details of personnel matters, but we can say that we didn’t end someone’s employment over a single tweet. Out of respect for the individuals involved, we don’t plan to comment further.”

The newspaper said Wolfe was not a full-time employee and did not have a contract with the publication, contrary to widespread reports, but instead worked as a freelancer.

Sometimes the news is like a run-away freight train — hard to stop once it gets going.

Wolfe deleted the tweet, but she was fired soon afterward.

Dangerous territory

The Wolfe case shows how ethically dangerous social media can be for journalists.

Back in 2014, AdviceLine ethicist David Craig described three ethical pressure points for journalists on Twitter. One was about “navigating boundaries between personal and professional identities.”

The New York Times, like many media organizations, has ethical journalism standards spelled out for its news and editorial departments. It covers 41 pages. A point that appears to apply to the Wolfe case states that “no one may do anything that damages The Times’s reputation for strict neutrality in reporting on politics and government; in particular, no one may wear campaign buttons or display any other form of political partisanship while on the job.”

Confessing to a “chill” on Biden’s arrival can be considered a form of political partisanship while on the job.

Conflicts real or perceived

Like many corporate codes of ethics, the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics urges journalists to “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.” It says journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public’s right to know. And remain free of activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.

In Vox.com, Anya Wagtendonk writes: “Whatever happened between the paper and Wolfe, the response to her social media post has become the latest flashpoint in an ongoing conversation about how media organizations apply ethical and objectivity standards, and how they should respond to attacks on reporters in a post-Trump era.”

Social media is all about opinions. Strict rules against expressing personal opinions in the news may be easing here and there as journalists are encouraged to form bonds with the communities they serve. Some journalists challenge those strict rules.

Challenges

Erik Wemple of the Washington Post opines that “the Times will never achieve a uniformly enforced standard for the social media behavior of its journalists. Each tweet is different from the next; each tweeter occupies a different rung on the paper’s hierarchy; and each controversy comes at a different moment in the national political mood.”

Writer Thom Geier put it this way: “The firing of Lauren Wolfe raises an important issue. If working as a journalist, is it better to: a) have no opinions; b) pretend to have none; or c) own them honestly and still work to be fair? I would chose c. I think it’s phony to pretend to be objective.”

Maybe so. But it’s always wise to check what your employer thinks and act accordingly. Read the corporate policies and ethical standards carefully. Otherwise, you might be out of a job.

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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.

Erasing News Archives

NBCNews.com image

By Casey Bukro and Hugh Miller

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

The searing images and reports of the January 6 terrorist mass attack on the nation’s Capital caused a long-simmering debate to resurface over preserving or expunging printed and visual information about people that could be damaging or embarrassing in the future.

Is this political correctness where people do not want to be confronted with their own past actions? Or recognition that media reports are not always fair to people and should be updated and corrected as a matter of social justice?

Just two days after the terrorist invasion, the MIT Technology Review published a story on “The scramble to archive Capitol insurrection footage before it disappears,” although the “global effort to save incriminating evidence raises ethical quandaries.”

The report by Tanya Basu described efforts to protect information before it disappears by Reddit users, the Bellingcat journalism site, a publicly editable Google spreadsheet of links, the Woke collective and Intelligence X, a European search engine.

Preserving information on the Capitol riot became urgent as “livestreams were turned off by platforms and broadcast news networks during the attack on the Capitol, and companies like Facebook, YouTube, Twitch and Twitter have since systematically removed posts that violated policies against violent or incendiary content,” Basu writes.

Without the footage captured by other sources, a substantial part of it would have been lost by being erased or deleted.

Ethical Quandaries

That also creates ethical quandaries. “The data now being archived could haunt people in the photos for years to come, even if they later renounce or pay criminal penalties for their actions,” writes Basu.

It is a quandary with a long and growing history as media consider the personal consequences of their reports in a society developing new awareness in the wake of the Black Lives Matter and Me Too campaigns.

The Boston Globe announced “Fresh Start,” allowing people to ask the newspaper to update or anonymize past coverage of them online. It is part of a broader effort to rethink the Globe’s criminal justice coverage and how it affects communities of color, amid a national reckoning over racial inequality.

It is similar to “right to forget” programs at newsrooms across the country, writes Zoe Greenberg, “meant to address the lasting impact that stories about past embarrassments, mistakes, or minor crimes, forever online and searchable, can have on a person’s life.” Globe editor Brian McGrory said it is an attempt to address the criminal justice system’s “disproportionate impact on people of color.” To apply, people fill out a short form online with an explanation of why they are requesting a review, including relevant court documents.

The Cleveland Plain Dealer launched a similar initiative in 2019.

Responsible, Fair, Respect

In the June, 2020 Quill Magazine, the Society of Professional Journalists former national ethics chair, Lynn Walsh, writes: “The answer is not to stop recording, reporting or take photos at protests and rallies. The answer is to do so responsibly, fairly and with respect. While images of pain, anger and excitement can be powerful, remember the people in them are experiencing these emotions in real time. Documenting this is part of our role and duty to the public and the people in these public demonstrations are an important part of the story.”

Walsh gave 14 pointers journalists should keep in mind.

The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists has been asked repeatedly for advice on this vexing problem of preserving or destroying archived information about distraught folks in the news, past or present.

