Category Archives: Using Deception

Fake News Trumps True News

Boston Globe fake news page.
The Boston Globe publishes fake news as an editiorial-page spoof in April, 2016.

By Casey Bukro

Fake news might have proved more interesting to readers than the factual stuff.

This sobering thought has churned angst over whether social-media falsehoods contributed to Donald Trump’s presidential victory, not to mention whether the upset win could have been foreseen.

News consumers tend to believe reports that support their personal beliefs — an effect that psychologists call confirmation bias. People like to believe they’re right. In the election run-up, they clicked their way across the internet to prove it.

As President-elect Trump selects the people who’ll help him govern, observers are picking through the rubble trying to understand the forces behind a Republican victory. Here our concern is news-media accuracy and ethics.

Let’s start with something basic. What is fake news?

“Pure fiction,” says Jackie Spinner, assistant professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago, appearing on WTTW-Channel 11 in Chicago in a “Chicago Tonight” program devoted to separating fact from fiction in internet news feeds.

“It’s something made up,” adds Spinner. “It’s fake.”

But as the WTTW program points out, “fake news is on the rise, and it’s real news.” Some false reports, such as campaign endorsements from Pope Francis, survived many a news cycle.
Continue reading Fake News Trumps True News

Mother Jones Goes Undercover

My Four Months as a Prison Guard
Mother Jones senior reporter Shane Bauer took a job at a state prison run by Corrections Corporation of America. His account is in the July-August 2016 issue.

By Casey Bukro

Just when you think an ethics issue has been put to rest, a Mother Jones magazine reporter spends four months working undercover as a guard at a corporate-run prison in Louisiana.

“I took a $9 an hour job as a private prison guard in Louisiana,” reporter Shane Bauer wrote in a 35,000 word, six-part report accompanied by two sidebar reports and an editor’s note, plus video.

“I saw stabbings, an escape and prisoners and guards struggling to survive,” Bauer wrote.

The publication’s editor-in-chief, Clara Jeffery, wrote that legal intimidation makes investigations of prisons rare, but “it’s time for journalists to reclaim our roots.” She pointed to an 1887 undercover investigation of a women’s mental asylum by New York World reporter Nellie Bly as an early example of the kind of work journalists should be doing. It triggered reforms.

It’s fair to say undercover reporting has fallen into disfavor these days because it often depends on deception, for which a publication can be sued. And it can make journalists look like liars.

“Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public,” says the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics.

Continue reading Mother Jones Goes Undercover

The Peeping Tom Chronicles: Gay Talese’s New Journalism Tease

Gay Talese
Author Gay Talese (Wikipedia photo)

Update: “I should not have believed a word he said,” author Gay Talese said after the Washington Post informed him that property records showed that the subject of his latest book,  a Peeping Tom motel owner, did not own the motel from 1980 to 1988. While Talese disavowed his latest book in the Post’s report, he and his publisher defended the book to the New York Times.

By Casey Bukro

One questionable ethical episode after another piles up in the New Yorker’s excerpt of a forthcoming Gay Talese book. In “The Voyeur’s Motel,” a serial Peeping Tom owner of a motel might have witnessed a possible murder. He invites Talese to join him in secretly watching a couple have sex.

By Talese’s own admission, there’s reason to believe some of the story is not true.

It’s possible the New Yorker was swayed by the author’s fame in publishing a titillating account of voyeurism. The Aurora, Colorado, motel owner kept detailed written accounts of what he saw through the ceiling ventilating system grille openings over more than a dozen rooms. Talese writes that he could not verify some details, including the murder. He shrugs it off as poor record-keeping.

Although the motel owner, Gerald Foos, admits to being a voyeur since the age of 9, he considers himself a researcher of human sexual habits. Talese knows the subject as well, having explored it in 1981’s “Thy Neighbor’s Wife.” He’s also an inventor of New Journalism, a style that depends heavily on subjective observation.

