Combating sexual abuse in the newsroom: The Society of Professional Journalists lists resources “in light of the increasing sexual misconduct allegations against high-profile male journalists.” Four steps explained: Demand, insist, urge and establish.
Nilufer Demir/Reuters photo
By Casey Bukro
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?
From the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists archives
By Casey Bukro
An assignment editor for a New York television station said that management is directing the news staff to give favorable “news” coverage to local advertisers.
The AdviceLine adviser said management’s mandate clearly is unethical, and the assignment editor recognizes that. But what to do about it?
The assignment editor was hoping to contact “some sort of ethics police.”
AdviceLine is not in the ethics policing business, but wanted to help the editor decide where to go next.
The assignment editor clarified his question by explaining that, while the station’s advertising sales department does not actually write “news” stories about advertisers, they pressure editorial staffers into creating stories about advertisers. The sales department has veto power over anything said on the air about an advertiser.
The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics supports the assignment editor’s concerns, the adviser observed. The code says journalists should “deny favored treatment to advertisers.”
As for his next steps, the assignment editor was encouraged to contact the SPJ professional chapter in New York, which might be willing to pressure the caller’s superiors to stop promoting advertisers, or at least raise questions about it.
The assignment editor also wondered if there was any legal recourse. The adviser gave him the contact number for the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, to check if they know of any legal recourse. The adviser also suggested checking Federal Communications Commission regulations.
“After this conversation about resources, we talked a little about his just leaving the job and about the ethical and practical issues related to whistle-blowing to competing TV stations,” said the AdviseLine adviser. The assignment editor “had begun to think about both of these things, even though he was hoping we could provide him with help in finding a less drastic way to address the matter.”
By Casey Bukro
See how the Toledo Blade’s ombudsman handles a reader’s complaint that the newspaper’s president and general manager also serves as chairman of the University of Toledo’s board of trustees.
The reader calls that a conflict of interest. The ombudsman says it’s not because the paper’s president operates on the business side of the newspaper, not the news side.
The reader correctly wondered how the newspaper can independently cover university activities when its president is head of the university’s board, especially when the university is in the process of selecting a new president.
AdviceLine periodically gets complaints about cases like this where top news officials serve on local civic organizations. The defense often is that the media official is performing a civic duty.
The Blade’s ombudsman cites the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics in his president’s defense, but does not mention that the code warns against conflicts of interest, “real or perceived.”
Notice that in the Toledo case the reader is not convinced that the president’s involvement with the university is innocent and free of potential duplicity. That’s probably a typical reaction.
Civic organizations usually invite media officials to serve on their boards in hopes of publicity. The public knows that.
Given the threat to media credibility, this long-time practice should be abandoned. It’s from another era, before the changes now transforming journalism.
Especially lately, AdviceLine is getting more complaints from reporters about publishers and editors dictating news coverage favoring advertisers, in the pursuit of revenue.
In the real world, the argument that publishers or other top media managers operate strictly on the business side and do not influence the news side is a bit misleading. The boss, after all, is the boss, and he or she knows it. That can lead to a few “suggestions” from the top.
But it’s always interesting to see how an ombudsman defends the actions of his boss. You can decide how convincing he was.
By Casey Bukro
Some might argue that it takes a certain amount of hutzpah to adopt a set of principles intended to curb the worst behavior of journalists, sometimes seen by the public as an unruly bunch of ruffians.
But that’s what the Society of Professional Journalists did at its annual convention in Nashville. Actually, it was an updated, boiled down, tweaked, massaged version of a code SPJ adopted in 1996.
The framers of the new version started the revision process by arguing that the 1996 version failed to take into account all the technological innovation that has transformed journalism. Others argued that the ethical foundations of journalism don’t change, regardless of technological changes.
A reading of the updated code suggests that the foundationalists won, since the new code does not mention technology. It’s a smoother read in places, but most of the original principles are still there, with some added emphasis on transparency and accuracy.
The code does not “sing,” as some journalists had wished, hoping that journalists who pride themselves as wordsmiths might have produced a more inspiring document. It tends to plod from one “do” and “don’t” to another.
But it is the nature of journalists to quibble about how things are worded.
The Society of Professional Journalists introduced its first original code of ethics in 1973, causing a wave of consternation and congratulation among journalists. Some thought a code of conduct was contrary to First Amendment protection of Freedom of the Press.
The reaction to the 2014 version was more subdued.
Kevin Smith, outgoing SPJ ethics chair, said one of the goals of the revision was to address “the growing problems with transparency, including news outlets failing to disclose clear conflicts of interest.”
Al Tompkins of the Poynter Institute pointed out that, at the same joint convention, the Radio Television Digital News Association disclosed its own proposed code of ethics.
“The SPJ and RTDNA codes are similar,” said Tompkins, “both focusing on accuracy, accountability and independence.” He also pointed out that the SPJ code took aim at using anonymous sources in stories.
Public Relations practitioners also would benefit from taking note of the SPJ code because it addresses two key issues: Anonymous sources and a prohibition against paying for access to news.
“So if you’re ever talking to a journalist to give information,” writes Ellis Friedman, “think twice about requesting anonymity….”
Most people might think that adopting a code of ethics is not especially controversial, but they should think again. Such efforts always trigger powerful emotions for one reason or another. Journalists can be fractious.
Among those is Michael Koretzky, an SPJ regional director, who complained that the society was unethical in the manner in which the code was rewritten, charging that it was done in secrecy. SPJ leaders were not pleased with his remarks.
And he complained that the new code was adopted by an antiquated method through representatives attending a national convention.
“The code may have needed a tech update,” Koretzky wrote, but “SPJ leaders clung to a century-old system that featured less than 125 insiders making the decision for all its 7,500 members.” Voting should have been done electronically, he argued, giving all members of the society a chance to vote on the updated code.
Koretzky promises that’s not the last word on SPJ’s code of ethics.
“But from bad things, sometimes good things come,” he wrote. “Already, work is underway on an alternate SPJ code of ethics.”