Tag Archives: Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics

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.

donald_trump_august_19_2015
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.

Advertisements

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

 

green

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.