Fake News vs. facts: Indira Lakshmanan says the Washington Post deserves a Pulitzer Prize for journalism ethics.
The Post’s investigative journalism “was most extraordinary for its transparency, breaking the fourth wall between the newsroom and readers by revealing those techniques to readers — showing how reporters got the story,” she writes. That reassured the public about the paper’s motives, methods and findings, and inoculated the Post against false claims, she says.
“Certainly, there are occasions when ‘activist’ is an appropriate way to identify a participant in an article,” she writes. “Often, though, identifying someone as an ‘activist’ is a subtle but effective way to degrade the person you are quoting and their perspective by erasing credentials and professional expertise.”
Indira Lakshmanan calls off-the-record interviews a trap.
“We earn public trust by providing true and accurate information and being clear with our audience and our sources about the ground rules under which we gather news,” she writes. “If news is in the public interest and we can’t inform the public, we’re not doing our jobs.”
“My view is that we have to keep the long run in mind,” Washington Post Executive Editor Marty Baron tells the Poynter Institute’s Journalism Ethics Summit. Scott Nover reports on trust in the media and other big stories in the Trump presidency.
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.
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.
“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.”
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.”
Reuters called the page a “parody.” CNN said “the faux front page resembles an April Fools’ Day prank by a college newspaper,” although it was nine days too late for that.
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.