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Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

This continues my analysis of a draft of a revision to Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. I commented Friday on the changes to the “Seek Truth” section of the code. Here I’ll address the next three sections: Minimize Harm, Act Independently and Be Accountable.

I remain disappointed in the revisions and hopeful that SPJ members will insist on a more thorough update. My primary criticisms from Friday’s post still stand: The Ethics Committee went into this process with most members having already decided that the current Code of Ethics, adopted in 1996, just needed a little tweaking. I argued in 2010 and on various occasions since that the code needs an overhaul. I don’t know if we’re in a majority of journalists, but lots of people have told me privately that they agree (a poll on that 2010 post showed a vote of 138-22 in favor of updating, but I’m under no illusion that my blog readers are a cross-section of journalists.

The committee’s draft just tweaked and didn’t sufficiently address the needs of journalists today or the recommendations of a digital “subcommittee” on which I served (only one member of the subcommittee was an actual member of the Ethics Committee). (more…)

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Ethics codes should guide journalists in the world where we live and work, not the world where we wish we worked.

At a discussion at the Excellence in Journalism conference last August, several members of the Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Committee indicated they thought the SPJ Code of Ethics just needed “tweaking,” if it needed anything.

Here’s a surprise: They decided just to tweak it.

The code needs an overhaul and it got a touch-up.

Journalism is changing and journalists make ethical decisions in unfamiliar situations. Journalism ethics codes need to provide helpful guidance for journalists. The SPJ Code of Ethics, last revised in 1996, is perhaps the most-cited code and for many years was the most helpful. Now it’s terribly outdated and needs to reflect the world where journalists work.

The first draft at an update feels more like an effort to resist change than an effort to guide journalists in a time of change. (more…)

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This is my keynote address for the Digital Journalism Ethics Symposium Friday at the University of Colorado. Slides are at the end, though I’ve inserted some of the images in the text below. I ad-libbed occasionally, so this was not my exact address, but the prepared text. This is most of what I said. April Nowicki covered my speech and Aimee Heckel Storified some of the tweets from my talk.

Journalists who wish life were simple like to say that ethical standards should not change over time. They seem to want ethics to be a rock we can cling to in difficult times. Our business is changing and the job market is changing and expectations of journalists and the public are changing. Can’t we at least anchor ourselves to these timeless ethical principles? Well, yes, but no.

My view is that we uphold these timeless values of journalism ethics only by updating and upgrading them. Technology and changing markets present new situations where journalists face ethical choices, and we need to update our advice to apply to those tools and circumstances. At the same time, some unethical practices have undermined our cherished principles and we need to strengthen our guidance for journalists if we want to uphold our values. And we cannot let loyalty to long-held principles keep us from following the wise voices calling on us to do better.

Our sense of what is right and wrong changes in other aspects of life. Why would we expect journalism to be insulated from how life changes? (more…)

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I am leading some workshops for the Southern Regional Press Institute at Savannah State University today. 

I participated in a panel discussion on “Ethics, Urgency and Accuracy” this morning.

Here are some links relating to ethics, urgency and accuracy (I made some of the points you’ll see in these links).

How to verify information from tweets: Check it out

Suggestions for new guiding principles for the journalist

My version of Craig Silverman’s accuracy checklist

The Verification Handbook is now available

I led a morning workshop on using Twitter to cover breaking news. In addition to the links above, this workshop covered information from these workshops:

Denver Post staffers’ #theatershooting coverage demonstrates Twitter breaking news techniques

You don’t tip competitors on Twitter; you beat them

Twitter is an essential reporting tool

Here are my slides for that workshop (I developed them knowing we weren’t likely to cover all the topics. We covered the first three and skipped to verification):

I developed these slides to use in either the panel discussion or the breaking-news workshop. I ended up using them to wrap up the breaking-news workshop:

I also will lead an afternoon workshop on showcasing your work and your skills in a digital portfolio. This workshop is based primarily on this blog post:

Use digital tools to showcase your career and your work

The workshop also will cover points made in some of these posts:

Your digital profile tells people a lot

Randi Shaffer shows a reason to use Twitter: It can help land your first job

Elevate your journalism career

Tips on landing your next job in digital journalism

Job-hunting advice for journalists selling skills in the digital market

Here are my slides for that workshop:

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Verification HandbookI was honored to have been involved in the writing of The Verification Handbook, which is available now as an ebook.

I’ll blog more about it later after I read the other chapters (I wrote one chapter). For right now, I’ll say:

  • Congratulations to Project Manager Rina Tsubaki and Editor Craig Silverman. It was a pleasure to work with you.
  • Thanks for involving me.
  • I’m delighted that this book is geared not just at journalists, but emergency workers, humanitarian organizations and others who gather and distribute information, especially in crises.
  • For more on the vide0-documentation story I told in my chapter, check out my recent blog post on that story.

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Granting confidentiality to sources is one of the grayest areas of journalism ethics and one of the areas where we need extensive discussions of standards.

Nearly every journalist agrees that it’s better to name our sources than to withhold their identities. And nearly every journalist agrees that we sometimes have to agree not to name sources in order to tell some important stories. But we don’t all agree on when to grant confidentiality. And we’re not always consistent in deciding when to grant confidentiality and whether to publish information based on unnamed sources.

Since I blogged that we need more detailed advice on ethical issues, I’ve been planning to update the ethics handouts I developed for the two series of ethics seminars I presented for the American Press Institute from 2005 to 2009, under a pair of grants from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation. I’ve gathered my detailed discussions of ethical issues into a category on the blog and will make them a series that will continue for a while.

