What news consumers don’t know about journalism: Margaret Sullivan asks journalists what they wish news consumers knew about their business.
“The vetting process is similar at many large news organizations — and it’s just one of the practices that journalists assume, perhaps incorrectly, that news consumers understand,” writes Sullivan. “Sourcing is one of the least understood of the mysteries.”
BuzzFeed’s decision last week to publish a 35-page dossier containing allegations about President-elect Donald Trump’s relationships with Russia has prompted a great deal of discussion among journalists and journalism organizations about the ethics of the decision.
A number of those weighing in – such Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan and Poynter Institute for Media Studies ethicist Kelly McBride – have argued that BuzzFeed was out of line for publishing unverified information. But some – including Watergate reporter and now CNN analyst Carl Bernstein and Columbia Journalism Review managing editor Vanessa M. Gezari – supported the decision.
I think the fact that thoughtful people have landed on different sides is evidence of the fact that there are multiple ethical considerations involved, some of them potentially conflicting. Although verification is at the core of ethical journalism, exceptional situations like this one may arise where the decision on publishing is not so easy, particularly if the documents have surfaced in some official setting.
I have been thinking beyond this situation to similar ones that may arise in the future and the ethical questions involved.
Below is a list of questions I’m suggesting to help in thinking through the ethical issues in these situations. I have grouped the questions under the headings of the principles of the Society of Professional Journalists ethics code, as well as other considerations – public relevance and journalistic purpose – that relate to the mission of journalism.
In writing these questions, I’m inspired by some lists that Poynter has done to help journalists in other areas of ethical decision-making such as going off the record and, recently, using Facebook Live. Two co-authors and I also raised some of these issues in a question list in an academic study on data journalism.
I welcome any comments from readers on how these questions might be used or revised.
Questions to consider in deciding on whether and how to publish unverified documents involving public officials:
Public relevance and journalistic purpose
Have the documents been discussed or used in any official settings (e.g. intelligence briefings, committee hearings)? Have they otherwise been discussed on the record by any public officials?
Is there a compelling reason for the public to know about the information in the documents?
Seeking truth and reporting it
Have you or others tried to verify the information? Where verification has been possible for specific pieces of information, has the information proved to be true?
Are the sources of the documents reliable? Why or why not?
Is your decision to publish based on your own independent judgment of the ethics of publishing or on competitive pressures or other considerations?
If the documents contain sensitive allegations, what potential harms could result if you release the documents in their entirety or publish those details and they prove to be false or impossible to verify?
If potential harm is a valid concern if you release the documents in their entirety or report details such as these, how could you minimize harm (e.g. redacting some details, summarizing)?
Being accountable and transparent
Are you explaining the process you used in your decision-making including any conflicting ethical considerations and the ethical reasons for making the decision you did?
Are you explaining any efforts you made to verify the content of the documents and the outcome of those efforts?
By thinking through these questions, journalists can uphold the importance of verification while also considering when and how to report on unverified documents there may be a compelling reason for the public to see.
After being seriously burned by false information from anonymous sources, the New York Times decided to be more cautious about accepting information from people who don’t want to be identified.
The Times issued new guidelines governing the use of anonymous sources, mandating that stories resorting to anonymity must be submitted to one of the paper’s top three editors for advance approval.
That’s a step in the right direction for a publication that long prided itself on knowing inside information, even if cloaked in anonymity.
A copy of the memo to the Times newsroom was forwarded to Politico anonymously. Hard to decide if that is ironic or hilarious.
The memo shows, among other things, that old habits at the publication known as “the Gray Lady” are hard to break. It begins by defending the use of anonymous sources as “sometimes crucial to our journalistic mission. But it also puts a strain on our most valuable and delicate asset: our trust with readers.”
The memo observed that readers “routinely cite anonymous sources as one of their greatest concerns about The Times’s journalism.”
Readers can see the practice as the Times “vouching for the information unequivocally – or worse, as carrying water for someone else’s agenda. As far as possible, we should explain the source’s motivation and how he or she knows the information.”
It appears that the Times is finally catching up on a rule generally accepted by many professional journalists: Information is only as good as its source. Credible and identifiable sources provide reliable information, or information that can be judged for reliability.
Departing from this rule can have serious consequences, as the Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, pointed out. In several opinion page articles, she described how reliance on anonymous sources led to “two major front-page errors in a six-month period.”
