Category Archives: Minimizing Harm

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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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

Times Public Editor Blasts Sneak Interview

Suki Kim
Author Suki Kim complains of unfair treatment by New York Times writer. Sukikim.com photo.

By Casey Bukro

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.

Continue reading Times Public Editor Blasts Sneak Interview

Bankruptcy Ends Gawker’s Stare

Gawker.com
Gawker’s slogan: “Today’s gossip is tomorrow’s news.” Gawker.com image.

By Casey Bukro

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.

Farhad Manjoo, in the New York Times, called Gawker Media “the first publisher that understood the pace, culture and possibilities of online news. And it used that understanding to unleash a set of technical, business and journalistic innovations on the news industry that have altered how we produce, consume and react to media today.”
Continue reading Bankruptcy Ends Gawker’s Stare

Reporter’s Dilemma: Naming Owners of Tainted Water Wells

Zenith City Weekly
Zenith, an alternative paper in Duluth, Minnesota, faced an ethical dilemma reporting on water quality.

By Casey Bukro

Ethics is not only a matter of what a journalist should do, but also what she should not.

That was the dilemma facing Jennifer Martin-Romme, co-owner with her husband Taylor of the Zenith News in Duluth, Minnesota.

Back in 2012, a trusted source leaked a report to Martin-Romme showing that the drinking water wells of eight families in northern St. Louis county were tainted with manganese, a chemical that in high concentrations potentially could cause nerve and brain damage, especially in children.

“It seems almost impossible to publicize this information without identifying the affected individuals,” Martin-Romme said when she called Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance. “Even if they weren’t named, this pollution is fairly contained geographically in a low-population rural area. It would be easy to identify them and such a story is essentially branding them as at-risk for mental deficiencies or retardation. The negative impact that could have on their lives is obvious and enormous. What do I do? Help!”

Today, lead in the Flint, Michigan water supply has made water safety a national concern. This follow-up story reports the outcome of her dilemma, and whether the call to AdviceLine was helpful. Since it started taking calls from journalists in 2001, AdviceLine has handled more than 900 inquiries. Periodically, we contact journalists who called us to learn the rest of the story.

Continue reading Reporter’s Dilemma: Naming Owners of Tainted Water Wells

Rules Emerge for Writing About Suicides

Raveena Aulakh
Toronto Star Reporter Raveena Aulakh died by suicide. Toronto Star photo.

By Casey Bukro

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.

Continue reading Rules Emerge for Writing About Suicides

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

Shifting Views on Naming Sexual Assault Victims

Media Matters for America illustration
Rolling Stone retracted its 2014 article about an alleged campus rape. (Media Matters for America illustration)

By Casey Bukro

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.

Edited by Stephen Rynkiewicz

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.

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