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Journalism Endowment Fund

Fixing journalism with a multibillion dollar endowment fund: Emily Bell writes tech giants could donate billions for a new type of engine for independent journalism. “Now is a good time to abandon the fantasy that the health of journalism is tied to free-market economics.”

 

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Anon

 

By Casey Bukro

 

Pssst! Hey buddy, over here. Got some really important news for you. Can’t tell you where I got it. But trust me.

That, in effect, is the con played often on the public by some of the nation’s leading newspapers, like the New York Times and the Washington Post. It’s called anonymity.

This con was neatly spelled out in a Reuters piece by Jack Shafer, who counted the number of times the Times offered corrections recently on stories based on anonymous sources, citing anonymous sources again to make the corrections.

That’s carrying the con a bit far.

Shafer traces the history of citing anonymous sources from a time when it was rare, to a time when it was rampant. It’s probably  fair to say that this journalistic disease is especially prevalent in Washington, involving government and political reporting.

Most reporters know that stories are only as good as the reliability of identified sources who are quoted.

“Anonymous sources reduce the pressure on official sources to take responsibility for their utterances,” writes Shafer. “And it promotes the gaming of news outlets, with anonymous sources gravitating to the most pliant reporters and editors.”

Weak or lazy scribes sometimes think they’re acting like “the big boys” by writing stories veiled in mystery, as though they know really important people who want to stay in the shadows. Sometimes these journalists know they are being used, but think that’s how the game is played. With more digging, they might find sources willing to be identified.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics says “the public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.” There are times when anonymity is warranted, such as protecting someone’s life or welfare.

Scholars believe the Washington Post’s Watergate coverage was the “watershed moment for anonymous reporting,” touching off a wave of imitators who lusted for the fame of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein.

Getting cozy with news sources is another way to play the game, as Bob Garfield, host of NPR’s “On the Media” program pointed out in his scathing commentary on the White House Correspondents Dinner in a piece entitled “When the Watchdogs Wear Tuxedos, Politicians Rest Easy.”

All of this leads to a point made by Thomas Baekdal, who investigated the meaning of quality journalism. He found that although some of the leading newspaper managers say they are doing a great job, they are losing readers.

It’s just possible that readers are disenchanted with journalism that depends on anonymous sources and making nice with news sources, like the White House correspondents dinner.  It’s journalism with a wink and a nod.

Readers know what’s going on there, and they’re turned off. They know they’re entitled to a better journalism, and better journalists.

 

Jayson Blair

 

By Casey Bukro

Jayson Blair lied, plagiarized and fabricated stories, shaming the New York Times where he worked.

Why would he do that, knowing that the eyes of the world were focused on one of the world’s great newspapers?

Leonard Pitts Jr., a columnist for the Miami Herald, seemly comes as close as anyone to an answer in a recent column — Blair simply believed he’d never get caught.

It’s a myth, says Blair, that fear of being caught keeps people from doing unethical things. After getting away with it, “once you cross that barrier where you know the chances are you won’t be caught, it becomes very hard to discipline yourself,” Pitts quotes Blair.

It’s a fantasy. And that could be part of the answer.

Anyone in journalism who believes nobody really pays attention to accuracy and fairness is delusional.  The American Journalism Review, in writing about Blair, pointed to other journalists who met their downfalls through dishonesty. It’s usually a matter of time before the distortions that lying create are noticed.

Blair did leave a legacy of sorts.  Some journalists contend media are more concerned about fact-checking now. Maybe.

Recently, films and television broadcasts focused on Blair.

“A Fragile Trust: Plagiarism, Power and Jayson Blair at the New York Times” is a 75-minute documentary.

Blair had a record of poor work habits at the New York Times, which should have raised red  flags before it was too late to prevent what has been described as “one of the most notorious scandals in the history of American journalism.” Some heads rolled.

Now out of journalism,  Blair is described as a “life coach.”

This season of Blair mania comes while several journalism organizations are writing or rewriting codes of ethics, such as the Society of Professional Journalists. Such documents usually list activities that journalists should or should not do.

But rarely do they mention consequences for people like Jayson Blair, who believe there are no consequences for lying, cheating and stealing. They just cross the barrier and set the stage for another scandal.

 

 

Ethics Codes

 

By Casey Bukro

Codes of ethics sound like such noble things.

They can be inspirational and aspirational, statements of our highest moral and professional conduct.

Like any description of what is good, the devil is in the details.  And where journalists are involved, the effort can bring out the devil in them. Some seem to handle it better than others.

