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Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

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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We’re seeing a fascinating pair of case studies on the importance (or not) of truth, context and conflict in journalism.

It’s pretty clear that Bill O’Reilly lied as certainly as Brian Williams did about the danger they faced in covering wars. Williams apologized as quickly as he was caught in his lie and soon took himself off the air, then was suspended by NBC News. O’Reilly has responded with bluster and name-calling, and Fox News issued a statement Sunday that it was in “full support” of O’Reilly.

At the end of this post, I’ll address the documentation of the accusations against O’Reilly (and the weakness of his response, which actually underscores the case against him). But first, I want to address the issues I see in the contrast between the two situations of TV stars caught in lies.

Let’s start with the similarities:

  • Each man was caught lying about his experience covering war, particularly the personal danger he faced.
  • Neither man was caught the first time he lied, so he just kept repeating the lie.
  • Because they are TV stars, we have actual video of what they said.

But here are some differences: (more…)

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Jon Stewart cut his old friend Brian Williams a break, making some really big media news to overshadow the story about the possible death blow to Williams’ career.

A suspension of the leading anchor of the old Big Three television networks for embellishing stories is a big deal. But the departure of the king of fake news is huge. Whom will we turn to now to learn what the news really means? Well, John Oliver, Stephen Colbert, Larry Wilmore and whoever replaces Stewart on The Daily Show, but more on that later.

The dual career moves — a suspension following an apology that only made things worse, contrasting with lavish praise following an announcement of a voluntary departure at some vague point later this year — were loaded in contrast and irony that tell us so much about television news and entertainment today:
(more…)

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When, if ever, should a news organization identify the victim of a slaying before authorities have released the name?

Corey Hutchins of Columbia Journalism Review raises those issues in an examination of last week’s coverage of the murder-suicide of a University of South Carolina professor and his wife. Hutchins reported on reaction to the decision by The State to identify the murder victim, citing unnamed sources, before the coroner was releasing the identity.

I haven’t been able to find the version that reported the victim’s name. Clicking various links from The State’s Twitter account, I believe the running main story of the shooting was updated later with the coroner’s announcement. I’ll invite editors and reporters from The State to elaborate on their decision if they wish.

Spoiler alert: I’m not going to say whether I think The State made the right call. Instead, I am going out run through ethical factors I think a journalist or news organization should consider in deciding whether to identify victims of violence before authorities are willing to identify them. (I may change my mind later, and say whether I think The State made the right call, if journalists there educate me about what they knew, considered and decided on some or all of the factors I suggest you consider.)

The situation can become a classic journalism ethics decision, with strong reasons to consider on both sides, conflicting ethical principles and no easy right-or-wrong answers. I think you need to weigh the reasons to publish the names and the reasons to delay publication of the names, then decide either which argument has the strongest overall case or which argument has a single reason so strong that it should override all other arguments. (more…)

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T. Becket Adams of the Washington Examiner quoted me in a good story about using unnamed sources.

While the story focused on the New York Times, Adams did not specifically mention my encouragement that Times Executive Editor Dean Baquet should get angry about his newsroom’s excessive use on unnamed sources.

If you’re interested in the issue, I encourage you to read the Adams piece, which includes quotes as well from former Times Editor Bill Keller, Washington Post media bogger Erik Wemple (a former TBD colleague), Huffington Post media blogger Jason Linkins, Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan and Jack Shafer (who is joining Politico). I’m pleased to be included in such company, and recommend the story for a thoughtful overview of issues relating to unnamed sources.

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