Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

I taught a class today in professional codes of ethics for various media careers.

A central point of the class was to discuss whether and why ethics codes should be updated: How much do they present timeless principles and how much should they provide specific guidance relevant to today’s ethical situations and challenges?

I won’t review all the points I made here, but I cited these ethics codes (or principles):

I also cited these narrower but more detailed examinations of slices of journalism ethics, all of them completed in the past few years:

We discussed native advertising, product placement as efforts to blur the lines between advertising and news or entertainment, including the Cities Energized paid post in the New York Times.

I also cited blog posts by Tom Rosenstiel and Tim McGuire about the relative merits of independence and transparency as core principles of journalism ethics.

I also cited Bob Steele‘s 10 questions to make ethical decisions as advice that is as helpful making ethical decisions today as when he first published them in 2002.

I made points covered in more detail in these earlier blog posts:

These were the slides I used in the class:

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Times Sullivan postThanks to New York Times Public Editor Margaret Sullivan for providing the first acknowledgment by anyone at the Times of a fundamentally flawed story I have noted here before.

I won’t revisit the saga of a 2007 Times puff piece about matchmaker Pari Livermore here. Read the links below if you want the background. The story’s premise was flawed and it inaccurately referred to a “charity event,” when the primary beneficiary was not registered as a charity. I think the Times should have corrected the story, regardless of its age (Sullivan called for an follow-up, not a correction). While we disagree about the need for a correction, I applaud Sullivan’s acknowledgment that the Times should have followed up on it when it learned about its flawed premise.

Nancy Levine

Nancy Levine

On one point I will heartily agree with Sullivan. Nancy Levine contacted Sullivan and me after she almost made a donation to Livermore, after finding and reading the Times story. But Levine, an executive recruiter, did a little more checking and learned that Spotlight on Heroes, the organization Livermore told her to make the check out to, wasn’t actually registered as a charity.

Levine has sent dozens of emails to Sullivan, other Times editors, other media editors and directors, California legislators and regulators. Sullivan described Levine as “one of the most persistent people I’ve ever come in contact with.” That I can attest to. This, not so much:

I’ll note that Mr. Buttry is almost as dogged as Ms. Levine.

No, I’m not nearly as dogged as Nancy is. She is also one of the most persistent people I’ve ever come in contact with. The media need persistent, dogged people to hold us accountable. Thanks, Nancy!

Twitter reactions

Previous posts relating to the Times Livermore story

Is there a statute of limitations on correcting errors or updating flawed stories?

Why are journalists so reluctant to correct and re-examine challenged stories?

Deni Elliott: Journalists often fail to think beyond ‘Charity = GOOD’

Other journalists correct a story the New York Times stubbornly refuses to correct

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Ben Carson Stonehenge memeI was updating some slides for a class on writing for social media last week and wanted to update the memes I used early in the class.

When I taught a similar class last spring, I used some Rand Paul memes to illustrate points after using some Hillary Clinton memes. The Republican race didn’t have a clear front-runner, but Paul had inspired some pro and con memes that fit the writing points I was making in class. In both cases, I wasn’t trying to make partisan points about the candidates (and used pro and con memes about each of them). I was just trying to use timely points about applying the craft of writing to memes.

Paul is lagging in the Republican presidential polls, though, so I updated my slides last week with some memes of Donald Trump and Ben Carson.

Within a week, my Carson memes were out of date. A gusher of memes was fueled by Carson’s speculation that the Egyptian pyramids were built for storing grain, followed by media debunking of his claims about getting a “full scholarship” offer to West Point, meeting Gen. William Westmoreland as a young high school ROTC cadet, behaving violently in his youth and a story about a hoax by a professor at Yale. (I’m working on a subsequent post on fact-checking, relating to these stories and Carson’s response to them.)

Each of the stories prompted more memes, including some that played on humor from multiple Carson stories.

I don’t know whether memes are a permanent form of writing that will endure, or whether they will pass as a fad. But clearly writing in social media, for now, is a matter of both the visual effect of blending words and photos and the visual use of type fonts, sizes and styles.

From a journalism standpoint, the meme combines many of the principles and techniques of headline writing with newer social-media writing techniques.

I’ve never claimed expertise in design, but I expand here (with some newer Carson memes added to the ones I used in class) on the points I made in classes last week about writing in memes:

Ben Carson memes

My former Digital First Media colleague, Ryan Teague Beckwith, did a great story in 2012 about Barack Obama as our first meme president.

Now memes are a regular part of the social media conversation about politics. Whether they love or hate Hillary Clinton, Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders or Carson, partisans express their opinions, often with humor, in memes. You blend words and images to make a clear point supporting your candidate or mocking the opponent. If political campaigns don’t already have meme specialists, they will soon. I know of news organizations that have posted memes on social media to promote stories. I don’t know whether that will become standard, but I would be experimenting with it if I were in a newsroom someday.

Below are some Carson memes I used in last week’s classes, with some advice on writing memes (updated with a few memes that came out since my classes ended last Wednesday): (more…)

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Many journalism ethics decisions are difficult. This one is not: If you don’t know whether the family knows of a newsworthy death, you should wait to report it.

