Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

The rewrite of the SPJ Code of Ethics is moving in the right direction, just not far enough.

In three monstrously long posts in 2010 and earlier this year, I called for an update of the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics and criticized the first draft of an update by the Ethics Committee.

In a Saturday meeting in Columbus, Ohio, the Ethics Committee finished its latest draft.

Mónica Guzmán, an Ethics Committee member who led a digital subcommittee that I served on (she was the only committee member on the subcommittee), praised the progress made since the first draft (I missed a second draft published July 3):

I agree that the committee has made progress, but I’m still disappointed in this attempt to update what used to be journalism’s most important ethical guide.

In March, I wrote:

I think I’d prefer no update to these tweaks. If the code remains obviously outdated, the need to update it will remain strong. And maybe they’ll take another try in a few years and get it right or closer to right. I’d rather do that than tweak it now and have the anti-change forces spend the next 18 years claiming they had already updated it.

I’m not sure I’d go that far now. If SPJ wants to return to the days when it was a leading voice in journalism ethics, it certainly needs to go further than the current draft. For that reason, I might vote against this draft if I were an SPJ member (I let my membership lapse because of the lack of progress on updating the Code of Ethics). But I would not say this update is better than none at all. I’ll just be disappointed if SPJ doesn’t go further.

I will not go through the code point by point as I did in the previous posts (which, reading them now, I can see made for some long and perhaps confusing reading). I’ll just summarize the primary things that disappoint and please me.

Here’s what the Ethics Code still needs to do:

Address linking 

I am absolutely flummoxed by the refusal of either SPJ’s Ethics Committee or Poynter’s Guiding Principles for the Journalist to address journalists’ reticence to link to digital sources of information that they use. Refusal to link may be the most widespread ethical failure in journalism today, and what good is an ethics code that doesn’t address our failures?

In a response to my March post, Ethics Committee Vice Chair Fred Brown said, “We stuck with basic, abiding principles and tried to avoid any mention of specific technologies.” But that’s not true. The first and latest drafts both refer to “social media” and “online publication.” If specific technologies merited mention in those places (the social media one was unnecessary), then digital linking merits specific mention.

The current draft says “always attribute,” and to many journalists, that just means to add “so-and-so said” after material, not to link to sources. The latest draft also says, “Provide access to source material when relevant and appropriate.” I’m not even sure what “when relevant and appropriate” means. I guess “provide access” covers embeds as well as links. But it’s ridiculous to write around linking. Many, if not most, journalists and news organizations don’t link to sources. They should and SPJ should tell them specifically that they should.

I sent a draft of this post to Mónica and some others who have been involved in this process, inviting response. She said the committee is planning to hyperlink passages of the code to deeper discussions of applying the principles in the code. I look forward to hearing more about those plans, which follow a suggestion I made last year. This doesn’t change anything I said above about the need to address linking in the principles, but it’s an improvement and I welcome it.

Endorse accuracy checklists

Checklists save lives when doctors and pilots use them. They save errors when journalists use them. The current draft makes some strong statements about accuracy but SPJ should go further and endorse a practice that can improve accuracy. Statements of broad principles are fine, but I think it’s an important principle to endorse best practices that are not widely practiced. Principles don’t lead to better journalism. Practices do.

Editing suggestions

The committee should restore the explicit statement that journalists, not sources, are responsible for accuracy. I was pleased to see that phrasing (which I suggested in 2010) make it into the first draft. Now the reference to sources has been removed. That section says journalists should “take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before its release.” Normally I think a positive statement about what you should do should suffice. But not here.

As I noted in a recent post on corrections, too many journalists blame sources for their errors. The Code of Ethics should be explicit in saying that’s no excuse.

The committee also should restore this passage: “Be sensitive when seeking or using information, interviews and images of people affected by tragedy or grief.” I can’t figure why that was cut from the “Minimize Harm” section of the first draft.

Improvements in this draft

The biggest improvement is the pairing of transparency with accountability in the fourth basic principle in this latest draft, and a little strengthening of the transparency principles in the section. This would be a good place to address linking.

Other improvements included restoring the current code’s call to “give voice to the voiceless” and adding, “Seek sources whose voices are seldom heard.”

Nashville conference

I have no idea whether the latest draft will be adopted when SPJ meets at the Excellence in Journalism conference in Nashville Sept. 4-6. I suppose it could be revised further in debate, though I’m not familiar with the approval process. And certainly it could be rejected, either for going too far or not far enough, or perhaps for reasons not yet apparent to me. Michael Koretzky, an SPJ board member, has been critical of how SPJ’s senior leaders have handled revision of the code. I won’t pretend that I’ve studied his accusations enough to comment on their merit, but clearly the code revision could face some dissent in Nashville.

I commend Mónica for advocating persistently and effectively for a stronger update. And I appreciate the time and thought that the Ethics Committee chairs and members have given to this important job.

