Tag Archives: SPJ Code of Ethics

Journalists Helping Police: Is It Unethical?

News helicopter
Police hitched a ride on a news helicopter in pursuit of a shooting suspect. Wikimedia Commons photo.

By Casey Bukro

People sometimes think police and reporters are alike. Both chase criminals and other kinds of crooks to protect the public.

But they’re not the same, and a case involving a news helicopter in Boulder, Colorado, made that clear.

Boulder police were chasing a shooting suspect when they asked reporters aboard a helicopter shared by Denver TV stations for an airborne lift at the scene to search for the suspect.

A police officer boarded the copter. From his aerial vantage point, the officer was able to nab a suspect in cooperation with a SWAT team on the ground.

A police spokeswoman called the assist instrumental in the arrest, according to the Boulder Daily Camera, and noted that the news team got direct access to the police action.

Boulder police requested the ride from reporters after failing to get assistance from Denver Police or the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

A win-win, or an ethics foul?
Continue reading Journalists Helping Police: Is It Unethical?

Advertisements

An Editor’s Dilemma: Taking Donated Money for Reporting

From the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists Archives

By Casey Bukro

In tough economic times, newspaper managers are always looking for new ways to raise money and pay the staff.

For an editor-in-chief of a small Idaho newspaper, that was always a problem. But in 2005, he got an offer that seemed too good to refuse. So he called AdviceLine and explained his dilemma:

A county commissioner called the editor saying he should have a reporter at an afternoon meeting of the county commission, because the commissioner is having a conflict with the county clerk and expects “there may be some monkey business on the agenda.”

Strapped for funds, the editor could not afford to send a reporter to cover the meeting.

Not a problem said the commissioner. She has a friend willing to pay for the reporter’s presence at the meeting. The editor called AdviceLine, wondering “Is it ethical to accept this money?”

This is how the conversation went:

Editor: I’m inclined to say so. Without the money, no reporter. Without the reporter, no possibility of a story, something the public may need or want to hear.

Adviser: The Society of Professional Journalists ethics code says journalists should “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived,” “Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility” and “refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment … if they compromise journalists integrity.”

Editor: How would this payment scheme be a “conflict of interest?” How could it “compromise journalistic integrity or damage credibility?”

Adviser: Consider “perceived conflict of interest.” Suppose you are a reader. You read the story that results, which recounts a dispute between the clerk and the commissioner. You find out later, though, that the reporter’s presence was paid for by a friend of the commissioner’s. What are you likely to think?

Editor: Depends on the slant of the story.

Adviser: Why should it?

Editor: Hmmmm.

Adviser: Say you watch a press conference held by an embattled public official. One reporter gets called on a lot. You find out later he was paid for by friends of the official. What do you think, even if this questions seemed at the time “hardball?”

Editor: At the very least I’d re-read the press conference transcript and ask myself what he was up to.

Adviser: What do you think other media outlets in your area would say if they found out you’d done this?

Editor: Actually, we’re pretty much it in these parts, except for trade papers. But what about press passes to, say, concerts, rodeos, etc.? The organizers and promoters pay for them, not us.

Adviser: The pass is to enable the journalist to attend as a reporter, not a spectator. A better analogy might be: What might a reader think of the review if she knew that the promoter not only had issued the reporter a pass but paid the paper a sum of money equivalent to the reporter’s wage for the night?

Editor: Hmmm.

Adviser: I realize small-town journalism is different from the big-city type. The Tribune has a Clydesdale, and you’ve got a Shetland. But the issues are basically the same and you need to adapt them the best you can to your situation.

Editor: You’ve given me lots of food for thought. I’m now inclining the opposite way from the position I had at the beginning. Let me mull it over. Can I call you back?

Adviser: Sure.

Ten years later, AdviceLine tracked down the editor, who is no longer in the newspaper business. He quit in a dispute with new management over, among other things, raising revenue.

What did he do about that offer 10 years ago?

“I doubt that I allowed somebody else to pay for it,” said the ex-editor. “What might have happened? I didn’t cover it.”

But the editor admitted the temptation was great, because he knew that local commission meetings had a way of becoming explosive, making for interesting reading.

“It was so crazy,” he recalled. “In one case the commissioner slapped a clerk. And commissioners gave rants and got tossed out. It was great!”

He misses those days, but also recalls the never-ending tide of dilemmas.

“The buck stops with the editor,” he said. “The editor is responsible. Questions come up every week.”

Looking back on it, the adviser said he should have recommended that the editor adopt a procedures manual, “or some other way of maintaining an institutional ethical memory,” so that he or a future editor could ask, “have we ever dealt with something like this before? If so, how did we handle it?”

Conflict of Interest: What Does it Mean?

By Nancy Matchett

A reporter who covers town meetings wonders whether it is appropriate to pursue a relationship with a councilmember’s daughter.

A community activist learns that the editor of the local newspaper plans to run for town supervisor, and asks whether this is OK.

