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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Charlie Hebdo, the French satire newspaper, published a cartoon of a drowned 3-year-old boy and showed why codes of ethics should warn against satirical cruelty.
Satire can be cruel, inspiring or infuriating. Maybe all at once. But are there limits to this form of freedom of expression?
Charlie Hebdo clearly touched a nerve by joking about the boy lying facedown in the surf of a Turkish beach, after drowning with his mother and a brother while attempting to flee war-torn Syria, becoming a stark symbol of Europe’s growing migrant crisis.
The cartoon was based on photos of the boy, first described as Aylan Kurdi and corrected later as Alan Kurdi.
“The haunting photograph of 3-year-old Aylan Kurdi, the Syrian boy whose lifeless body washed up on a Turkish beach last week, has been inescapable; even if you’ve just seen it once, it’s an image you can’t forget,” wrote Carolyn O’Hara, managing editor of The Week magazine.
O’Hara compared it with other grim photos of the past that forced the world to confront some tragic realities, such as the the 1972 photo of a naked Vietnamese girl screaming in agony from napalm burns, the 1993 image of a vulture stalking a starving Sudanese toddler and the hooded Abu Ghraib prisoner with outstretched arms.
It could be argued that these images served a greater purpose. Can the same be said about Charlie Hebdo?
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”