— Phil Tenser (@pstenser) March 14, 2014
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?
Rocker and provocateur Ted Nugent recently sort-of apologized for calling President Obama a “subhuman mongrel.” Even to politicians who had overlooked Nugent’s previous outrageous statements, that one went too far. But Nugent’s vile characterization of our bi-racial president used to be not only a mainstream viewpoint in white America, it was the constitutional view. The U.S. Constitution actually quantified people with President Obama’s heritage as subhuman, exactly three-fifths of a human. Many people here, including me, honor the authors of that document as our Founding Fathers and revere the Constitution itself as perhaps the greatest document in the history of human governance. But our sense of ethics – our sense of right and wrong – today is outraged that someone would refer to a person of a different race as subhuman.
If the sacred U.S. Constitution needed to be updated to reflect changes in how people think and believe and live, then I don’t think it’s too outrageous to expect and demand that we update the principles that guide journalism.
A document even older than the U.S. Constitution is the Hippocratic Oath, the first ethics code for the ancient medical profession. Doctors taking that oath swore not to cause abortions. But some doctors today specialize in performing abortions. Many people today think that prohibition for doctors was right and should be continued today. But you know what else ancient doctors swore in the Hippocratic Oath? They swore not to practice surgery. They swore to teach medicine “without fee or covenant.” I’m betting most of the faculty members at the medical schools of the universities represented here today get a better salary than most, if not all, of us gathered here today. Just like our Constitution needed to evolve, the ethics of the medical profession have updated to reflect our changing world. Journalism ethics need to update, too.
For better or for worse, we’ve changed laws and codes and practices and public attitudes in many areas as society has changed: About who can marry, about whether we can help the terminally ill hasten their deaths, about what’s acceptable to show on television or movies. This tweet about our symposium seems to refer to the fact that we’re meeting in a state that reflects how the nation’s thinking about recreational use of marijuana has changed.
— bob stepno (@bobstep) March 7, 2014
While I think we’ve achieved consensus on some of the issues I’ve mentioned, such as slavery or paying med-school professors, others such as abortion and marijuana remain hotly contested, both in efforts to change the laws and in efforts to change our thinking, because law and ethics and morality are not the same things, though all are efforts to guide our behavior and to shape our views of what is right and wrong.
With that context, let’s shift our focus to journalism. I want to discuss briefly some of the areas where our values remain rock-solid today, like the Constitution’s First Amendment or the doctors’ credo to “first, do no harm” (which, by the way, isn’t in the Hippocratic Oath). And I want to discuss at greater length some of the areas where we need to reconsider our ethical standards and guidance because of changes in technology, changes in the marketplace or because of challenges from wise voices such as Jay Rosen, who are calling on us to rethink and update our ethical standards.
Before I talk about our ethics codes, I want to note that efforts in this nation to outlaw abortion or marijuana or alcohol or marriages by gay and lesbian couples didn’t come close to stopping people from ending pregnancies, altering their moods or expressing commitment to their lovers. That’s something to keep in mind if you’re drafting an ethics code for your news organization. Just like a law can give you a way to prosecute people who perform abortions or sell marijuana, an ethics code can give you grounds to fire someone who is caught violating your ethical principles. But it doesn’t ensure ethical practice of journalism. And let’s be honest: Many newsrooms’ actual practice of using unnamed sources doesn’t quite match their ethics policies. And no one gets fired.
Conversations about ethics
Good journalism ethics don’t grow from strong rules. Good journalism ethics grow from strong conversations about our values and about making good decisions based in those values. And I’m delighted that this symposium continues a lot of excellent discussion we’re having recently about journalism ethics.
The most-cited ethics guidance for journalists is probably the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics. I called for an update to the SPJ code in 2010 and I am pleased that SPJ is finally considering an update. I was part of a digital subcommittee headed by Mónica Guzmán that made recommendations to the SPJ Ethics Committee.
Even where some core principles remain valid, I think we need to update some of the advice we give journalists about practicing those principles. In some cases we need to update to reflect changes in journalism and the world where we practice it. Or we need to strengthen the code to condemn shoddy journalism practices that the old code failed to address. In some cases we need to update to improve our ethics as leaders in our profession have challenged us to do better and shown us how.
I presume you’re familiar with the four core principles of the SPJ Code of Ethics: Seek truth and report it; minimize harm; act independently; be accountable. For about 20 years, Poynter’s Guiding Principles for the Journalist virtually echoed the SPJ Code, also organizing its ethics advice around the principles of truthfulness, independence and minimizing harm. Accountability wasn’t a core principle in the Poynter document, but was stressed in its elaboration on the other principles.
