Tag Archives: Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics

A Lifetime of Journalism Ethics


By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

Back in 1972, a Harris poll found that only 18 percent of the public had confidence in the print media; television ranked lower.

Garbage collectors scored higher in public confidence.

As a reporter for the Chicago Tribune at the time, I thought that was shameful, and not only for journalism and journalists.

That got me started on a lifelong mission to make the news media more trustworthy, and to earn public confidence in the belief that factual information is the lifeblood of a self-governing democracy.

You’d think you were on the side of the angels if you spent much of your life campaigning for journalism ethics. But you need more than angels to make much headway in getting the public’s respect and the cooperation of journalists, some of whom consider journalism ethics an oxymoron. A contradiction in terms.

I thought it was something worth fighting for, and for sure, much of it was a struggle with occasional and surprising twists and turns. And I encountered some inspiring people along the way, and a few who put their foot in my face.

                               Media under ferocious attack

For me, it began in the 1970s, a time of civil rights marches, Watergate, Vietnam, and a rising environmental crusade. Today’s journalists think President Donald Trump is tough on reporters, but so was Ronald Reagan. His vice president, Spiro Agnew, was calling reporters “nattering nabobs of negativism.” The media were under ferocious attack, much like they are today.

I was chairman of the Sigma Delta Chi Professional Journalistic Society’s Professional Development Committee at that fateful time. The society changed its name in 1973 to the Society of Professional Journalists.

At its 1972 national convention in Dallas, the society adopted a resolution asking journalists and the public to be aware “of the importance of objectivity and credibility in the news media by calling attention to abuses of these tenets when they occur.” That resolution came to the Professional Development Committee “for study and program proposals.”

Committee members considered a list of things to do in response to the convention mandate, with a new code of ethics that the society could call its own topping the list. The society had borrowed an American Society of Newspaper Editors code of ethics dating to 1926, a worthy but outdated code that pre-dated television and the many contributions of women in journalism.

While I researched modern ideas in journalism ethics, committee members offered their thoughts. Some of the most active were Haig Keropian of the Van Nuys News, Clifford Rowe of the Seattle Times, David Offer of the Milwaukee Journal, Wendell Phillippi of the Indianapolis News, Dorman Cordell of the Associated Press, Sherman London of the Waterbury Republic and American, Noel Avon Wilson of Lincoln University, Robert Liming of The State newspaper, Sidney Elsner of the Cleveland Plain Dealer and Searle (Ed) Hawley of the Chicago Tribune.

After gathering ideas and inspiration, I was the one who sat at my Underwood typewriter (yes, this was before computers) and wrote a code of ethics, which earned me the title of its author, since I was the one who organized the thing and pressed the keys to create the words. I wanted it to reflect the ideals of SPJ and of journalism in a soaring way, reflecting not only what journalism is but what it wants to be. It was aspirational in nature.

People might ask who would have the gall, the temerity, the chutzpah, to write a code of ethics. But that’s how it happened.

That was just the beginning. Strong leadership in journalism ethics was a niche waiting to be filled.

                            A new code of ethics

The next year, in 1973, I presented the new code of ethics to the convention. What happened next was bizarre, surprising and probably unprecedented in the history of the world. Only once in SPJ’s 100-year history has a resolution been adopted twice, unanimously, by the convention delegates. Usually once is enough. But not this time. It was Nov. 16, 1973.

I walked up to the dais and introduced the proposed code, calling it “strong stuff”
that outlawed accepting gifts, free travel or secondary employment that could damage a journalist’s credibility. “Freebies” were a particular sore point. The public was suspicious of politicians on the take, and would be equally suspicious of reporters on the take.

William Payette, the society’s president, called for its adoption, expecting a fierce fight. All the delegates had copies of the proposed code in their notebooks for prior inspection. There were several hundred journalists in that conference room. Typically, journalists will challenge the use of words, sentences, phrases, even the punctuation, in written material. It’s what they do.

Instead of resistance, without objection or one word of debate, the new code was loudly adopted with a chorus of “ayes.”

I was walking from the dais when Russ Hurst, the society’s executive officer at the time, grabbed my arm with a worried look and asked me if the delegates understood what they had just done. He also had expected a battle over a code that urged journalists to “actively censure and try to prevent violations” of the code.

So once again, I returned to the microphone, to Payette’s surprise after I tapped him on the shoulder, and explained I was told to do it again. In a louder voice and giving more details, I declared that this was a code of ethics “with teeth” that reflected the society’s own “ideals in the practice of journalism.”

