Category Archives: Independence

Publish unverified documents? Consider these ethical questions

By David Craig

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Public relevance and journalistic purpose

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

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

Seeking truth and reporting it

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

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

Acting independently

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

Minimizing harm

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

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

Being accountable and transparent

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

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

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

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In Trump’s Locker Room Culture, Billy Bush Caught the Fungus

By Casey Bukro

Usually, a journalist at the center of an explosive story would be congratulated. Not Billy Bush.

Billy Bush.
Billy Bush suspended in wake of Donald Trump making lewd comments. Wikimedia photo

He’s the one cackling and giggling in the background of the 2005 tape as Donald Trump brags about kissing and groping beautiful women. “I just start kissing them,” Trump says. “It’s like a magnet. I just kiss. I don’t even wait.”

Egged on by Bush, Trump adds the remark about grabbing women by the genitals, using an obscene term, saying, “I can do anything.”

Released on the eve of the 2016 elections, the tape has been played countless times as commentators speculate about its likely impact on Trump’s chances of being elected president as the GOP contender.

No need to wonder about Bush, Trump’s enabler in that episode. NBC suspended him as a co-host of the “Today” show.

Bush was co-anchor of “Access Hollywood” at the time the tape was made. NBCUniveral Television Distribution, with NBC-owned station KNBC, has been solely responsible for producing “Access Hollywood” since 2004.

Bush was a rising star until the video train wreck. It might be a stretch to call him a journalist.

Television personalities often consider themselves entertainers or performers who want to put on a show. Brian Williams, for example, gave himself credit for doing things he did not do, making his reports more exciting until NBC learned of his fabrications, then suspended and reassigned him. Makes you wonder if these guys ever heard of journalism ethics.

William Hall “Billy” Bush is the nephew of former President George H.W. Bush and cousin of former President George W. Bush and former Florida Gov. John Ellis “Jeb” Bush.

The website MediaShift says Bush’s story “should serve as a cautionary tale for our modern age of journalism, where social media and reality television have oblitered the line between reporting the news and becoming part of it.”
Continue reading In Trump’s Locker Room Culture, Billy Bush Caught the Fungus

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

Media Rules of Conduct: A Call to Arms

By Casey Bukro

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.

A general history of the pyrates
Honor among thieves: Pirates and their captains agreed on codes of conduct. (Boston Public Library)

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.

Continue reading Media Rules of Conduct: A Call to Arms

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

May the Source Be With You, But Not Anonymously

Reporter's notebook taped shut.
Sources looking to go off the record often have little to contribute. (Stephen Rynkiewicz photo)

By Casey Bukro

After being seriously burned by false information from anonymous sources, the New York Times decided to be more cautious about accepting information from people who don’t want to be identified.

The Times issued new guidelines governing the use of anonymous sources, mandating that stories resorting to anonymity must be submitted to one of the paper’s top three editors for advance approval.

That’s a step in the right direction for a publication that long prided itself on knowing inside information, even if cloaked in anonymity.

A copy of the memo to the Times newsroom was forwarded to Politico anonymously. Hard to decide if that is ironic or hilarious.

The memo shows, among other things, that old habits at the publication known as “the Gray Lady” are hard to break. It begins by defending the use of anonymous sources as “sometimes crucial to our journalistic mission. But it also puts a strain on our most valuable and delicate asset: our trust with readers.”

The memo observed that readers “routinely cite anonymous sources as one of their greatest concerns about The Times’s journalism.”

Readers can see the practice as the Times “vouching for the information unequivocally – or worse, as carrying water for someone else’s agenda. As far as possible, we should explain the source’s motivation and how he or she knows the information.”

It appears that the Times is finally catching up on a rule generally accepted by many professional journalists: Information is only as good as its source. Credible and identifiable sources provide reliable information, or information that can be judged for reliability.

Departing from this rule can have serious consequences, as the Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, pointed out. In several opinion page articles, she described how reliance on anonymous sources led to “two major front-page errors in a six-month period.”

One alleged a Justice Department criminal investigation against Hillary Rodham Clinton, which Sullivan called “fraught with inaccuracies.” The other involved jihadist social-media posts by one of the San Bernardino killers. The mass shooting killed 14 people and injured 22.

Too many Times articles rely on anonymous government sources, Sullivan wrote in December, 2015. She called for “systemic change” at The Times. “The Times needs to fix its overuse of unnamed government sources,” Sullivan wrote.

Continue reading May the Source Be With You, But Not Anonymously

Pope Francis, Trump and Journalism Ethics: Looking for a Hail Mary

Pope Francis holds an in-flight press conference.
Pope Francis holds an in-flight press conference.

