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Jonathan Landay

Jonathan Landay

I was perhaps not detailed enough in my criticism of Judith Miller’s memoir/fantasy book The Story: A Reporter’s Journey.

Jonathan Landay, a Knight-Ridder (now McClatchy) Washington reporter, nailed the story that Miller tragically botched in 2002-3 — pre-war intelligence about whether Iraq had weapons of mass destruction. He provided by email some details that I didn’t bother to round up.

It was self-abuse enough to read Miller’s book. I didn’t want to dig back and find the stories in question to check any of her claims in the book. And, after a quick read, I wanted to pump out my review, so I didn’t take the time to check exactly what was in the two Knight-Ridder stories she cited dismissively (or the many she ignored entirely).

Landay kindly filled in some gaps in an email exchange thanking me for my post (links added by me; I did finally look up those stories):

Just another thought: the story to which she referred in her book eviscerated — I like that word — her aluminum tubes story. She obliquely criticizes me for using only one named source, David Albright, despite the fact that virtually all of her sources were anonymous, especially on her tubes story.

OK, I just checked and in an article of nearly 3,500 words, Miller cited just two named sources. But one of the names was a pseudonym, “Ahmed al-Shemri,” an Iraqi defector who claimed to work in Saddam Hussein’s chemical weapons program. He was quoted at length. Most of the rest of the article is attributed to various “Bush administration officials.” In The Story, Miller claims to have used lots of named sources in her WMD reporting. I’m not going to check all of her stories, but that wasn’t true of this one.

On Page 220 of The Story, in recounting how Times editors took her to task for failing to report the doubts revealed in a Landay article about whether the aluminum tubes could even be used as centrifuges to make nuclear weapons, Miller dismissed the Knight-Ridder story (though she attributed it to McClatchy) as based on unnamed sources: (more…)

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Cover of The Story: A Reporter's Journey, by Judith MillerJudith Miller clearly reflected in great detail on her rise to prominence in working on her memoir, The Story: A Reporter’s Journey.

She appears to have reflected very little, though, on her failures in reporting on intelligence about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq when the Bush administration was rushing the United States into that disastrous war.

Here’s how little The Story reveals about any examination by Miller of the weaknesses of her own reporting about WMDs: In her only reference to either of the Knight-Ridder reporters who reported extensively on the intelligence community’s doubts about Iraq’s WMDs, Miller identifies Jonathan Landay incorrectly as being with “the McClatchy newspaper chain.” McClatchy would not buy Knight-Ridder until 2006, but the context of the discussion Miller was recounting was 2004.

Landay and Warren Strobel worked for Knight-Ridder when they did the journalism that Miller and her New York Times colleagues should have been doing: reporting on doubts within U.S. intelligence agencies about the claims that Iraq was making weapons of mass destruction.

Because the Times and other media were all parroting the Bush administration’s claims that Iraq had WMD’s, even some Knight-Ridder editors often didn’t run or buried the Landay-Strobel stories that countered that narrative. As Erik Wemple of the Washington Post noted in 2013, “They published dissenting material, though their voices didn’t pierce the compliant noise from their peers.”

Miller, chief among those compliant peers, mentioned Landay in the context of a conversation with Times editors Bill Keller and Jill Abramson, who were preparing an editor’s note acknowledging the weaknesses in the newspaper’s pre-war coverage of intelligence about WMD’s. The two paragraphs in The Story about Landay (on Page 220) are fascinating and telling: (more…)

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A key issue in the Columbia School of Journalism’s report on Rolling Stone‘s botched rape story is the use of pseudonyms to identify key characters in the story.

I strongly endorse this conclusion of the Columbia report:

Pseudonyms are inherently undesirable in journalism. They introduce fiction and ask readers to trust that this is the only instance in which a publication is inventing details at its discretion. Their use in this case was a crutch — it allowed the magazine to evade coming to terms with reporting gaps. Rolling Stone should consider banning them.

I made a similar point in December in my post (after the story began falling apart) about interviewing rape survivors and verifying their stories: (more…)

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Investigative reporting is about discovery of a story, not confirmation of your notions.

That is the key mistake Rolling Stone made in its false, and now retracted, story “A Rape on Campus,” as I read the Columbia School of Journalism report on the fiasco.

Rolling Stone’s repudiation of the main narrative in ‘A Rape on Campus’ is a story of journalistic failure that was avoidable. The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking,” wrote the Columbia authors, Sheila Coronel, J-School Dean Steve Coll and Derek Kravitz.

The failure started, though, with a preconceived notion of what the story should be. Reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely; Sean Woods, the primary editor of the story; and Will Dana, managing editor; had too strong a vision of what the story should be and not a strong enough commitment to learn what it really was.

I worked on a series on rape in 1993 for the Omaha World-Herald. We started out pursuing a notion about rape, focusing on rape by strangers, prompted by a series of rapes in an Omaha neighborhood.

