Tag Archives: journalism ethics

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

Words That Hurt

 

 

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Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Two New York Times journalists got in hot water over ethics infractions; one was forced to quit his job and the other was not.

One of them erred in a way that was considered unforgiveable, the other did not. Let’s look at the differences.

In the first case, Donald G. McNeil Jr., the newspaper’s specialist on plagues and pestilences, including Covid-19, was accused of using a racial slur, the N-word, while serving as an expert guide on a Times-sponsored trip for high school students to Peru in 2019.

Racial slurs

At least six students or their parents, out of 26 on the trip, complained about McNeil’s comments. The Times confirmed, in a statement, that McNeil had used a racial slur during a conversation about racist language.

In an email to staff, Dean Baquet, the executive editor, said that when he first heard about the complaints against McNeil, “I was outraged and expected I would fire him.” After an investigation, though, Baquet “concluded his remarks were offensive and that he showed extremely poor judgment, but that it did not appear to me that his intentions were hateful or malicious.” Baquet concluded:

“I believe that in such cases people should be told they were wrong and given another chance. He was formally disciplined. He was not given a pass.”

An apology

But that second chance did not last long. McNeil wrote a long article for medium.com giving his side of the story. He said he had written a letter of apology when he got a conference call from Baquet and a deputy managing editor.

“You’ve lost the newsroom,” Baquet said, according to McNeil. “A lot of your colleagues are hurt. A lot of them won’t work with you. Thank you for writing the apology. But we’d like you to consider adding to it that you’re leaving.” It was an invitation to resign, igniting a controversy.

“What?” shouted McNeil. “Are you kidding? You want me to leave after 40-plus years? Over this? You know this is bullshit. You know you looked into it and I didn’t do the things they said I did. I wasn’t some crazy racist, I was just answering the kids’ questions.”

Newsroom lost

Baquet repeated: “Donald, you’ve lost the newsroom. People won’t work with you.”

The exchange continued, but that’s the gist of it, and what appears to be a verified case of journalists turning their backs on a fellow journalist over an ethical lapse with racial overtones, if Baquet is correct. It also comes at a time when newspapers are changing practices to focus on racial and social justice.

The second New York Times ethics scandal involves David Brooks, a Times columnist since September, 2003, and frequent commentator on newscasts.

Resignation

Brooks resigned from a paid position at the Aspen Institute, an international nonprofit organization headquartered in Washington, D.C., after BuzzFeed News revealed conflicts of interest. Brooks became involved with Aspen in 2018, when he launched a project called Weave, a “Social Fabric Project” aimed at establishing connections between communities to build relationships and offer care.

A spokesperson for the Times said Times editors approved of Brooks’s involvement with Aspen, but current editors were not aware that he was receiving a salary for Weave. They concluded that holding a paid position at Wave while writing in the Times about the project, donors or its issues was a conflict of interest.

Although Brooks resigned his position at the institute, he will remain a volunteer for the project.

Encourages support

BuzzFeed News also learned that Weave funders include Facebook, the father of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos, and other wealthy individuals and corporations. BuzzFeed said that Brooks, on a Meet the Press appearance, encouraged support for Nextdoor, a social network for neighborhoods, without mentioning that Nextdoor had donated $25,000 to Weave.

Brooks also appeared in a Walton Family Foundation video and did not disclose that the organization, run by the billionaire family that founded Walmart, also funds his project, according to BuzzFeed News.

“Brooks’s failure to disclose these conflicts of interest added to the string of ethically questionable actions by the columnist and author related to his work on Weave,” reported BuzzFeed News.

Building character

It’s fair to wonder at this point, “What was Brooks thinking?” He is the author of books on morality and building character. One of his books, The Second Mountain, is subtitled, “The Quest for a Moral Life.” Anyone who writes about “moral ecologies” might be expected to notice red flags springing up at questionable decisions, like drawing a second salary that is unknown to your bosses.

Ethical choices are a matter of the times in which they occur, and being sensitive to what is socially acceptable or not. This is not a time for using the N-word or for performing in black face because it can be hurtful throughout the society in which we live, and not an isolated case that affects a few people.

From that perspective, the McNeil case is more significant. The New York Times decided McNeil should leave the Times because of what he said. Journalists should study it and learn from it. More than the Brooks case, it shows how words matter, choosing the right words matters, especially when our society is wakening to words that hurt.

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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.