And a second chorus of “ayes” rang out, without objections or debate.

It was an idea whose time had come, and possibly the last time ethics was mentioned at an SPJ convention without triggering a fierce debate.

A good code of ethics should remind you it’s there, like a pebble in your shoe. It should not be easily ignored. It should require you to pay attention. Ethics requires thought and action.

A controversial pledge

The “pebble” in this code was the pledge, at the end. It said: “Journalists should actively censure and try to prevent violations of these standards, and they should encourage their observance by all news people.” This became known as “the enforcement clause.”

SPJ leaders responded cautiously with a go-slow campaign of hanging copies of the ethics code on newsroom and journalism school walls.

For the next decade, the code nagged at members, as a good code should. It should not be words on paper, but a call to action.

On Nov. 19, 1977, an SPJ convention in Detroit adopted a resolution mandating that “chapters be encouraged to develop procedures for dealing with questions of ethics.” That never was done.

Then an oversight was noticed in the code. It did not mention plagiarism.

The 1984 convention in Indianapolis took care of that. A resolution mandated that the code include: “Plagiarism is dishonest and is unacceptable.” The resolution argued that “plagiarism by journalists violates the public trust and discredits all other journalists.”

It was the first amendment to the 1973 code and a small one. The next would be major.

The censure clause scared SPJ leaders. But many members wanted action on ethics abuses, and a willingness to face up to the censure clause.

SPJ was torn between a desire to lead journalism to a greater sensitivity toward ethical conduct, and a fear that such efforts might lead to “witch hunts” against journalists, and litigation.

My greatest fear was that 326 SPJ professional and student chapters had no idea how to handle ethics complaints, might act haphazardly and were getting no help from the national organization. But I was confident of the common sense of our membership, and there were no witch hunts.

In 1984, at the request of SPJ President Phil Record, I drafted procedures for addressing ethics complaints. At the time I was the national Ethics Committee chair. On May 17, 1985, the SPJ board of directors unanimously rejected the procedures proposal at a meeting in Salt Lake City.

I should add that the ethics compliance procedures I proposed contained no draconian measures. Censure could mean anything we wanted, including a mild rebuke. My stance was that the code of ethics, like the society’s bylaws, was a condition of membership. If you want to join, abide by the society’s code of ethics. And I insisted that the code adopted by SPJ applied to its members. Since it was considered a model code, other journalists in other organizations adopted it.

                         An ethics prayer

Allow me to pause for a moment to comment on Record, a Fort Worth Star-Telegram executive, who was an inspirational and very likeable leader. He cared deeply about journalism and ethics. “Is it any wonder,” he would say, “that at least once a week I say this prayer: ‘Lord, lead us to the truth. Let us always be fair in our quest for it. Give us the wisdom to recognize it. And the courage to proclaim it as we find it to be, not as we wish it to be’” That’s a code of ethics in itself.

But let’s go back to the SPJ code. The censure clause issue came to a head at the 1986 convention in Atlanta, 13 years after the code’s adoption.

Edd Jussely, a delegate from the Mississippi Professional chapter, told the convention his chapter started an investigation into an alleged ethics code violation but dropped it when national SPJ officials said they would not back a censure action.

Shortly afterward, Meredith Oakley of the Arkansas Professional chapter proposed a resolution asking the SPJ board of directors to recommend, in consultation with the national Ethics Committee and local chapters, procedures for chapters to use to handle ethics complaints, subject to approval by the national convention the following year in Chicago. The resolution was adopted by convention delegates.

This, Oakley said, would “implement some of the language within the code.” She wanted “clarification and guidance” on the ethics code, for what is “proper and just.”

On April 30, 1987, the SPJ board at its meeting in St. Paul voted to “recommend no procedure for chapters to handle ethics complaints and that the board recommend the deletion of the censure phrase,” according to the meeting minutes.

Journalism ethics wimps

It is noteworthy that the board repeatedly ignored mandates from conventions of delegates. Under Article Nine of SPJ’s bylaws, “the convention shall be the supreme legislative body of the organization.” Usually this means an organization’s staff carries out whatever its supreme legislative body mandates. But SPJ’s staff and officers refused, basically overruling the supreme governing body. About this time, I occasionally referred to SPJ and its leaders as “ethics wimps.

Allow me to pause again in this history of the SPJ code of ethics. My campaign for enforcement action on ethics attracted the attention of the nation’s journalism executives, and they were not pleased. I was warned by one of those executives that word was circulating that “someone should do something about Casey Bukro,” preferably someone at the Chicago Tribune. Words like that, in Al Capone’s Chicago, can have sinister overtones. But I was sure they were not meant that way.