We did report on that series of rapes and about stranger rape, but our series focused more heavily on two surprising factors that we found in our wider study of the issues: the startlingly low number of rapes that actually result in rape convictions and the startlingly high percentage of rape victims who were younger than 18.

The series we produced ended up being significantly different from the series we planned. That should be the case in most investigative stories: You make a plan to investigate a topic, not to support a premise. A good story investigated well takes you directions you didn’t anticipate.

If Rolling Stone had been trying to discover the story, the reporter and the editors would have insisted on talking to the friends of their primary source, whom they identified as “Jackie.” They would have insisted on talking to her date on the night in question, and to other men and women who attended the supposed “date night” at Phi Kappa Psi, the University of Virginia fraternity smeared by Rolling Stone‘s story.

Unlike Rolling Stone, we didn’t focus in our 1993 series on a single “emblematic” rape situation to tell in detail. We told stories of multiple rape survivors. Some profiles told more about circumstances of the rape. Others focused on the trauma the person experienced or the treatment she received. They told the story together, rather than burdening a single story with representing everything that we found in our investigation.

It is difficult to prove details of a rape, because accounts of what happened invariably conflict and witnesses to the actual crime are rare, unless they were participants, as Jackie alleged in the Rolling Stone story.

However, you can find confirmation (or conflict) in the circumstances surrounding a rape. In my various stories about rape, I have confirmed details about circumstances by obtaining police and medical reports and by interviewing friends, family members and attorneys of suspects and accusers.

Erdely did seek details, the Columbia report said:

In the end, the reporter relied heavily on Jackie for help in getting access to corroborating evidence and interviews. Erdely asked Jackie for introductions to friends and family. She asked for text messages to confirm parts of Jackie’s account, for records from Jackie’s employment at the aquatic center and for health records. She even asked to examine the bloodstained red dress Jackie said she had worn on the night she said she was attacked.

For all that, though, the report concluded, Rolling Stone failed to pursue multiple opportunities to confirm details of Jackie’s story (or learn of the weaknesses in the story):

There were a number of ways that Erdely might have reported further, on her own, to verify what Jackie had told her. Jackie told the writer that one of her rapists had been part of a small discussion group in her anthropology class. Erdely might have tried to verify independently that there was such a group and to identify the young man Jackie described. She might have examined Phi Kappa Psi’s social media for members she could interview and for evidence of a party on the night Jackie described. Erdely might have looked for students who worked at the aquatic center and sought out clues about the lifeguard Jackie had described. Any one of these and other similar reporting paths might have led to discoveries that would have caused Rolling Stone to reconsider its plans. But three failures of reporting effort stand out. They involve basic, even routine journalistic practice – not special investigative effort. And if these reporting pathways had been followed, Rolling Stone very likely would have avoided trouble.

Those three critical failures were:

  • Erdely did not contact the friends Jackie said she talked with shortly after the assault that she described. Jackie never asked the reporter not to contact her friends independently.
  • Erdely asked the fraternity for a comment late in the reporting process, but never provided details of the story for them to address.
  • Erdely’s efforts to track down the alleged assailant were not diligent enough even to determine that no member of the fraternity worked at the aquatic center where Jackie was a lifeguard.

The one lifeguard at the pool who had the name Jackie used for her assailant was “not a member of Phi Kappa Psi, however,” the Columbia report said. “The police interviewed him and examined his personal records. They found no evidence to link him to Jackie’s assault. If Rolling Stone had located him and heard his response to Jackie’s allegations, including the verifiable fact that he did not belong to Phi Kappa Psi, this might have led Erdely to reconsider her focus on that case. In any event, Rolling Stone stopped looking for him.”

One of the most disappointing aspects of the report is Rolling Stone‘s response. Woods continues to point the finger at Jackie: “Ultimately, we were too deferential to our rape victim; we honored too many of her requests in our reporting,” he told the Columbia investigators.

That’s bullshit. As I’ve noted before, journalists, not sources, are responsible for the accuracy of our stories. To me, one of the most disturbing aspects of the report is that Rolling Stone doesn’t recognize that this was a systemic failure, identifying problems the magazine must address. The reporter and editors just see the story as a result of mistakes they need to avoid repeating.

The Columbia report says:

Erdely’s reporting records and interviews with participants make clear that the magazine did not pursue important reporting paths even when Jackie had made no request that they refrain. The editors made judgments about attribution, fact-checking and verification that greatly increased their risks of error but had little or nothing to do with protecting Jackie’s position.

Nothing in this Rolling Stone fiasco was the fault of Jackie. Whether she was a victim of some kind of sexual assault that she exaggerated, or was just a liar, she didn’t give the magazine enough to go on. Beyond confirming that the university had received a report of her allegation, Rolling Stone didn’t take any of the steps it could have taken to investigate her story.

