Category Archives: Transparency

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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Daley News: Preserving Disorder in Trump’s Washington

Richard J. Daley.
Chicago Mayor Richard J. Daley, in an official photo by Laszlo Kondor. (University of Illinois Library Archives)

By Casey Bukro

Powerful men often have a way with words, although not always in the way we might expect.

Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago was famous for malapropisms, often saying the opposite of what he meant. He was Chicago’s powerful mayor for 21 years, and an example for journalists taking measure of Donald J. Trump.

Daley was the undisputed Democratic kingmaker in Illinois and beyond until his death in 1976, both feared and respected. Daley was a force in John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential victory, leaving lingering hints of vote fraud. A dressing down by Daley could leave his underlings in pools of sweat.

But his speech was sometimes tangled and mangled, often while he was agitated or angry. Such as the time he was talking about the battle being waged by police against street violence during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.

“Gentlemen, get the thing straight once and for all,” the mayor said. “The policeman isn’t there to create disorder; the policeman is there to preserve disorder.”

Continue reading Daley News: Preserving Disorder in Trump’s Washington

In Trump’s Locker Room Culture, Billy Bush Caught the Fungus

By Casey Bukro

Usually, a journalist at the center of an explosive story would be congratulated. Not Billy Bush.

Billy Bush.
Billy Bush suspended in wake of Donald Trump making lewd comments. Wikimedia photo

He’s the one cackling and giggling in the background of the 2005 tape as Donald Trump brags about kissing and groping beautiful women. “I just start kissing them,” Trump says. “It’s like a magnet. I just kiss. I don’t even wait.”

Egged on by Bush, Trump adds the remark about grabbing women by the genitals, using an obscene term, saying, “I can do anything.”

Released on the eve of the 2016 elections, the tape has been played countless times as commentators speculate about its likely impact on Trump’s chances of being elected president as the GOP contender.

No need to wonder about Bush, Trump’s enabler in that episode. NBC suspended him as a co-host of the “Today” show.

Bush was co-anchor of “Access Hollywood” at the time the tape was made. NBCUniveral Television Distribution, with NBC-owned station KNBC, has been solely responsible for producing “Access Hollywood” since 2004.

Bush was a rising star until the video train wreck. It might be a stretch to call him a journalist.

Television personalities often consider themselves entertainers or performers who want to put on a show. Brian Williams, for example, gave himself credit for doing things he did not do, making his reports more exciting until NBC learned of his fabrications, then suspended and reassigned him. Makes you wonder if these guys ever heard of journalism ethics.

William Hall “Billy” Bush is the nephew of former President George H.W. Bush and cousin of former President George W. Bush and former Florida Gov. John Ellis “Jeb” Bush.

The website MediaShift says Bush’s story “should serve as a cautionary tale for our modern age of journalism, where social media and reality television have oblitered the line between reporting the news and becoming part of it.”
Continue reading In Trump’s Locker Room Culture, Billy Bush Caught the Fungus

Journalists Helping Police: Is It Unethical?

News helicopter
Police hitched a ride on a news helicopter in pursuit of a shooting suspect. Wikimedia Commons photo.

By Casey Bukro

People sometimes think police and reporters are alike. Both chase criminals and other kinds of crooks to protect the public.

But they’re not the same, and a case involving a news helicopter in Boulder, Colorado, made that clear.

Boulder police were chasing a shooting suspect when they asked reporters aboard a helicopter shared by Denver TV stations for an airborne lift at the scene to search for the suspect.

A police officer boarded the copter. From his aerial vantage point, the officer was able to nab a suspect in cooperation with a SWAT team on the ground.

A police spokeswoman called the assist instrumental in the arrest, according to the Boulder Daily Camera, and noted that the news team got direct access to the police action.

Boulder police requested the ride from reporters after failing to get assistance from Denver Police or the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

A win-win, or an ethics foul?
Continue reading Journalists Helping Police: Is It Unethical?

Muzzled Columnist Quits Las Vagas Review-Journal

Las Vegas Review-Journal photo
Las Vegas Review-Journal photo

By Casey Bukro

The proverbial other shoe dropped in the case of Las Vegas casino mogul Sheldon Adelson, who secretly bought the Las Vegas Vegas Review-Journal after days of denial.

The newspaper’s columnist John L. Smith resigned in protest after being told he could not write about Adelson or Steve Wynn, both Vegas casino magnates who unsuccessfully sued Smith for libel and drove him into bankruptcy through legal fees.

The paper’s editor, J. Keith Moyer, argued that it would be a conflict of interest for Smith to write about two of the most powerful men in town, who had sued him, not for his work on the newspaper, but for books he had written about them.

