Powerful men often have a way with words, although not always in the way we might expect.
Mayor Richard J. Daley of Chicago was famous for malapropisms, often saying the opposite of what he meant. He was Chicago’s powerful mayor for 21 years, and an example for journalists taking measure of Donald J. Trump.
Daley was the undisputed Democratic kingmaker in Illinois and beyond until his death in 1976, both feared and respected. Daley was a force in John F. Kennedy’s 1960 presidential victory, leaving lingering hints of vote fraud. A dressing down by Daley could leave his underlings in pools of sweat.
But his speech was sometimes tangled and mangled, often while he was agitated or angry. Such as the time he was talking about the battle being waged by police against street violence during the 1968 Democratic National Convention.
“Gentlemen, get the thing straight once and for all,” the mayor said. “The policeman isn’t there to create disorder; the policeman is there to preserve disorder.”
Ambush interviews usually are not the way journalists conduct business. Seasoned professionals identify themselves as journalists and tell sources they intend to quote them, or ask permission to quote them. They make clear that remarks are “on the record.”
That’s the way it’s usually done. Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists occasionally get calls or inquiries, usually from young reporters, who don’t know that.
In 2012, a reporter doing an article on a controversial homeless shelter in New York asked: “Would it be unethical to call and not disclose that I am press?”
The answer from Hugh Miller, an AdviceLine consultant, was short and sweet: “Don’t. It would be unethical.”
Implicit in this exchange are questions of candor, disclosure and transparency. They raise the question of getting information under false pretenses.
On the Chicago police beat, which I covered at the City News Bureau of Chicago, legend was that police sometimes arrested suspicious characters for mopery with intentions to gawk.
By definition, a gawker is a person who stares openly at someone or something. To gawk is to gape, stare or rubberneck without trying to hide that you’re doing it. A gawker also can be an awkward or clumsy person.
So when Financial Times reporter Nick Denton launched Gawker.com in 2003, I figured I knew what to expect. The website described itself as a media news and gossip blog, one of its goals being to “afflict the comfortable.” Gawker Media became a network of blogs, including Gizmodo, Deadpan, Jezebel and Lifehacker.
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.
An 18th-century Pirate Code of Conduct was stern but direct: Anyone found stealing from another crewman would have his ears and nose slit open and be set ashore.
The penalty for bringing a woman aboard in disguise was death.
Anyone being lazy or failing to clean his weapons would lose his share of booty.
The punishment for hitting a man was 40 lashes on the bare back.
These are among the rules Bartholomew “Black Bart” Roberts and his crews are said to have adopted in 1722 to keep the peace among his bloodthirsty men and reward good conduct. There are many variations on buccaneer codes, however.
Even 300 years later, rewarding or defining good conduct is the purpose of codes of journalism ethics that continue to emerge.
A new Radio Television Digital News Association Canada code takes effect July 1, replacing a version adopted in 2011.
“This Code of Ethics is based on more than a century of journalistic experience and represents our membership’s guiding principles,” states a preamble that welcomes adoption by all practicing journalists.
Update:“I should not have believed a word he said,” author Gay Talese said after the Washington Post informed him that property records showed that the subject of his latest book, a Peeping Tom motel owner, did not own the motel from 1980 to 1988. While Talese disavowed his latest book in the Post’s report, he and his publisher defended the book to the New York Times.
By Casey Bukro
One questionable ethical episode after another piles up in the New Yorker’s excerpt of a forthcoming Gay Talese book. In “The Voyeur’s Motel,” a serial Peeping Tom owner of a motel might have witnessed a possible murder. He invites Talese to join him in secretly watching a couple have sex.
By Talese’s own admission, there’s reason to believe some of the story is not true.
It’s possible the New Yorker was swayed by the author’s fame in publishing a titillating account of voyeurism. The Aurora, Colorado, motel owner kept detailed written accounts of what he saw through the ceiling ventilating system grille openings over more than a dozen rooms. Talese writes that he could not verify some details, including the murder. He shrugs it off as poor record-keeping.
Although the motel owner, Gerald Foos, admits to being a voyeur since the age of 9, he considers himself a researcher of human sexual habits. Talese knows the subject as well, having explored it in 1981’s “Thy Neighbor’s Wife.” He’s also an inventor of New Journalism, a style that depends heavily on subjective observation.
“Over the years, as I burrowed deeper into Foos’s story, I found various inconsistencies – mostly about dates – that called his reliability into question,” Talese wrote in the New Yorker excerpt. Most editors might balk at publishing a story on which the writer himself casts doubt upon its reliability. But the New Yorker forged ahead.