James D. Squires, the Tribune’s editor and executive vice president, was my boss at the time. We both happened to be attending an SPJ convention, and Squires invited me to have a cup of coffee with him. When we were settled in at the coffee shop, I brought up the word that was circulating about me.

Squires knew what I was talking about, shook his head, and said: “I can’t do anything about Casey Bukro.”

“What do you mean?” I asked. “You could squash me like a bug.”

“I can’t do anything about Casey Bukro,” he repeated. “He has a right to freedom of speech like everyone else.”

And that settled it. Squires is a man of character, like Phil Record, and no doubt had more important things to do than squash Casey Bukro. Leaving the Chicago Tribune after 8½ years as editor, Squires wrote a memo to the staff and quoted a famous editor, William Allen White, saying: “There are three things that no one can do to the entire satisfaction of anyone else: Poke the fire, make love and edit a newspaper.” Said Squires, “He was certainly correct about editing the newspaper.” He left with a flourish.

The specter of lawsuits

Complete satisfaction also does not apply to a code of ethics.  Lawyers have long argued that journalists should not admit to ethical standards because they might be held against them in court, a stance that could gain no public trust or credibility for journalists. Bruce Sanford, SPJ’s attorney, was among them and often raised the specter of lawsuits if the society acted against journalists who discredited journalism.

But on page 25 of the April 30 board minutes, Sanford is quoted as saying: “If you believe in ethics, you have to take some risks.” On the other hand, Sanford offered a memorandum to the board that day saying that enforcing ethics was an “oxymoron.” He preferred “using hypothetical situations to provoke discussion.” Otherwise, said the memo, enforcing the code “would likely engender a rash of lawsuits.”

The SPJ national board went to the Chicago convention in November 1987, refusing to follow the 1986 convention’s directive. During the floor fight that followed, the president of the Washington, D.C., chapter proposed deleting the censure clause from the ethics code, and replacing it with a “Mutual Trust” passage calling for ethics education programs and the adoption of more codes of ethics.

The motion was adopted by a 162-136 vote, after expressions of dissatisfaction with the board’s handling of the 1986 convention’s mandate.

By my reckoning, SPJ leadership by this point had shrugged off four convention resolutions mandating action on ethics abuses and procedures for addressing ethics complaints.

This history reveals an organization leading the way on ethics, then losing its way as its leadership turned timid, out of touch with the wishes of its membership. It ended a stormy period that provoked hard feelings and some broken friendships. Though everyone is for ethics, not everyone agrees on how to walk the talk. And while journalists thrive on controversy, it’s usually not welcome close to home.

Subsequent years seemed dull by comparison. The toothless 1973 code of ethics, while still considered a model for journalists after 23 years, was ready for retirement.

                           A “green light” code

The national Ethics Committee met in Philadelphia in June 1996, with the intention of drafting a new “green light” code of ethics, which it did in two days. The backbone of the new code hinged on four principles: seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently and be accountable. I was told the Poynter Institute suggested this framework. The new format was a list of ethics dos and don’ts.

Participants gathered into four groups to suggest standards for each of the four principles. I chaired the “be accountable” section and took part in the birth of a new code of ethics, more modern in its outlook for a journalism industry that is always changing.

The code was adopted by a national convention in Arlington, Va., the following September, including passages urging journalists to be accountable by exposing “unethical practices of journalists and the news media” and to “encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media.”

Yet another code of ethics was adopted 18 years later, on Sept. 6, 2014, in Nashville, Tenn., tweaking what had gone before. The framework was the same. “Be accountable” was changed to “be accountable and transparent.” It is in the nature of journalists to rewrite, to edit.

All versions of the code appear in SPJ’s website. Still handling ethics like a hot potato, the site includes this disclaimer: “The SPJ Code of Ethics is a statement of abiding principles supported by explanations and position papers that address changing journalistic practices. It is not a set of rules, rather a guide that encourages all who engage in journalism to take responsibility for the information they provide, regardless of medium. The code should be read as a whole; individual principles should not be taken out of context. It is not, nor can it be under the First Amendment, legally enforceable.”

First Amendment protection

Yes, journalists are protected by the First Amendment. But that does not mean they should hide behind it. They should be bold because of it, not cower. That’s especially true at a time when journalists are described by President Trump as “enemies of the people” and “fake news.” This is no time for ethics wimps.

