The power of rumors: “A tool available to all, rumors can act as antidotes to institutional violence, propaganda campaigns or political misconduct,” writes Larissa Pham. “Press conferences are for the powerful; rumors are for ordinary people trying to take down people in power.”
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.
Ethics violations close Britain’s News of the World. itv.com photo.
“Let not England forget her precedence of teaching nations how to live.” —Milton
By Casey Bukro
British journalists are more likely to pay sources for information than American journalists, but journalists in both countries agree that providing reliable information is their chief goal.
These are among the conclusions of a survey of 700 of the United Kingdom’s almost 64,000 professional journalists, by the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford.
On ethics and standards, said the report:
“There is a close correspondence between U.K. journalists’ views on ethics and their professional codes of practice. However, they are more likely to find justification for ethically contentious practices, such as paying sources, than journalists in the United States.
“Rank and file journalists in the U.K. push ethical boundaries more than their managers, and 25 percent of all journalists believe it is justified, on occasion, to publish unverified information.”
As for misrepresentation and subterfuge, U.K. journalists expressed mixed views about whether claiming to be somebody else is acceptable. Fifty-four percent believe it is never justified and 46 percent think it is justified on occasion. U.S. journalists, according to the study, are more disapproving, with only 7 percent agreeing that misrepresentation is justified on occasion.
A ban on naming sexual assault victims has been one of the ironclad ethics rules in journalism. Why inflict more pain on an innocent person?
The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics says: “Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.”
Yet even this rule is coming into question as people decide what rules they want to follow.
For example, Stephen J.A. Ward, a media ethicist, points to the trial of Jian Ghomeshi, a former Canadian Broadcasting Co. radio host. Ghomeshi is charged with sexual misconduct involving three women in 2002 and 2003.
One woman insists on being identified. The others’ identities are protected under Canadian law.
“So what should newsrooms do if the complainant insists on being identified?” asks Ward. “It’s a complex legal and ethical decision.”
Ward described how identity bans work under Canadian law. But two trends complicate the issue.
“One trend is the growth of media beyond the mainstream journalism that was the original focus of the ban,” he writes. “Social media, bloggers and others may ignore the ban. The second trend is that some people want to be named” and “may use social media to identify themselves as a complainant.”
Once the name is ‘out there’ in the media world, it’s very difficult to erase.
One of the central rules in journalism ethics is minimizing harm. Ward reasons that this means explaining consequences, to make sure complainants give informed consent to the use of their names.
The problem prompted the Canadian Association of Journalists ethics committee to release guidelines. The committee suggests journalists take specific steps to ensure informed consent:
A journalist should explain that, once a complainant’s name is made public, other media likely will use the name too.
A journalist should explain that that the name likely will be used on social media, over which the journalist has no control. Individuals on Facebook, Reddit or other social sites will post comments. Some of them “can be vile.”
A journalist should explain that, once the name is “out there” in the media world, it’s very difficult to erase.
A journalist should not pressure complainants to make their names public.
A journalist should explain that, given the nature of search engines, the sex crime report might be the first thing that appears when someone does an Internet search of the complainant’s name. Has the complainant thought about the information being available indefinitely when applying for jobs, entering into relationships or having a family?
The guidelines report also advises journalists to give complainants a day or two to think about their decisions before making their identities public.
“Taking that time up front will almost certainly reduce the likelihood of ‘source remorse’ and the possibility of an unpublishing request later.”
The CAJ report also reminds journalists that they are obligated to tell the whole story, not just the complainant’s viewpoint. The 2014 Rolling Stone magazine story about an alleged campus rape turned out to be bogus because it was based on the allegations of one person. Sex crimes often involve conflicting viewpoints.
The Canadian ethics panel suggested, as an alternative to an “all-or-nothing approach,” considering refusing to share a story through social media channels, not archiving stories that name victims or removing names from a story. But these actions could raise more ethics concerns.
