Skipping the small stuff

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

The Associated Press became the latest news organization to adopt a humanitarian policy aimed at fairness in the way it reports on people.

AP will no longer name suspects in minor crime stories, writes John Daniszewski, the AP’s vice president for standards.

“Usually, we don’t follow up with coverage about the outcome of the cases,” writes Daniszewski. “We may not know if the charges were later dropped or reduced as they often are, or if the suspect was later acquitted.” Yet such stories might make it difficult for a person to gain employment or move on with their lives.

Similar moves announced earlier by the Chicago Tribune and the Boston Globe were described in a post by the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists. At least 36 states allow for the expungement of criminal records after a person completes sentencing.

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

Foreign Ethics

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists gets inquiries from journalists all over the world about ethics quandaries. Here’s one:

The caller is a writer for a motorcycling magazine in Spain, where he is based. He has an offer to join the World Superbike organization team as an international press officer, but its contract requires journalists to treat the championships “with respect.” Meaning no criticism.

This raises the point that journalism ethics norms are not the same in all countries. While pondering this, the writer got an invitation to join another motorcycle magazine at a higher salary, with no strings attached and with no obligations to be “respectful” of any organization.

He wanted to know if he should stay where he is employed or go to one of the other two, based in part on Spain’s more relaxed attitude toward journalism ethics.

What would you do? What advice would you give to that journalist? Sometimes journalists have an answer in mind when they call AdviceLine. But they call for a second opinion to test their judgment. It helps to discuss such problems with someone else, especially with ethics.

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

BBC Apologizes

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Twenty-five years later, the British Broadcasting Corporation apologizes for one of its reporters, Martin Bashir, using fake bank statements to get a sensational interview with Princess Diana.

“It was a stupid thing to do and was an action I deeply regret,” said Bashir, who stepped down from BBC last week. He admitted the bogus bank statements used to gain the interview when he was a young reporter eager to make a name for himself were “mocked up.” BBC News called the interview “deceitful.”

“The BBC should have made greater effort to get to the bottom of what happened at the time and been more transparent about what it knew,” said Tim Davie, BBC’s current director-general. “While the BBC cannot turn back the block after a quarter of a century, we can make a full and unconditional apology.”

BBC has an ethics guide which says in part, “At the heart of ethics is a concern about something and someone other than ourselves and our own desires and self-interest.”

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics urges journalists to “abide by the same high standards to which they hold others.”

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

Ranking Plagues

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

It’s too early to tell where the current coronavirus-19 pandemic ranks among the world’s worst plagues.

At this writing, global cases stood at 160.6 million and global deaths at 3.3 million.

The United States led the world with 32,827,228 cases and 583,938 deaths, followed by India with 23,703,665 cases and 258,317 deaths.

The Seychelles leads there world in percent of its population vaccinated against Covid-19 with 70 percent, according to the New York Times. Israel follows with 60 percent. The U.S. ranks ninth in the world with 46 percent.

It appears the worst medical disaster in history was the 1918 Spanish Flu pandemic which infected a third of the global population and killed up to 50 million people.

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Following is an AdviceLine report from Aug. 5, 2020 on lessons gained from past plagues, to help make some comparisons as we work our way out of the Covid19- pandemic. Since this article appeared, effective vaccines were developed and used widely in an attempt to eradicate the disease.

Lessons from Plagues

The history of plagues and pandemics shows some similarities in the way they spread, and how people react.

Travelers, whether soldiers or traders, often were the super spreaders of their day.

Quarantine is a centuries-old strategy against pandemics. Wearing masks is an old defense too, including public resistance to wearing them.

Another similarity is that millions of people die. Survivors muddle through, sometimes with the help of modern medical treatment. But medicine often was useless against plagues. Blame it all on civilization.

“Plagues and epidemics have ravaged humanity throughout its existence, often changing the course of history,” writes Owen Jarus in livescience.com., offering a list of 20 of the worst epidemics and pandemics in history. At times, they signaled the end of entire civilizations.

The list starts with an epidemic 5,000 years ago that wiped out a prehistoric village in China. Bodies of the dead were stuffed inside a house that was burned down at a site called Hamin Mangha in northeastern China. Prehistoric mass burial sites dating to roughly the same time suggest an epidemic swept the entire region.

Jarus’s list ends with the Zika Virus epidemic dating from 2015 to the present. The impact of the Zika epidemic in South America and Central America won’t be known for several years. It is spread by mosquitoes and can attack infants still in the womb, causing birth defects.