I don’t think the SPJ Code of Ethics will regain its place as journalism’s most important guidance on ethics. Poynter’s Guiding Principles are stronger and more relevant. Telling the Truth and Nothing But, Rules of the Road and the Verification Handbook are much stronger, more detailed and more helpful, even though each addresses a narrow range of ethical issues. The Online News Association’s Build Your Own Ethics Code project also is more helpful, providing detailed guidance in multiple directions in the areas where journalists don’t agree. One of the two sessions I’m leading at the EIJ conference will place the SPJ revision on the context of this broader discussion. (The other will focus on a digital approach to enterprise stories.)

The latest draft at least brings SPJ some relevance in the discussion of journalism ethics today, and that’s an improvement. I hope members push for more when it comes up for approval in September.

Read Full Post »

I’m going to repeat myself here, but journalists, not sources, are responsible for the accuracy of our stories.

Jack Shafer has a great post on “anonymous sources,”* prompted by the New York Times walking back from two stories it had based on unnamed sources (stories you probably read or heard about that apparently falsely disparaged golfer Phil Mickelson and former prisoner of war Bowe Bergdahl). I encourage reading Shafer’s piece and won’t go into detail on it here.

But remember this is the newspaper that reported false information about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, then published reporter Judith Miller’s explanation, “If your sources are wrong, you are wrong.”

That was the weakest explanation of journalistic malpractice of anything I’ve heard, and that includes reporters who blame plagiarism or malpractice on being busy or rushed or on careless note-taking.

The Times apparently didn’t learn or has forgotten the important and difficult lessons it learned in the Miller case.

It’s kind of incredible to me that any journalists don’t understand this, but your sources are nearly always wrong. Not about everything, but usually about something. Verification is your job, not the source’s.

Sources can be wrong for a variety of reasons, innocent as well as malicious (some of these reasons apply to on-the-record sources, but I’m focusing on unnamed sources here): (more…)

Read Full Post »

Al Tompkins and Roy Peter Clark of Poynter argue in separate pieces that news organizations should identify mass killers, rather than withholding their names and photos from publication.

I admire both men greatly and have featured Roy’s writing insights in this blog. But neither of them is at all convincing here.

Most journalists and news organizations have not embraced my call to stop giving attention to attention-seeking mass killers. However the Sun News Network has decided not to publish the name of the suspect in the recent New Brunswick slayings of three police officers.

The Sun News decision prompted Al to address the issue and Roy was agreeing with Al’s post. Please read Al’s and Roy’s responses to this post, at the end of my original post.

Roy is one of my favorite writers in the business, but this piece was not as strong as he usually writes. The headline tells you what the piece is about: “What Harry Potter teaches about naming killers.” And here’s what Harry Potter teaches about naming killers: Nothing. Harry Potter is fiction. He teaches us nothing more about naming killers than Murphy Brown taught us about American families or morals back when Dan Quayle found her “lifestyle choice” disturbing. (more…)

Read Full Post »

When news organizations correct errors, we should not mislead readers.

That sounds like an obvious statement, but it’s actually the topic of a debate on Twitter that I’ve joined today. I should preface this by noting that the people I’m arguing this topic with are friends and outstanding journalists whom I respect. But they are wrong about this.

Here’s the situation: When newspapers (and perhaps other news organizations) correct errors, we tend not to place blame. But when an editor adds an error to a reporter’s story, the correction misleads, implying to any readers who read bylines that the reporter erred. The correction is also misleading to sources, who usually know who the writer was and regularly make decisions about whether and how much to trust reporters.

On its surface, this feels like a journalists’ argument about how many angels (or perhaps devils, in this case) can dance on the head of a pin. Good friends have dismissed my suggestion on Twitter today as “finger-pointing.”

But when you take a phone call from an angry son whose living father was identified by an editor’s insertion into your story as “the late,” you see that this is not a trivial matter and it’s not about finger-pointing. It’s about accuracy. And responsibility. And accountability. (more…)

Read Full Post »

Margaret Sullivan, photo linked from Twitter avatar

The mass killings in California last week underscore a point I made in 2012: News media should reconsider giving mass murderers the attention they clearly crave.

I didn’t blog about this immediately after the May 23 killings because I was focused on other matters and I haven’t repeated this point every time a murderer goes on a rampage. But I was immediately struck with how clearly this case was a successful attempt by the killer to go out in a blaze of infamy. His hateful videos and his 141-page diatribe (I think calling it a “manifesto” perhaps overdignifies it) make it clear that attention was as much a motive of this hate crime as was misogyny.

I’m discussing this case a week late because Margaret Sullivan, Public Editor of the New York Times, addressed the issue of whether the Times should have published the diatribe and video.

Sullivan’s a friend and the best public editor the Times has had. I’m glad she raised the issue of whether the Times should have published these items and the name of the killer. But I disagree with her conclusion that the Times’ decisions were the right ones.

“In general, I don’t believe in holding back germane information from the public,” she wrote. (more…)

Read Full Post »

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…)

Read Full Post »

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…)

Read Full Post »

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…)

Read Full Post »

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:

Read Full Post »

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.

Read Full Post »

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…)

Read Full Post »

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…)

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »

Follow

Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.

Join 9,168 other followers