Why believe polls? asks Margaret Sullivan, who quotes a source saying: “Pollsters and prognosticators — and I would include the media — need to do a better job presenting the uncertainty.”
By Casey Bukro
Fake news might have proved more interesting to readers than the factual stuff.
This sobering thought has churned angst over whether social-media falsehoods contributed to Donald Trump’s presidential victory, not to mention whether the upset win could have been foreseen.
News consumers tend to believe reports that support their personal beliefs — an effect that psychologists call confirmation bias. People like to believe they’re right. In the election run-up, they clicked their way across the internet to prove it.
As President-elect Trump selects the people who’ll help him govern, observers are picking through the rubble trying to understand the forces behind a Republican victory. Here our concern is news-media accuracy and ethics.
Let’s start with something basic. What is fake news?
“Pure fiction,” says Jackie Spinner, assistant professor of journalism at Columbia College Chicago, appearing on WTTW-Channel 11 in Chicago in a “Chicago Tonight” program devoted to separating fact from fiction in internet news feeds.
“It’s something made up,” adds Spinner. “It’s fake.”
But as the WTTW program points out, “fake news is on the rise, and it’s real news.” Some false reports, such as campaign endorsements from Pope Francis, survived many a news cycle.
Continue reading Fake News Trumps True News
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.
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.
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.
Sean Penn shakes hand of Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Sean Penn photo.
By Casey Bukro
Once again, Rolling Stone managed to embarrass itself by publishing an account by surly Hollywood star Sean Penn of a jungle trip to interview Mexican drug lord Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman. Penn reported that he farted but Guzman graciously pretended he did not notice.
Although pairing a Hollywood star with one of the world’s most wanted drug lords probably sounded like a good story idea, it does not get much more exciting than Penn’s faux pas. Guzman mailed a 17-minute videotape with answers to questions Penn sent by BlackBerry messaging after they met.
An article with Penn’s byline says: “Of the many questions I’d sent El Chapo, a cameraman out of frame asks a few of them directly, paraphrases others, softens many and skips some altogether.”
Penn admits: “Without being present, I could neither control the questioning nor prod for elaborations to his responses.”
Rolling Stone calls that an “interview.”
It should know better. The magazine is still recovering from apologizing for its “Rape on Campus” story at University of Virginia, which it later admitted was a “journalistic failure that was avoidable.” The entire story, which proved to be false, was based on an interview with one person. The failures, Rolling Stone editors admitted, included faulty reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking.
Now it’s Sean Penn in the jungle. Penn said it was his idea to contact Guzman. But the article amounts to a printed “selfie.”
On the Jan. 11 PBS News Hour, moderator Judy Woodruff said “some are questioning the ethics of Rolling Stone’s methods” and “the ethics of interviewing an infamous drug lord.”
The program featured Angela Kocherga, Borderlands News Bureau director for the Arizona State University Cronkite School of Journalism, speaking on the ethics of the Rolling Stone piece.
“It raises very tricky questions about what constitutes journalism,” said Kocherga. “It raised some very troubling issues about access and what constitutes real journalism as opposed to more of a conversation, rather than what they are calling an interview.”
By Casey Bukro
The stealth purchase of the Las Vegas Review-Journal by casino magnate Sheldon Adelson had journalists guessing for a week about the identity of the new owner and had some fuming over a lack of transparency, a prime tenet in media ethics these days.
But why should we be surprised by all this?
Very rich men often play by their own rules and get away with it. Even in media, top executives sometimes believe they are exempt from the ethics standards they hand down to their employees.
Journalists are warned against forming close personal ties with the sources they cover in case of conflicts of interest or an appearance of conflict. Publishers, however, party and play golf with the high and mighty covered by their staffs and call that good business.
They see themselves as business men and women, not journalists. In this case, we’re talking about a businessman in the Las Vegas casino business, where razzle-dazzle is the way the game is played. The house always wins.
Politics makes it more complicated. Adelson reportedly declined mentioning his purchase of the largest Nevada newspaper, even denying it as first, because he did not want it to distract from the fifth GOP presidential debate being held at the time in the Venetian resort hotel casino owned and operated by the Las Vegas Sands Corp., of which Adelson is chairman and CEO.
Clearly, politics took priority. And that might offer a clue into some of the leading questions in Las Vegas these days, such as what does Adelson want, and what does he intend to do with the newspaper?
By Casey Bukro
Since all the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists consultants teach on campuses across the country, it seemed logical to ask them how they and their students reacted to events that played out at the University of Missouri over press freedoms and protests over racial tensions.
An earlier AdviceLine blog post focused on what appeared to be an attack on First Amendment press freedoms when faculty member Melissa Click attempted to banish two student photographers from the protest scene, for which she later apologized.
Hugh Miller, assistant professor of philosophy at Loyola University Chicago, took what he called a contrarian view.
“I disagree,” said Miller, citing a lawyer friend who pointed out that the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution “is a restriction imposed upon the state, not upon individuals…. It imposes no restrictions on individuals.
“Reporters are perfectly free to jam a microphone in my face – no government authority can prevent them from doing so. And I am perfectly free to tell such reporters to get stuffed if I don’t want to talk or have them around. In so doing I do not violate the First Amendment. The First Amendment is not, IMHO [in my humble opinion], a license for journalists to demand, and get, access to coverage.
