Category Archives: Conflict of interest

Newsroom Ethics Panel

 

 

Carol Marin, Chicago journalist

By Casey Bukro

“Fake news began with the cavemen,” asserts Carol Marin, a leading Chicago television and print journalist.

A caveman returned to his cave, telling heroic stories about his exploits. “The demons he killed were enormous,” Marin assured an audience gathered to hear a newsroom ethics panel featuring some of the Chicago region’s best-known journalists. “It has always been a presence in our lives.”

The topic was “Fake News” versus “Real News.” The place was the WGN-TV studie in Chicago.

“Facts matter,” said Margaret Holt, the Chicago Tribune’s standards editor. “It all begins with facts.”

Holt recited a famous dictate of Chicago journalism: “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.” Take nothing for granted and check out everything.

“The job of journalism is to get facts, get facts clear,” said Holt.

Don Moseley, a political and investigative television producer offered this: “Specificity, for people who watch and read. Specificity.”

Moseley is co-director with Marin of DePaul University’s Center for Journalism Integrity and Excellence.

Marsha Bartel, WGN-TV investigative producer, believes “people have become too passive. You’ve got to do work on your own. I urge everybody to become better consumers.”

Maggie Bowman, a documentary file producer for Kartemquin Educational Films in Chicago, said audiences weigh information given to them.

“It’s up to us as storytellers to be transparent, like who funds us,” said Bowman. Resita Cox, a City Bureau reporter, agreed: “Explain how you got to where you got to.” City Bureau is a nonprofit civic journalism lab in Chicago.

Holt added: “Also, ask what’s the voice that is missing. Have more voices. Look at who is missing.”

This was the next question: How do you determine the reliability of sources, and whether to use anonymous sources?

A two-source rule is helpful, said Marin. “We spend a lot of sleepless nights looking at the pieces of the story,” including the motives of sources.

Moseley: “When you use anonymous sources, you vet them, their background and the foundation of their knowledge.”

Bartel: Most sources have a motive. “I take the sources as a lead” and look for documents to verify what the source said. “Work it and work it and keep adding pieces of information. I really try not to use anonymous sources any more, unless there is no other option.”

Moseley: “Think carefully before you use them.”

Next question was how social media complicates the lives of journalists.

Social media can help develop a story, said Cox, but “is the person telling the truth? Is this a story? You have to go the extra step and verify sources.”

Next question, what is a conflict of interest?

Holt pointed out that the late Jerome Holtzman, a former Chicago Tribune sports writer, wrote a book entitled, “No Cheering in the Press Box.” It warned sports writers to avoid taking sides in reporting sporting events, but Holt said that advice applies to all journalists.

“There has to be personal separation,” said Holt. “You cannot separate yourself from your social media presence. You have to be careful about how you present yourself in the professional world.”

Marin added: “We don’t take a side, we don’t belong to anyone’s club. It’s very hard to impress that on young journalists. We’re not there to support, but to present the facts.”

On the issue of copyright and fair use, Bowman said “fair use is a way of finding the balance in copyright material.” It’s difficult, she said, to use copyright material without paying exorbitant fees. She typically uses seconds or minutes of television clips for historical content, for example.

“As users of copyright material we continually defend our right to use it,” she said. Fair Use laws, she said, allows “free expression in our democracy,” adding “we can’t make things completely objective, but we can be transparent.”

For a source on fair use, free speech and intellectual property, Bowman suggested going to the Center for Media and Social Impact at cmsimpact.org. It is based in Washington, D.C.

On television, Marin said journalists often fail to explain the difference between news and analysis, a point of view. “In a lot of ways we fail.”

The next question wondered about a reporter’s rights in public and private settings, considering that journalists sometimes are told to leave the premises.

“If someone asks you to leave their house,” answered Cox, “you have to leave the house. But the sidewalk is public. Trespassing is a big thing. You have to figure your way around it.”

When covering government, said Marin, officials will try to set the rules.

“None of them really like the press,” said Marin. “But it is our job to cover them whether they like it or not. They are public officials.”

Holt added: “Arm yourself with education before you get into this. Army yourself. There is all kinds of training. There are things you can do even before you get into this position. We will fight. It’s incumbent on us to know what we have a right to.”

Bartel pointed to an alarming change in attitudes toward reporters since she first started covering presidential national conventions.

At the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland, she said, “we were shouted at, called liberal media. I’ve never seen anything like that. It’s a very different atmosphere and felt like this was not a safe place to be.

“In this environment, you need to defend yourself and speak out” because there is a tendency to attack reporters.

