Category Archives: Online News

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.

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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.

Rolling Stone In the Penalty Phase of a Faulty Rape Story

Rolling Stone article
Rolling Stone retracted the article in its December 2014 issue months later.

By Casey Bukro

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.

Continue reading Rolling Stone In the Penalty Phase of a Faulty Rape Story

Digital Journalism: Another Failed Business Model?

H. Iris Chyi.
University of Texas media researcher H. Iris Chyi says heavy shift to digital news was a mistake. Chyi photo.

By Casey Bukro

Here’s an interesting idea: The rush of newspaper management from print to digital journalism was a terrible mistake.

Cyber media was supposed to be the next big thing, the answer to plummeting circulation, advertising and readership. Soon it became clear that digital journalism got off on the wrong foot with a “bad business model,” this new way to get the news for free. That set an expectation of reluctance to pay for it.

“What if almost the entire newspaper industry got it wrong?” asks Jack Shafer on Politico.com.  He is Politico’s senior media writer.

“What if, in the mad dash two decades ago to repurpose and extend editorial content onto the web, editors and publishers made a colossal business blunder that wasted hundreds of millions of dollars? What if the industry should have stuck with its strengths–the print editions where the vast majority of their readers still reside and where the overwhelming majority of advertising and subscription revenue come from–instead of chasing the online chimera?”

Fascinating speculation, and Shafer admits it’s a contrarian viewpoint, but he bases it on a study of 51 U.S. newspapers by two University of Texas researchers, H. Iris Chyi and Ori Tenenboim. They published a paper in Journalism Practice, an academic journal.

That paper, said Shafer, “cracks open the watchwords of the newspaper industry to make a convincing case that the tech-heavy web strategy pursued by most papers has been a bust.” That strategy, Shafer adds, “has been a losing proposition for most newspapers.”

Come to think of it, history shows an “all eggs in one basket” strategy can lead to disappointment. The U.S. economy’s reliance on petroleum led to high costs and disruptions by unreliable sources. The electric power industry relied heavily on coal until air pollution and other problems forced the industry to turn to alternative and cleaner energy sources, like solar power. Nuclear power was heralded as the technology that would turn deserts green, but safety concerns derailed some of those hopes.

Continue reading Digital Journalism: Another Failed Business Model?

British Journalists Chastened on Ethics

newsofworld

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.

Continue reading British Journalists Chastened on Ethics

Photo of Halloween Display Challenges Editor’s Ethics

Halloween display at Fort Campbell taken down after complaints.
Halloween display at Fort Campbell taken down after complaints. Contributed photo from clarksvillenow.com.

By Casey Bukro

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.

Continue reading Photo of Halloween Display Challenges Editor’s Ethics

Police Video: Searching for the Limit to Gruesome

By Casey Bukro

Chicago Police Officer Jason Van Dyke shot 17-year-old Laquan McDonald 16 times, and every second of that fatal shooting was recorded by a police car dashboard camera in the middle of a Chicago street.

That video has been broadcast countless times, showing every twitch of the body and what appear to be puffs rising from McDonald’s body as bullets strike.

Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke and Laquan McDonald.
Chicago police officer Jason Van Dyke and Laquan McDonald.

It’s gruesome, but it shows exactly what happened. The video is compelling evidence to disprove early police accounts that McDonald, who was black, was walking toward police with a knife in his hand and menacing police.

The video indicates that McDonald was walking away from police when Van Dyke, who is white, opened fire with a barrage that caused McDonald to twirl around, drop on his backside and roll to his right. Van Dyke kept shooting as McDonald lay in the street Oct. 20, 2014.

An autopsy confirmed that McDonald was shot 16 times. Van Dyke was indicted on six counts of first-degree murder and one count of official misconduct.

Police misconduct in shooting deaths in the United States is a major story propelled by television, a visual medium.

The use of phone video or dashboard cameras are recent developments that make it possible to show what happened, rather than rely on police or witness accounts. Technology is playing a bigger role in proving guilt or innocence.

But how many times is it necessary to show McDonald striding toward police, then falling to the ground as Van Dyke shoots him? Sometimes the whole scene is broadcast, sometimes it is edited so that it shows McDonald walking toward police.

Continue reading Police Video: Searching for the Limit to Gruesome

A Second Look at the Mizzou Uproar, Pros and Cons

 

thefederalist.com photo

 

By Casey Bukro

Since all the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists consultants teach on campuses across the country, it seemed logical to ask them how they and their students reacted to events that played out at the University of Missouri over press freedoms and protests over racial tensions.

An earlier AdviceLine blog post focused on what appeared to be an attack on First Amendment press freedoms when faculty member Melissa Click attempted to banish two student photographers from the protest scene, for which she later apologized.

Hugh Miller, assistant professor of philosophy at Loyola University Chicago, took what he called a contrarian view.

“I disagree,” said Miller, citing a lawyer friend who pointed out that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution “is a restriction imposed upon the state, not upon individuals…. It imposes no restrictions on individuals.

“Reporters are perfectly free to jam a microphone in my face – no government authority can prevent them from doing so. And I am perfectly free to tell such reporters to get stuffed if I don’t want to talk or have them around. In so doing I do not violate the First Amendment. The First Amendment is not, IMHO [in my humble opinion], a license for journalists to demand, and get, access to coverage.