Back in 2005, the executive editor of a California chain of community newspapers called AdviceLine with a newly emerging problem: People wanted old stories about them removed from the web archives, or blocked from Google searches. They want stories about them “unpublished.” Complicating the issue, companies have gone into business to help people scour themselves out of online archive data.

Benefit/Harm

The AdviceLine ethics consultant, David Ozar, professor of Social and Professional Ethics at Loyola University Chicago at the time, said, “this is an issue of benefit/harm and the first issue is what benefit the archives offer the community. The answer is the benefit of an historical record.” Ozar decided there is no ethical difference between written or digital archives.

The newspaper should not help people remove information from the historical record, the ethicist decided. The paper may chose to see if Google will assist those people, but the paper has no obligation to bear great expense to help these people block access to information about them.

“All this assumes, of course, that the paper has taken the usual care in publishing only news that is supported by the evidence and has taken care also to correct any errors in its publishing,” said Ozar.

Times change. And, as the Boston Globe’s “Fresh Start” program shows, perspectives and media social sensitivity change. Norms change.

A Fresh Look

AdviceLine asked Hugh Miller, to take a fresh look at the long-smoldering controversy over expunging information from media records or archives. A fresh look leavened with the latest ideas about journalism professionalism and social justice. Miller is professor of philosophy emeritus, Loyola University Chicago, and one of the AdviceLine advisors who takes calls from professional journalists seeking guidance on ethics. Here are his remarks in full:

Should news writers and editors accede to requests by the subjects of their already published stories to expunge those stories, or at least to edit them to remove the names of the subjects, in order to protect those subjects from reputational or other future harm?

Phrased in such stark terms, the answer seems straightforward. Published news pieces are in the public record. Retroactively altering them seems to amount to editing history — Winston Smith’s day job in the “Ministry of Truth” in Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Adopting it as a policy would shake, if not destroy, readers’ and listeners’ confidence in the integrity of the outlet’s reporting, and integrity is the coin of the realm in journalism. It would also open the floodgates of appeal by subjects (and their politically powerful or well-connected friends) clamoring to edit their appearance to repair or boost their “brands.” Corrections should be rare, confined to errors of fact, and prominently displayed.

Student Editor

The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists has handled such cases. In one, dating back to 2010, a student newspaper editor was approached by another student about a story in which he had been the subject. Student S. was the son of a prominent business executive who had just been arrested in connection with a criminal investigation. The article treated the son’s reaction to the news. Some days after its publication, S. called, asking that the story be taken down from the website, or at least anonymized, claiming that the article was causing him emotional distress and might be damaging to his career prospects. We discussed the matter with the editor, and reached the conclusion that it was best that the article stand, since retroactive editing would damage the paper’s reputation for integrity of reporting. The time for making decisions about what to say, and how to say it, about the subjects of the story was prior to publication — not after.

Of course, reality is commonly messier than this. Suppose the subject had been the victim of a reputational hit job by a mean-spirited (or even a “crusading”) writer or editor? Or suppose that a group of people – Blacks, indigenous people, persons of color, Muslims, Jews, etc. — had been the target of systematic insensitive reporting that was damaging to their reputations and careers? The Boston Globe recently launched an experimental initiative called “Fresh Start” that seeks to “address the lasting impact that stories about past embarrassments, mistakes or minor crimes, forever online and searchable, can have on a person’s life,” particularly of African Americans. Anthony Benedetti, chief counsel of the Committee for Public Counsel Services in Massachusetts, pointed out that defendants are written about early in the criminal process. Reporters rarely follow up when the initial information turns out to be wrong or less serious than initially reported, said Benedetti. In other cases, people are convicted and serve their sentences, but when they apply for a job, articles about past misdeeds prevent them from being hired. If this amounts to an injustice, as it seems to, why not correct it by means of what I call “retrospective editing?”

When it comes to established past cases, the Globe’s initiative has some moral merit. For better or worse, we live in a world in which employers and others Google prospective employees, and even review their social media accounts, making hiring, promotion and dismissal decisions. While the blame for indiscretions on the latter might rest squarely with the account owner, the same can’t be said for what pops up when an all-seeing and indifferent search engine finds public records of that same person. Over those stories the subject may have had little or no control, and been given little input. The Globe is not accepting appeals from organizations or corporations, only individuals, and applicants must make a case that their coverage has unfairly damaged them, to have their appeal for expungement or anonymization even considered. The emendation of a small, back-page story to give its victim a clean bill of online health seems like a small price to pay.

Retrospective Editing Policy

But as an ongoing policy, having a permanent “retrospective editing” policy is inadvisable. As in our 11-year-old case, the time for considering what and how much to say about a subject, and how to say it, is before the story is published, not later. The SPJ Code of Ethics strongly emphasizes the aspect of “minimizing harm,” especially to minors, the victims of sex crimes and subjects who are incapable of giving consent or who are simply inexperienced in dealing with the press, and with appearing in it. It also encourages writers and editors to “consider cultural differences in approach and treatment,” and to “consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication.” These all address the concerns the Globe is seeking to deal with in it “Fresh Start” experiment.

But, again, these important considerations should come before the story goes to press or air. The damage to the integrity and credibility of a news outlet that was known regularly to retrospectively edit its stories would be too great to sustain, especially in a media environment like the one we have been living in for the past few years, where charges of “media bias” and “fake news” have already sadly degraded public trust in the media.

Retrospective editing is no substitute for the real thing — just like retrospective justice.

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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