I served as SPJ’s national ethics chair from 1983 to 1986, when the incoming president replaced me. I continued to serve as a member of the national ethics committee until the incoming president asked me to leave the committee in 2010.

In January, 2001, I co-founded and manage the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, a free service for professional journalists looking for guidance on ethics. But that’s another story.

It’s almost 50 years since that Harris Poll showing the public’s low trust in journalists. What about now? A 2017 Harvard-Harris poll, by the same pollster, found that only 32% of the public trusted the press.

That’s 14 percentage points up from 1972, not much gain for a lifetime of effort in journalism ethics. Based on that metric, I have not made much of an impact, about a quarter of a point per year. Movement on journalism ethics can be glacial, while the media landscape changed devastatingly swiftly. But it’s been a heck of a journey, and never a dull moment.

Now that many of us are under coronavirus pandemic lockdown, we are wondering what happens next. Reporters will tell us. That’s the glorious part of journalism. There are always important stories to write, and doing them right takes journalism ethics.


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.



Bartman, the Ball and Ethics


Bartman and the ball  —- NBCsports.com photo


By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

The coronavirus batted the 2020 major league baseball season into limbo, but stories about baseball never get old.

Here’s one about the Chicago Cubs, a seriously maligned baseball fan and journalism ethics. Like many classic tales, it’s told, retold and people argue about the details in their favorite watering holes. Sometimes the story gets better each time it’s told.

It boils down to this: Was it ethical to name a baseball fan who deflected a foul ball, possibly costing the Chicago Cubs a trip to the World Series? This question has become a staple in some journalism ethics classes. I was reminded of that when a student named Maddie contacted the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists, asking if news organizations violated the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics by naming that hapless fan.

That fan, as the world knows by now, is Steve Bartman. He was sitting in the front row along the left field corner wall behind the on-field bullpen on Oct. 14, 2003, during a game between the Chicago Cubs and the Florida Marlins in Chicago’s Wrigley Field.

A pop foul off the bat of Luis Castillo drifted toward Bartman’s seat. Cubs left fielder Moisés Alou raced to the wall, jumped up, and reached for the ball. At the same instant, Bartman, looking up at the ball hurling from the sky toward him, reacted by reaching up, fumbled it, and deflected the ball away from Alou’s glove as Alou cursed. The umpire ruled no interference.

Bartman stayed seated as television cameras broadcast live shots of him between multiple replays of the foul ball incident. His image became part of baseball legend: A diminutive fan wearing a Cubs baseball cap, glasses, headset and a green turtleneck shirt.

Angry Cubs fans cursed him and chanted an A-word I will not repeat. A phalanx of security guards surrounded Bartman and led him out of Wrigley field for his own safety. On his way out, fans shouted at him and pelted him with trash, beer and other drinks.

This happened during the eighth inning of game six of the National League Championship Series, with Chicago leading 3-0 and holding a three-game to two lead in the best-of-seven series. If Alou had caught the ball, it would have been the second out in the inning. The Cubs would have been four outs away from winning their first National League pennant since 1945. Instead, the Marlins sent 12 batters to the plate and scored eight runs. Florida won the game 8-3 and eventually won the 2003 World Series.

That’s how baseball was played. Now let’s see how the game of journalism was played.

                                 Ethical decision-making

The story was an example of an ethical dilemma because Bartman might have been in danger from irate fans. For that reason, I have argued that Bartman’s identity should not have been disclosed by Chicago and other media to protect him.

As I recall, it took about a day before an enterprising Chicago Sun-Times reporter, Frank Main, revealed that Steve Bartman was the fan who fumbled the ball. For a short time, the Chicago Tribune did not reveal Bartman’s identity. But after the Sun-Times went with the story, revealing Bartman’s identity, so did the Chicago Tribune and other media.

They flashed every detail they could about him, not only his identity, but where he lived and where he worked. As many as six police cars lined up outside Bartman’s home to protect him and his family. The Illinois governor suggested he join a witness protection program and Florida’s governor offered Bartman asylum.

Here’s where the ethics dilemma gets tricky. As I see it, if the Chicago Tribune or any other media withheld Bartman’s identity in the interest of protecting him, why identify him just because somebody else did? That’s copycat journalism, as I see it, and not standing your ground on ethics. If it was wrong before, then it was still wrong to identify him even if somebody else did.

Ethics means doing the right thing and sticking with your decision. I did not agree with the Sun-Times decision to name Bartman. I participated in a few public meetings on this issue and other journalists scoff at my view on this. News is news, they say, and that’s what journalists are supposed to report. The guy who fumbled the foul ball was all over national news, so journalists had to identify him, they said.

