Poynter Institute gives guidelines for covering sexual abuse: “Journalists have a great obligation to investigate stories that potentially involve many victims.”
By David Craig
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.
By Casey Bukro
Just when you think an ethics issue has been put to rest, a Mother Jones magazine reporter spends four months working undercover as a guard at a corporate-run prison in Louisiana.
“I took a $9 an hour job as a private prison guard in Louisiana,” reporter Shane Bauer wrote in a 35,000 word, six-part report accompanied by two sidebar reports and an editor’s note, plus video.
“I saw stabbings, an escape and prisoners and guards struggling to survive,” Bauer wrote.
The publication’s editor-in-chief, Clara Jeffery, wrote that legal intimidation makes investigations of prisons rare, but “it’s time for journalists to reclaim our roots.” She pointed to an 1887 undercover investigation of a women’s mental asylum by New York World reporter Nellie Bly as an early example of the kind of work journalists should be doing. It triggered reforms.
It’s fair to say undercover reporting has fallen into disfavor these days because it often depends on deception, for which a publication can be sued. And it can make journalists look like liars.
“Avoid undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information unless traditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public,” says the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics.
By Casey Bukro
“There is real agony to ethical dilemmas as we strive to be both competitive and excellent,” said Carol Marin, one of Chicago’s most respected journalists, as she launched DePaul University’s Center for Journalism Integrity and Excellence.
Marin will be co-director of the new center with her longtime television producer, Don Moseley. Both recently won Peabody Awards for their coverage of the police shooting of 17-year-old Laquan McDonald, the third Peabody for Marin and the second for Moseley.
Marin and Moseley were among the speakers at a reception celebrating the launch. The new center is dedicated to turning students into investigative reporters who dig hard, but with compassion for those afflicted.
Journalists do not always recognize or honor that delicate balance. In her remarks, Marin cited the McDonald case as an example of how hard it was to strike that balance at NBC-owned WMAQ-Channel 5.
“When the video of that night was finally released by the city under court order, we at NBC 5, from the president of the station all the way down to the working ranks of the newsroom, stood at the assignment desk together and watched it,” Marin said. “Saw the officer fire 16 shots. Saw an explosion of droplets fly out as the bullets hit. Saw Laquan McDonald spiral and fall to the ground.
“The pressure of being first to report is a real pressure,” she said. “But better to be late than be wrong.”
By Casey Bukro
The Boston Globe added another twist to a bizarre political season by publishing a satirical front page intended to show a future based on presidential candidate Donald Trump’s words and proclamations.
“Deportations to Begin,” was the banner headline of the fake page, dated Sunday, April 9, 2017. “Markets sink as trade war looms,” read one headline. “New libel law targets ‘absolute scum’ in press,” read another.
Let me make it clear right now that this is not an attempt to cover politics. AdviceLine patrols the journalism ethics beat. We let the political writers, columnists, bloviators, commentators, prognosticators and fulminators deal with the uncertainties and comedy of political life.
The Boston Globe’s hypothetical front page did not run on the actual front page of the newspaper, but appeared inside as a front page of the Ideas Section of a Sunday edition of the Globe. It referred to an editorial, “The GOP must stop Trump.”
More importantly, the Globe was not joking. It was trying to show “Donald Trump’s America,” according to an editor’s note in the lower left-hand corner of the bogus page. “What you read on this page is what might happen if the GOP front-runner can put his ideas into practice, his words into action.” The editorial made the same point.
By Casey Bukro
Journalism student Emily Bloch thought she saw something familiar while reading a story in the Boca Raton Tribune. It looked like something she had written, exactly the way she had written it.
Turned out it was a case of plagiarism, for which the Tribune writer was fired. He had copied material Bloch had written for the Florida Atlantic University student newspaper, the University Press, about an alleged campus rape.
Students sometimes are accused of copying material written by professional journalists, but in this case the professional journalist copied material written by a student. The case was reported by New Times Broward-Palm Beach.
Plagiarism often is a career-killing offense in journalism, although not always.
A Columbia Journalism Review report found that punishment for plagiarism falls in an grey area “ranging from severe to virtually nothing even for major offenses.”
It’s an editor’s decision, one that takes a writer’s talents and past performance into consideration. In other words, how badly does an editor need that writer or how easily could that writer be replaced? And, it is no secret that editors sometimes have favorites, known among staffers as “friends of the editor’s” or FOEs.
Editors might look for a pattern of plagiarism before taking disciplinary steps.
In these days of the Internet, much is made of the ease with which text can be stolen or copied and pasted. Cut-and-paste is a dangerous practice. The only good case for it is for citing a direct quote accurately. It is commonly used in the drafting stage, but a writer might forget to recast the material.
