Media melees at mass shootings seen as a second trauma to grief-stricken communities. Jon Allsop offers five ideas for more respectful media coverage, like good manners.
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
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
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.
By Casey Bukro
It might pain Michael Miner, media critic for the Chicago Reader, to know that he can claim some responsibility for how the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists handles confidentiality.
From the start, Miner has assumed that anyone who presumes to tell journalists what to do about ethics is a bit daft, silly or pretentious. He tends to be in the camp of those who believe that journalism ethics is an oxymoron.
“The old solution to journalism’s intractable contradictions was to build newsrooms no more than 100 feet from a bar,” Miner wrote in a column published March 9, 2001, a month after AdviceLine’s advent. Instead of a bar, wrote Miner, journalists now could pick up a phone and say, “Hello, sweetheart. Get me ethics.”
It’s good for journalists, and ethicists too, to have an unsympathetic, cold-eyed lampooner.
And Miner continues prodding, even when he wrote a column mentioning that AdviceLine had been awarded a Peter Lisagor Award May 8 by the Chicago Headline Club as best independent continuing blog. The Lisagor awards are given for exemplary journalism. Miner was not impressed.
“But as life is richer when Bukro’s around to disagree with, I’m pleased to report he hasn’t gone away,” wrote Miner. It’s good to have a media critic, even after the passage of 14 years, who still closely follows developments in journalism and ethics with a wry bent.
The Lisagor award, named for the late Washington correspondent and PBS commentator, was the second in a few weeks given to AdviceLine. The Society of Professional Journalists announced in April that AdviceLine won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online independent column writing. The award will be presented in June in Washington, D.C.
Miner writes for the Reader, which describes itself as “Chicago’s Free Weekly/ Kicking Ass Since 1971.”
Miner is a good kicker. He wrote one of the first pieces about AdviceLine, saying in the 2001 column that a Chicago Tribune columnist beat him to using “a smart-alecky tone … forcing me to scramble for higher ground.”
Miner is also a very good reporter. He interviewed me in 2001 about what kind of calls we were getting from journalists, and I described some of our first. I thought I was being careful about identifying callers or details that could not be disclosed under our confidentiality policy.
Miner has a soothing voice on the telephone, teasing out information in a way that non-journalists might find disarming. He told others on the AdviceLine team that I had described some of the cases we handled, and encouraged them to do the same. And they did.
What followed was what I called a Miner uproar. After reading the Miner column, one AdviceLine member wrote in an email “I hardly know what to say about the extent to which confidences and commitments have been violated” in response to Miner’s questions.
The first reaction from some AdviceLine members was to say they had said too much, especially me for “spilling the beans,” causing others to follow suit.
This was virgin territory. How much can be said about ethics cases? Nothing at all, some argued. And, if you are not accustomed to being interviewed, it can be shocking to see your comments in print.
It was a tumultuous beginning for AdviceLine.
Even Miner was criticized for being too informative about the AdviceLine cases he described.
“I’m stunned, stunned, stunned to read that the contents of the phone calls to the ethics line were reported openly,” was one reaction that appeared in Jim Romenesko’s media news site.
The president of an SPJ chapter, not identified by name, had called AdviceLine with a question, and his question was described. He later told Romenesko that he had not expected his phone call to result in a news story.
My take at the time: “On the face of it, it looks as though some members of our team lost their moral bearings and we had an ethical meltdown as a result of the Miner article. How could that happen with a group trained in ethics?”
It was not ethics at fault. It was learning to communicate effectively. It was a hard-won lesson, one that rattled some members of the AdviceLine team.
At the core was knowing our standard on confidentiality, and sticking to it. Yet one of AdviceLine’s goals is education – learning what ethics issues plague professional journalists, and the advice given to help solve those dilemmas. There can be no education if the cases cannot be described publicly, even without names and places.
An AdviceLine staff member at the time, the late Mary Myers, reminded all of us of our mission: “We not only want to man an AdviceLine, but contribute to the greater discussion, understanding and body of knowledge regarding ethics and journalism.”
AdviceLine has refined its confidentiality policies periodically. Here are the questions asked every time AdviceLine gets a call or query.
1. Do I have your permission to share the details of your case, including your name and organization, with the AdviceLine team?
2. Education in journalism ethics is one of the AdviceLine’s core missions, so may we have your permission to discuss the nature of your case anonymously in the AdviceLine’s educational reports, books or online blogs, but without identifying you or your organization?