Kansas City Royals pitcher Edinson Vólquez pitched Game One of the World Series last night, shortly after his father’s death. Reports conflicted initially on whether the pitcher learned of Daniel Volquez’s death in the Dominican Republic before the game, as reported by ESPN, citing an unnamed source, or was not told of the death until after he left the game after six strong innings, as Fox reported on its telecast.

The Royals said Vólquez’s wife called General Manager Dayton Moore with the tragic news shortly before the game and asked that he not be told until he was finished pitching.

News organizations reported the death while Vólquez was pitching, apparently before he knew the news. I think that was the wrong ethical decision. (more…)

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Stubbornness can lead to some outstanding journalism. But it also can cause journalists to stand by stories that need to be corrected or re-examined.

I think it’s time to say the New York Times is just being stubborn in its refusal to update or correct its inaccurate 2007 story about Pari Livermore.

Nonprofit chroniclesNearly three months after Nancy Levine, a potential client of Livermore’s, called to Times editors’ attention the failings of the 2007 story, five different journalists have investigated Livermore’s matchmaking efforts and the “charitable” donations she asks clients to make in return for her service. (And I’m not counting August and October posts on this blog.) All of the investigations, including a post Sunday by Marc Gunther in Nonprofit Chronicles, have found the same thing: Livermore’s favored “charity,” Spotlight on Heroes, has never been registered as a charity.

Unless all of these investigations are wrong, the Times should correct its story.

The technicality Times editors cite in not correcting or even re-examining the 2007 Times story by Stephanie Rosenbloom is that it did not mention Spotlight on Heroes. But the whole premise of the story was Livermore’s blend of matchmaking and philanthropy. The story referred to the 2007 Red & White Ball as a “charity event,” even though 2007 promotional materials for the ball directed ticket buyers to make out their $175 checks to Spotlight on Heroes. I don’t know of any journalism ethical code, including the Times’ Standards and Ethics, that doesn’t require correcting errors, and that “charity event” reference clearly was an error, even if you don’t think a fundamentally flawed eight-year-old story needs deeper re-examination. (more…)

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Charities make feel-good stories for journalists and too often we turn off the skepticism and verification upon which journalism is built.

Deni Elliott

Deni Elliott

This will be mostly a guest post from Deni Elliott, Eleanor Poynter Jamison Chair in Media Ethics and Press Policy at the University of South Florida in St. Petersburg. Elliott also was contacted by Nancy Levine, the key source for a post I wrote in August and another yesterday about weak reporting on a charity and failure to correct or even re-examine the original flawed reporting.

I told Elliott that her emails, commenting about media coverage of charities, would make a good guest post, so I use them here with her permission. You will understand the references to Pari Livermore and Spotlight on Heroes if you read the earlier posts first. But that context probably is not necessary for understanding Elliott’s points, presented here with minimal editing and some comments from me.

I think that your August 28 column on the “statute of limitations on correcting errors” was excellent in pointing out that if flawed stories, such as the 2007-08 puff pieces on Pari Livermore, continue to be live on the eternal internet, then corrections need to be attached to the original story whenever substantial errors are found.

However, I think that there is a bigger story that news media are missing here, because it is so hard for reporters and editors to break out of their formulaic and knee-jerk response when someone says, ‘Charity.’ Even in the 2015 reporting, the fact that Spotlight on Heroes was not a ‘real’ charity is included as a ‘whoops’ in the context of her giving to other charities. The attitude seems to be that if she’s giving some money to some real charities, then I guess she can’t be really bad. …

As I understand it, Livermore never accounted for thousands of dollars in donations by filing IRS Form 990s or by reporting Spotlight on Heroes income that went to The California Study. If The California Study is a charity, that organization would have needed to report donations. However you look at it, Livermore had a legal requirement to account for all of the donations she received and how they were used. But, no news organization seems to be using public records to track down where the money went or if thousands of dollars has simply disappeared with no accounting.

And, as I understand it, Spotlight on Heroes was suspended as a business entity by California in 2009 for failure to pay taxes. If that’s the case, from 2009 (when Livermore would certainly have been notified that she had overlooked the need to file a tax return) through 2015, when she asked Nancy Levine to send a donation to that organization to her home address, she was certainly breaking some state and/or federal laws with every donation she solicited. Again, no news organization seems to be picking up on this as a crucial element of the current story.

And, maybe I have my facts wrong. I haven’t followed these issues in depth, but am wondering why news organizations have not followed them either.

I’ve gotten interested in Nancy’s story and the response from various news organizations and scholars such as yourself because I’m writing a chapter right now on how legacy news organizations are responding to the digital era. (Wiley/Blackwell, Ethics for a Digital Era, with co-author Edward Spence.) The Levine-Livermore case seems a good way to start that chapter, mainly dealing with the issues you cover in your column.

Unfortunately, the problem of news media getting stuck in the ‘Charity=GOOD’ formula has gone on way longer than the information revolution. I’ve written about that over many years.


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