“Seek truth and report it” remains to me the core of ethical journalism, and truthfulness was the first point of the new Poynter Guiding Principles that were published last year in Kelly McBride and Tom Rosenstiel’s book, The New Ethics of Journalism. I’ll address truthfulness at more length shortly. But it’s worth noting that the new Poynter principles shifted the emphasis in the core principles. They haven’t abandoned independence and minimizing harm, but they are no longer core principles. Transparency and community are new core principles.
I was glad to see Tim McGuire make a good case for the continued importance of independence, and I encourage journalists to maintain independence from the things we cover in most cases. But the truth is most of my blogging is about topics to which I am closely tied. I blog about my company’s effort to transform into a truly Digital First news organization. Sometimes I blog about my family. Long before McBride and Rosenstiel embraced transparency as a new core principle of journalism, I had decided transparency was more important than independence in my own journalism. I blog frequently about matters in which I’m intimately involved, but I disclose those involvements and my readers can decide whether that involvement influences my judgment or heightens my insight or both. Or neither. But if you read my blog, you know my experiences and connections.
The revisions of the SPJ Code and the Poynter Guiding Principles are two important parts of a robust discussion of journalism ethics afoot in our profession, and I am delighted to see it. I’ve also been involved in three other notable efforts to provide more and better guidance for journalists:
- J-Lab’s “Rules of the Road,” developed by Scott Rosenberg, provides thoughtful guidance in the growing field of hyperlocal journalism.
- Several journalism organizations last year collaborated on a Summit to Fight Plagiarism and Fabrication and the publication of the ebook “Telling the Truth and Nothing But.”
- The European Journalism Centre recruited several journalists to collaborate on the Verification Handbook, which is designed not just for journalists, but for activists, emergency workers and others who gather and spread information in times of crisis.
We’re going to cover a lot of issues in this symposium and I won’t presume to cover them all here. But I want to address four matters where we have time-tested values to guide us, but where technology or shoddy practice by some journalists or wisdom offered by other journalists offer us ways to not only maintain our high standards, but update and upgrade them. I’ll share some of my thoughts about the guidance we need to offer journalists today about accuracy, attribution, confidential sources and social media.
Checklists improve accuracy
I think journalism’s highest calling remains what it has been for all of my career and beyond and what the SPJ code states eloquently and simply: “Seek truth and report it.” Journalists must always report facts accurately and place them in truthful context to help people gain truthful understanding about events and issues in our communities, our nation, our world. That hasn’t changed.
Fairness is not one of the four core principles of the SPJ Code, but a secondary principle mentioned in elaboration of the principle of seeking the truth. And nowhere does the code mention objectivity. But somewhere through the years, our commitment to fairness and a misguided sense of objectivity have often overridden our commitment to the truth. Sometimes the truth isn’t fair and it isn’t balanced. We thought fairness and objectivity meant telling “both” sides of a story and that has led to simplifying stories that had far more than just two sides and it has led to the he-said-she-said stories that Jay has rightly identified as an embarrassment to journalism. The journalists who produce he-said-she-said stories neither seek the truth nor report it, and I cannot understand or support an ethic that elevates balance and a simple-minded view of fairness above truthfulness.
Another way that journalism ethics need to evolve is to listen to the wise voices urging higher standards. Craig Silverman, author of the book and blog Regret the Error, makes a compelling case for routine use of accuracy checklists in our quest to seek and report the truth. Returning to the analogy to medical practice, surgeons and their medical teams routinely use checklists to avoid errors. My wife, Mimi Johnson, recently had surgery on a toe and as I sat with her in the prep area prior to surgery, two nurses, the surgeon and the anesthesiologist checked the mark the first nurse had made on her left foot and verbally confirmed with her that the surgery would be on the big toe of her left foot. They were following their checklist and, without fail, they operated on the correct toe on the correct foot.
Medicine is damned important, but it’s not protected in the Constitution. If our profession is so precious that it’s protected in the Bill of Rights, why don’t we follow the practice of the medical profession and use checklists, which are a proven way of preventing errors? I can see why we didn’t do that 20 years ago, when ethics codes were last being revised, because no one was advocating their use. But with a leading voice on accuracy making a compelling case for checklists, we need more organizations, editors and ethics scholars acknowledging their importance and insisting on their use.