The one mentioning Adelson was titled “Sharks in the Desert.” The other book was titled “Running Scared: The Life and Treacherous Times of Las Vegas Casino King Steve Wynn.” Clearly, neither book offered much sympathy for either power player.

But this is a story about fabulous Las Vegas, a town with an explosive history of gambling, gangsters, show-business megastars, showgirls and entertainment. It’s in a constant state of drama or turmoil. All you have to do is walk through the downtown casinos at 3 a.m. and see the action on the roulette and blackjack tables to know things don’t slow down there.

Continue reading Muzzled Columnist Quits Las Vagas Review-Journal

May the Source Be With You, But Not Anonymously

Reporter's notebook taped shut.
Sources looking to go off the record often have little to contribute. (Stephen Rynkiewicz photo)

By Casey Bukro

After being seriously burned by false information from anonymous sources, the New York Times decided to be more cautious about accepting information from people who don’t want to be identified.

The Times issued new guidelines governing the use of anonymous sources, mandating that stories resorting to anonymity must be submitted to one of the paper’s top three editors for advance approval.

That’s a step in the right direction for a publication that long prided itself on knowing inside information, even if cloaked in anonymity.

A copy of the memo to the Times newsroom was forwarded to Politico anonymously. Hard to decide if that is ironic or hilarious.

The memo shows, among other things, that old habits at the publication known as “the Gray Lady” are hard to break. It begins by defending the use of anonymous sources as “sometimes crucial to our journalistic mission. But it also puts a strain on our most valuable and delicate asset: our trust with readers.”

The memo observed that readers “routinely cite anonymous sources as one of their greatest concerns about The Times’s journalism.”

Readers can see the practice as the Times “vouching for the information unequivocally – or worse, as carrying water for someone else’s agenda. As far as possible, we should explain the source’s motivation and how he or she knows the information.”

It appears that the Times is finally catching up on a rule generally accepted by many professional journalists: Information is only as good as its source. Credible and identifiable sources provide reliable information, or information that can be judged for reliability.

Departing from this rule can have serious consequences, as the Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, pointed out. In several opinion page articles, she described how reliance on anonymous sources led to “two major front-page errors in a six-month period.”

One alleged a Justice Department criminal investigation against Hillary Rodham Clinton, which Sullivan called “fraught with inaccuracies.” The other involved jihadist social-media posts by one of the San Bernardino killers. The mass shooting killed 14 people and injured 22.

Too many Times articles rely on anonymous government sources, Sullivan wrote in December, 2015. She called for “systemic change” at The Times. “The Times needs to fix its overuse of unnamed government sources,” Sullivan wrote.

Continue reading May the Source Be With You, But Not Anonymously

Secret Vegas Deal: Adelson’s Bet on Journalism

Sheldon Adelson
Sheldon Adelson, chairman and CEO of the Las Vegas Sands Corp. Photo by the Las Vegas Review-Journal.

By Casey Bukro

The stealth purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson had journalists guessing for a week about the identity of the new owner and had some fuming over a lack of transparency, a prime tenet in media ethics these days.

But why should we be surprised by all this?

Very rich men often play by their own rules and get away with it. Even in media, top executives sometimes believe they are exempt from the ethics standards they hand down to their employees.

Journalists are warned against forming close personal ties with the sources they cover in case of conflicts of interest or an appearance of conflict. Publishers, however, party and play golf with the high and mighty covered by their staffs and call that good business.

They see themselves as business men and women, not journalists. In this case, we’re talking about a businessman in the Las Vegas casino business, where razzle-dazzle is the way the game is played. The house always wins.

Politics makes it more complicated. Adelson reportedly declined mentioning his purchase of the largest Nevada newspaper, even denying it as first, because he did not want it to distract from the fifth GOP presidential debate being held at the time in the Venetian resort hotel casino owned and operated by the Las Vegas Sands Corp., of which Adelson is chairman and CEO.

Clearly, politics took priority. And that might offer a clue into some of the leading questions in Las Vegas these days, such as what does Adelson want, and what does he intend to do with the newspaper?

Continue reading Secret Vegas Deal: Adelson’s Bet on Journalism

Ethics Scan: Remaining Media Ombudsmen Uphold Standards

By Casey Bukro

Ombudsmen and public editors often are described as a dying breed, yet those who remain clearly take the job seriously.

A 2014 University of Nebraska graduate thesis finds there are about a dozen ombudsmen working now in U.S. news organizations, down from about 40 or 50 earlier in the decade. Internationally, however, the report finds ombudsmen growing in number and popularity.

