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Archive for the ‘Detailed ethics discussions’ Category

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…)

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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…)

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Here’s my 2005 handout on dealing with confidential sources. I started updating it but decided I’d do an entirely new post, so this is mostly the handout I used for ethics seminars when I was at the American Press Institute, with some links added. I encourage you to read my 2013 post: Factors to consider in granting confidentiality to sources, and the case studies linked at the end of this post. If you read both, they will overlap, but they take different approaches. If you’re only going to read one, read the new one. (I originally got confused on the old headline for this handout and posted it as “You can quote me on that.” That was, of course, the headline for a handout on attribution.)

Few practices have dealt more blows to the credibility of American journalism than the use of confidential sources.

The fabrication scandals of Janet Cooke, Jayson Blair and Jack Kelley revolved largely around the use of unnamed sources. The New York Times’ faulty reporting on weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was based on unidentified sources. CBS News and Newsweek issued embarrassing retractions of reports based on confidential sources.

The jailing of Judith Miller underscored that the stakes for journalists go beyond credibility. The indictment and conviction of Scooter Libby based largely on the testimony of Miller and three other journalists demonstrated that journalists cannot always assure that a source will remain confidential.

The identification of Mark Felt as Deep Throat also has reminded us why we need confidential sources. The ideal standards and practices will allow the use of a modern-day Deep Throat, while pushing more sources onto the record to build reader credibility.

Proper use of confidential sources will protect journalists against the errors of recent scandals and protect news organizations against the use of bogus sources by fraudulent journalists.

This discussion will seek to clarify for the editors and reporters on your staff the standards for your newsroom: When do you grant confidentiality? How do you verify information from unnamed sources? How do you press sources to speak publicly? How do you identify these sources to your reader and explain why the reader should trust you and the source? How do you protect the source? (more…)

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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…)

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I am participating today in the National Summit to Fight Plagiarism and Fabrication. For the past few months I have been working with an outstanding group of colleagues on an ebook, Telling the Truth and Nothing But, intended to help journalists and newsrooms prevent plagiarism and fabrication.

Before I share my contribution from the book, I must applaud three people in particular who drove this process:

I was pleased to represent the Online News Association and Digital First Media in the project and applaud the others who contributed (who are listed at the back of the book).

The project is summed up well in this passage (which I didn’t write, but wish I had; would the author please identify himself or herself?):

Our hope is that  it’s sufficiently provocative and practical to prompt in every newsroom in every medium a habit of asking a question that’s been grunted by generations of grizzled editors: “Says who?” (more…)

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Jason Plotkin's new Cover.

Jason Plotkin’s new Cover.

Journalists should go to extraordinary lengths to protect our integrity. But when a courtesy or kindness doesn’t threaten our integrity, we should say “thank you.”

Jason Plotkin, an extraordinary (Emmy-winning) visual journalist for the York Daily Record, blogged recently about a marine giving him his “Cover” (“The Army wears hats. The Marines wear Covers,” the marine explained).

Jason wrote about all the gifts he had given away over the years, or passed on to a YDR charity auction, guided by the ethical imperative to maintain independence from sources. His colleague, Buffy Andrews, called the dilemma to my attention, asking what I thought.

Here’s what I think: We should absolutely – and insistently, if necessary – politely refuse gifts of significant value that could threaten our integrity, if only by appearance. But journalists don’t have to be assholes. Our jobs too often force us to annoy – asking difficult questions, refusing pleas not to publish embarrassing information, intruding on grief and other private situations. I defend (and have practiced) all of those actions and many other unpopular things journalists need to do. But we don’t have to insult people who are being kind in ways that don’t threaten our integrity.

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Journalists should treat information we gather on social media the same way we treat information gathered any other way, or an assurance from Mom that she loves you: Check it out.

My #twutorial series hasn’t been updated since late October, but I always planned to do a post on verifying information gathered in social media. Given the errors some journalists made in reporting on the Sandy Hook massacre and in the original reporting on Manti Te’o’s fake girlfriend, this feels like a good time to stress accuracy and verification.

The most simple and important advice I can give is that Twitter is like any other information source — documents, anonymous tips, news releases, press conferences, interviews, databases — it can provide valuable information or deliberate lies or innocent errors. Your job is to verify the information that looks useful. As with all the other information you gather, you can verify lots of different ways, and no single technique works for everything.

Some of the tips I provide here will be specific to Twitter or to social media generally. Some will be general verification tips applied to Twitter. And I’m sure I won’t cover all the ways you could verify information from tweets. As with all reporting, resourcefulness is essential. Develop some verification techniques of your own (and please remember to share them in the comments here). (more…)

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When it comes to language choices, I try to decide matters based on accuracy.

This is why I want to call on all journalists and news organizations to stop using the term “alleged victim,” especially in stories about sexual abuse (almost the only type of stories where it appears).