Digital attribution should include links
I’ll return to accuracy when I discuss social media, but I think it’s important to note that my discussion of accuracy so far has nothing to do with technology. But we have to discuss digital tools in addressing the issue of attribution. The SPJ Code addresses attribution only in the context of whether or not to identify sources. Well, digital tools have given us new and better ways to attribute.
In a profession where digital research is an important part of most reporters’ work and where many news organizations routinely refuse to link to digital sources, anyone striving for relevance in ethical leadership needs to address the issue of linking in digital content. My biggest disappointment in Poynter’s new Guiding Principles for the Journalist was the vagueness of the call for journalists to “show how the reporting was done” and “explain your sources.” The principles should have approached linking as an imperative in digital attribution. Links and embeds are the best ways to show and explaining our digital sources. McBride and Rosenstiel, who are leading voices in journalism ethics, performed a great service in updating the Guiding Principles and addressing many important issues. But their failure to address linking was a glaring omission and one they should correct and SPJ should not repeat.
Links are good journalism on multiple levels: They not only provide clear attribution, they provide depth and context. And routine use of links will ensure more ethical practice of journalism on multiple levels. If editors expect journalists to provide links routinely, it will get more and more difficult for fraudulent journalists to get away with plagiarism or fabrication. A plagiarist isn’t going to link to the source he or she rips off and a fabricator has nothing to link to. The lack of links will raise a red flag and the editor will start asking questions and have a better shot at exposing the unethical journalist before publishing a story that was made up or stolen.
I’ll add that this is an area that shows how practice and conversations about ethics and effective teaching are more important than rules. The SPJ Code of Ethics offers two simple and unequivocal words on the topic of plagiarism: “Don’t plagiarize.” That was the ethics code for journalists in 2003 when Jayson Blair plagiarized and in 2004 when Jack Kelley plagiarized and it was the code in 2012 when so many journalists plagiarized that Craig Silverman called it journalism’s “Summer of Sin.” But that rule about plagiarism, and similar rules in the ethics codes of virtually every newsroom where these cheaters practiced journalism, didn’t prevent these blows to our credibility.
If we want to prevent plagiarism, we do that by teaching and practice. We need sound practices like linking to make it harder to get away with plagiarism. We need editors who randomly Google unique-sounding phrases from the stories they edit, to see whether they have appeared somewhere else. And reporters need to know that their editors make those spot checks. I am always skeptical when journalists blame sloppiness for plagiarism, but we need to teach the importance of being careful in our research and writing.
The ease of cutting-and-pasting from the Internet often gets blamed for plagiarism. But cutting and pasting isn’t inherently bad journalism. If you cut and paste a quote from the web (or from your notes), you’re not going to introduce an error in your typing (and whose typing is perfect?). You’re not going to drop a word or type now when you mean not. You’re not going to turn a murder trial into a murder trail. So I could argue that cutting and pasting is actually a good journalism practice that ensures accuracy.
But journalism professors and editors need to teach journalists how to cut and paste correctly. Teach that you type the attribution and insert the link and the quotation marks before you cut and paste. So you’re pasting directly into quotation marks with attribution and a link attached. Then you can’t get confused or forget whose words those were. Any subsequent cutting and pasting as you move paragraphs around or move material from your notes to a story will carry the attribution with the words and you won’t be guilty of a sloppy act of plagiarism.
One more point about linking: The practice and expectation of placing relevant links in stories also helps us improve our accuracy. Imagine if even one of the journalists who initially fell for the hoax about the supposed death of Manti Te’o’s fictitious girlfriend routinely linked to related sources. The expectation of linking would have forced those journalists to do a little more research and a little more verification. If they had started searching for an obituary to link to, or an accident report, or any evidence that she was truly a Stanford student, the lack of links would have raised red flags and the journalists would have exposed the hoax instead of perpetuating it.
We also need to stress that attribution is no substitute for accuracy. In explaining one of journalism’s most egregious failures during my career, Judith Miller, then of the New York Times, said, “If your sources are wrong, you are wrong.” Everyone teaching or writing about ethics in journalism needs to be absolutely clear where the responsibility for accuracy belongs: with the journalist and with the news organization.
Our best, most honest sources have faulty memories and only part of the story. Many of our sources are honestly mistaken and others are simply lying and trying to manipulate us to give credibility to their lies. The journalist’s job is not simply to parrot our sources and hide behind their attribution. Our job is to ask, again and again, “How do you know that?” and “How else do you know that?” and “Do you have documentation for that?” and then to ask tough questions about the documents, too. Our job is to debunk the lies and errors of our sources and assemble the full truth from the partial truths of our sources. It’s hard work, but it’s the work that makes journalism valuable and worthy of our First Amendment protection.