At least Talese points to the holes in his story. Under the rules of Old Journalism, that would have qualified “spiking” the piece.
The newspaper’s columnist John L. Smith resigned in protest after being told he could not write about Adelson or Steve Wynn, both Vegas casino magnates who unsuccessfully sued Smith for libel and drove him into bankruptcy through legal fees.
The paper’s editor, J. Keith Moyer, argued that it would be a conflict of interest for Smith to write about two of the most powerful men in town, who had sued him, not for his work on the newspaper, but for books he had written about them.
The one mentioning Adelson was titled “Sharks in the Desert.” The other book was titled “Running Scared: The Life and Treacherous Times of Las Vegas Casino King Steve Wynn.” Clearly, neither book offered much sympathy for either power player.
But this is a story about fabulous Las Vegas, a town with an explosive history of gambling, gangsters, show-business megastars, showgirls and entertainment. It’s in a constant state of drama or turmoil. All you have to do is walk through the downtown casinos at 3 a.m. and see the action on the roulette and blackjack tables to know things don’t slow down there.
Lynching is no joking matter in the United States. News manager Robert Selkow found himself in the middle of a controversy over a Halloween display featuring three figures hanging from a tree.
“I got a photo on a smartphone,” recalled Selkow, who is site manager and news director of clarksvillenow.com, an online hyperlocal website affiliated with six radio stations serving Middle Tennessee and southern Kentucky. “It looked like a scene out of (the movie) ‘Mississippi Burning,’ black figures being hanged.”
He said it turned out to be “the most powerful image we ever published.”
Selkow contacted Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists in facing this sensitive issue, and agreed to discuss details of the case publicly.
The offensive Halloween display was in the residential area of the Fort Campbell military base on the Kentucky-Tennessee border near Clarksville.
War is famously shrouded in a fog that journalists are supposed to penetrate.
Since war correspondents and photographers sometimes risk their lives in combat zones, you’d think they’d want to get it right. Otherwise, it’s just propaganda.
In that case, the fog just gets thicker. But it is a way to make a buck as media cut staff and rely on freelancers.
The recent Brussels bombings is an example. A 21-year-old Palestinian photographer triggered strong social media reactions. When a Fox News video showed him posing a girl at a makeshift memorial, an outcry arose against the unethical practice of staging photographs.
The Guardian, a British national newspaper, identified the photographer as Khaled Al Sabbah, who lives in Brussels and has won photography awards for his work on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. The newspaper also quoted Michael Kamber, a former New York Times staff photographer and founder of the Bronx Documentary Center, after he saw the video.
“It’s one more example of a photographer doing something that destroys public trust in the media,” said Kamber.
After being seriously burned by false information from anonymous sources, the New York Times decided to be more cautious about accepting information from people who don’t want to be identified.
The Times issued new guidelines governing the use of anonymous sources, mandating that stories resorting to anonymity must be submitted to one of the paper’s top three editors for advance approval.
That’s a step in the right direction for a publication that long prided itself on knowing inside information, even if cloaked in anonymity.
A copy of the memo to the Times newsroom was forwarded to Politico anonymously. Hard to decide if that is ironic or hilarious.
The memo shows, among other things, that old habits at the publication known as “the Gray Lady” are hard to break. It begins by defending the use of anonymous sources as “sometimes crucial to our journalistic mission. But it also puts a strain on our most valuable and delicate asset: our trust with readers.”
The memo observed that readers “routinely cite anonymous sources as one of their greatest concerns about The Times’s journalism.”
Readers can see the practice as the Times “vouching for the information unequivocally – or worse, as carrying water for someone else’s agenda. As far as possible, we should explain the source’s motivation and how he or she knows the information.”
It appears that the Times is finally catching up on a rule generally accepted by many professional journalists: Information is only as good as its source. Credible and identifiable sources provide reliable information, or information that can be judged for reliability.
Departing from this rule can have serious consequences, as the Times public editor, Margaret Sullivan, pointed out. In several opinion page articles, she described how reliance on anonymous sources led to “two major front-page errors in a six-month period.”
One alleged a Justice Department criminal investigation against Hillary Rodham Clinton, which Sullivan called “fraught with inaccuracies.” The other involved jihadist social-media posts by one of the San Bernardino killers. The mass shooting killed 14 people and injured 22.
Too many Times articles rely on anonymous government sources, Sullivan wrote in December, 2015. She called for “systemic change” at The Times. “The Times needs to fix its overuse of unnamed government sources,” Sullivan wrote.