For instance, three journalism groups are considering revising or creating codes of ethics: The Society of Professional Journalists, the Radio Television Digital News Association and the Online News Association.

The SPJ effort stands out because of the degree of conflict that erupted over charges by one of SPJ’s regional directors, Michael Koretzky, that the organization’s national ethics committee has conducted the code revision process largely in secrecy. Koretzky is a member of SPJ’s national board.

“It’s been difficult to get answers,” Koretzky said in an e-mail to SPJ leaders. Koretzky  launched his attack against the national ethics committee by e-mailing his “journoterrorist” blog illustrated with 11 panels that graphically compares SPJ’s code revision efforts with ONA’s.

Kevin Smith, SPJ’s national ethics committee chair,  denied “this conspiracy theory of secrecy in revising the code,” adding “we have nothing to hide.”

Koretzky replied that he never said anything about a conspiracy, but “the fact remains that no one has explained to the SPJ board (or anyone else) how the first draft of the code revision was compiled” and who was involved.

David Cuillier, SPJ’s president, added this to the chain of e-mails: “You’re absolutely right, Michael, that we have not communicated the process, or engaged members and non-members, as effectively as ONA.” No conspiracy or secrecy, he added, “but the ultimate outcome is a much more low-key effort on our part. All true.”

SPJ adopted its present code in 1996.

The American Journalism Review described the struggles over SPJ’s proposed code revision.

The Online News Association is working on a novel approach, which it calls “Build Your Own Ethics Code,” a crowdsourced ethics code.

ONA describes it as a toolkit “to help news outlets, bloggers and journalists decide on ethical guidelines that match their own ideas about reporting and journalism.”

The ethics guide would be a constantly updated online document. Reporters will be encouraged to publish the ethics codes they create, and to hold themselves and their news outlets accountable to them, said ONA. In other words, it would be largely voluntary.

RTDNA’s ethics code was last updated in 2000, “and I don’t need to tell you how greatly our technology and our newsrooms have changed in 14 years!” said Mike Cavender, RTDNA”s executive director.

One of the central questions in revising or creating codes of ethics is whether they should reflect changing technology, or state undying principles that apply regardless of technological changes.

RTDNA asked its members to complete a survey. “The goal is to insure that a new code fits our business as it stands today, without straying from the principles that define outstanding journalism.”

All three code-writing efforts are in the round one stage, with more rounds to follow. SPJ’s national ethics committee is expected to report its findings at the organization’s annual convention in September.

All three are worth watching to see if they end in a win, or in a knockout.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

When to Quit, When to Fight

By David Craig

How do you respond when your boss asks you to do something you think is unethical?

A web editor for several business-to-business publications told me she was facing that question after a brief item she wrote drew a complaint from sales staff because an advertiser was not mentioned. She said her editor was pressuring her to add information about the advertiser even though it didn’t fit with the original story.

She was looking for confirmation that this was an ethical problem and trying to decide how to respond.

We talked about the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, and I agreed that there was an ethical problem based on the principle of acting independently. That was the easy part.

The hard part: what to do about it. She was considering quitting her job – a decision no one should take lightly.

I asked her whether this kind of request was part of a pattern or an isolated incident. That’s an important question when the personal stakes are this high. And if nothing like this had happened before, that suggests it might be better to stay and try to do things right than lose the opportunity. I also asked her whether she thought the incident itself was serious enough to justify quitting immediately.

She said nothing like this had happened before. But she was troubled by the support for the advertiser’s view.

She read me an email she had drafted saying she thought the decision was unethical. I suggested she explain why based on the SPJ code so it was clear this was not just her individual judgment but reflected the standards of the profession. As a result, she decided to raise the point about acting independently and (her idea) to include a link to the SPJ code.

I found out later that the editor did not agree and ran the story anyway with the added information from the advertiser. As of the time of this post, the caller was still working there but was trying to line up enough freelance work to leave.

The Anonymous Photographer

By Casey Bukro

A young freelance photographer who has tight connections with local law enforcement and fire departments submits a photo of a fire in a private business to an Arkansas newspaper but refuses a photo byline.

An editor of the newspaper asked the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists whether his refusal was unethical? Should the photographer have taken the photo, and if the photographer had unfair advantage in taking it, should the newspaper use it?

The AdviceLine advisor pointed out that the case raises issues of transparency, accountability and conflicts of interest, but that the bigger issue was the newspaper’s lack of guidelines for dealing with bylines and credits. The newspaper in question was one of a group of newspapers lacking a code of ethics or standards.