We need tougher standards for confidential sources
Confidential sources are another area where our need to update ethical standards is a mix of our need to address standard practices that aren’t ethical enough and to address the issues that technology raises. Let’s deal with the practices first: Too many journalists and too many news organizations have harmed their credibility and the credibility of our profession by being too promiscuous in their use of unnamed sources.
We were too seduced by the story of Deep Throat a couple generations ago. We started caving in to every source who wanted to avoid accountability by hiding behind our bylines. It’s time that we elevate our standards and afford our protection only to genuine whistle blowers. Another of journalism’s profound shames of recent years was that multiple journalists granted confidentiality to Scooter Libby and Richard Armitage in their effort to harm the credibility of Joseph Wilson, a Bush administration critic, by noting his wife’s job with the CIA. Think about that a minute: Professional journalists were so eager to get some partisan insider gossip that they missed the bigger story: a top aide to the vice president committing a felony.
Every journalist and every news organization should have five sound practices about using confidential sources:
- We will never, ever use opinions from unnamed sources. Without a name, an opinion is worthless.
- We will never, ever use information from eager, powerful people, disclosed in an effort to hurt someone less powerful or a political opponent. A powerful person who approaches you with dirt on someone else better be accountable for what he says or he’s not going to be a source of mine.
- Confidentiality is something we grant to persuade a reluctant source to talk, not something we grant to sources who approach us. If you’re trying to persuade a victim of sexual abuse or domestic violence to do an interview or if you’re approaching someone vulnerable who you think might have damaging information to share about a powerful business or government leader or institution, then confidentiality is a valid tool to get in the door and hear her story. But if a source approaches you seeking confidentiality, you should either turn him away or make clear that you probably won’t use the information he gives you unless you can confirm it independently from on-the-record sources.
- We don’t attend background briefings where we can’t attribute information to the source by name. Sources play this game because we play this game, and we should stop it. Really, how good is the story you miss out on if it doesn’t answer the first of the 5 W’s?
- Confidentiality is something we use primarily in the reporting stage, rather than in writing. We’ll grant confidentiality to a source who can point us to documentation or on-the-record sources who will help us tell a credible story with strong attribution. Or we’ll grant confidentiality to hear a source’s story and then negotiate with the source about what we can get on the record. And if we can’t get the story on the record or confirm it independently, many times we should refrain from telling this story.
Now, I haven’t said a thing about technology and confidential sources yet, but technology is a huge factor in this issue. Look at what’s happened with the Associated Press and James Rosen and what we’ve learned about NSA surveillance. If you’re going to grant confidentiality to a source in a story that challenges people in power, you should presume that that person’s employer will have access to all that person’s computer and telephone records relating to their work. And if it’s a case challenging federal or local powers, you should presume that those in power can obtain those records, either because of their access to government computers or through electronic surveillance granted through a warrant or exercised in an abuse of power. So don’t grant confidentiality in any case that threatens anyone in power unless you’re able to protect that promise of confidentiality.
Will your newsroom pay for a burner cellphone, so your calls can’t be traced to you? Can you encrypt your emails? Can you be sure that you communicate with your source only in person or through secure communication from personal accounts? If not, you might be making a promise you can’t keep. A journalist’s willingness to go to jail to protect a source becomes irrelevant if we give authorities an electronic trail directly to the source.
One final point on confidential sources: Have you noticed what term I haven’t used yet in this discussion? Anonymous sources. I believe journalists have hurt our own credibility with use of this term in our stories and in our public discussions about our use of unnamed sources. In most cases, the sources we don’t identify are not anonymous to us at all: We know them well or vet them thoroughly. We occasionally get valuable tips from truly anonymous sources: a caller who won’t identify herself, an anonymous email or comment on a website or social media. But we don’t base any of our reporting on them. We use the tip as the start of our reporting and nail down our facts based on documentation, on-the-record interviews or at least interviews with sources we trust but can’t identify. We should use unidentified sources far less than we do, and when we do, we shouldn’t make them sound less credible than they already are.
Ethics in social media
Now for some discussion of social media, which I’ll keep short because I want to leave time for questions and because I’m going to be discussing this topic on a panel tomorrow. But I think social media illustrate well how we want to honor and maintain timeless journalism values, but still update our standards.