“Over the years, as I burrowed deeper into Foos’s story, I found various inconsistencies – mostly about dates – that called his reliability into question,” Talese wrote in the New Yorker excerpt. Most editors might balk at publishing a story on which the writer himself casts doubt upon its reliability. But the New Yorker forged ahead.

At least Talese points to the holes in his story. Under the rules of Old Journalism, that would have qualified “spiking” the piece.

Continue reading The Peeping Tom Chronicles: Gay Talese’s New Journalism Tease

Bill Green, Ombudsman Exemplar, Unsparing on Post’s Failure

 

green

Bill Green set the standard for ombudsmen while investigating the Janet Cooke hoax at the Washington Post. (Post photo).

By Casey Bukro

Bill Green, an ombudsman’s ombudsman, was not even sure what the job entailed when he was called on unexpectedly to unravel one of journalism’s most famous ethical failures.

Green was only weeks into the job as Washington Post ombudsman on Sept. 28, 1980, when the Post published “Jimmy’s World,” the story of an 8-year-old heroin addict with “needle marks freckling the baby-smooth skin of his thin brown arms.”

So compelling and detailed, the front-page story written by 26-year-old reporter Janet Cooke won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing on April 13, 1981.

Almost immediately the story about the unnamed boy, and Cooke’s background that appeared when the prize was announced, started falling apart.

The story that followed is especially notable for two reasons. One is that falsehoods often fail sooner or later. The other is that Green, an editor of small-town newspapers who took a year’s sabbatical from Duke University to serve as the Post’s reader advocate, wrote a blistering report on the Post’s editorial lapses that is a model of journalism accountability. It set the standard for ombudsmen.

The nine-part report, starting on the front page and covering four full inside pages, showed the Post’s willingness to confront its flaws and admit them publicly.

Continue reading Bill Green, Ombudsman Exemplar, Unsparing on Post’s Failure

Staged Photos Darken the Fog of War

Fox News screen shot of Brussels photographer posing girl. Photo by James Pomerantz
Fox News screen shot of Brussels photographer posing girl. Photo by James Pomerantz

By Casey Bukro

War is famously shrouded in a fog that journalists are supposed to penetrate.

Since war correspondents and photographers sometimes risk their lives in combat zones, you’d think they’d want to get it right. Otherwise, it’s just propaganda.

In that case, the fog just gets thicker. But it is a way to make a buck as media cut staff and rely on freelancers.

The recent Brussels bombings is an example. A 21-year-old Palestinian photographer triggered strong social media reactions. When a Fox News video showed him posing a girl at a makeshift memorial, an outcry arose against the unethical practice of staging photographs.

The Guardian, a British national newspaper, identified the photographer as Khaled Al Sabbah, who lives in Brussels and has won photography awards for his work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The newspaper also quoted Michael Kamber, a former New York Times staff photographer and founder of the Bronx Documentary Center, after he saw the video.

“It’s one more example of a photographer doing something that destroys public trust in the media,” said Kamber.

Continue reading Staged Photos Darken the Fog of War

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

Undercover Investigator Insults Journalists

By Casey Bukro

David R. Daleiden said he misrepresented himself and falsified his identification while investigating Planned Parenthood because that’s what journalists do.

What an insult to journalists! Ethical journalists know that telling lies and deception while covering the news destroys their credibility. Who would believe a journalist who lies, cheats or steals?

That’s why the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics clearly states: “Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information except when traditional open methods will not yield information vital to the public. Use of such methods should be explained as part of the story.”

True, there’s a qualification. And journalism lore is rife with tales of Hollywood-style derring-do, with reporters pulling off grand deceptions.

The Mirage tavern, a study in journalism deception.
The Mirage tavern, a study in journalism deception.

In 1977, the Chicago Sun-Times bought a tavern and staffed it with reporters and photographers to show the extent of corruption and shakedowns by Chicago city inspectors and others who took $10 or $20 payoffs to ignore safety or health hazards. Then the Sun-Times published a 25-part series that documented the abuses and crimes in the Mirage tavern.