An Editor’s Dilemma

 

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

The editor-in-chief of an Idaho newspaper calls the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists to say a county commissioner urged him to assign a reporter to a commission meeting where he expects some “monkey business” on the agenda as a result of a conflict with the county clerk.

The editor says he cannot afford to send a reporter to the meeting. The commissioner offers to arrange for a friend to pay for the reporter’s presence at the meeting.

Should the editor accept the offer so the reporter can attend the meeting and report on an issue that might be important to the public? What is the ethically correct course of action for the editor?

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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.

Sneak Journalism

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Journalists sometimes go undercover in search of information, or consider doing so in the public interest.

Journalists call the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists asking about the wisdom of this practice. Here are some of those cases:

A Colorado broadcaster asked if there were any ethical problems with entering several schools in Colorado undercover with a concealed camera to see if he would be stopped and questioned. This would be in connection with recent school shootings.

In another case, a staff writer for an Arizona newspaper asked if it would be ethical to do a story showing how easy it would be to buy drugs by sending a reporter and a photographer out with $20 bills.

In a third case, a Canadian TV network asked about the wisdom of testing airport security by trying to sneak a weapon through security.

If you were an ethics advisor, what would you tell these journalists?

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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.

Ethics Quiz

huffingtonpost.com photo

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Let’s start the year off right with a journalism ethics quiz, and a reminder that journalists contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists because they want to get it right.

Maybe 2021 will be the year when American journalists are appreciated, rather than demonized.

Since 2001, professional journalists have called the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Here’s one of those cases:

A freelance fashion writer was assigned to research skin care products and make recommendations. She asked a journalism intern from a local university to work with her to research products on the internet.

The intern found web sites with advertising and cut and pasted information into a word text file.

The fashion writer said she mistakenly submitted the intern’s work as her own. Her editor accused the fashion writer of plagiarism, saying he found copy identical to hers on web sites listed in her file.

The fashion writer said she promptly emailed the version she had written and intended to file. She asked AdviceLine if she acted unethically.

Was it just a mistake, or plagiarism?

What do you think?

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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.

2021 Predictions and Day Dreams

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

This is the time of year for predictions, wishful thinking and delusional forecasts for the coming year, 2021.

The 2020 covid-19 pandemic took the globe largely by surprise, showing how puny human prognostication abilities really are and should be humbling, although some scientists were saying for years that the world is ripe for a pandemic. But who was listening? It is the fate of Cassandras to be ignored.

Despite that track record, people keep trying. So here’s a look at some of those predictions for next year, and beyond. Some of them propose action that carries major ethical implications.

Nieman Journalism Lab asked some of the smartest people it knows to predict what 2021 will bring for the future of journalism. It lists 10 entries. I’ll pick one.

Masuma Ahuja, is author of “Girlhood,” a book about the lives of young girls around the world.

The pandemic, writes Ahuja, “taught us how interconnected our world is, as we watched a virus slowly and then very quickly sweep across the planet. It also showed us how universal a lot of our core human experiences are: fear and sickness, loss and grief, isolation and longing.”

Conversations began, she says, about systemic racism, injustice and oppression.

“I hope 2021 brings with it a shift in power structures in journalism,” she writes, toward “a meaningful investment in building institutions that invest in Black and brown and Indigenous and immigrant and non-Western voices, in creating pipelines and opportunities for those who have been systemically disempowered.”

Poynter Institute’s predictions for 2021 included thoughts by Samantha Ragland, a faculty member and director of the Leadership Academy for Women in Media at Poynter.

“I believe 2021 will be the year of the journalist,” writes Ragland, which would be a surprising and welcome change for a profession that has been under attack by President Trump as “fake news” and the “enemy of the people.”

“2021 is the year for journalists from all sides of the newsroom to step into the cultural challenge that is a white-washed, male-dominated media industry and walk into a cultural change,” writes Ragland.

Ragland echoes some of Ahuja’s sentiments for diversity and inclusion in media, a worthy goal that might clash with the powerful white, male media power structure seen as an obstacle to reaching that goal. It might be tough convincing well-paid executives to step aside as part of a cultural shift and vacate their corporate suites.

Think back to the time when the environmental protection became a global issue. Media executives often saw that development as anti-business, a threat to the economy and to advertising. It becomes an issue of self-interest. Something noble-sounding becomes something to fight over.

Covid, vaccines and self-protection against the pandemic are likely to be issues of public concern well into 2021 and beyond.