One alleged a Justice Department criminal investigation against Hillary Rodham Clinton, which Sullivan called “fraught with inaccuracies.” The other involved jihadist social-media posts by one of the San Bernardino killers. The mass shooting killed 14 people and injured 22.
Too many Times articles rely on anonymous government sources, Sullivan wrote in December, 2015. She called for “systemic change” at The Times. “The Times needs to fix its overuse of unnamed government sources,” Sullivan wrote.
Ombudsmen and public editors often are described as a dying breed, yet those who remain clearly take the job seriously.
A 2014 University of Nebraska graduate thesis finds there are about a dozen ombudsmen working now in U.S. news organizations, down from about 40 or 50 earlier in the decade. Internationally, however, the report finds ombudsmen growing in number and popularity.
In these times of job insecurity, ombudsmen seem to be taking more risks than most journalists. But they toil on.
In the U.S., Margaret Sullivan, the New York Times public editor, attracted attention for pointing to a conflict of interest Times editors failed to flag or apparently even to notice in an article titled “The Transformers.”
The article profiled five technology entrepreneurs, including Airbnb CEO Brian Chesky.
Tipped by readers, Sullivan discovered the article was written by the wife of a major investor in Airbnb, and that the writer was not a NYT staffer. The article appeared in T, the style magazine of the Times, and lauded entrepreneurs “harnessing goodness through technology.”
Sullivan came down hard on her employer in an article titled “Conflict of Interest in T Magazine’s Tech Article.”
Among readers who contacted Sullivan about the article, one wrote, “my question is about an undisclosed conflict” in an article that “reads as uncritical P.R.” for Airbnb without disclosing the relationship between the article’s author and the investor in Airbnb.
“This is a case in which the financial conflict is so clear, and the spousal tie so close, that a disclosure would not have been enough. A different writer altogether would have been a far better idea, and, to my mind, the only right one,” Sullivan wrote.
Sullivan found that T Magazine failed to live up to the Times’s high journalistic standards. Online, the article carries a disclosure about the conflict.
In South Africa, news24 reported that complaints to the Press Ombudsman faulted the Sunday Times for information it did not report, rather than what it did report about a tax-collecting agency of the South African government.
The Sunday Times published a series of reports on an alleged rogue unit in the agency accused of running a brothel and spying on President Jacob Zuma. Officials accused in the scheme resigned, but told the ombudsman “there is an alternative narrative” that contradicts the Times reports.” A lawyer said the Times had been selective and unbalanced in its reporting.
The Sunday Times of South Africa is a weekly newspaper. The ombudsman is pondering the case.
Despite the brain-twisting nature of the job, others still step up. ESPN recently named James M. Brady, formerly of the Washington Post, as its public editor. In making the announcement, company officials said his goal would be transparency and advocacy in an increasingly multimedia world.
When New York Times critic Carol Vogel previewed an artist’s retrospective, readers were quick to question her report.
By Stephen Rynkiewicz
Renaissance artists might have struggled with the idea of plagiarism. Florentine salons respected tradition and uniformity, and apprentices in Piero di Cosimo’s studio learned by imitating the master. National Gallery of Art curator Gretchen Hirschauer told New York Times critic Carol Vogel that Piero’s work entered American collections partly by accident. It was attributed to other artists.
But the concept of plagiarism has evolved. When Vogel previewed Hirschauer’s retrospective of Piero’s work, a few readers were quick to question her report. It started with a list of Piero’s peculiarities, citing contemporary Giorgio Vasari, who’s still studied in paperback. But the wording was close to an even more common source, Wikipedia. The print passage is shortened online, and ombudsman Margaret Sullivan suggests Times editors might take further steps if a pattern emerges.
The word plagiarism first appears during the Reformation. The Random House Dictionary defines it as “to use the words or ideas of another person as if they were your own words or ideas.” Universities have moved beyond the Renaissance academy, with rules against copying and paraphrasing. The Society of Professional Journalists ethics code simply says, “Never plagiarize.”
Yet the practice continues. Evidence of plagiarism in Sen. John Walsh’s Army War College research puts him under pressure to withdraw from the November election. Repeated instances on the website BuzzFeed got a producer fired last month. And delegates to SPJ’s 2014 convention will consider adding another ethics directive: “Always attribute.“