You’ll still get an argument from some journalists who say it was a terrific story and resulted in major city, state and federal reforms. The talk at the time, though, was that the series failed to win a Pulitzer Prize because the investigation was based on deception, and that was wrong.

Continue reading Undercover Investigator Insults Journalists

Searching for the Limits of Ethics

By Casey Bukro

Some media people find it impossible to forgive Brian Williams, saying he tainted journalism through false reports.

A cascade of shame enveloped the former NBC anchor, demoted and vilified after saying repeatedly that he was aboard a military helicopter that was forced down over Iraq by enemy fire. Turns out that happened to another military helicopter, not the one he was riding.

Williams’ career began unraveling as other reports were called into question.

From a strictly ethical viewpoint, how should Williams be judged? He admitted he was mistaken about the helicopter incident and apologized.

Ethically, are there limits to forgiveness? Is it best to forgive and forget? Is he forever tainted, or is he allowed to get beyond it and redeem himself?

These questions were posed to AdviceLine’s team of ethicists.

Nancy Matchett, who teaches ethics at the University of Northern Colorado, answered this way:

“Philosophers understand ethics as ongoing reflection about ‘how one should live.’ In the professional context, that means ongoing reflection about the principles that should guide one’s work and how they apply to the concrete choices one faces every day. Ethics doesn’t exactly have a beginning or end.

“And, with respect to the Williams affair, we can evaluate his choices since the incident, and the choices of the network, as well as the original mistake.”

I asked Matchett if that suggests we should judge Williams and the aftermath by what he does from now on?

“Sure, that’s part of it,” said Matchett. “But I guess what I’m also trying to emphasize is that the fact that any particular bit of conduct that was good, bad, etc., is never ‘the whole story about Williams’ ethics.’ There is no whole story, except perhaps after a person is dead, because characters are never wholly fixed.

“What he does from now on should be judged in light of the fact that we know he is at least careless and at worst inclined to stretch the truth for the sake of a story.”

I told Matchett that appears to raise the issue of redemption.

“I don’t really have anything to say about redemption,” said Matchett. “Whether another person, or ‘the profession,’ forgives Williams doesn’t change his act from wrong to right. It acknowledges that his character isn’t all bad and that the mistake was in some sense ‘understandable’ given the various pressures he was under. And just to be crystal clear, note that ‘understandable’ is not the same as ‘justifiable.’ Or as we say in my business, an explanation is not the same as an excuse.

“As for people finding it ‘impossible to forgive,’ that’s a psychological issue or question, not the ethically central one. The ethically central issue is whether forgiveness is morally appropriate, whether people should do it, which is a little different from whether they can. … If it’s not appropriate, then folks are doing the right thing by refusing to forgive.

“But in general, I think any network would be foolish to leave him as an anchor on their main show. He has harmed his own and the network’s credibility. Even if the network execs were convinced that it was a forgivable mistake and his journalistic integrity could be counted on in the future, the average viewer surely doesn’t know Williams well enough to decide whether to trust him again.”

David A. Craig, another AdviceLine ethicist, who teaches ethics at the University of Oklahoma, sees it a different way:

“It troubles me that Williams seems to deflect responsibility for his untruths by saying he did not intend them. Journalists, especially those in roles as high profile as his, have a responsibility for every word that comes out of their mouths in a formal journalistic setting.

“If this were a single brief slipup in language, that would be different. But he was untruthful more than once about his experience in Iraq. Every viewer now has reason to question his trustfulness in the future. By failing to fully take responsibility for his words, he gives his audience ongoing reason to doubt.”

Reason to doubt Williams first emerged when military publication Stars and Stripes challenged his account of being aboard the helicopter that was forced down over Iraq.

NBC suspended Williams for six months without pay, then stripped him of his duties as anchor of NBC Nightly News.

As Matchett points out, we don’t know “the whole story” about Williams yet. Already, he is the subject of jokes and spoofs by the likes of Harry Shearer.