But have a heart. The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics encourages journalists to “minimize harm” and show compassion for people affected by news coverage. The Bartman case shows how news judgment is influenced by what other journalists do. Ethical decision-making involves coming to your own conclusions, not simply doing what other journalists do. Think for yourself. Don’t follow the herd. That’s herd mentality.

                             Concern for Bartman’s safety

I was working for the Chicago Tribune as a reporter when all this happened. If I had been editor of the Tribune at the time, I would have stuck with the decision the newspaper made initially, which was to withhold Bartman’s identity for the sake of his safety. It probably would have been an unpopular decision, possibly even ridiculed by other journalists. So what? My conscience would have been clear if Bartman had been hurt. It was wrong to put him in that position.

There was concern that some fans might track him down and take revenge.

Besides, the guy never asked for that notoriety and wanted to protect his privacy. He was not a public figure. Bartman apologized and said he wanted to move past it and return to a quiet life.

He released a statement saying he was “truly sorry.” He added, “I had my eye glued on the approaching ball the entire time and was so caught up in the moment that I did not even see Moisés Alou, much less that he may have had a play.”

Bartman declined interviews, endorsement deals and requests for public appearances. His family changed its phone number to avoid harassing phone calls. He has declined a $25,000 offer for an autographed picture of himself and declined a six-figure offer to appear in a Super Bowl commercial.

Cubs players came to his defense, saying they lost the game, not Bartman. At first, Alou was angry, but was quoted later saying that he would not have caught the ball anyway, and then he said he was joking, and that it was time “to forgive the guy and move on.” His final comment in a 2011 documentary was: “I’m convinced 100% that I had that ball in my glove.”

                                  The saga comes to a close

Bartman’s father came to his defense. He told the Chicago Sun-Times: “He’s a huge Cubs fan. I’m sure I taught him well. I taught him to catch foul balls when they come near him.”

Chicago being Chicago, some blamed the foul-ball affair on the Curse of the Billy Goat, named for a well-known story about a Greek restaurant-owner who cursed the Cubs when he was ejected from Wrigley Field for trying to bring his goat into the ball park. Others said the Neanderthal behavior of Cubs fans reflected poorly on Chicago’s sports culture. Bartman’s seat in Wrigley Field became a tourist attraction, but he never returned to the ball park.

Chicago had not won a World Series since 1908. The championship drought ended in 2016, when the Cubs beat the Cleveland Indians for the World Series championship. It offered a chance to make amends with Bartman. On July 31, 2017, the Cubs owner Tom Ricketts presented Bartman with a championship ring.

Expressing his gratitude, Bartman said the ring signified “that I am welcomed back into the Cubs family and have their support going forward. I am relieved and hopeful that the saga of the 2003 foul ball incident surrounding my family and me is finally over.”


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.


Publish unverified documents? Consider these ethical questions

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.

BuzzFeed has defended its publication of a dossier including unverified allegations against Donald Trump. Photo by Michael Vadon [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons
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?

Acting independently

Is your decision to publish based on your own independent judgment of the ethics of publishing or on competitive pressures or other considerations?

Minimizing harm

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.

Rolling Stone In the Penalty Phase of a Faulty Rape Story

Rolling Stone article
Rolling Stone retracted the article in its December 2014 issue months later.

By Casey Bukro

Rolling Stone retracted its 2014 story about an alleged gang rape in a University of Virginia fraternity house after admitting post-publication doubts about the story’s accuracy. You might wonder what a blunder like that might cost a publication, and now we know.

The magazine was hammered by lawsuits. In November 2016, a federal court jury in Charlottesville, Va., awarded $3 million in damages to a former U.Va. associate dean, Nicole Eramo. The jury found that the Rolling Stone article damaged her reputation by reporting she was indifferent to allegations of a gang rape on campus. Eramo oversaw sexual violence cases at U.Va. at the time the article was published.

The jury concluded that the Rolling Stone reporter, Sabrina Rubin Erdely, was responsible for defamation with “actual malice,” which usually means a reckless disregard for the truth.

Continue reading Rolling Stone In the Penalty Phase of a Faulty Rape Story

Bill Green, Ombudsman Exemplar, Unsparing on Post’s Failure



Bill Green set the standard for ombudsmen while investigating the Janet Cooke hoax at the Washington Post. (Post photo).

By Casey Bukro

Bill Green, an ombudsman’s ombudsman, was not even sure what the job entailed when he was called on unexpectedly to unravel one of journalism’s most famous ethical failures.