Equally easy is finding online plagiarism checkers, or reports that list the latest examples of plagiarism, or plagiarism “hit lists” of famous journalists gone wrong. Where are they now? For the most part, out of journalism.
At The New York Times a reporter, Jayson Blair, lost his job for plagiarism, and another, Maureen Dowd, didn’t.
They were named in a Plagiarism Today report by Jonathan Bailey called “5 Famous Plagiarists: Where Are They Now?”
The so-called “celebrity plagiarists,” for the most part, “seemed to land on their feet,” according to Bailey.
In its report on top 10 cases of plagiarism and attribution, Media Ethics in 2012 named Jonah Lehrer, formerly of The New Yorker, as its No. 1 plagiarist for plagiarizing himself.
“We’re putting him on our top plagiarist list since being busted for self-plagiarism led to his downfall,” said writer Sydney Smith. How do you plagiarize yourself, you might ask?
Lehrer’s blogs duplicated content he previously published for other outlets. He also made up quotes attributed to Bob Dylan.
The Poynter Institute also published a roundup of plagiarism and fabrication cases, by Mallary Jean Tenore, showing “the range of actions news organizations have taken and some of the factors they’ve considered when making these decisions.”
Plagiarism is a slippery slope. One might argue that plagiarism could be committed by accident. But the profiles of serial plagiarists show that it’s usually not a one-time mistake. It’s a choice.
In most cases, it becomes a pattern or a bad habit, perhaps because it seems so easy. And because some get away with it for some time, they might think they can get away with it indefinitely.
It’s an illusion. One of the benefits of the Internet are the millions of eyes on our words, including print editions. Many people are voracious readers of news reports, foreign and domestic. They recognize when identical paragraphs appear in two or more publications, and don’t hesitate telling editors.
A reader once notified the Chicago Tribune that one of its stories bore an uncanny resemblance to a story in the Jerusalem Post. An investigation proved that he was right. A Tribune reporter had taken text from the Post, a publication half a world away from Chicago.
Astute readers are unpaid “copy cops,” and anyone who works for a publication knows what I mean. They are really good at catching errors, among other things, and enjoy playing “gotcha.”
I think it’s fair to say the industry standard is zero tolerance for plagiarism. Penalties can be harsh even for a single infraction.
The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics flatly says: “Never plagiarize. Always attribute.”
I suppose I fall into the zero tolerance camp for plagiarism, because zero means zero. Otherwise, journalists can argue over how much is allowed and how much is not.
My intolerance dates from my earliest days of writing the 1973 version of the SPJ code of ethics. Some ethics committee members argued for a little of this, and a little of that. It was hard to define how much is a little, or too much.
So I decided that it’s best to draw a bright line. No means no, and there is no quibble room to haggle over.
Journalists are terrible hagglers and nit-pickers. The result is a long, drawn-out process that sometimes does not reach a conclusion or a consensus. Get a room full of journalists and they will argue over all the possibilities and change the punctuation. There is a point at which that is not productive. Best to draw bright lines.
Plagiarism is theft. It can’t be allowed.
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.”
By Casey Bukro
Two views emerged on transparency in journalism, one strongly in favor and the other not so much.
Transparency now trumps “act independently” as a guiding journalism principle in ethics decision-making because anyone with a computer might be considered a journalist these days, according to Tom Rosenstiel, executive of the American Press Institute.
“Transparency will pull publishers of information toward best practices and also toward the most important kind of independence — intellectual independence,” writes Rosenstiel.
Rosenstiel points to a new book published by the Poynter Institute, “The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century,” in which this shift in guiding principles is explained and promoted. Rosenstiel contributed to the book, which attempts to update a set of ethics principles.
Not so fast says Stephen Ward, who suggests transparency is “over-hyped and replaces important values.”
Ward is a journalism professor at the University of Oregon School of Journalism and Communication.
Transparency too often “is a magical idea,” Ward insists. “I believe independence should remain a principle of ethical journalism, and not be demoted to a secondary principle, or made a part of some other principle.”
As for the Poynter ethics book, Ward said: “it is better to talk of reforming the idea of independence, not of replacing it.”
“Academic studies indicate that transparency cannot meet our expectations,” Ward insists, although he did not cite any of the studies.
Rosenstiel said the new Poynter ethics book attempts to update a set of ethical guidelines developed by Poynter in the 1990s under the leadership of Bob Steele, now director of the of DePauw University’s Prindle Institute for Ethics.
The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics also urges journalists to “act independently.”