By Casey Bukro

Normally, AdviceLine considers the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics its highest source for guidelines and standards on ethics.

But we’re always willing to be open-minded about new and thoughtful ways to think about ethics and do the right thing in journalism.

Take Pope Francis for example. The pontiff is unusually frank and quotable on his world tours, accompanied by media aboard the papal airliner. He gets involved in current and political issues that some popes might have shunned as too earthly, too secular.

On his way back to Rome from a six-day visit to Mexico, where he is known as Francisco, the pope weighed in on comments by Donald Trump, the Republican presidential hopeful. In a midair press conference, Reuters’ Phil Pullella asked for a response to Trump’s claim that the pope was a pawn in Mexico’s migration politics – an apparent reference to Trump comments on the pope’s trip airing on Fox Business. Pullella noted the candidate’s call to wall off the U.S.-Mexico border.

A transcript indicates the pope did not address Trump’s comments directly, but said that “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”

Trump said the pope heard only one side of the story. In later comments, the pope clarified: “I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.”

So now we have an ethical conundrum. If he is not sure what Trump said, and gives Trump the benefit of the doubt, are media free to tie the “not Christian” remark to Trump? Media reports on the event tend to say the link to Trump is stronger than the pope himself will admit. Trump has vowed to force Mexico to build a wall and increase deportations.

That night, on the PBS News Hour, John Allen, a Boston Globe reporter who covered the event, said it is possible that the pope does not know who Trump is, and was taking the word of reporters that Trump made the remark. Essentially, reporters coached the pope.

Moderator Judy Woodruff rightly pointed out that other politicians have asked for border walls, not just Trump. So was this a media-created conflict?

What should an ethical reporter do?

The answer might lie in the pope’s own comments during another in-flight press conference, when he touched on journalism ethics.

In the wake of the so-called Vatileaks scandal, in which the mainstream press reported on corruption in the Vatican, the pope was asked about his opinion of the importance of a free press in rooting out corruption.

“The professional press must tell everything, without falling into the three most common sins,” the pope responded. The sins he named were:

  • Misinformation – telling half the truth.
  • Calumny – dirtying another person, with or without the truth.
  • Defamation – to take away the good name of a person who has not done anything wrong.

“These are the three defects that are an attack against the professionally of the press,” the pope said. “We need professionally, what’s right. … And on corruption? To see the data well and say it. … If there is corruption, they should say it. And if a journalist, if they are truly professional, gets it wrong, he should excuse himself. Things go very well like this.”

Writer Terry Mattingly, reporting on that in-flight press conference, wrote: “To be honest, I think it would have been interesting to ask the pope to define the line that he sees between ‘calumny’ and ‘defamation.'”

Possibly all three “defects” apply in Trump case, since the controversy appears to stem from information fed to the pope, rather than from his own knowledge. This is a nuance that was not explained in many reports on the incident, although John Allen clarified that in his PBS News Hour appearance. And it could be argued that the pope was telling one side of the story.

The controversy did cast a shadow on the character of a political candidate, intended or not.

In the rough and tumble of American politics, even a pope may be dragged into the fray. It’s possible he was duped into commenting on something he was not familiar. Even a pope should be wary during election time in America.

The SPJ code of ethics says: “Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.”

Pitting the pope against Trump might have been a misrepresentation or oversimplification. How would you have handled the story?

Edited by Stephen Rynkiewicz.

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.

Undercover Investigator Insults Journalists

By Casey Bukro

David R. Daleiden said he misrepresented himself and falsified his identification while investigating Planned Parenthood because that’s what journalists do.

What an insult to journalists! Ethical journalists know that telling lies and deception while covering the news destroys their credibility. Who would believe a journalist who lies, cheats or steals?

That’s why the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics clearly states: “Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story.”

True, there’s a qualification. And journalism lore is rife with tales of Hollywood-style derring-do, with reporters pulling off grand deceptions.

The Mirage tavern, a study in journalism deception.
The Mirage tavern, a study in journalism deception.

In 1977, the Chicago Sun-Times bought a tavern and staffed it with reporters and photographers to show the extent of corruption and shakedowns by Chicago city inspectors and others who took $10 or $20 payoffs to ignore safety or health hazards. Then the Sun-Times published a 25-part series that documented the abuses and crimes in the Mirage tavern.

You’ll still get an argument from some journalists who say it was a terrific story and resulted in major city, state and federal reforms. The talk at the time, though, was that the series failed to win a Pulitzer Prize because the investigation was based on deception, and that was wrong.

Continue reading Undercover Investigator Insults Journalists