In these times of job insecurity, ombudsmen seem to be taking more risks than most journalists. But they toil on.

In the U.S., Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times public editor, attracted attention for pointing to a conflict of interest Times editors failed to flag or apparently even to notice in an article titled “The Transformers.”

The article profiled five technology entrepreneurs, including Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky.

Tipped by readers, Sullivan discovered the article was written by the wife of a major investor in Airbnb, and that the writer was not a NYT staffer. The article appeared in T, the style magazine of the Times, and lauded entrepreneurs “harnessing goodness through technology.”

Sullivan came down hard on her employer in an article titled “Conflict of Interest in T Magazine’s Tech Article.”

Among readers who contacted Sullivan about the article, one wrote, “my question is about an undisclosed conflict” in an article that “reads as uncritical P.R.” for Airbnb without disclosing the relationship between the article’s author and the investor in Airbnb.

“This is a case in which the financial conflict is so clear, and the spousal tie so close, that a disclosure would not have been enough. A different writer altogether would have been a far better idea, and, to my mind, the only right one,” Sullivan wrote.

Sullivan found that T Magazine failed to live up to the Times’s high journalistic standards. Online, the article carries a disclosure about the conflict.

In South Africa, news24 reported that complaints to the Press Ombudsman faulted the Sunday Times for information it did not report, rather than what it did report about a tax-collecting agency of the South African government.

The Sunday Times published a series of reports on an alleged rogue unit in the agency accused of running a brothel and spying on President Jacob Zuma. Officials accused in the scheme resigned, but told the ombudsman “there is an alternative narrative” that contradicts the Times reports.” A lawyer said the Times had been selective and unbalanced in its reporting.

The Sunday Times of South Africa is a weekly newspaper. The ombudsman is pondering the case.

Here’s a long, scholarly look at the Press Council of South Africa by Dr. Julie Reid.

Despite the brain-twisting nature of the job, others still step up. ESPN recently named James M. Brady, formerly of the Washington Post, as its public editor. In making the announcement, company officials said his goal would be transparency and advocacy in an increasingly multimedia world.

A Reporter Discovers the Pain of Being Ethical

By Casey Bukro

It’s hard to be good and ethical. Sometimes it comes at a cost.

Amelia Pang, metro reporter for Epoch Times in New York, discovered this when she called the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists in 2012 and asked a question that AdviceLine gets sometimes:

When calling a news source, is it necessary for reporter to admit to being a reporter? That is, not say that she is a reporter, unless asked?

It is a question that arises among young reporters, those learning the ropes or those who work for organizations without printed standards or spelled out ethical guidelines that can leave a reporter wondering what to do.

In Pang’s case, she called AdviceLine on advice from a colleague.

“I am doing an article about a controversial homeless shelter in New York City,” Pang told AdviceLine adviser Hugh Miller, an assistant professor of philosophy who teaches ethics at Loyola University Chicago.

“The shelter is located in a very rich area, therefore many residents have been quite unhappy about it. The shelter has received a lot of bad press since they opened last year, and now they are reluctant to talk to any media.”

Continue reading A Reporter Discovers the Pain of Being Ethical

Health Care Freelancers Face Tough Ethics Challenges

By David Ozar and Casey Bukro

Freelancing is a tough way to make a living – even tougher as downsized journalists turn to freelancing.

For writers specializing in health care, it’s especially challenging because of the ethics issues faced in navigating the cross connections between clients who want stories written for them or about them. Or both.

“Ethical guidelines for subspecialties may vary,” Tara Haelle in an email exchange with the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists.

A freelancer herself, Haelle traced the obstacles in a story that appeared on the Association of Health Care Journalists website.

Tara Haelle
Tara Haelle

Haelle calls it the conflict-of-interest maze: “Ensuring that work for one client doesn’t create a conflict for another, present or future.” Though that might sound simple, Haelle said it isn’t because freelancers work for companies, journalism publications, universities and foundations or as consultants.

Haelle went to several sources, asking how she can avoid ethical conflicts of interests under the conditions in which she works and found that ethical guidelines vary. One source said “there’s no clear answer.” Another said journalists should “decide for ourselves what we think is ethical behavior.”

That sounded like a challenge for the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, which has a staff of five university ethicists to answer questions of the kind posed by Haelle.

One of them, David Ozar, is professor of social and professional ethics in the department of philosophy at Loyola University Chicago. AdviceLine asked Ozar to read Haelle’s story and offer his perspective on how he would have answered her call for guidance on ethics.

Continue reading Health Care Freelancers Face Tough Ethics Challenges