Tag Archives: Stephen J.A. Ward

Media Rules of Conduct: A Call to Arms

By Casey Bukro

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.

A general history of the pyrates
Honor among thieves: Pirates and their captains agreed on codes of conduct. (Boston Public Library)

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.

Continue reading Media Rules of Conduct: A Call to Arms

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Shifting Views on Naming Sexual Assault Victims

Media Matters for America illustration
Rolling Stone retracted its 2014 article about an alleged campus rape. (Media Matters for America illustration)

By Casey Bukro

A ban on naming sexual assault victims has been one of the ironclad ethics rules in journalism. Why inflict more pain on an innocent person?

The Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics says: “Be cautious about identifying juvenile suspects or victims of sex crimes.”

Yet even this rule is coming into question as people decide what rules they want to follow.

For example, Stephen J.A. Ward, a media ethicist, points to the trial of Jian Ghomeshi, a former Canadian Broadcasting Co. radio host. Ghomeshi is charged with sexual misconduct involving three women in 2002 and 2003.

One woman insists on being identified. The others’ identities are protected under Canadian law.

“So what should newsrooms do if the complainant insists on being identified?” asks Ward. “It’s a complex legal and ethical decision.”

Ward described how identity bans work under Canadian law. But two trends complicate the issue.

“One trend is the growth of media beyond the mainstream journalism that was the original focus of the ban,” he writes. “Social media, bloggers and others may ignore the ban. The second trend is that some people want to be named” and “may use social media to identify themselves as a complainant.”

Once the name is ‘out there’ in the media world, it’s very difficult to erase.

One of the central rules in journalism ethics is minimizing harm. Ward reasons that this means explaining consequences, to make sure complainants give informed consent to the use of their names.
The problem prompted the Canadian Association of Journalists ethics committee to release guidelines. The committee suggests journalists take specific steps to ensure informed consent:

  • A journalist should explain that, once a complainant’s name is made public, other media likely will use the name too.
  • A journalist should explain that that the name likely will be used on social media, over which the journalist has no control. Individuals on Facebook, Reddit or other social sites will post comments. Some of them “can be vile.”
  • A journalist should explain that, once the name is “out there” in the media world, it’s very difficult to erase.
  • A journalist should not pressure complainants to make their names public.
  • A journalist should explain that, given the nature of search engines, the sex crime report might be the first thing that appears when someone does an Internet search of the complainant’s name. Has the complainant thought about the information being available indefinitely when applying for jobs, entering into relationships or having a family?

The guidelines report also advises journalists to give complainants a day or two to think about their decisions before making their identities public.

“Taking that time up front will almost certainly reduce the likelihood of ‘source remorse’ and the possibility of an unpublishing request later.”

The CAJ report also reminds journalists that they are obligated to tell the whole story, not just the complainant’s viewpoint. The 2014 Rolling Stone magazine story about an alleged campus rape turned out to be bogus because it was based on the allegations of one person. Sex crimes often involve conflicting viewpoints.

The Canadian ethics panel suggested, as an alternative to an “all-or-nothing approach,” considering refusing to share a story through social media channels, not archiving stories that name victims or removing names from a story. But these actions could raise more ethics concerns.

The Bill Cosby case is an example of the complications in alleged sex crimes. Controversy can simmer for decades. Journalists and authorities have been accused of protecting the popular entertainer. Some women kept silent in the belief nobody would believe them. Years later, some identified themselves as women who were allegedly drugged and sexually assaulted.

Years ago, sexual assault was a crime that people hesitated to talk about under social norms. That has changed. Television and the online media discuss and show sexual situations openly. It’s the new norm.

Still, it’s a good idea for journalists to keep in mind the golden rule: Minimize harm.

Edited by Stephen Rynkiewicz

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.