Forgiveness happens on two levels, personal and professional.

Journalists are notoriously soft on each other, and hard on everyone else. Journalists don’t like to criticize or censure other journalists. So, personally, they are likely to forgive Williams by finding that morally appropriate, as Matchett put it. They will write about ethical transgressions, but that’s not the same as taking a personal stand.

Professionally, it’s hard to forgive an act that weakens public trust in the integrity of journalism, which rests on a foundation of truth. The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics begins with this tenet: “Seek truth and report it.”

Falsehoods damage the profession, and cannot be tolerated.

AdviceLine gets SDX Award for Navigating Murky Ethics Waters

SDX Awards
The Sigma Delta Chi Awards are presented June 26 at the National Press Club (Catherine Trifiletti photo)

By Casey Bukro

Ethics: The word can make you feel drowsy, or start your heart pounding.

It all depends on whether you are suddenly tangled in a job-threatening dilemma, or one that might destroy your credibility.

Ethics: Distinguishing between good and evil in the world, between right and wrong human actions and between virtuous and non virtuous characteristics of people.

Sounds lofty and maybe even remote from our daily journalism lives, until it’s not so remote anymore.

Seated next to me at the Sigma Delta Chi awards banquet in the National Press Club in Washington, D.C. was the editorial writer of a Midwestern newspaper who was waiting to collect his award. A fellow winner at the dinner table asked the editorial writer how his publication had gotten embroiled in a highly controversial ethics issue.

The newspaper had revealed the names of two alleged women rape victims. Typically, publications avoid naming rape victims.

Off-the-record, the editorial writer explained the difficult process of arriving at the decision to name the women. Then he added that the newspaper had no ombudsman or other trusted source to discuss the difficult decision before publication.

At that point, I reached into my pocket and handed him several Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists wallet cards, explaining how to reach AdviceLine in the event of a similar need for ethics counseling. Call toll free, 866-DILEMMA.

The editorial writer seemed grateful, and said he would carry the cards back to his newspaper and hand them out to management.

SDX Award
Sigma Delta Chi Foundation President Robert Leger presents the Sigma Delta Chi Award to AdviceLine’s Casey Bukro (Catherine Trifiletti photo)

Back to the banquet. The award dates to 1932, when the Sigma Delta Chi journalism fraternity honored six individuals for contributions to the profession. The Society of Professional Journalists continued the honors as its Distinguished Service Awards, then with a nod to its fraternal roots as the Sigma Delta Chi Awards for Excellence in Journalism.

The awards recognize the best news reporting in print, radio, television, newsletters, art/graphics, online media and research. The contest is open to any U.S. media outlet.

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists has been guiding professional journalists through ethical minefields since 2001 – more than 900 cases. AdviceLine counsel went online early last year with an expanded ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org website.

AdviceLine’s blog won a 2014 SDX award in the Online Column Writing (Independent) category. The blog comments on current ethics issues and describes the kind of questions it gets from professional journalists on ethics.

Here’s what the judges said in naming the AdviceLine blog the winner:

“Ethics, unfortunately, can be an afterthought in a 24-7/digital-first/anyone-can-publish-content environment. In an area that sometimes has no right or wrong answer, the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists helps media pros navigate murky waters. They are doing a public service and helping shape the way forward for our industry, and that deserves recognition.”

Also deserving recognition are the AdviceLine ethicist consultants: David Ozar, Loyola University Chicago; Hugh Miller, Loyola University Chicago; David Craig, University of Oklahoma; Nancy Matchett, University of Northern Colorado and Lee Anne Peck, University of Northern Colorado.

Fellow bloggers Stephen Rynkiewicz and David Craig are named with me on the SDX award plaque.

Probably fair to say each of us has an ethics hero. So as a bow to those who came before us, I’ll mention one of mine: American media critic Walter Lippmann, who said in 1920, “There can be no higher law in journalism than to tell the truth and shame the devil.”