An editor discovers that one of her reporters is covering an issue he previously wrote editorials about, and wants to check whether her instinct to give the story to someone else is correct.

And a publisher posts a notice that “no anti-fracking info [is] welcome,” overturning the paper’s previous policy of printing flyers on both sides of the issue. This prompts at least one reporter to resign, and she wants to know whether we share her concern that the new policy poses a threat to journalistic integrity.

All of these AdviceLine cases raise the general question, “What counts as a conflict of interest?” Interestingly, the SPJ code is relatively silent on this.

It does say that journalists should “avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived,”and “disclose unavoidable conflicts.” But the code does not provide further details about what would make a conflict unavoidable, nor does it offer a precise definition of what it means to say a conflict of interest exists.

This is not a criticism of the code itself; it is a reason why ethical professionals sensibly seek advice from time to time.

Conflict of interest is an example of an “open concept.” While it’s possible to give some textbook examples, there is no single definition that adequately covers all cases.

At best, there is what the philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein called a “family resemblance” among the various situations in which the concept is appropriately used. When dealing with an open concept, testing your thinking against other professionals’ reactions is one of the best ways to ensure that you have fully understood what the concept means.

Whether a real conflict exists will also depend on facts about the particular individual whose interests potentially conflict. All of us have different abilities to bracket off our emotional attachments and understand conflicting points of view. So while one reporter might be able to draw a bright line between objective reporting and editorial work, another might find it impossible to report seriously on the arguments made by those with whom he disagrees.

One of the things AdviceLine respondents try to do is make sure callers are attending to this kind of detail. But even when it’s plausible to say that only the journalist herself knows whether a real conflict exists (the first three cases above could be examples of this), the need to avoid perceived conflicts of interest remains.

Why should journalists avoid perceived conflicts of interest even when no real conflict exists? The answer comes from reflection about the profession’s societal role. The average citizen isn’t in a position to know which reporters and editors can fight which forms of temptation.

And even the most seasoned journalist occasionally might be mistaken about his or her own ability to resist. To protect the profession’s integrity, it’s better for everyone involved if journalists avoid anything that looks remotely like conflict of interest. Only then can journalists and readers alike be confident that the profession is fulfilling its broader obligation to seek and report the truth.

Conflict of Interest: The Perils of Journalists in Love

From the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists archives.

By Casey Bukro

The managing editor of a California newspaper said one of his reporters has been having an affair with the mayor of one of the towns the paper covers.

The editor learned that she has sent her paramour at least two stories about his town prior to their publication. The editor intends to confront the reporter about this, but she is otherwise a fine reporter and writer and he doesn’t want to lose her.

A further complicating factor is the discovery that a competing newspaper has become aware of the relationship between the reporter and the mayor, and might run a story about it. The managing editor wanted to know the AdviceLine adviser’s take on this situation, for the reporter and for the editor.

The AdviceLine adviser pointed out that the reporter had violated two standards in the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics – to “act independently” and “avoid conflicts of interests, real or perceived” – by concealing her relationship with the mayor from her editor, surreptitiously leaking stories in advance of their publication and then concealing that exchange.

“The other paper’s telling this story before you do anything about it might severely or even fatally impair your paper’s credibility and reputation. Imagine what a typical reader would think,” said the adviser.

The editor answered: “I can, alas.”

Here’s what the AdviceLine  adviser suggested:

“I think you should do something decisive, and promptly. Either reassign her to an utterly different beat or function, at the minimum. Or fire her. In either event, you might consider disclosing the matter in some form to the public before the competition gets a chance to do it for (or to) you.”

The editor answered: “That’s pretty much exactly what I thought was called for before I called you — I wanted confirmation of my instincts.”

Years after the editor called AdviceLine for guidance, AdviceLine called the editor to learn the outcome of this case.

“I wanted to fire her outright,” said the editor, who left the newspaper after 22 years in the news business. “She eventually got fired,” he added, but not for her affair with the mayor.

The case was brought before the newspaper’s human resources department for review. The HR managers decided that an employee could have a relationship with whomever she wanted.

“With regard to the conflict of interest (of sex with the mayor), HR was not interested in that,” said the former editor.

“There also was an issue of the same female reporter sending her copy to the mayor for review before she filed it to the editor,” he said. “If we had not found out that she was sending copy to the mayor in advance, I don’t think HR would have signed off on firing her.”

Though journalists are guided by ethics codes like the one adopted by the Society of Professional Journalists, HR departments are guided by a different set of standards.

There were “worries about litigation in a highly litigious state,” said the former editor. That was a deciding factor.

Going Undercover for Drugs

From the files of the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

By Casey Bukro

An Arizona community newspaper staff is considering sending a reporter/photographer team out with a few $20 bills to do a story on how easy it is to buy drugs, but fear they might be arrested if they do that.

What are the legal and ethical implications? A staff writer asked in an email to the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists.

AdviceLine does not answer legal questions, but from an ethical perspective, said an AdviceLine adviser, the marginal issue is that the reporter would be acting as a buyer and misrepresenting himself.

