Tag Archives: Chicago Headline Club

Ethics Confidential: As AdviceLine Wins Awards, Critic Recalls Its Origins

By Casey Bukro

It might pain Michael Miner, media critic for the Chicago Reader, to know that he can claim some responsibility for how the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists handles confidentiality.

From the start, Miner has assumed that anyone who presumes to tell journalists what to do about ethics is a bit daft, silly or pretentious. He tends to be in the camp of those who believe that journalism ethics is an oxymoron.

“The old solution to journalism’s intractable contradictions was to build newsrooms no more than 100 feet from a bar,” Miner wrote in a column published March 9, 2001, a month after AdviceLine’s advent. Instead of a bar, wrote Miner, journalists now could pick up a phone and say, “Hello, sweetheart. Get me ethics.”

It’s good for journalists, and ethicists too, to have an unsympathetic, cold-eyed lampooner.

And Miner continues prodding, even when he wrote a column mentioning that AdviceLine had been awarded a Peter Lisagor Award May 8 by the Chicago Headline Club as best independent continuing blog. The Lisagor awards are given for exemplary journalism. Miner was not impressed.

Lisagor Award“But as life is richer when Bukro’s around to disagree with, I’m pleased to report he hasn’t gone away,” wrote Miner. It’s good to have a media critic, even after the passage of 14 years, who still closely follows developments in journalism and ethics with a wry bent.

The Lisagor award, named for the late Washington correspondent and PBS commentator, was the second in a few weeks given to AdviceLine. The Society of Professional Journalists announced in April that AdviceLine won a Sigma Delta Chi award for online independent column writing. The award will be presented in June in Washington, D.C.

Miner writes for the Reader, which describes itself as “Chicago’s Free Weekly/ Kicking Ass Since 1971.”

Miner is a good kicker. He wrote one of the first pieces about AdviceLine, saying in the 2001 column that a Chicago Tribune columnist beat him to using “a smart-alecky tone … forcing me to scramble for higher ground.”

Miner is also a very good reporter. He interviewed me in 2001 about what kind of calls we were getting from journalists, and I described some of our first. I thought I was being careful about identifying callers or details that could not be disclosed under our confidentiality policy.

Miner has a soothing voice on the telephone, teasing out information in a way that non-journalists might find disarming. He told others on the AdviceLine team that I had described some of the cases we handled, and encouraged them to do the same. And they did.

What followed was what I called a Miner uproar. After reading the Miner column, one AdviceLine member wrote in an email “I hardly know what to say about the extent to which confidences and commitments have been violated” in response to Miner’s questions.

The first reaction from some AdviceLine members was to say they had said too much, especially me for “spilling the beans,” causing others to follow suit.

This was virgin territory. How much can be said about ethics cases? Nothing at all, some argued. And, if you are not accustomed to being interviewed, it can be shocking to see your comments in print.

It was a tumultuous beginning for AdviceLine.

Even Miner was criticized for being too informative about the AdviceLine cases he described.

“I’m stunned, stunned, stunned to read that the contents of the phone calls to the ethics line were reported openly,” was one reaction that appeared in Jim Romenesko’s media news site.

The president of an SPJ chapter, not identified by name, had called AdviceLine with a question, and his question was described. He later told Romenesko that he had not expected his phone call to result in a news story.

My take at the time: “On the face of it, it looks as though some members of our team lost their moral bearings and we had an ethical meltdown as a result of the Miner article. How could that happen with a group trained in ethics?”

It was not ethics at fault. It was learning to communicate effectively. It was a hard-won lesson, one that rattled some members of the AdviceLine team.

At the core was knowing our standard on confidentiality, and sticking to it. Yet one of AdviceLine’s goals is education – learning what ethics issues plague professional journalists, and the advice given to help solve those dilemmas. There can be no education if the cases cannot be described publicly, even without names and places.

An AdviceLine staff member at the time, the late Mary Myers, reminded all of us of our mission: “We not only want to man an AdviceLine, but contribute to the greater discussion, understanding and body of knowledge regarding ethics and journalism.”

AdviceLine has refined its confidentiality policies periodically. Here are the questions asked every time AdviceLine gets a call or query.