On the issue of making mistakes, Holt said, “we all make mistakes and own your mistakes. What’s the point of making mistakes if you don’t learn from it? The people who make the most mistakes have the most challenging jobs. If you make mistakes over and over again, that is on you. Do the best you can in the time available. You build your credibility day by day.”

Moseley recalled that in speaking to a class, Holt pointed out that baseball players who sit on the bench during a game make no mistakes.

Race relations complicate the life of a journalist, Cox pointed out.

“I feel like we’re at war with each other,” she said. “I’m a woman of color and reporting in an era of Trump.” There are stories that don’t tell both sides, she said.

Marin said she opposes the idea of expecting African American reporters to cover African American issues. She would object to being identified as a white reporter with Swedish heritage, she said.

“We lose reporters who see nuances” by attempting to pigeon hole them according to ethnicity, said Marin.

Bartel added: “I think we are giving too much voice to the KKK. When I started I thought everything was black and white. Now it’s all shades of gray. The world is not right or wrong, black or white.”

In a similar vein, Cox said: “There are stories that are outright wrong and we don’t have to give a platform to those people.”

Holt said journalism often is “driven by white, older men. It’s difficult if you are a young reporter to balance this stuff. Part of what you bring to the job is you come from a different place. That is a valuable voice. Young people see the world differently from those with a more traditional view.”

 

 

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Journalists Helping Police: Is It Unethical?

News helicopter
Police hitched a ride on a news helicopter in pursuit of a shooting suspect. Wikimedia Commons photo.

By Casey Bukro

People sometimes think police and reporters are alike. Both chase criminals and other kinds of crooks to protect the public.

But they’re not the same, and a case involving a news helicopter in Boulder, Colorado, made that clear.

Boulder police were chasing a shooting suspect when they asked reporters aboard a helicopter shared by Denver TV stations for an airborne lift at the scene to search for the suspect.

A police officer boarded the copter. From his aerial vantage point, the officer was able to nab a suspect in cooperation with a SWAT team on the ground.

A police spokeswoman called the assist instrumental in the arrest, according to the Boulder Daily Camera, and noted that the news team got direct access to the police action.

Boulder police requested the ride from reporters after failing to get assistance from Denver Police or the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

A win-win, or an ethics foul?
Continue reading Journalists Helping Police: Is It Unethical?

Roger Ailes’ Eye for News: Lawsuit Draws Look at Fox News Legacy

Roger Ailes
Fox News boss Roger Ailes resigns after he’s accused of sexual harassment. (Wesley Mann/Fox News photo)

By Casey Bukro

As chairman of Fox News, Roger Ailes peddled sex appeal.

News anchors often were chosen for their looks: young, pretty, blonde, leggy and shapely. That’s the way Ailes liked them. A lot. Maybe too much.

It’s a formula that led to his downfall, apparently because he could not resist temptation or the raptures of the casting couch. Ailes resigned amid sexual harassment allegations after a 20-year reign as head of Fox News, where he devised a highly successful broadcast formula of vitriolic partisan right-wing commentary.

Ailes’s own alleged comments are part of a lawsuit against him by former Fox News Anchor Gretchen Carlson.

“I think you and I should have had a sexual relationship a long time ago,” Ailes supposedly “>told Carlson. Carlson charges that Ailes sabotaged her career in retaliation for rebuffing his sexual advances and complaining about a hostile work environment. In a statement, Ailes contended her contract was not renewed due to low ratings and her lawsuit was her retaliation for the dismissal. Her lawyer claims the suit was considered even before the firing.

Carlson’s lawsuit prompted 25 women to come forward with what they describe as similar harassment claims against Ailes over five decades.

The Washington Post reported that interviews with four of the women “portray the 76-year-old television powerhouse as a man who could be routinely crude and inappropriate, ogling young women, commenting about their breasts and legs, and fostering a macho, insensitive culture.” One women accused Ailes of groping her. Ailes’s lawyer said the accusations are false.

Continue reading Roger Ailes’ Eye for News: Lawsuit Draws Look at Fox News Legacy

Mother Jones Goes Undercover

My Four Months as a Prison Guard
Mother Jones senior reporter Shane Bauer took a job at a state prison run by Corrections Corporation of America. His account is in the July-August 2016 issue.

By Casey Bukro

Just when you think an ethics issue has been put to rest, a Mother Jones magazine reporter spends four months working undercover as a guard at a corporate-run prison in Louisiana.

“I took a $9 an hour job as a private prison guard in Louisiana,” reporter Shane Bauer wrote in a 35,000 word, six-part report accompanied by two sidebar reports and an editor’s note, plus video.