“Seeing people wearing masks in everyday life is now the norm throughout much of the country,” writes Jillian Wilson in HuffPost, underscoring the importance of wearing a mask in public or close settings. Mask-wearing, hand-washing and social distancing remain key to curbing the viral spread.

But now with vaccines to combat the virus, how long will mask-wearing be needed?

Wilson quotes Marybeth Sexton, assistant professor of infectious diseases at Atlanta’s Emory University School of Medicine:  “I think we should be prepared to wear masks for the foreseeable future, probably for the next year, certainly into that third quarter of 2021 when they expect to really be able to vaccinate large numbers of the general public.”

But the pandemic will end, says Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. “It’s going to depend on our success in vaccinating what I would say is an overwhelming majority of the population, between 70 to 85 percent,” he said. “If we can do that, by mid to end of the summer, I think as we get into fall, October, November, times like that, I think we will be very close to a degree of normality.”

Another way of looking at the health of the nation is global approval ratings.

The Gallup poll reports that approval ratings of the United States from countries around the world dipped to an historic low in 2020, under the Trump presidency. Data collected in 29 countries showed median U.S. approval dropped to 18% from 22% in 2017. Such scores are watched by the American business community to gauge the nation’s global reputation, which is expected to take years to recover.

Then there is the workplace, on the human level. A Pew Research Center survey shows that the abrupt closure of many offices and workplaces this past spring ushered in a new era of remote work for millions of employed Americans.

This “may portend a significant shift in the way a large segment of the workforce operates in the future,” says Pew.

Before the pandemic, most workers said they rarely or never teleworked. “Now, 71% of those workers are doing their job from home all or most of the time,” said Pew. And more than half say, given a choice, they would want to keep working from home even after the pandemic.

The research also revealed a clear class divide between workers who can and cannot telework. Sixty-two percent of workers with a bachelor’s degree or more education say their work can be done from home, compared with 23% of those without a four-year college degree.

“While a majority of upper-income workers can do their work from home, most lower- and middle-income workers cannot,” said the report.

Finally, there are predictions for 2021 outdoor living trends.

Being stuck at home for 10 months forced Americans to find new ways to enjoy their dwellings, said a report in veranda.com. Many Americans fled to their back yards.

“Our backyards, patios and gardens have dutifully served greater purposes than ever before” as office spaces, happy hour haunts, gyms and other refuges became off-limits because of the pandemic safety precautions, said Veranda. Fugitives from the pandemic are turning to the beauty of nature for enjoyment and inspiration.

“We’re expecting the popularity of outdoor living spaces to continue to grow in  2021, not only in light of covid-19, but also as many of us pursue more sustainable lifestyles and seek to achieve greater health, both mentally and physically, from home. Plus, our outdoor spaces are sure to remain hot spots for our social gatherings for quite some time – even during the winter.”

The report predicts the use of outdoor living spaces for year-round use, residential gardens for city-dwellers and an interest in earthworms and compost.

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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.

Honesty In Journalism

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Is honesty still important in journalism?

Judging from calls to the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, some journalists are not certain about that.

One journalist asked if it’s okay to lie to get a story. Another journalist asked if it’s okay to question people without telling them that you’re a reporter and their remarks will be reported or in print.

A Los Angeles online reporter said he promised a police officer that the reporter would not tell his editor about information the officer gave. Then the reporter wanted to know how to explain that to his editor. Is that a promise he should keep, and was it a promise the reporter was entitled to make?

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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.

Pedophile Priest Threatens Publisher

By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Ethics case study: A pedophile pastor and a publisher.

In his first interview with the owner of a small Midwestern newspaper, a local church pastor threatened to vilify the newspaper owner from the pulpit if she printed anything derogatory about him.

The publisher thought that strange until she learned the priest had been accused of raping a 14-year-old boy in New York. She wrote about that, and lost readers and advertisers who complained the publisher was trying to destroy the popular priest.

Then the publisher learned that the priest had been involved in another incident of sexual misconduct in Florida and was reassigned twice before landing in the publisher’s parish.

The publisher called the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, asking if she should reveal the priest’s history of continuing sexual misconduct. But doing so could cause another community backlash, with further loss in circulation and advertising which could force the publisher out of business.

Put yourself in AdviceLine’s place. What advise would you give to the worried publisher? Report the facts, or withhold them in an attempt to protect her newspaper and staff?

This is an actual case handled by AdviceLine.

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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.