The Bill Cosby case is an example of the complications in alleged sex crimes. Controversy can simmer for decades. Journalists and authorities have been accused of protecting the popular entertainer. Some women kept silent in the belief nobody would believe them. Years later, some identified themselves as women who were allegedly drugged and sexually assaulted.
Years ago, sexual assault was a crime that people hesitated to talk about under social norms. That has changed. Television and the online media discuss and show sexual situations openly. It’s the new norm.
Still, it’s a good idea for journalists to keep in mind the golden rule: Minimize harm.
Everyone is in favor of ethics, until you get into the details. That’s when the fights break out.
This is something the Online News Association is likely to learn as it makes its way through a project called the Build Your Own Ethics Code. Journalists are invited to crowdsource and document their ethical practices.
I have some personal experience in this realm. Back in 1972, I was national professional development committee chairman for Sigma Delta Chi, later named the Society of Professional Journalists.
The public, then as now, tended to have a low opinion of journalists. A public opinion poll in 1972 showed only 19 percent of the public had confidence in the press. Garbage collectors ranked higher.
Hoping to counteract that, delegates at the 1972 convention in Dallas adopted a resolution asking the group to do something about that low image of American journalists. That resolution was sent to my committee.
We decided to write a code of ethics reflecting SDX values and standards, acting on a constitutional mandate to inform the public as part of journalism’s role in a democracy. We wanted to show that journalists do have standards, and can act in an ethical manner.
Ethics: The word can make you feel drowsy, or start your heart pounding.
It all depends on whether you are suddenly tangled in a job-threatening dilemma, or one that might destroy your credibility.
Ethics: Distinguishing between good and evil in the world, between right and wrong human actions and between virtuous and non virtuous characteristics of people.
Sounds lofty and maybe even remote from our daily journalism lives, until it’s not so remote anymore.
Seated next to me at the Sigma Delta Chi awards banquet in the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. was the editorial writer of a Midwestern newspaper who was waiting to collect his award. A fellow winner at the dinner table asked the editorial writer how his publication had gotten embroiled in a highly controversial ethics issue.
The newspaper had revealed the names of two alleged women rape victims. Typically, publications avoid naming rape victims.
Off-the-record, the editorial writer explained the difficult process of arriving at the decision to name the women. Then he added that the newspaper had no ombudsman or other trusted source to discuss the difficult decision before publication.
At that point, I reached into my pocket and handed him several Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists wallet cards, explaining how to reach AdviceLine in the event of a similar need for ethics counseling. Call toll free, 866-DILEMMA.
The editorial writer seemed grateful, and said he would carry the cards back to his newspaper and hand them out to management.
Back to the banquet. The award dates to 1932, when the Sigma Delta Chi journalism fraternity honored six individuals for contributions to the profession. The Society of Professional Journalists continued the honors as its Distinguished Service Awards, then with a nod to its fraternal roots as the Sigma Delta Chi Awards for Excellence in Journalism.
The awards recognize the best news reporting in print, radio, television, newsletters, art/graphics, online media and research. The contest is open to any U.S. media outlet.
AdviceLine’s blog won a 2014 SDX award in the Online Column Writing (Independent) category. The blog comments on current ethics issues and describes the kind of questions it gets from professional journalists on ethics.
Here’s what the judges said in naming the AdviceLine blog the winner:
“Ethics, unfortunately, can be an afterthought in a 24-7/digital-first/anyone-can-publish-content environment. In an area that sometimes has no right or wrong answer, the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists helps media pros navigate murky waters. They are doing a public service and helping shape the way forward for our industry, and that deserves recognition.”
Also deserving recognition are the AdviceLine ethicist consultants: David Ozar, Loyola University Chicago; Hugh Miller, Loyola University Chicago; David Craig, University of Oklahoma; Nancy Matchett, University of Northern Colorado and Lee Anne Peck, University of Northern Colorado.
Probably fair to say each of us has an ethics hero. So as a bow to those who came before us, I’ll mention one of mine: American media critic Walter Lippmann, who said in 1920, “There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and shame the devil.”