Whether we are reporting through social media or gathering information from social media, our commitment to accuracy should remain strong. The Verification Handbook provided an important guide for journalists as we seek the truth in digital content and try to report the truth and debunk the lies. Social media provide lots of ways for journalists to assess the veracity of our sources, whether we are using their social media posts as content or contacting them directly for an old-school interview. We can look at a person’s connections and contact others who might bolster someone’s credibility. We can check the time stamps or location data on social media posts to see if they confirm or contradict someone’s claims. The errors journalists have made using social media are not errors inherent in social media. They have been failures to use the verification techniques we use in other situations.
But one way that journalists’ use of social media has raised new ethical issues is in the area of real-time crowdsourcing. As an old-school journalist who has long taught and practiced that we don’t publish rumors, I was a little taken aback the first time I saw Andy Carvin, Jay’s new colleague at First Look Media, doing some real-time crowdsourcing about matters that he hadn’t verified. For instance, when he was at NPR, he tweeted a link to this photo, noting that an Arab media outlet’s Facebook page had identified a shell found in the Libyan uprising as possibly being from Israel. That’s potentially a huge story, if the Israelis were arming the Libyan rebels, and Andy didn’t know if it was true, but he tweeted it anyway. But I watched his inquiry unfold and I learned something (being open to learning is one of the most important ways that we update and upgrade our ethical standards).
— Andy Carvin (@acarvin) March 12, 2011
I want to note three things Andy did that made this seemingly questionable practice completely ethical:
- He told what he didn’t know.
- He asked the crowd (and Andy has a really big crowd on Twitter) what they knew.
- He sought truth and reported it.
I used to be a pretty good investigative reporter, and I think I could have tracked down the answer to whether the Israelis were arming the Libyan rebels. But it might have taken me a few days or weeks. By ethically unlocking the knowledge of the crowd, and putting the crowd to work for him, Andy reported the truth much faster than I could have using my old-school methods. In just a few hours, his crowd helped him show documentation that these symbols on this shell, which appear to be a Star of David and a crescent, were actually the symbol for an illumination flare. That star is a glowing shell and the crescent is really a parachute. This symbol was used on illumination flares as long ago as World War I, long before the creation of the state of Israel.
Most of the early newsroom policies on using social media were based in fear and written largely by editors who knew little about social media and responded in their ignorance with a resounding “Thou shalt not.” The new Guiding Principles for the Journalist do a better job of addressing these issues of social media.
Many journalists are concerned about whether they (or their staff members) can and should express opinions or show any personality in social media. Jay addressed the opinion issue well, so I won’t elaborate on it here. But I want to make the point that, if you decide a journalist shouldn’t express opinions in social media, that’s not the same thing as showing personality. Social media are, well, social, and if we’re going to use it effectively, we need to show personality, just as we do in other situations.
And I’ll point out that personality and personal connections have always been important for journalism success, despite our culture of objectivity. When I succeeded as a reporter, it was because I made a personal connection with my sources. I didn’t get sources to trust me with their stories of rape and abortion and child molestation and domestic violence and a child’s suicide and disasters they had survived just because I carried a notebook. In fact, the notebook was a huge obstacle I had to overcome. I connected with these sources as a human and I laughed and cried with them and on a few occasions I hugged them. I didn’t express opinions about the issues we were discussing, but I was a person who wanted to listen to them, and they told me their stories.
I was a reporter at the Omaha World-Herald when 9/11 happened, and I spent much of the rest of my time there covering the work of the University of Nebraska at Omaha Center for Afghanistan Studies. Many of my stories about their work were positive, but I also reported on controversial aspects of the center’s work. I didn’t express opinions about the center’s work in my interviews with the director of the program. But I made a personal connection. He’s a Tiger fan and I’m a Yankee fan and we’d trash-talk sports a little or reminisce about the days of Al Kaline and Mickey Mantle. Or we’d talk about our oldest sons, both of whom were starting careers in politics. That personal connection we made helped me get better interviews with him, whether he liked the story I was working on or not.
In the same way, journalists need to know that it is not only ethical but advisable to show a little of yourself on social media. I tweet mostly about journalism, but if you follow my work-related tweets, you’re also going to see some pictures of my granddaughters, some sports banter and an occasional tweet about a travel delay.
I’m pleased to be here for this discussion of journalism ethics. But in my fifth decade as a professional journalist, I am not here to protect old-school ethical standards. I’m here because I think we can and must raise our ethical standards.
Slides for the presentation are below. The first slide was a shoutout for my Digital First colleague, Toni Momberger, who’s a Colorado alum.