An Ethics Quiz

 

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

A pandemic makes journalism ethics more important.

The truth is more important than ever as rumors and false information swirl.

That’s where making ethical decisions comes into play. It’s hard to do it alone. That’s why the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists exists. Call 866-DILEMMA or go to ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org. It’s a free service, staffed by four university professors who teach ethics.

AdviceLine advisors do not tell professional journalists what they should do. Instead, these trained advisors engage them in a discussion of benefits and harms involved in the case, leading journalists to reach decisions based on best journalism ethics practices. AdviceLine is partnered with the Chicago Headline Club, a professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, and with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

Our aim is to assist each caller make ethical decisions that:

*Are well informed by available standards of professional journalistic practice, especially the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics.

*Take account of the perspectives of all the parties involved in the situation.

*Employ clear and careful ethical thinking in reaching a decision.

What sorts of issues come to AdviceLine? Nearly half of the ethical questions presented to AdviceLine concern conflicts of interest. The SPJ code of ethics tells journalists to “act independently,” but it is often difficult to know, when you are in the middle of a complicated situation, what is more compromising of journalistic independence and what is not.

So here’s a test, an ethics quiz, based on cases that came to AdviceLine. Journalists sheltering in place during the pandemic might welcome a chance to take an ethics break. You be the judge. What advice would you have given in these cases? On what would your advice be based? Put yourself in our shoes.

Case one: The news editor of a major metropolitan daily says the newspaper published a story about a woman who got into a conflict with security guards for riding topless on public transit. Her name ranks at the top of a Google hit list, and she wants her name removed from the story because it’s difficult to find a job.

Meanwhile, a California editor is getting requests to remove old stories from the paper’s website archives, or block them from Google’s search engine. The requests include a person who became divorced, a person convicted of a felony five years ago and a beauty shop that wants the name of a former beautician removed from an old story about the shop. Is there anything unethical about papers keeping electronic archives, or is there an ethical requirement to honor these requests?

Case two: The publisher of a countywide newspaper is a member of a local United Way board of directors. In an emergency meeting, the new United Way executive director revealed that the previous executive director failed to file the federal IRS forms for not-for-profits, resulting in a $20,000 fine, which could climb higher if the organization’s new executive director fails to file the forms within six weeks.

The publisher wanted to know if it would be unethical to refrain from reporting the United Way problems until the situation was fixed. The national United Way fund drive was under way at the time, and the local group feared donors would be less generous if they learned of the tax problems before it was fixed.

AdviceLine regularly gets calls asking if it is a conflict of interest for editors or publishers to join local civic groups or chambers of commerce.

Case three: Journalism sometimes is described as a sexy job, but there are limits. AdviceLine got a call from a California editor who said one of his reporters was having an affair with the mayor.

A Massachusetts reporter asked how soon she should tell her editor about a growing relationship with an attorney she met while covering court cases. And a Washington, D.C. editor proposed a rule forbidding his staff from dating any person who is a news source, or might become a news source. A reporter complained that would mean reporters could not date anyone, since anyone might become news. Is a rule against dating news sources going too far in the cause of ethics, or is it simply recognition that journalism requires higher standards? Or should journalists have a chance at romance like everyone else?

AdviceLine has gotten a number of calls on romance issues. It’s a hot topic. So in the interest of professional ethics, I’ll let the cat out of the bag on this one. AdviceLine advisors have answered this problem by saying journalists who are romantically involved with news sources could not be trusted to be impartial and neutral toward those news sources. Their partiality might harm the credibility of the newspaper or broadcasting company they work for. In one of the cases, an AdviceLine advisor said journalists should be forbidden to date sources, or if that is not possible, they should be removed from covering that source.

Do you agree? What’s your take on this one?

Case four: A group of environmental activists in the Phoenix area was setting fire to unoccupied houses under construction in a development near or on a nature preserve.

The activists sent a letter to a small newspaper offering to meet a reporter for an interview to explain the reasons for burning the houses. The editors pondered whether to give the letter to police, inform the police of the interview so the activists could be arrested, go ahead with an interview as requested and publish the story that explains the activists’ motives or do the interviews and publish all personal information gained from the activists and let police take it from there?

That’s a sample of what AdviceLine handles. It’s interesting work. Never dull.

Our mission is not only to help individual journalists reach informed ethical decisions, but to contribute to the greater discussion, understanding and body of knowledge regarding ethics and journalism – and to be an influential force in that effort.

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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.