Green was only weeks into the job as Washington Post ombudsman on Sept. 28, 1980, when the Post published “Jimmy’s World,” the story of an 8-year-old heroin addict with “needle marks freckling the baby-smooth skin of his thin brown arms.”

So compelling and detailed, the front-page story written by 26-year-old reporter Janet Cooke won the Pulitzer Prize for feature writing on April 13, 1981.

Almost immediately the story about the unnamed boy, and Cooke’s background that appeared when the prize was announced, started falling apart.

The story that followed is especially notable for two reasons. One is that falsehoods often fail sooner or later. The other is that Green, an editor of small-town newspapers who took a year’s sabbatical from Duke University to serve as the Post’s reader advocate, wrote a blistering report on the Post’s editorial lapses that is a model of journalism accountability. It set the standard for ombudsmen.

The nine-part report, starting on the front page and covering four full inside pages, showed the Post’s willingness to confront its flaws and admit them publicly.

Continue reading Bill Green, Ombudsman Exemplar, Unsparing on Post’s Failure

Pope Francis, Trump and Journalism Ethics: Looking for a Hail Mary

Pope Francis holds an in-flight press conference.
Pope Francis holds an in-flight press conference.

By Casey Bukro

Normally, AdviceLine considers the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics its highest source for guidelines and standards on ethics.

But we’re always willing to be open-minded about new and thoughtful ways to think about ethics and do the right thing in journalism.

Take Pope Francis for example. The pontiff is unusually frank and quotable on his world tours, accompanied by media aboard the papal airliner. He gets involved in current and political issues that some popes might have shunned as too earthly, too secular.

On his way back to Rome from a six-day visit to Mexico, where he is known as Francisco, the pope weighed in on comments by Donald Trump, the Republican presidential hopeful. In a midair press conference, Reuters’ Phil Pullella asked for a response to Trump’s claim that the pope was a pawn in Mexico’s migration politics – an apparent reference to Trump comments on the pope’s trip airing on Fox Business. Pullella noted the candidate’s call to wall off the U.S.-Mexico border.

A transcript indicates the pope did not address Trump’s comments directly, but said that “a person who thinks only about building walls, wherever they may be, and not building bridges, is not Christian.”

Trump said the pope heard only one side of the story. In later comments, the pope clarified: “I say only that this man is not Christian if he has said things like that. We must see if he said things in that way and in this I give the benefit of the doubt.”

So now we have an ethical conundrum. If he is not sure what Trump said, and gives Trump the benefit of the doubt, are media free to tie the “not Christian” remark to Trump? Media reports on the event tend to say the link to Trump is stronger than the pope himself will admit. Trump has vowed to force Mexico to build a wall and increase deportations.

That night, on the PBS News Hour, John Allen, a Boston Globe reporter who covered the event, said it is possible that the pope does not know who Trump is, and was taking the word of reporters that Trump made the remark. Essentially, reporters coached the pope.

Moderator Judy Woodruff rightly pointed out that other politicians have asked for border walls, not just Trump. So was this a media-created conflict?

What should an ethical reporter do?

The answer might lie in the pope’s own comments during another in-flight press conference, when he touched on journalism ethics.

In the wake of the so-called Vatileaks scandal, in which the mainstream press reported on corruption in the Vatican, the pope was asked about his opinion of the importance of a free press in rooting out corruption.

“The professional press must tell everything, without falling into the three most common sins,” the pope responded. The sins he named were:

  • Misinformation – telling half the truth.
  • Calumny – dirtying another person, with or without the truth.
  • Defamation – to take away the good name of a person who has not done anything wrong.

“These are the three defects that are an attack against the professionally of the press,” the pope said. “We need professionally, what’s right. … And on corruption? To see the data well and say it. … If there is corruption, they should say it. And if a journalist, if they are truly professional, gets it wrong, he should excuse himself. Things go very well like this.”

Writer Terry Mattingly, reporting on that in-flight press conference, wrote: “To be honest, I think it would have been interesting to ask the pope to define the line that he sees between ‘calumny’ and ‘defamation.'”

Possibly all three “defects” apply in Trump case, since the controversy appears to stem from information fed to the pope, rather than from his own knowledge. This is a nuance that was not explained in many reports on the incident, although John Allen clarified that in his PBS News Hour appearance. And it could be argued that the pope was telling one side of the story.

The controversy did cast a shadow on the character of a political candidate, intended or not.

In the rough and tumble of American politics, even a pope may be dragged into the fray. It’s possible he was duped into commenting on something he was not familiar. Even a pope should be wary during election time in America.

