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.
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.
“There is real agony to ethical dilemmas as we strive to be both competitive and excellent,” said Carol Marin, one of Chicago’s most respected journalists, as she launched DePaul University’s Center for Journalism Integrity and Excellence.
Marin will be co-director of the new center with her longtime television producer, Don Moseley. Both recently won Peabody Awards for their coverage of the police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, the third Peabody for Marin and the second for Moseley.
Marin and Moseley were among the speakers at a reception celebrating the launch. The new center is dedicated to turning students into investigative reporters who dig hard, but with compassion for those afflicted.
Journalists do not always recognize or honor that delicate balance. In her remarks, Marin cited the McDonald case as an example of how hard it was to strike that balance at NBC-owned WMAQ-Channel 5.
“When the video of that night was finally released by the city under court order, we at NBC 5, from the president of the station all the way down to the working ranks of the newsroom, stood at the assignment desk together and watched it,” Marin said. “Saw the officer fire 16 shots. Saw an explosion of droplets fly out as the bullets hit. Saw Laquan McDonald spiral and fall to the ground.
“The pressure of being first to report is a real pressure,” she said. “But better to be late than be wrong.”
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.
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.
Sean Penn told “60 Minutes”, the CBS television news magazine, that he was practicing “experiential journalism” when attempting to interview Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.
Penn admitted he failed. His article, based on an encounter with Guzman in a Mexican jungle and published in Rolling Stone magazine, was intended to spark a public discussion about U.S. policy on the war on drugs.
How could he succeed? When Penn actually had a chance to confront Guzman face to face, instead he asked Guzman if he has visited his mother and whether he knows Columbian drug lord Pablo Escobar. These are not penetrating questions that could trigger public discourse.
What he did was not experiential journalism. He knows the phrase but he doesn’t know what it means.
American Journalism Review uses the phrase to describe “How Virtual Reality Could Depict News in 3D.” In this case, newsrooms attract young users with in-the-round video on the Oculus Rift gaming platform: “Strap them in vision-encompassing helmets and let them experience the news like a video game.”
A Nieman Journalism Lab report names experiential journalism as one of “The Five Es of Journalism in 2016.” Neiman Lab is a Harvard University project aimed at discovering where the news is headed in the Internet age.
“Journalism has always been about more than just the facts,” according to the report. “There is a place for informational news but also for experiences that immerse the audience in the narrative.” It cites the New York Times’ “Snow Fall” feature, “an attempt at using words, graphics, video and interactivity to have readers feel the story.”
The Associated Press already uses an automated platform capable of producing up to 2,000 stories a second. This is especially handy when companies issue quarterly earnings, which can be drudgery for a human reporter who scans the reports for meaningful numbers and statistics.
The robotic journalist crunches those numbers in seconds and spits them out in readable form, not in Pulitzer Prize-winning style but adequate.
Robo-reporting is especially handy for business and sports stories heavy on numbers and scores.
Northwestern University was among the pioneers in using machine learning, or pattern recognition software, to assemble the basics of a news report. A 2009 student project created software to write a headline and story from a baseball game’s box score. Two NU professors in 2010 started a Chicago company, Narrative Science to find commercial uses for the technique.
Stories written by robots have a lot of potential for the news business, and a few issues that need to be hammered out. Like ethics.
Computers, for example, could become plagiarists.
“Just because the information you scrape off the Internet may be accurate, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have the right to integrate it into the automated stories that you’re creating — at least without credit and permission,” said Tom Kent, Associated Press standards editor, in a Digital Journal article, which cited comments Kent made to the University of Wisconsin Center for Journalism Ethics.
“I think the most pressing ethical concern is teaching algorithms how to assess data and how to organize it for the human eye and the human mind,” said Kent. “If you’re creating a series of financial reports, you might program the algorithm to lead with earnings per share. You might program it to lead with total sales or lead with net income. But all of those decisions are subject — as any journalistic decision is — to criticism.”
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.
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.
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.
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.