3. Real-life case reports are very important resources for education in journalism ethics, so may we have your permission to use the content of your case and our discussion of it, including using your name and organization, in the AdviceLine’s educational reports, books or online blogs?
The goal is to be clear on what AdviceLine can say publicly about the cases. Thanks, Mike!
By Casey Bukro
We here at Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists sometimes clash over what is ethical or not.
The Steve Kroft affair is the latest example.
The veteran “60 Minutes” correspondent admits he had a three-year fling with a New York City lawyer, though both are married.
“I had an extramarital affair that was a serious lapse of personal judgment and extremely hurtful to my wife and family, and for that I have nothing but regret,” Kroft said in a statement to the New York Post. Both the Post and the National Enquirer published salacious text messages between Kroft and his lover, proving once again that anything on the internet is not private.
A CBS spokesperson said “It’s a private matter.”
Soon after the scandal broke, an AdviceLine colleague wrote: “Are personal values/ matters the same as professional matters? Should I teach my students that I don’t care what they do in their personal lives as long as they make good ethical choices in their professional ones? Personally, this Kroft story does not interest me. His professional work does.”
Kroft is one of the most high-profile journalists in America. He has been a CBS newsman for 31 years, 26 of them as a correspondent with “60 Minutes,” which specializes in asking the high and mighty tough questions about their personal lives, their entanglements, their dalliances and the quality of their professional judgment.
Here’s what I say to my AdviceLine colleague: What people do in their personal lives reflects on their credibility and integrity. I don’t think you can separate personal and work lives that easily.
By your reasoning, we should have ignored Bill Clinton’s affair with Monica Lewinsky, as we did with JFK and his affairs. Looking back on JFK, journalists are criticized now for turning a blind eye to his dalliances. Now we’re more inclined to think about accountability.
Kroft is a very public figure by virtue of his role on “60 Minutes.” Part of his job is exposing the conduct of public officials. I would buy your argument if he were not a public figure. That is why, in ethics, we draw the distinction between public and private individuals.
Also, there is the issue of blackmail. Anyone involved in something he or she does not want the public to know is subject to the possibility of blackmail and manipulation.
Tell your students that they have to be smart enough to recognize that ethical values apply to all facets of people’s lives, especially to public figures, and that they, themselves, become public figures when they become very visible journalists. Think Woodward and Bernstein.
That’s why, these days, we encourage publishers and editors to avoid becoming involved in civic organizations, a practice that once was common, and to a degree still is. There is the public perception that if a publisher is an official on the board of a civic organization, he will favor that organization and give it favorable publicity. He also is seen likely to keep bad information about the organization out of the news.
The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics warns journalists to avoid conflicts or interest, real or perceived.
All of this is in the realm of accountability, an issue we take more seriously these days. People with ethics issues should not be pointing fingers at others with ethics issues. “60 Minutes” sets very high standards and its correspondents should measure up to them.
Personally, I always thought my role as a journalist meant that I was forbidden from doing things others could do. When I covered finance, I avoided buying stock in companies I covered. I did not join organizations I covered. I did not take part in political campaigns.
You can argue that any American citizen is entitled to do those things, and you would be right. But I always believed that anything I did should be above reproach. Being a journalist was paramount. It is an honor, a privilege and a duty to be smart enough to avoid any activity that could tarnish my reputation, and the reputation of the journalism organization I worked for.
Too often, the public complains that the media gleefully write about the transgressions of politicians and others, while keeping silent about the transgressions of journalists. The “old boy” syndrome. They say we cover up for each other. It’s a double standard. We should report on the transgressions of journalists as vigorously as we do about the transgressions of others. It’s only fair.
Comments are welcome.
By Casey Bukro
The serial rape allegations against Comedian Bill Cosby have reached the stage where people are asking why the media failed to report them when they happened.
It’s complicated and messy, in part because Cosby denies the allegations and calls them “innuendos” from the distant past which he will not dignify with a response.
The public often blames the media for hounding celebrities, sometimes to the point of ruining their reputations. Other times, the media are accused of promoting popular celebrities to the point of being a cheering section.
It could be argued that Cosby got the cheering section treatment for decades. But now that’s changing and causes observers to wonder if media watchdogs failed, professionally and ethically.