The SPJ code of ethics says: “Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.”

Pitting the pope against Trump might have been a misrepresentation or oversimplification. How would you have handled the story?

Edited by Stephen Rynkiewicz.

Clinching the Debate: Is Hugging Political Candidates Unethical?

By Casey Bukro

All is fair in love, war and politics. But do they mix?

Critics say Rachel Maddow, MSNBC television host and political commentator, crossed a line when she hugged Democratic presidential contenders Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton after a televised debate.

Rachel Maddow hugs Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders
Rachel Maddow hugs Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders.

Maddow says she’s a hugger, and probably will hug again if invited to host another debate regardless of political party.

Conservative Fox News analyst Howard Kurtz is among those who object. “She shouldn’t have been on that stage as moderator,” Kurtz writes on foxnews.com. “She is an unabashedly liberal commentator who rips the Republicans every night on her program. She should not have been put in that position.”

Kurtz acknowledges that Maddow is a smart lady, a Rhodes scholar with deep knowledge of the issues. But as Kurtz sees it, the hugs restrict MSNBC’s efforts to shed its left-wing label and rebrand itself as a news network.

Brit Hume, another political commentator, tweeted about the clutch play, saying “I don’t think I’ve ever seen a moderator do that before.”

Washington Post media critic Erik Wemple shrugs it off.

“Consider the hugs through the prism of journalism ethics,” writes Wemple. “Were they transparent? Yes, there’s a video of the hugs, which took place in front of the cameras; any clandestine backstage moderator-candidate hugging is strictly forbidden. Were they even-handed? Yes, both Sanders and Clinton received hugs of very comparable warmth, duration and hand-pats. Were they prejudicial? Nah, coming at the end of the event, it’s hard to say that the affection received by Maddow influenced the questions, which were solid.

“So, that’s the verdict, considering that there doesn’t appear to be a hug provision in the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics.”

True, the code does not outlaw hugging specifically. But it does warn against conflicts of interest, “real or perceived.” And it urges journalists to “remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.”

Those tenets apply to this case, which is why some journalists might do a double-take at Maddow’s embrace.

In a later blog post, Wemple returns to the debate-ending squeeze. “The industry’s orthodoxy dictates that those with opinions shouldn’t be running such straight-news events. Count me out of that strain of hollow thought. We’ll take Maddow over some ‘objective’ drone every time,” he writes.

Which is to say journalism standards and customs change over time. Lines are drawn and redrawn. And journalists will agree or disagree. It’s the nature of ethics.

That Herman Hupfeld song from the movie “Casablanca” comes to mind, “As Time Goes By.”

“You must remember this, a kiss is just a kiss, a sigh is just a sigh. The fundamental things apply as time goes by.” Nothing there about hugs.

In your view, was Maddow wrong? Leave a reply below.

Edited by Stephen Rynkiewicz.

Professional journalists with ethics questions may contact us at ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

What the Ethical Robo-journalist Needs to Know

The ethical rob-journalist.
(Shutterstock photo)

By Casey Bukro

Can machines learn ethics?

The Associated Press already uses an automated platform capable of producing up to 2,000 stories a second. This is especially handy when companies issue quarterly earnings, which can be drudgery for a human reporter who scans the reports for meaningful numbers and statistics.

The robotic journalist crunches those numbers in seconds and spits them out in readable form, not in Pulitzer Prize-winning style but adequate.

Robo-reporting is especially handy for business and sports stories heavy on numbers and scores.

Northwestern University was among the pioneers in using machine learning, or pattern recognition software, to assemble the basics of a news report. A 2009 student project created software to write a headline and story from a baseball game’s box score. Two NU professors in 2010 started a Chicago company, Narrative Science to find commercial uses for the technique.

Stories written by robots have a lot of potential for the news business, and a few issues that need to be hammered out. Like ethics.

Computers, for example, could become plagiarists.

“Just because the information you scrape off the Internet may be accurate, it doesn’t necessarily mean that you have the right to integrate it into the automated stories that you’re creating — at least without credit and permission,” said Tom Kent, Associated Press standards editor, in a Digital Journal article, which cited comments Kent made to the University of Wisconsin Center for Journalism Ethics.

“I think the most pressing ethical concern is teaching algorithms how to assess data and how to organize it for the human eye and the human mind,” said Kent. “If you’re creating a series of financial reports, you might program the algorithm to lead with earnings per share. You might program it to lead with total sales or lead with net income. But all of those decisions are subject — as any journalistic decision is — to criticism.”

