Rolling Stone retracted its 2014 story about an alleged gang rape in a University of Virginia fraternity house after admitting post-publication doubts about the story’s accuracy. You might wonder what a blunder like that might cost a publication, and now we know.
The magazine was hammered by lawsuits. In November 2016, a federal court jury in Charlottesville, Va., awarded $3 million in damages to a former U.Va. associate dean, Nicole Eramo. The jury found that the Rolling Stone article damaged her reputation by reporting she was indifferent to allegations of a gang rape on campus. Eramo oversaw sexual violence cases at U.Va. at the time the article was published.
The jury concluded that the Rolling Stone reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, was responsible for defamation with “actual malice,” which usually means a reckless disregard for the truth.
Ambush interviews usually are not the way journalists conduct business. Seasoned professionals identify themselves as journalists and tell sources they intend to quote them, or ask permission to quote them. They make clear that remarks are “on the record.”
That’s the way it’s usually done. Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists occasionally get calls or inquiries, usually from young reporters, who don’t know that.
In 2012, a reporter doing an article on a controversial homeless shelter in New York asked: “Would it be unethical to call and not disclose that I am press?”
The answer from Hugh Miller, an AdviceLine consultant, was short and sweet: “Don’t. It would be unethical.”
Implicit in this exchange are questions of candor, disclosure and transparency. They raise the question of getting information under false pretenses.
On the Chicago police beat, which I covered at the City News Bureau of Chicago, legend was that police sometimes arrested suspicious characters for mopery with intentions to gawk.
By definition, a gawker is a person who stares openly at someone or something. To gawk is to gape, stare or rubberneck without trying to hide that you’re doing it. A gawker also can be an awkward or clumsy person.
So when Financial Times reporter Nick Denton launched Gawker.com in 2003, I figured I knew what to expect. The website described itself as a media news and gossip blog, one of its goals being to “afflict the comfortable.” Gawker Media became a network of blogs, including Gizmodo, Deadpan, Jezebel and Lifehacker.
An 18th-century Pirate Code of Conduct was stern but direct: Anyone found stealing from another crewman would have his ears and nose slit open and be set ashore.
The penalty for bringing a woman aboard in disguise was death.
Anyone being lazy or failing to clean his weapons would lose his share of booty.
The punishment for hitting a man was 40 lashes on the bare back.
These are among the rules Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts and his crews are said to have adopted in 1722 to keep the peace among his bloodthirsty men and reward good conduct. There are many variations on buccaneer codes, however.
Even 300 years later, rewarding or defining good conduct is the purpose of codes of journalism ethics that continue to emerge.
A new Radio Television Digital News Association Canada code takes effect July 1, replacing a version adopted in 2011.
“This Code of Ethics is based on more than a century of journalistic experience and represents our membership’s guiding principles,” states a preamble that welcomes adoption by all practicing journalists.
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.
The Boston Globe added another twist to a bizarre political season by publishing a satirical front page intended to show a future based on presidential candidate Donald Trump’s words and proclamations.
“Deportations to Begin,” was the banner headline of the fake page, dated Sunday, April 9, 2017. “Markets sink as trade war looms,” read one headline. “New libel law targets ‘absolute scum’ in press,” read another.
Let me make it clear right now that this is not an attempt to cover politics. AdviceLine patrols the journalism ethics beat. We let the political writers, columnists, bloviators, commentators, prognosticators and fulminators deal with the uncertainties and comedy of political life.
The Boston Globe’s hypothetical front page did not run on the actual front page of the newspaper, but appeared inside as a front page of the Ideas Section of a Sunday edition of the Globe. It referred to an editorial, “The GOP must stop Trump.”
Reuters called the page a “parody.” CNN said “the faux front page resembles an April Fools’ Day prank by a college newspaper,” although it was nine days too late for that.
More importantly, the Globe was not joking. It was trying to show “Donald Trump’s America,” according to an editor’s note in the lower left-hand corner of the bogus page. “What you read on this page is what might happen if the GOP front-runner can put his ideas into practice, his words into action.” The editorial made the same point.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I’m a sucker for stories about news ombudsmen, or public editors or readers representatives, even though they are branded these days. I can’t help myself. It’s a compulsion, an addiction.
Think about it: An ombudsman might walk up to the top boss and tell him he’s wrong. She might pick through the details of a complicated story, then defend a reporter for doing a thankless, difficult or even dangerous job, or discover that a reporter did not go far enough to find the truth, and then say so publicly.
It’s almost heroic.
I suppose I also admire ombudsmen because what they do is so idealistic: speaking up without fear or favor, letting the chips fall where they may.
Maybe that’s why there are only about 20 of them working at American news outlets today, according to a Politico article, “The State of the Ombudsman in 2015.” That’s about half as many as a decade ago, according to USA Today.
Still, ombudsmen in the U.S. and elsewhere trudge on.
Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star in Canada, recently wrote an article titled, “So what does the public editor do?” Readers had asked her to explain her job, which she’s done for eight years.