“Whether the contested access is on public property makes little difference to the First Amendment issue (though it may be important in a property rights sense). Nor does the First Amendment impose duties or obligations upon individuals to afford journalists the opportunity to cover them.

Continue reading A Second Look at the Mizzou Uproar, Pros and Cons

A Code of Ethics All Your Own

By Casey Bukro

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.

Code of Ethics
Can Stock Photo

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.

Continue reading A Code of Ethics All Your Own

Killing the Messenger, Live: Journalists Killed on Video

By Casey Bukro

Killing the messenger takes new meaning when you see it live, in living color, as happened in the deaths of a Virginia television news reporter and her cameraman.

WDBJ correspondent Alison Parker was conducting an on-air interview in a Moneta, Va., shopping center when she and the photographer, Adam Ward, were shot and killed by a disgruntled former colleague who also videotaped the attack and put it on social media.

The New York Daily News gave the murders front-page display, in very graphic detail than some TV outlets shunned.

Embedded image permalink

Killings on video are increasingly common these days. Journalists are among those targeted now, becoming victims and not just reporters of  events. Parker and Ward’s names are now added to a list that included James Foley and Daniel Pearl.

Tech-savvy killers use social media and the internet these days to show their crimes.

The Islamic State group released a video in 2014 showing Foley, clad in an orange gown, kneeling on the ground next to a man dressed in black holding a knife. Foley makes a short statement and then is decapitated.

In 2002, Pearl, a correspondent for The Wall Street Journal, disappeared while on assignment in Karachi, Pakistan. Video shown around the world via the Internet showed Arab extremists cutting his throat, then decapitating the reporter.

In this world of social media, terrorists don’t need reporters to tell their message. Terrorists can do that themselves now, and one way of doing that is killing reporters.

Continue reading Killing the Messenger, Live: Journalists Killed on Video

Bomb Threats Tilt GamerGate Event

SPJ AirPlay panel
SPJ AirPlay panel (SPJ Florida photo)

By Casey Bukro

GamerGate from its beginning a year ago seemed touched by lunacy, and that was borne out when bomb threats forced the abrupt closure of a video-game program in Miami.

The Society of Professional Journalists event AirPlay aimed to pin down the social-media campaign GamerGate – whether it’s about journalism ethics and accurate reporting about the video-game industry, attacks on women in the male-dominated industry, or resistance to political correctness and censorship. Or something else.

The conference goal was to “make a good gaming press better, or a bad gaming press good,” said Michael Koretzky, an SPJ regional director who organized and moderated. The conference “concocted some novel yet practical ideas for achieving that,” he said, such as an SPJ award for games journalism or recruiting games media critics.

A Twitter feed and hashtag and a YouTube channel suggest the event provoked lively discussion. SPJ secretary/treasurer Lynn Walsh said “if mainstream media jumps on this, it should be done well and ethically.”

Topics included plagiarism, fabrication, anonymity, fair reporting and the performance of Gamer writers. Koretzky asked about a “troll patrol,” how to vet or write about their social-media statements, and how to expose anonymous digital mischief-makers.

Then it all ground to a halt.

Miami police cleared the building after a series of bomb threats, UPI reported. Breitbart.com reported that the event got 10 bomb threats before police stopped the program and moved participants out of the building and into the streets.

Koretsky said two separate conferences in the building drew about 135 participants, of which about 60 attended the AirPlay event.

AirPlay was supposed to teach us something about GamerGate. AdviceLine asked Koretzky what the abbreviated conference taught him.

“I learned I was right about one thing,” Koretsky responded in an email. “Face-to-face opens minds. As for the bomb threat, it was awesome. It happened only 30 minutes before we ended, and it made @SPJAirPlay trend worldwide.”

Such threats are not new to GamerGate. Earlier this year a bomb threat cleared 300 people from a Washington, D.C., event aimed at GamerGate supporters. And Anita Sarkeesian, creator of a video series of pop-culture critiques, canceled an appearance at Utah State University last year because of the threat of a mass shooting.

AdviceLine asked Koretzky if continued threats of violence prove that some of those GamerGate folks really are nuts.

“I knew some GGers were nuts from the get-go,” he said. “But I learned just how many aren’t. I’d say it’s 50-50 &ndash which might offend both sides. But really, that’s a ringing GG endorsement, since so many folks told me the stat was 100 percent.”

And what else did he learn from the event?

“I’ve been talking to some gaming journalists post-AirPlay about why it wasn’t covered. Interestingly, the reporters are cool, editors are not. So once again, it’s age more than philosophy.”

As for his next move, Koretzky said he’s considering hosting a feminism-and-media debate.

Mark Samenfink, a lifelong gamer, wrote that he was frustrated by the way the Miami GamerGate event ended.

“This feels like a hollow victory,” Samenfink wrote. “But since at least half of the event took place (and was streamed live, worldwide), it’s not completely hollow. I was excited all day, my hype was real, I sat down to watch the debates and was overjoyed by them, but this … it just killed the mood.”

Did the gaming press cover the event?

“No,” said Koretzky, “just the bomb threats, and some not even that. It says more in defense of GG than anything else to date.”