It’s a blame-the-victim term we should banish forever from the journalism lexicon. You want to know why? Here’s the second definition of “alleged” at Dictionary.com:

doubtful; suspect; supposed

And here’s a fact about victims of sexual abuse: Their stories are almost always credible. So, in most cases, alleged victim is not only insensitive, but inaccurate.

(The first definition for alleged, “declared or stated to be as described; asserted,” is accurate, but if people could read a second definition as the meaning, we should look for a more accurate word.)

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Journalists should always drive a hard bargain before agreeing to withhold a source’s name.

Andrew Beaujon, my former TBD colleague now writing for Poynter, doesn’t think it’s a big deal to let company spokespeople speak without identification:

I’m also a little loath to rip the practice because half the time I don’t think readers care which flack passed on the frequently anodyne statements I’m including.

Andrew was responding to David Segal, who writes “The Haggler” column for the New York Times. In trying to address a complaint from a consumer about a Samsung printer, Segal expressed dismay about a spokesperson who declined to be identified:

When the Haggler wrote to Samsung, a woman named Rachel Quinlan, who works for the public relations firm Weber Shandwick, sent an e-mail that she said should be attributed to a “spokesperson” for the company. She declined to name that person.

Really? A spokesperson — a person who speaks for a living — who wants to be anonymous? Not only does this sound ridiculous, it also makes Samsung seem tin-eared. Actually, that is unfair to tin, which is far more supple than Samsung is in this circumstance. What consumers and the Haggler want when products break is some sense that human beings are trying to fix them. (Note to corporations: the anonymous spokesman is a dreadful idea.) (more…)

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On more than one occasion, reporters have screwed up facts when writing about me. At least once I knew I was misquoted. So I have some empathy for Washington Post reporter Daniel de Vise, who is being taken to task for his fact-checking technique.

Getting our facts straight should be a top priority of every journalist. We get them wrong more often than we know (I usually have not corrected the journalists who reported inaccurately about me). We should weigh all factors in considering efforts to ensure accuracy.

As recounted in a story by the Texas Observer, de Vise emailed an unpublished draft of a story to University of Texas officials, inviting them to raise with him any concerns they had about it. The Observer obtained copies of emails between de Vise and university officials through an open records request and quoted extensively from the emails, which indicated this was a common practice for de Vise.

A Thursday memo to the Post staff from Editor Marcus Brauchli, reported by Jim Romenesko, makes clear that Post reporters should not share drafts of stories with sources except with Brauchli’s permission.

I question de Vise’s judgment, and I would have handled things differently. But people who reject the notion of sharing a story in advance with a source as unethical are trying to simplify journalism ethics to matters of black and white. Way too often journalism ethics are murky shades of gray or any of the many colors of the rainbow. We often wish life were simple. But it’s not, especially in many of the tough questions of journalism ethics.

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This was a handout I developed in 2006 for a series of ethics seminars for the American Press Institute. It appeared online originally at No Train, No Gain, but has not been available online for the last couple of years. I am republishing it without updating to accompany a new blog post of the issue of advance review of news stories by sources

Some ethical issues in journalism are black-and-white: Every newspaper agrees that you don’t fabricate and you don’t plagiarize. Do either and your career may be over. Advance review of copy is an area of wide disagreement. For some editors, it would be a firing offense for a reporter to show a story to a source prior to publication. Other editors want their reporters to show stories to sources before publication, at least in some circumstances. Some prominent reporters make it a regular practice. We’re not going to resolve that issue here. That’s for your editors and you to decide. We will examine arguments on both sides of the issue and things to consider if you do show stories to sources, either as a routine or in special cases.

Why you shouldn’t show

For many years, journalists had pretty strong agreement on this subject: You didn’t show stories to sources before publication. Many journalists, probably a majority, still feel this way in most, if not all, cases. These journalists cite multiple reasons not to disclose the contents of stories in advance of publication: (more…)

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Response to my post about aggregation merits a follow-up post on three points: verification, a comment I made about the Associated Press and the timing of blog posts.

Verification

Someone asked about where verification fit into aggregation, or suggested that it should be added as a step or a way that we add value when we aggregate.

I don’t think an aggregator needs to verify every point from a source you aggregate from. For instance, in yesterday’s post, which aggregated several links, I did not verify that Media General sold 63 newspapers to Warren Buffett. I had seen the number in several other pieces I had read and I used it in my aggregation of Dan Conover’s blog post about the purchase without verifying the number from the Media General announcement or the Media General website. I also didn’t check Dan’s math on the average cost for each of the newspapers, though it looked right using round numbers in my head.

I do think aggregation requires some assessment of the trustworthiness of the sources you’re aggregating from. If you trust the sources, attribute to them and link to them, I think that should suffice. Taking the time to independently verify every fact from sources you attribute to would limit how much you can aggregate. Just as aggregation has value, I believe trust has value and the work of other journalists and news sources has value. If you’ve attributed to a trustworthy source, I think you can aggregate without independent verification. (more…)

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