 Learning From the Past

Focusing on what we’ve learned from past pandemics, Tim McDonnell in quartz.com starts with the Antonine plague beginning in 165 AD, one of the world’s first epidemics. A form of smallpox or measles, legionnaires returning from a siege in modern-day Iraq brought it to Rome. It devastated the Roman army, fueled the growing popularity of Christianity and was an early contributor to the empire’s eventual collapse. It also offered an early glimpse into a key tenet of virology: Disease outbreaks are deadliest when introduced to a population for the first time, when people lack immunity.

Genoese traders brought the plague known as the Black Death to Europe after escaping a siege in which a Mongol general used infected corpses as a weapon. Spread by fleas, the plague killed up to 23 million people, one-third of Europe’s population, from 1347 to 1351.

The first true flu pandemic appeared in the summer of 1580 in Asia, writes McDonnell, and quickly spread over trade routes into Europe and North America. Earlier cases might have occurred among Greek soldiers fighting the Peloponnesian War in 430 BC. The first reference to “influenza” in scientific literature dates to 1650 and comes from the Italian word “influence.”

Possibly the worst medical disaster in history, the 1918 Spanish Flu infected a third of the global population and killed up to 50 million people. It revealed how many lives can be saved by social distancing. Cities that cancelled public events had far fewer cases. The disease spread quickly in the United States and Europe through troop movements during World War I, infecting armies involved in the conflict.

A pandemic occurs when a disease turns into a global outbreak, writes M. David Scott in Listverse.com. Covid-19 is now considered a pandemic. It is causing countries to close their borders, urge people to stay indoors and order businesses to cease operations. Scott lists the top 10 deadly pandemics of the past. This list includes leprosy of the Middle Ages, a bacterial disease that can lead to damaged nerves, skin, eyes and respiratory tracts. Called “the living dead,” lepers were considered “unclean” and had to wear bells to signal their presence. It is believed Europe had about 19,000 leper houses about this time because lepers were forbidden in many locations.

Plagues Spawned By Civilization

Though plagues often are described as threats to civilizations, Andrew Sullivan writes in New York Magazine that plagues are spawned by civilization.

“Plague is an effect of civilization,” writes Sullivan. “The waves of sickness through human history in the past 5,000 years (and not before) attest to this, and the outbreaks often became more devastating the bigger the settlements and the greater the agriculture and the more evolved the trade and travel.”

We live in a genocidal graveyard, he contends, and plagues remind humans of their mortality. The story is far from over.

“As the human population reaches an unprecedented peak, as cities grow, as climate change accelerates environmental disruption, and as globalization connects every human with every other one, we have, in fact, created a near-perfect environment for a novel pathogen-level breakout. Covid-19 is just a reminder of that ineluctable fact and that worse outbreaks are almost certain to come.” He calls Covid-19 “mercifully, relatively mild in its viral impact, even though its cultural and political effects may well be huge.” It could serve as a harbinger.

At times like this, humans scramble for cures and defenses. And those have histories of their own.

Centuries-old Strategy

“In the new millennium, the centuries-old strategy of quarantine is becoming a powerful component of the public health response to emerging and re-emerging infectious diseases,” writes Eugenia Tognotti of the University of Sassari in Italy.

“During the 2003 pandemic of severe acute respiratory syndrome, the use of quarantine, border controls, contact tracing and surveillance proved effective in containing the global threat in just over three months. For centuries, these practices have been the cornerstone of organized responses to infectious disease outbreaks.”

But these methods are controversial and raise political, ethical and socioeconomic conflicts.

Even during the 1918 Spanish Flu epidemic more than a century ago, resistance to wearing face masks was as controversial as it is today, writes Christine Hauser in the New York Times. Those who objected to the practice were called “mask slackers” and fined or jailed.

“The masks were called muzzles, germ shields and dirt traps,” wrote Hauser. “They gave people a ‘piglike snout.’ Some people snipped holes in their masks to smoke cigars. Others fastened them to dogs in mockery. Bandits used them to rob banks.”

Masks Stoke Division

As the 1918 influenza pandemic raged in the United States, masks of gauze and cheesecloth became the facial front lines in the battle against the virus, she wrote. “But as they have now, the masks also stoked political division. Then, as now, medical authorities urged the wearing of the masks to help slow the spread of disease. And then, as now, some people resisted” while thousands of Americans were dying in a deadly pandemic.