“I saw stabbings, an escape and prisoners and guards struggling to survive,” Bauer wrote.

The publication’s editor-in-chief, Clara Jeffery, wrote that legal intimidation makes investigations of prisons rare, but “it’s time for journalists to reclaim our roots.” She pointed to an 1887 undercover investigation of a women’s mental asylum by New York World reporter Nellie Bly as an early example of the kind of work journalists should be doing. It triggered reforms.

It’s fair to say undercover reporting has fallen into disfavor these days because it often depends on deception, for which a publication can be sued. And it can make journalists look like liars.

“Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public,” says the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics.

Continue reading Mother Jones Goes Undercover

Rules Emerge for Writing About Suicides

Raveena Aulakh
Toronto Star Reporter Raveena Aulakh died by suicide. Toronto Star photo.

By Casey Bukro

Writing about suicides can make journalists squirm.

In part, it’s because the topic long was considered taboo or loaded with restrictions on the proper course of action. When I was a reporter and editor at the Chicago Tribune, one of the fears was that a story about someone who took his own life might trigger suicidal thoughts in others. A stigma was attached to suicides and it seemed best to avoid being too intrusive for the sake of the family.

These memories flooded back upon reading about the contortions that the Toronto Star staff suffered while trying to honor instructions left by Star reporter Raveena Aulakh, before she ended her life. She was the paper’s global environment reporter.

“Please don’t talk about me. Please don’t let anyone write about me,” she wrote, not even an obituary in the Star. Her family expressed similar wishes and the Star wanted to respect them.

But the Star could not. An investigation revealed that Aulakh was distraught over a broken relationship with her senior editor. She also revealed in emails that the senior editor was having a relationship with the Star’s female managing editor. Both lost their newsroom jobs. One left the newspaper.

Continue reading Rules Emerge for Writing About Suicides

The Peeping Tom Chronicles: Gay Talese’s New Journalism Tease

Gay Talese
Author Gay Talese (Wikipedia photo)

Update: “I should not have believed a word he said,” author Gay Talese said after the Washington Post informed him that property records showed that the subject of his latest book,  a Peeping Tom motel owner, did not own the motel from 1980 to 1988. While Talese disavowed his latest book in the Post’s report, he and his publisher defended the book to the New York Times.

By Casey Bukro

One questionable ethical episode after another piles up in the New Yorker’s excerpt of a forthcoming Gay Talese book. In “The Voyeur’s Motel,” a serial Peeping Tom owner of a motel might have witnessed a possible murder. He invites Talese to join him in secretly watching a couple have sex.

By Talese’s own admission, there’s reason to believe some of the story is not true.

It’s possible the New Yorker was swayed by the author’s fame in publishing a titillating account of voyeurism. The Aurora, Colorado, motel owner kept detailed written accounts of what he saw through the ceiling ventilating system grille openings over more than a dozen rooms. Talese writes that he could not verify some details, including the murder. He shrugs it off as poor record-keeping.

Although the motel owner, Gerald Foos, admits to being a voyeur since the age of 9, he considers himself a researcher of human sexual habits. Talese knows the subject as well, having explored it in 1981’s “Thy Neighbor’s Wife.” He’s also an inventor of New Journalism, a style that depends heavily on subjective observation.

“Over the years, as I burrowed deeper into Foos’s story, I found various inconsistencies – mostly about dates – that called his reliability into question,” Talese wrote in the New Yorker excerpt. Most editors might balk at publishing a story on which the writer himself casts doubt upon its reliability. But the New Yorker forged ahead.

At least Talese points to the holes in his story. Under the rules of Old Journalism, that would have qualified “spiking” the piece.

Continue reading The Peeping Tom Chronicles: Gay Talese’s New Journalism Tease

Muzzled Columnist Quits Las Vagas Review-Journal

Las Vegas Review-Journal photo
Las Vegas Review-Journal photo

By Casey Bukro

The proverbial other shoe dropped in the case of Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who secretly bought the Las Vegas Vegas Review-Journal after days of denial.

The newspaper’s columnist John L. Smith resigned in protest after being told he could not write about Adelson or Steve Wynn, both Vegas casino magnates who unsuccessfully sued Smith for libel and drove him into bankruptcy through legal fees.

The paper’s editor, J. Keith Moyer, argued that it would be a conflict of interest for Smith to write about two of the most powerful men in town, who had sued him, not for his work on the newspaper, but for books he had written about them.