For starters, the advisor suggested that the editor consult the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics “because the code has many guidelines about what she was asking.”

The editor pointed out that “these papers are small and some newspaper personnel work for volunteer fire departments, then take photos while they are on the job — photos that eventually appear in the paper.”

The editor said that she and the rest of the staff planned a meeting to create guidelines and discuss the SPJ code. That resulted in a decision to use “special to” credits for photos submitted exclusively to the newspaper by outside sources.

A Beginner’s Mistake

By Casey Bukro

A certain kind of ethics trap awaits many journalists, if they have not blundered into it already in their careers.

It starts with somebody warning the media in advance that he will do something life-threatening, and inviting coverage of the event.

Sometimes the media responds by saying, “let’s see if he does it,” without giving it further thought.

The Global Times reported such as case, in which a South Korean man jumped off a bridge after announcing the day before that he planned to do that. A South Korean TV station sent a crew to the scene, according to the Global Times, and recorded the man’s leap. As of recent reports, his body had not been recovered.

Then, as often happens, journalists are asked why they did not try to stop the man. Failure to do so is punishable by up to 10 years in jail, under South Korean law. Reporters said they arrived at the scene too late to stop the man, and that they had earlier reported the man’s threat to police.

Sometimes reporters will say they do not want to interfere with a story. Sometimes they say they had no reason to believe the man would carry out his threat. Sometimes they want the drama to play out so they can get a story, although they might never admit that.

But when the worst happens, attention turns to the conduct of the media and the logical question — why didn’t they try to prevent harm?

As a result, journalists are seen as heartless and cruel. And they are left with trying to explain what they did or did not do. Anyone caught in this kind of dilemma knows how it feels to be caught in a sudden inquisition. It’s a mistake you don’t make twice.

The Limits of Gruesome

By Casey Bukro

“You can’t handle the truth!” shouts Jack Nicholson in one of his memorable movie roles.

That could be said of public reaction to some of the harsh and violent realities of life that increasingly are shown these days in video reports, such as the gruesome video aired in the attack on an off-duty British soldier who was hacked and stabbed to death in London’s Woolwich neighborhood May 22.

An amateur’s video showed one of the alleged assailants, his bloody hands holding a knife and a clever, explaining why the soldier, Lee Rigby, was killed.

The graphic scenes, filmed by a member of the public with a mobile phone, prompted more than 700 complaints to the United Kingdom’s media regulator, known as Ofcom. The BBC, ITV, Britain’s Channel 4, Sky News and other broadcasters are being investigated by the media regulator for airing footage of the Woolwich attack.

Ofcom regulates the airwaves in the interests of citizens and consumers in Britain.

The incident is especially interesting for two reasons. One raises the question of how far is too far in pursuit of the news? Though the public is fairly jaded by gruesome images of war and violence these days, the Woolwich incident shows that at least some people think there is a limit to how much they are willing to see.

And the images were taken by a bystander with a cellphone, known these days as crowd sourcing. This is likely to be a growing source of information and conflict. The question is, should media outlets use it just because they have it?

A group of bloggers called International Square uses the Woolwich attack to ask: “How irresponsible are media when reporting on terrorism?”

ITV news said its decision to show the gruesome video was “editorially justified” in the public interest to explain the horrific event. Broadcasters said they warned the public of the graphic nature of the footage before showing it.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics suggests: “Show good taste. Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity.”

Sacked in Turkey

By Casey Bukro

Ombudsmen in journalism are seen as scolds, nit-pickers, snitches and nuisances — if they do the job right.

People are paid for doing that job right, and sometimes they are fired for the same reason.

The most recent example is Yavuz Baydar, who was the ombudsman for the Turkish  newspaper Sabah. He was criticizing the government and his newspaper, and management decided that either he desist or find work elsewhere.

Baydar was quoted in The Guardian newspaper that his “sacking” was an attack not just on journalism, but on Turkish democracy and freedom of expression.

There are echoes in this from the departure of Patrick Pexton as the Washington Post’s last ombudsman — a job title that had lasted 43 years at the Post.

An ombudsman works on behalf of the public, and keeps an eye on their organization’s ethical standards and relationship with its audience.

In his own departure remarks, printed in the Washington Post, Pexton said “the power of truth is the power to humble governments, to obtain justice, to foil hypocrisy, to help the downtrodden, to reveal the world as it is, not as we might like it to be.”

Baydar’s ousting was noticed worldwide, causing commentary on the difficult role of ombudsmen and shedding light on journalism in Turkey.

Baydar is fighting back, saying he “will take the firing decision to court.”