“Whether the contested access is on public property makes little difference to the First Amendment issue (though it may be important in a property rights sense). Nor does the First Amendment impose duties or obligations upon individuals to afford journalists the opportunity to cover them.
By Casey Bukro
I’m a sucker for stories about news ombudsmen, or public editors or readers representatives, even though they are branded these days. I can’t help myself. It’s a compulsion, an addiction.
Think about it: An ombudsman might walk up to the top boss and tell him he’s wrong. She might pick through the details of a complicated story, then defend a reporter for doing a thankless, difficult or even dangerous job, or discover that a reporter did not go far enough to find the truth, and then say so publicly.
It’s almost heroic.
I suppose I also admire ombudsmen because what they do is so idealistic: speaking up without fear or favor, letting the chips fall where they may.
Maybe that’s why there are only about 20 of them working at American news outlets today, according to a Politico article, “The State of the Ombudsman in 2015.” That’s about half as many as a decade ago, according to USA Today.
Still, ombudsmen in the U.S. and elsewhere trudge on.
Kathy English, public editor of the Toronto Star in Canada, recently wrote an article titled, “So what does the public editor do?” Readers had asked her to explain her job, which she’s done for eight years.
By Casey Bukro
The thing I like about news ombudsmen is they do to journalists what journalists do to everyone else.
Journalists hold everyone accountable; ombudsmen hold journalists accountable. It’s not a popular job, considering that their ranks grow thinner.
A report for New York’s Capital website points out that “the trend line is pointing down” because “the position is often the first to go when news executives are trying to trim their budgets.”
Associate editor Jeremy Barr quotes Jeffrey Dvorkin, a University of Toronto journalism professor, who estimates that about 20 news ombudsman exist today in the United States. Meanwhile, the job is growing in other countries, Dvorkin contends, because they value independent journalism “in a way that I think is being lost in the U.S.”
It’s interesting to see how a good ombudsman works, sometimes finding fault with the way a news organization works, sometimes defending it.
Toledo Blade ombudsman Jack Lessenberry is a good example. In a recent column, Lessenberry tackled questions from readers about why The Blade presents corrections without stating the original error, whether the placement of a political cartoon in the text of an opinion column gave the wrong impression and why The Blade’s ink is smudging a reader’s hands.
Lessenberry dutifully investigates each question and reports back to the reader in a mild-mannered, patient way, admitting the paper is being printed with a different ink but “it also comes off easily when you wash your hands.”
An ombudsman is a modern King Solomon, famous and feared for his divine gift of wisdom. To decide which of two women who claimed to be the mother of an infant was telling the truth, Solomon proposed cutting the infant in half, so each woman could have a share.
One woman thought that was a good idea. The other, horrified, said she wanted the infant to live, and offered to surrender the child. The king declared that the woman who wanted the infant to live was the true mother, and awarded her the baby. The story is more complicated, but that’s the gist.
No ombudsman that I know has ever been confronted with such a challenge. Instead of cutting a problem neatly in half, they are more likely to slice and dice it, as does Lessenberry.
An ombudsman must look at a problem from many angles and perspectives, then come to a decision that might criticize his own organization. By comparison, King Solomon’s job might have been less stressful.
There is an existential quality in the way the job seems to be fading.
The exit of Patrick Pexton as the Washington Post’s last ombudsman in March 2013 brought some attention to the role of ombudsman. Pexton was replaced by a reader representative, a role considered less probing and critical.
Pexton offered insight to the job as he was leaving, pointing out that the No. 1 topic of complaint to the ombudsman during his term was the Post’s online comment system.
“About 10 percent of those complaints were about its functionality, which the Post has improved,” wrote Pexton. “Another 10 percent were from people who feel they were unfairly censored. But the rest were from readers who like the idea of online comments but abhor the hatefulness, name-calling, racism and ideological warfare that are constant features of the Post’s Commenting stream.”
Veiled by anonymity, the posters were just mean and vicious in a way they would not attempt if identified.
Pexton said he originally favored the anonymous nature of those online complaints, but changed his mind. He favored moving away from anonymous responses to a system that requires commenters to use their real names and to sign in via Facebook.
“What turned me,” wrote Pexton, were remarks by a high school football coach “who criticized first lady Michelle Obama’s derriere.”
More laudable, said Pexton, was the second most common type of complaint, from readers he described as “grammar police.” These are “the line-by-line readers who see every grammatical, spelling, punctuation and factual mistake in The Post.” Such criticism can be annoying, “but the grammar police help keep standards high.”
In a sense, these volunteer editors are unofficial ombudsman. They don’t really take the place of someone officially charged with investigating missteps. Yet, that may be where publishing is headed.
A USA Today report quoted Dworkin saying that there are about half as many media ombudsmen working in the U.S. today than a decade ago.
“The public is really hungry for them,” he said. And it does seem odd that while news organizations cut ombudsmen from their staffs, they also try to engage readers and viewers via Facebook, Twitter and other social media.
It appears they think social media can take the place of ombudsmen. Wonder what wise old King Solomon would say about that?