The one mentioning Adelson was titled “Sharks in the Desert.” The other book was titled “Running Scared: The Life and Treacherous Times of Las Vegas Casino King Steve Wynn.” Clearly, neither book offered much sympathy for either power player.

But this is a story about fabulous Las Vegas, a town with an explosive history of gambling, gangsters, show-business megastars, showgirls and entertainment. It’s in a constant state of drama or turmoil. All you have to do is walk through the downtown casinos at 3 a.m. and see the action on the roulette and blackjack tables to know things don’t slow down there.

Continue reading Muzzled Columnist Quits Las Vagas Review-Journal

Clinching the Debate: Is Hugging Political Candidates Unethical?

By Casey Bukro

All is fair in love, war and politics. But do they mix?

Critics say Rachel Maddow, MSNBC television host and political commentator, crossed a line when she hugged Democratic presidential contenders Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton after a televised debate.

Rachel Maddow hugs Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders
Rachel Maddow hugs Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Maddow says she’s a hugger, and probably will hug again if invited to host another debate regardless of political party.

Conservative Fox News analyst Howard Kurtz is among those who object. “She shouldn’t have been on that stage as moderator,” Kurtz writes on foxnews.com. “She is an unabashedly liberal commentator who rips the Republicans every night on her program. She should not have been put in that position.”

Kurtz acknowledges that Maddow is a smart lady, a Rhodes scholar with deep knowledge of the issues. But as Kurtz sees it, the hugs restrict MSNBC’s efforts to shed its left-wing label and rebrand itself as a news network.

Brit Hume, another political commentator, tweeted about the clutch play, saying “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a moderator do that before.”

Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple shrugs it off.

“Consider the hugs through the prism of journalism ethics,” writes Wemple. “Were they transparent? Yes, there’s a video of the hugs, which took place in front of the cameras; any clandestine backstage moderator-candidate hugging is strictly forbidden. Were they even-handed? Yes, both Sanders and Clinton received hugs of very comparable warmth, duration and hand-pats. Were they prejudicial? Nah, coming at the end of the event, it’s hard to say that the affection received by Maddow influenced the questions, which were solid.

“So, that’s the verdict, considering that there doesn’t appear to be a hug provision in the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics.”

True, the code does not outlaw hugging specifically. But it does warn against conflicts of interest, “real or perceived.” And it urges journalists to “remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.”

Those tenets apply to this case, which is why some journalists might do a double-take at Maddow’s embrace.

In a later blog post, Wemple returns to the debate-ending squeeze. “The industry’s orthodoxy dictates that those with opinions shouldn’t be running such straight-news events. Count me out of that strain of hollow thought. We’ll take Maddow over some ‘objective’ drone every time,” he writes.

Which is to say journalism standards and customs change over time. Lines are drawn and redrawn. And journalists will agree or disagree. It’s the nature of ethics.

That Herman Hupfeld song from the movie “Casablanca” comes to mind, “As Time Goes By.”

“You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh. The fundamental things apply as time goes by.” Nothing there about hugs.

In your view, was Maddow wrong? Leave a reply below.

Edited by Stephen Rynkiewicz.

Professional journalists with ethics questions may contact us at ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

Secret Vegas Deal: Adelson’s Bet on Journalism

Sheldon Adelson
Sheldon Adelson, chairman and CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corp. Photo by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

By Casey Bukro

The stealth purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson had journalists guessing for a week about the identity of the new owner and had some fuming over a lack of transparency, a prime tenet in media ethics these days.

But why should we be surprised by all this?

Very rich men often play by their own rules and get away with it. Even in media, top executives sometimes believe they are exempt from the ethics standards they hand down to their employees.

Journalists are warned against forming close personal ties with the sources they cover in case of conflicts of interest or an appearance of conflict. Publishers, however, party and play golf with the high and mighty covered by their staffs and call that good business.

They see themselves as business men and women, not journalists. In this case, we’re talking about a businessman in the Las Vegas casino business, where razzle-dazzle is the way the game is played. The house always wins.

Politics makes it more complicated. Adelson reportedly declined mentioning his purchase of the largest Nevada newspaper, even denying it as first, because he did not want it to distract from the fifth GOP presidential debate being held at the time in the Venetian resort hotel casino owned and operated by the Las Vegas Sands Corp., of which Adelson is chairman and CEO.

Clearly, politics took priority. And that might offer a clue into some of the leading questions in Las Vegas these days, such as what does Adelson want, and what does he intend to do with the newspaper?

Continue reading Secret Vegas Deal: Adelson’s Bet on Journalism