The Covid-19 pandemic behaves in unexpected ways, writes Laura Helmuth in scientificamerican.com, making it difficult to keep up with current findings. People tend to remember the first things they learned of the disease, making it psychologically difficult to replace old information with new knowledge. Helmuth listed nine of the most important things we’ve learned in the past seven months. Among them:

*Covid-19 outbreaks can happen anywhere. Chinese people got it where they buy groceries. Italians got it through their habit of greeting each other with kisses on the cheeks. People on cruise ships got it because of the buffets. People in nursing homes got it because they are frail. People in New York got it because the city is crowded.

*Covid-19 can sicken and kill anyone, not just the elderly but teenagers and children too.

*Contaminated surfaces are not the main danger.

*It’s in the air. When people cough or sneeze, they expel droplets or particles of mucus and saliva that carry the virus.

*Many people are infectious without being sick.

*Warm weather will not stop the virus.

*Masks work.

*Racism, not race, is a risk factor.

*Misinformation kills.

  Infodemic of Misinformation

As governments fight the Covid-19 pandemic, snopes.com is fighting an “infodemic” of rumors and misinformation about the pandemic.

A common phenomenon during crises, said the fact-checking organization, is attempts by people to find patterns in them as a way to control or understand events.

A common misperception, said Snopes, is that plagues happen every 100 years by citing those in 1720, 1820, 1920 and 2020.

“It’s an example of the common technique of creating the impression of a regular pattern by cherry-picking a small amount of (not necessarily relevant) data, while completely ignoring a much larger body of related data that doesn’t fit the desired pattern,” said Snopes. The misperception ignored pandemics in years that did not end in 20.

At this writing, the medical community is struggling to find a vaccine to cure or treat Covid-19. That is another history in the making, likely to be filled with misconceptions and misinformation before it all plays out.

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

Ideals for next century

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

As The Guardian newspaper celebrates its 200th anniversary and looks forward to its next century, covid is seen as a rehearsal for climate breakdown.

Editor-in-chief Katharine Viner offers five ideals to guide the Guardian to help create a better kind of world than the one we had before.

One: We will develop ideas that help improve the world, not just critique it.

Two: We will collaborate with readers, and others, to have greater impact.

Three: We will diversify, to have richer reporting from a representative newsroom.

Four: We will be meaningful in all of our work.

Five: We will report fairly on people as well as power, and find things out.

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional Journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org

Journalistic Values

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

So, a new study says many Americans don’t support journalistic values.

No ______. (Fill in the word.)

When do many Americans agree with anything journalists do, especially at a time when studies show they only value their own opinions? They think anything that differs from their opinions is wrong, or that reports to the contrary are biased.

Remember that bit about killing the messenger? Lots of messengers are being killed off these days as newspapers across the country go belly up with little help from the reading public. They have their echo chamber social media devices to keep them informed. Billionaires are not interested in rescuing newspapers.

How would this new study help that? Let’s see.

Only one of the five core journalism values named in the survey was supported by a majority of those who responded: The idea that facts help get us closer to the truth. That was called “factualism.”

The other four values were:

Giving voice to the less powerful: Whether people want to amplify the voices of people who aren’t normally heard.

Oversight: How strongly a person feels the need to monitor powerful people and know what public officials are doing.

Transparency: The idea that society works better when information is out in the open and the public knows what is happening.

Social criticism: A measure of how people feel about the importance of casting a spotlight on a community’s problems to solve them versus celebrating what is right and working well to reinforce the good things.

Factualism was most popular in the survey, followed by giving voice to the less powerful, which should not be surprising in our suddenly “woke” society confronted by racial and social inequality.

Some might say factualism and transparency are the same thing.

The others values were not considered important, which tells me that journalists are more caring, quizzical, believe in democracy and concerned as a group than the population in general. Journalism is a stressful, low-paying job that is often considered a calling to public service. The public just doesn’t get that, and probably never will.

The study was released by the Media Insight Project, a collaboration of the American Press Institute and The Associated Press-NORC Center for Public Affairs Research, causing extensive commentary.

So what can journalists and media do? The API study recommends manipulating stories to appeal to multiple groups, and emphasizing moral attributes in each group. Some might call that precision propaganda.

Why not be guided by the one thing everyone seems agreed upon: Just give them the facts.