I’m also posting my handout from those workshops on dealing with confidential sources, but here I’ll outline and discuss factors journalists should consider in whether to grant confidentiality to a source and whether to publish or broadcast stories based on confidential sources: (more…)

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Lawrence Phillips photo linked from Bleacher Report

Some sources won’t talk to you unless you grant them confidentiality because they fear for their safety. Journalists should grant those sources confidentiality. Sometimes you can use what they tell you to persuade other sources to go on the record.

This post is part of two series on my blog: updated lessons from old stories and detailed ethics discussions. I discuss the issue of confidential sources more broadly in an accompanying post.

This post is more of a case study, a story that shows good reasons to grant confidentiality to sources and a technique for using information from confidential sources to push reluctant sources into going on the record.

The story will be familiar to football fans. It’s the story of Lawrence Phillips‘ relationship with a woman he had been charged with assaulting. We named the victim in the 1995 story in the Omaha World-Herald. I will just use her initials now. Following the ethical principle of minimizing harm, I don’t see a need to pop a new story (that offers no new information) into Google searches for her name more than 18 years later. I didn’t feel entirely comfortable with naming her at the time, but that’s another discussion and another tough ethical issue (I’ll discuss it at the end of this post). My story and other media coverage of that assault certainly deepened her trauma of being assaulted. You can find her name pretty quickly if you search for links about Phillips.

This was Phillips’ first criminal case after bursting onto the national scene as a star running back at the University of Nebraska. (He’s now serving a 31-year prison term for other crimes, including an attack on another girlfriend.) After a dominant sophomore season, he was a strong early contender for the Heisman Trophy after running for 206 yards and four touchdowns against Michigan State in the Cornhuskers’ second game of the season.

Tom Osborne photo linked from Husker Spot

But Phillips was arrested that Sunday for assaulting his ex-girlfriend. I covered the police and courts end of the story for the Omaha World-Herald, while colleagues in sports covered the coaches’ statements. Huskers football coach Tom Osborne said he had thrown Phillips off the team (he later reinstated Phillips). The team discipline was separate from the criminal case went, where Phillips was innocent until proven guilty, Osborne said. The coach said he had told Phillips to stay away from the ex-girlfriend, a Husker basketball player, and he was dismissed for disobeying the coach. (more…)

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Some people will talk for the record about private matters if you get a chance to earn their trust.

That was the big lesson for me from one of the most memorable stories of my career

If I were doing this story today, I would certainly add crowdsourcing to the techniques I used to find women who would be sources for this story. Finding sources was the biggest challenge in doing the story and was, of course, the key to the story.

It would have been difficult, if not impossible, to do this story by itself. I had developed good relationships with people on both sides of the issue and they played intermediary by hooking me up with potential sources (and by vouching for me to those sources).

Of course, physicians and counselors who connected me with sources wouldn’t and shouldn’t (even before tougher federal health-privacy laws) give me names and phone numbers of patients or clients. They gave my name and phone number to women they thought might talk to me (or perhaps to women whose stories they thought would portray their own views sympathetically). I have no idea how many women got my name and phone number but never called, but eventually, I connected with enough women. (more…)

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Tom Kent, linked from his Twitter avatar

called yesterday for detailed practical advice on making ethical decisions in today’s journalism. After I posted, I emailed the people I mentioned in the post, inviting them to respond. This is the response from Associated Press Standards Editor Tom Kent, who is leading an ethics initiative of the Online News Association:

Steve, you raise some excellent points about where we stand in the ethics conversation. Sometimes, as you suggest, we’re a little too philosophique, thinking big thoughts without the concrete examples that would make them immediately useful. Meanwhile, we’re trying to write ethical codes for a profession that’s in the process of splitting into some distinctly different philosophies.

However much we agree on certain unifying concepts (tell the truth, don’t plagiarize, don’t take money to skew your stories), after that we start to differ widely. You referred to the contrast between those who think it’s fine to write from a certain political point of view (as long as you’re transparent about it) and those who favor an updated version of objectivity and neutrality (find my defense of that here). There are disparate points on view on many other questions. (more…)

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Someone should compile detailed ethical guidance for journalists in the difficult decisions we face in doing our jobs today.

The journalism conversation about ethics has been more robust this year than at any time I remember in my career, and I’ve been fortunate to be involved in much of it. But I think we need still more.

Two notable collaborations have re-examined the most important statements of journalism ethics:

(more…)

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Ellyn Angelotti photo linked from Twitter

Update: I’ve added a 2011 Dan Gillmor piece on linking at the end of this post. 

Journalists interested in attribution, plagiarism and journalism ethics should read Ellyn Angelotti‘s two-part series about attribution.

Part 1 discusses plagiarism, particularly why journalists should attribute when they use content from press releases:

When deciding whether to publish information that comes via an organization’s official release, it’s important to consider the context of the source. The release could reflect a skewed perspective — or, worse, the information may not be accurate. So by publishing information in a release verbatim, you potentially run afoul of the important ethical value of acting independently and holding those who are powerful accountable.

Additionally, disseminating information published in official releases without additional reporting may not allow for diversity of voices in the conversation, especially on social media. When people recirculate the same information, they contribute to the echo chamber of the existing conversation online, instead of adding new knowledge.

(more…)

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John Kroll, photo linked from johnkrolldigital.com

John Kroll advises journalists to fact-check by asking the 5 W’s when we’re reporting on statistics that sources cite.

The truth is that many statistics cited in news stories are not fully vetted by journalists. Someone we regard as knowledgeable cites a figure and we parrot it.

But we should always ask the most important verification question: How do you know that? And too often, as John points out in asking the 5 W’s about a bogus but oft-cited stat about 100,000 Christians being killed for their faith every year, the answer is that the source doesn’t really know.

Truthfulness and verification are the core of good journalism. John gives some excellent advice for verifying numbers and getting closer to the truth.

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