Continue reading What the Ethical Robo-journalist Needs to Know

A Code of Ethics All Your Own

By Casey Bukro

Everyone is in favor of ethics, until you get into the details. That’s when the fights break out.

This is something the Online News Association is likely to learn as it makes its way through a project called the Build Your Own Ethics Code. Journalists are invited to crowdsource and document their ethical practices.

Code of Ethics
Can Stock Photo

I have some personal experience in this realm. Back in 1972, I was national professional development committee chairman for Sigma Delta Chi, later named the Society of Professional Journalists.

The public, then as now, tended to have a low opinion of journalists. A public opinion poll in 1972 showed only 19 percent of the public had confidence in the press. Garbage collectors ranked higher.

Hoping to counteract that, delegates at the 1972 convention in Dallas adopted a resolution asking the group to do something about that low image of American journalists. That resolution was sent to my committee.

We decided to write a code of ethics reflecting SDX values and standards, acting on a constitutional mandate to inform the public as part of journalism’s role in a democracy. We wanted to show that journalists do have standards, and can act in an ethical manner.

Continue reading A Code of Ethics All Your Own

Donations Might Help to Define a Journalist

By Casey Bukro

One of the questions roiling journalism’s waters these days is, what defines a journalist?

One of the answers sometimes given is that a journalist is defined by what he or she does — committing acts of journalism like writing, reporting, editing or producing something that gives people information.

Usually standards exist for doing those activities, such as the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics.

Lately, though, some broadcast journalists have shown that they might be confused about those standards, or simply ignored them. Or, are they leading the way toward a new era when broadcast opinion and partiality are overwhelmingly becoming the standards?

The most notorious case is Brian Williams, the NBC anchor who was suspended without pay for six months, for falsely reporting that he had been on a helicopter shot down in Iraq. Actually, another helicopter had been hit by a rocket-propelled grenade and forced down.

Williams apologized for the exaggeration, saying: “I don’t know what screwed up in my mind that caused me to conflate one aircraft with another.” The military publication Stars and Stripes had reported that Williams’ account of the incident was inaccurate.

“The episode has called into question not only the credibility of Mr. Williams but also the ethics and culture at NBC News,” The New York Times reported. NBC is investigating whether Williams exaggerated other reports, and will decide whether Williams returns to his post.

The SPJ ethics code says: Seek truth and report it.

Less prominent is the case of ABC News analyst and anchor George Stephanopoulis, who apologized for donating $75,000 to the Bill, Hillary and Chelsea Clinton Foundation without disclosing his donation to the network, as required. The donations were reported in the foundation’s public disclosure.

“We accept his apology,” ABC said in a statement. “It was an honest mistake.”

Stephanopoulos called the donations an “uncharacteristic lapse.”

His actions led to demands that Stephanopoulos recuse himself from all 2016 election coverage.

Critics recall that Stephanopoulos served President Bill Clinton as a political strategist before moving into broadcasting, despite allegations that he lacked journalistic objectivity.

“But with his acknowledgment that he had given a significant sum to the Clinton Foundation, he found himself facing accusations that he was effectively trying to buy favor with his former employers as Mrs. Clinton seeks the presidency for a second time,” reported the New York Times.

The Stephanopoulos disclosures prompted Judy Woodruff, PBS News Hour co-anchor, to make an on-air disclosure of her own: She said she gave $250 to the Clinton Foundation “for charitable purposes.”

The SPJ code says: Be accountable and transparent. It also says: Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.

But are traditional standards and values still important, now that opinion or advocacy journalism are so widespread online? If those traditional standards were as entrenched as they seemed during Walter Cronkite’s day, when he was considered one of the most trusted men in journalism, perhaps Williams and Stephanopoulos would not have overlooked them so easily till they were caught.

Add to their stumbles the recent case of Rolling Stone, which apologized for reporting an alleged gang rape on the campus of the University of Virginia, a story based largely on one anonymous source. The story later was discredited by police and Rolling Stone was sued.

These cases, says Stephen J.A. Ward, a University of British Columbia ethicist, point to a “striking fragmentation” in journalism ethics and how they are applied, holding some anchors and reporters to the ideal of objectivity and independence while others are not.

“This only points to the utter breakdown of any consensus on journalism ethics,” said Ward.

The SPJ ethics code says: Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience.

With changing perspectives in journalism, it’s important for news organizations to adopt written standards, so employees understand the standards that govern their organization. As journalism changes, these standards might change depending on how news organizations define themselves.

Their audiences, too, benefit from knowing what to expect.