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional Journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org

Defenses Against Plagiarism

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

The editor and the publisher of an auto magazine decide to dismiss a long-time writer after discovering unattributed quotes in his articles that appeared to be lifted from other sources, giving the impression the writer had been in Iraq although he was not.

The writer said it was his original work or data in the public domain that he corroborated, except for one quote in a piece about China.

Given these discoveries that could damage the magazine’s editorial integrity, the publisher asked the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists what it should do to strengthen its defenses against plagiarism.

If you were the AdviceLine advisor, what would you suggest?

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional Journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org

Fairness to the Dead

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Hikers find the body of a 36-year-old man drowned in the Adirondack wilderness.

The victim had Huntington’s disease, which also afflicted his mother and two brothers.

An Arizona reporter writing about the death discovers that the drowning victim had served eight years in prison for kidnapping a young woman in Arizona, and the man was listed as a sexual predator. The newspaper’s manager editor calls the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists asking if it is necessary to tell about the man’s criminal history in his obituary.

Put yourself in the editor’s place. What would you do? What is most ethical? Mention the man’s criminal past or omit it?

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional Journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org

April Fool Again

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From the files of the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

The April 1, 1985 edition of Sports Illustrated magazine carried a story by the late George Plimpton saying that a New York Mets rookie pitcher named Siddhartha (Sidd) Finch could throw a baseball more than 160 miles an hour.

It was a hoax, and Sports Illustrated later admitted that the story was an April Fools’ joke. Plimpton was famous for taking turns as a Yankee baseball pitcher, a Baltimore Colts football player and boxing Archie Moore — then writing about the experience from an amateur’s viewpoint. It was an example of what today might be described as participatory journalism. Plimpton did a lot of that.

A sports publication journalist called the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, saying he had an idea for an April Fools’ Day story in the Plimpton tradition, but wanted to know if that would be ethical.

The AdviceLine adviser remembered the story about fireball pitcher Sidd Finch, and was skeptical at the time he saw it in 1985.

“This was due to the very well-known reputation of Plimpton as a writer who went in for bizarre experiences and writing having to do with sports,” said the adviser, who also recalled that Plimpton and Sports Illustrated at the time “came in for little serious criticism once the hoax was divulged.”

Most readers thought it was “fun” in keeping with the kind of work Plimpton did during his career. But the adviser suggested that, just like fastball pitchers, not all writers can deliver a change-up:

“Without this background and past reputation, a true journalist risks his/her reputation and the reputation of his/her news media using this device. A direct answer is, the creation or promulgation of a known false story is unethical, Plimpton notwithstanding.”

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional Journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

The Vanishing Who

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

It’s sad to see a word go practically extinct through incorrect usage.

The word is “who.”

It’s one of the time-honored Five Ws and an H taught in every journalism school.

These days, and for quite some time, people say “that” instead of “who.” Even broadcasters and journalists who should know better.

Dean Richards, a WGN-TV announcer in Chicago, recently said “he was the guy that made things happen” while profiling someone in the entertainment business. But he’s not the only one. You hear it all the time: “people that…,” or “she was the one that…,” “he was the baseball pitcher that….”

I cringe.

When I write about correct word usage, I usually get an email from somebody saying, “who cares?” That’s the problem. People don’t care about words, as if they don’t matter. Words do matter.

I care. 

Words have a purpose. We use them to communicate, to say or write what we mean or intend. A love letter would be meaningless if it failed to contain endearing, meaningful words. Exactly the right words, to sway and beguile. 

The wrong word can cause confusion or even anger because it was not what you meant to say. Does inflammable mean something will not burn or is not combustible? Don’t bet on it. Knowing the difference can be life-saving. Flammable and inflammable mean the same thing.

As for “who,” the Associated Press Stylebook makes it quite clear: “Who is the pronoun used for references to human beings and to animals with a name.”

Who is for people, not inanimate objects. “That” is for things.

In the Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White give an example: “People who live in glass houses shouldn’t throw stones.”

Maybe it was a year of Covid captivity that makes me hyper-sensitive to “who.” The word does not get the respect it deserves. I know over time, in the history of the world, words fall out of favor and new ones appear. “Ain’t” is “beyond rehabilitation” and carries a stigma according to the American Heritage Dictionary, considered acceptable in speech but not in writing. 

“Who” has a rightful place in our vocabulary, especially if it is used correctly. It should not fall from usage because people just don’t know any better.

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The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional Journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.