If they went ahead with the plan to buy drugs, the staff writer added, would they be compelled to report it to the police? The adviser answered that they would have been a witness to a crime, and “it seems to me they would be obligated to do so.”

The assignment sounds more like police work than journalism, said the adviser, and “while I applaud the motive and the courage of the reporter, have you looked at other ways to accomplish the same thing?”

One possibility would be to cooperate with police, instead of embarrassing them, which an article about an undercover journalist might do.

Also, the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics discourages undercover or other surreptitious methods of gathering information “unless traditionally open methods will not yield information vital to the public.”

The AdviceLine adviser summarized his views by saying: “First, the project is dangerous. Second, it should be left to the police. And third, as an alternative, contact the police and ask if a reporter might accompany an officer who might carry out the ‘bust’…”

The writer said he had not thought about working with police in that way.

The Times Telling Its Own Story

By Casey Bukro

The New York Times is a classic case of how poorly the media tell stories about themselves.

Times Publisher Arthur O. Sulzberger Jr. fired Jill Abramson as executive editor, touching off a storm of speculation over who did what to whom and why, and motivations behind the story that was told or not told.

Days after the dismissal, Sulzberger issued a statement complaining that “a shallow and factually incorrect storyline has emerged.”

One version of that storyline held that Abramson was sacked because of her complaints that her $525,000 salary was less than her predecessor’s, a man, setting up the argument that a woman was paid less than a man for the same job.

Another thread was Abramson’s management style, described as polarizing, non collegial, mercurial and pushy, traits that might be tolerated in a man but not in a woman.

“I decided that Jill could no longer remain as executive editor for reasons having nothing to do with pay or gender,” said Sulzberger’s statement, as he hoped to clear up the matter as it seemed to get murkier.

Hard-charging media organizations like the Times often demand full disclosure from the government agencies or corporations that stumble into controversial territory. But, when media get into trouble, they often get defensive, say they’ve been misunderstood or say it’s nobody else’s business.

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics says journalists should “abide by the same high standards to which they hold others.”

Another good guideline in a crisis is: Tell it all and tell it fast. That advice comes from Frank M. Corrado, a Chicago communications specialist.

Some observers say the New York Times affair has settled into “navel gazing by the media,” described as an occupational hazard. The writer of that sentiment wondered why Abramson was fired only nine days after the Times’s chief executive “gushed” about her.

A Vanity Fair report, including an interview with Sulzberger explaining his intentions, said “The New York Times is an institution whose employees are adept at, perhaps addicted to, in-house Kremlinology.” Even those closest to the story are wondering if they know the true story, or the whole story.

Women flocked to Abramson’s defense, but it was not universal.

Some of the more thoughtful and detailed information about the New York Times affair appears in The New Yorker, by Ken Auletta. He says:

“It is an affair in which neither side behaved well or with any finesse and the institution, which is so central to American journalism, suffered.”

 

 

 

 

Bashir’s Legal But Unethical Comments

By Lee Anne Peck

Occasionally, when outraged news consumers want to vent about a professional media organization and/or its staff, Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists will receive calls from these disgruntled citizens.

Our line, however, helps journalists with ethical dilemmas they face; we do not take complaints from callers who want us to get someone reprimanded or fired.  We do advise these callers to contact the news organization with which they have an issue and voice their concerns. (See the SPJ code of ethics which states: “Encourage the public to voice grievances against the news media.”)

Such was the case after MSNBC political talk show host Martin Bashir’s commentary Friday, Nov. 15. I returned to Colorado from a trip to South America the weekend after his diatribe about Sarah Palin; I was clueless to the outrage Bashir had caused, but three callers to the AdviceLine wanted his head.

Bashir, formerly a host of ABC’s Nightline program, took Palin to task for her comments about the U.S. debt to China and slavery. On air, Bashir told the story of plantation owner Thomas Thistlewood, who had a slave “flogged and pickled, then made … another slave shit in his mouth.”

“When Mrs. Palin invokes slavery,” Bashir said during his commentary, “she doesn’t just prove her rank ignorance, she confirms that if anyone truly qualified for a dose of discipline from Thomas Thistlewood, then she would be the outstanding candidate.”

Let’s consider the SPJ code of ethics. What does this code say about behavior such as Bashir’s? The guidelines are often too cut and dry for specific situations, of course. However, we could start with these principles from the code. Journalists should:

  • Examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others.
  • Avoid stereotyping by race, gender, age, religion, ethnicity, geography, sexual orientation, disability, physical appearance or social status.
  • Support the open exchange of views, even views they find repugnant.
  • Distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context.

Did Bashir have the right to speak the way he did about Palin? Sure—First Amendment rights. Was it ethical for Bashir to say those things about her? Probably not. Just because it was legal for him to say those things doesn’t make it right for him to say what he did merely because of the “golden rule.” The public made that very clear.

He apologized on air the next Monday, but that wasn’t good enough. On Dec. 4 he resigned.