You investigate a rape survivor’s story not just out of suspicion (but journalists should always be suspicious), but to bolster her story and yours. Rape accusers will be viciously attacked (I saw that happen in a case where the defendant eventually plead guilty). Even if you believe a story, you need to investigate it to confirm your belief and to strengthen the story.

Other responses to the Columbia report:

Jay Rosen‘s analysis of the report is far more detailed than mine.

So is Erik Wemple’s.

Ben Mullin of Poynter rounded up journalists’ reactions to the report.

My earlier post with advice on interviewing rape survivors and verifying their stories.

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People who think journalism ethics principles are timeless have short memories. Or no knowledge of journalism history.

When I failed last year to persuade the Society of Professional Journalists to address linking in the update of its Code of Ethics, some ethics committee members didn’t want the code to refer to specific technology (such as hyperlinks) because they wanted a code of “timeless” journalism principles.

Never mind that the code had been updated before as society and journalism changed. They thought ethics were based on timeless principles and ethics codes should stand as a rock during changing times, rather than being updated to reflect the times.

In a speech at an ethics symposium last year, I noted how values change in other areas of life, and said journalism values change, too.

If you think the ethical principle of journalism independence is timeless, read Sunday’s column by Sid Hartman of the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

Hartman has been a journalist for 70 years, and he’s reminiscing as the Star Tribune prepares to move out of its longtime downtown headquarters. I’m not going to question his ethics. In fact, he notes in the column that some of the practices he recalls wouldn’t be acceptable today. But you can’t read his column and then defend the notion that journalism ethics are timeless.

Here’s an excerpt:

In those days most every member of the small 10-man staff — compared with about 40 now — was allowed to earn some extra cash by doing public relations for the different sports teams in town. That’s why I was allowed to be involved with the Lakers.

No metro newspaper would allow that sort of dual relationship today. But we’ve kind of come full circle, with leagues and teams hiring journalists to cover themselves on their own websites, and other companies, government agencies and non-profit organizations creating elaborate operations to produce journalism that is anything but independent.

When the Star Tribune’s former longtime owner and Minneapolis civic leader John Cowles was trying to bring more major league sports teams to the Twin Cities, it was perfectly fine for his sports editor and columnist to be part of the campaign, as Hartman recounts:

The Star and Tribune had its own airplane then, and Cowles allowed (Sports Editor Charles) Johnson and myself to travel any place that was needed to lure any of the major league teams here. …

When it came to the Vikings, Cowles sent then Chamber of Commerce President Gerald Moore and me to Chicago to try to lure the Chicago Cardinals, who were not doing well, to play in Bloomington. And when we made a deal with Cardinals President Walter Wolfner to pay him $125,000 per game to play two regular-season games here in 1959, Cowles guaranteed the check. The two games sold out and helped get the NFL here soon after.

That sort of collaboration with community movers and shakers would be unacceptable in journalism today.

Journalism changes. Organizations that lead us in ethical thought should strive to stay current, not pretend we can cling to timeless principles.

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I agree with Kenny Irby’s call for photojournalism organizations to re-examine and update their codes of ethics.

Prompted by a scandal in the World Press Photo awards, Kenny called last week on WPPh and the National Press Photographers Association to “re-examine photojournalism ethics amid recent changes in digital photographic imaging and social media sharing.”

Kenny’s a veteran photojournalist and Poynter’s senior faculty for visual journalism and diversity. He has much more expertise in this topic than I do. I’m not a photojournalist, just a writer who has on occasion shot mostly mediocre photos and a journalist who appreciates the power of photography. I can’t do much more with digital editing tools than crop. I’m not going to have all the solutions to photojournalism’s ethical challenges. But I’ve called for updating of other ethics codes, and I’ll support Kenny’s call for updating photojournalism’s ethical guidance. (more…)

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Craig Silverman

Craig Silverman

Journalists and news organizations need to do a better job of avoiding involvement in the spread of lies and unconfirmed rumors.

Accuracy and credibility are the heart of good journalism, and Craig Silverman‘s study Lies, Damned Lies and Viral Content documents widespread disregard for both in the spreading of digital reports by pro.

I won’t attempt to summarize the report here, though I will use some favorite quotes from it at the end of this post. I hope you will read the full report (it’s 164 pages) and consider what it says about you and your news organization.

What I want to focus on here are some suggestions for news organizations and individual journalists, some of which repeat Craig’s own suggestions and some of which are my suggestions, inspired by his report:

Confirming and debunking rumors

To start, I don’t think chasing rumors is necessarily the highest form of journalism, though admittedly, great journalistic investigation starts with a tip that’s indistinguishable from a rumor. But in general, I would encourage a journalistic approach that seeks to find and publish new information rather than chasing rumors. (more…)

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