Especially troubling are media reports that, in exchange for an exclusive interview, Cosby made a deal with the National Enquirer to delay a story about a new rape accusation while the civil suit in another rape case was going on. That strikes to the heart of media responsibility to report the facts, and whether the media did that in Cosby’s case.
The Columbia Journalism Review says the press is responsible for ignoring Cosby rape allegations, pointing out that People Magazine published an article in 2006 about five women who accused him of rape.
About 20 women have accused Cosby of assaults, most dating to the 1970s and 1980s.
From a wider perspective, rape is one of those issues where the media tend to reflect societal attitudes, which includes the issue of privacy for both public and private figures. And all of that is changing fast. Media always had a responsibility to lead public opinion, not just follow it.
Not so long ago reporters ignored the private peccadillos of powerful figures in the belief that what they did in private was their business, not the public’s. Their silence was called “a gentleman’s agreement.”
Think President John F. Kennedy and President Dwight D. Eisenhower.
Kennedy was a known cavorter, but the White House press corps ignored it, in part to stay in the president’s good graces.
Rumor had it that Eisenhower had an affair with his war-time chauffeur, Kay Summersby, who confirmed it in 1975 in a memoir titled “Past Forgetting: My Love Affair with Dwight D. Eisenhower,” before she died. The rumors stayed mostly under wraps until the memoir appeared.
But rape is far more complicated. In the past, police departments sometimes minimized it as a he said/she said sort of thing. Women were sometimes twice victimized by rape and then accused of bringing it upon themselves. Sometimes they were ashamed to talk about it, especially when alcohol was involved.
It is a topic coming out of the shadows as women are more inclined to talk about it, and the media more inclined to report on it partly as a result of that openness and changing social views. That comes at a time when other sensitive issues, such as gay rights and abortion, are discussed more openly.
The Cosby accusations stretch over decades, enough time to show how differently the issue is treated, then and now.
The case against Cosby snowballed recently after supermodel Janice Dickinson publicly accused the entertainer of drugging then raping her in 1982 when she met with him, hoping he would help advance her career. Dickinson is one of about 20 women who tell similar stories, one of whom was 15 years old at the time.
Nostalgia is another time-related thing.
Entertainment is a fantasy, just as Cosby as Cliff Huxtable was a fantasy. But it was a fantasy that the public desperately wanted to believe, wrote Vox.com’s Amanda Taub. They wanted to keep happy childhood memories of the Cosby show.
By Casey Bukro
Stupidity is not a crime, and ethical lapses usually will not land you in jail.
But they have consequences, as the New York Post learned when two men sued the tabloid newspaper for showing them in a front-page photo at the height of the search for Boston Marathon Bombing suspects, with a “Bag Men” headline.
CNN reported that the men, 16 and 24-years old, accused the Post of libel, negligent infliction of emotional distress and invasion of privacy for showing them standing next to each other in the April 18 edition. Also displayed in large letters on the photo were the words: “Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon.” The photo appeared three days after the Boston bombing, making it appear that the FBI were searching for them. One of them wore a backpack.
Post editor Col Allan said the Post did not identify the men as “suspects.”
Huffington Post reported outrage at the use of the photo, with some calling it “a new low” and “appalling.”
Later that day, authorities released photos of Boston bombing suspects Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev.
NBCNEWS.com reported that the two innocent men were stunned to see themselves pictured on the front page of the tabloid and one of them suffered a panic attack.
Minimize harm, advises the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics. And be judicious, it says, about naming criminal suspects before they are charged. Though the two men were not named by the Post, it’s an apt comparison when showing their faces.
The New York Post photo is considered an example in a series of errors and false reports that were rampant during the frenzy of trying to learn motives for the bombing, and who did it.
Crowd sourcing, it turned out, was not as valuable as its supporters might have supposed. Authorities essentially told the public they were not interested in the flood of iPhone photos that were offered of people and things considered suspicious. Instead, authorities zeroed in on the Tsarnaev brothers by using highly sophisticated identification technology.
There’s one more questionable thing about that New York Post photo, and that’s the use of the words “Bag Men.” You don’t have to be from Chicago or New York to know “bag man” is slang for a person who collects money for racketeers, or a mob errand boy.
It was bad enough that two innocent men were linked falsely with the Boston bombing. It got worse when they were tainted with language that implied criminal activity. Words hurt. They also can get you sued.