1. Do I have your permission to share the details of your case, including your name and organization, with the AdviceLine team?

2. Education in journalism ethics is one of the AdviceLine’s core missions, so may we have your permission to discuss the nature of your case anonymously in the AdviceLine’s educational reports, books or online blogs, but without identifying you or your organization?

3. Real-life case reports are very important resources for education in journalism ethics, so may we have your permission to use the content of your case and our discussion of it, including using your name and organization, in the AdviceLine’s educational reports, books or online blogs?

The goal is to be clear on what AdviceLine can say publicly about the cases. Thanks, Mike!

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Take This Job and Shove It

 

Dave McKinney

 Dave McKinney

 

By Casey Bukro

 

Once again, one of Chicago’s top journalists is telling his bosses  to “take this job and shove it.”

The latest example is Dave McKinney, a highly respected  Chicago Sun-Times political reporter and Springfield statehouse bureau chief.

McKinney complained of being “yanked from my beat” and placed on temporary leave after staffers for Bruce Rauner, candidate for Illinois governor in an election that was only weeks away, made accusations against McKinney and his wife “in a last-ditch act of intimidation” trying to kill a story about Rauner.

McKinney pointed out that the Sun-Times editorially endorsed Rauner’s run for governor.

“Readers of the Sun-Times need to be able to trust the paper,” McKinney wrote in his resignation letter. “They need to know a wall exists between owners and the newsroom to preserve the integrity of what is published. A breach in that wall exists at the Sun-Times.”

Journalists were quick to come to McKinney’s defense.

The Chicago Headline Club, with a membership of about 500 journalists, said it was “shocked and disappointed” at McKinney’s treatment, and called it “a sad day in the history of the Sun-Times and Chicago journalism.”  The news spread fast.

In response, Jim Kirk, Sun-Times publisher and editor-in-chief, called McKinney “among the best in our profession,” but his leave was intended to “ensure there were no conflicts of interest……” Kirk denied that the newspaper’s ownership and management had any role in the matter. He took responsibility for the decisions.

Chicago tends to take its journalism, and sometimes its journalists, seriously.

The last time such an open conflict over news ethics erupted was in 1997, when Carol Marin and Ron Magers quit as evening co-anchors at WMAQ-TV Channel 5 over management’s decision to hire trash talk host Jerry Springer as a commentator on their news broadcast. Springer was known for hosting a show that featured raucous domestic disputes.

Marin and Magers considered Springer’s role on their broadcast “an affront to their credibility and integrity.”

On the day she quit, Marin had a story in the Chicago Sun-Times, where she is a political writer, with the headline: “Credibility, Thy Name Isn’t Springer.”

The decision to hire Springer turned out disastrous for WMAQ-TV. Not only did it lose two admired co-anchors, its 10 p.m. newscast ratings plunged 13 percent.

Robert Feder, a media columnist for the Sun-Times at the time, wrote that Channel 5 executives admitted that hiring Springer was a mistake after losing the anchors and “sending thousands of viewers fleeing in disgust.”

Springer also quit WMAQ after only two nights on the air, saying “it’s gotten too personal.”

Television viewers often form bonds with TV personalities, who are usually attractive and friendly. It’s as though those people on TV are personal friends, sometimes.

Those kinds of bonds seldom form with the largely invisible newspaper writers and reporters, who sometimes describe themselves as “ink-stained wretches.”

In this multi-media world, McKinney did appear on television via Skype broadcasts, reporting on political developments in Springfield. But it’s unlikely that readers will flee from the Sun-Times over the McKinney affair, as viewers fled WMAQ over the resignations of Marin and Magers.

In one of those strange twists, Carol Marin collaborated with McKinney on the Rauner investigation. Marin responded, saying the Rauner investigation was fair and accurate, although a “scorched earth” philosophy is not unusual in a political campaign.

“And so the Rauner team went over our heads to our bosses at NBC5 and the Sun-Times….” with untrue accusations, she wrote.

Hardball is the way the game is played in Chicago in both cases. But the basic issues are the same: Ethics, credibility and integrity.