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Archive for the ‘Detailed ethics discussions’ Category

I have added three updates, marked in bold, since posting this originally.

Aggregation has become a dirty word in much of journalism today.

Bill Keller, former editor of the New York Times, last year wrote: “There’s often a thin line between aggregation and theft.”

Patrick Pexton, Washington Post ombudsman, in an April 20 column called plagiarism “a perpetual danger in aggregated stories.”

Actually, aggregation has a long, proud and ethical history in journalism. If you’re an old-school journalist, don’t think Huffington Post or Drudge when you think about aggregation; think AP. The Associated Press is primarily largely an aggregation service*, except that it its members pay huge fees for the privilege of being aggregated (and for receiving content aggregated from other members).

The New York Times and Washington Post also have long histories of aggregation. In my years at various Midwestern newspapers, we reported big local and regional stories that attracted the attention of the Times, Post and other national news organizations. Facts we had reported first invariably turned up in the Times and Post stories without attribution or with vague attribution such as “local media reports.” I don’t say that critically. When I was a reporter and editor at various Midwestern newspapers, we did the same thing with facts we aggregated from smaller newspapers as we did regional versions of their local stories.

My point isn’t to criticize these traditional newspapers, just to note that aggregation isn’t a new practice just because it’s a fairly new journalism term. It’s one of many areas where journalism practices and standards are evolving, and I believe standards are actually improving in most cases.

After the Washington Post case, Elana Zak asked me and others if journalists needed to develop guidelines for aggregation.

I’m happy to contribute to that conversation with some thoughts about aggregation. I’ll start with discussing what I mean by aggregation (and its cousin or sibling, curation):

(more…)

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An editor asked my advice on how to respond to staff members who were using crude language and behaving unprofessionally on Twitter.

The editor was planning an appropriate response, reminding the staff and the individuals involved that they should always behave professionally.

But he was wondering if his approach might conflict with John Paton’s rules for employee use of social media, which some misinterpret to mean that anything goes. John’s point is not that we shouldn’t rebuke staff members for unprofessional behavior on Twitter, just that we don’t need a special Twitter rule for that. We already have expectations for professional conduct by our staff members, sometimes spelled out in employee handbooks and sometimes so obvious they shouldn’t need to be spelled out. (more…)

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Because I wrote today about unnamed sources, I thought this might be a good time to republish a blog post from my old Training Tracks blog for the American Press Institute. This was originally published Dec. 19, 2005. I have not checked to see whether the links are still good, but I think I should leave them in even if they aren’t:

The New York Times story on domestic spying by the Bush administration provides a bit of a comeback for the legitimate use of confidential sources.

That story presented lots to argue about: Should the Times have yielded to administration pressure and waited a year to publish the story (especially if that “year” was really a year-plus and meant they waited until after the 2004 elections)? Should the Times have published the story at all?

This much is clear, though: You can’t question the credibility of the story because the reporters, James Risen and Eric Lichtblau, did not name their sources. President Bush confirmed the story the next day. (more…)

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I was traveling yesterday, so I came in late to a discussion about outbound links. A tweet from Elaine Clisham brought the discussion to my attention:

Actually, it was about four years ago, I think. But thanks for remembering, Elaine. Alas, that blog post for the American Press Institute, where Elaine and I were colleagues, is no longer available online. I will try to find it somewhere and resurrect it for archival purposes. (Update: I found and reposted my 2008 post: Google doesn’t fear outbound links; neither should you.) I don’t have time to pull in all the tweets of a really long Twitter discussion, but Mathew Ingram curated some of them in a blog post asking, “Is linking polite, or is it a core value of journalism?“, prompted by MG Siegler’s rant about the Wall Street Journal’s refusal to link when he beat them on a story for TechCrunch.

If you’re interested in the discussion that followed that post, check yesterday’s tweets by Mathew, Charles Arthur and Caitlin Fitzsimmons and this 2010 post by Jonathan Stray. Update: A comment below points out this piece by Felix Salmon that covers linking and attribution at length. I don’t agree with it all, but it’s well argued and reasonable.

This tweet from Fitzsimmons seems representative of the linking-is-just-a-courtesy viewpoint:

My contribution will be these four reasons why linking is good journalism (which may somewhat echo Jonathan’s and Mathew’s posts, because they are both right): (more…)

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An email (slightly edited) from a Digital First Media journalist last week raised a couple questions I hear frequently relating to social media:

I asked an important question at a staff meeting today, and the city editor suggested I e-mail you. It has to do with tweeting and/or posting opinions.

As a reporter (I know, you like the term journo), it is ingrained in me not to reflect my opinions. Last weekend, I scanned Twitter off and on and found many news outlets tweeting about the Occupy Oakland protest going on. A TV van was damaged, a flag burned at City Hall, etc.

My first impulse was to tweet my personal gut response: that I didn’t understand protests and flag burning in my generation and I don’t now. I also wanted to tweet that once Occupy got violent, that ended the argument for me.

But I had misgivings about whether I should post any kind of opinion at all, so I refrained.

So, is there a guideline about this? I thought about asking via Twitter, but obviously that wouldn’t work. (more…)

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I have been meaning to post more of my old workshop handouts from No Train, No Gain to this blog. Unfortunately, I was prompted to post this one and another, about cheating, by a plagiarism incident at the Middletown Press. I encourage all of my Journal Register Co. and MediaNews Group colleagues to read this. Attribution is one of journalism’s most serious issues. Plagiarism is inexcusable.

Attribution is the difference between research and plagiarism. Attribution gives stories credibility and perspective. It tells readers how we know what we know. It also slows stories down. Effective use of attribution is a matter both of journalism ethics and of strong writing.

How do you know that? Attribution is a key ingredient in any story’s credibility. Readers are entitled to know where we got our information. If we are citing official statistics gathered by a government agency, that tells the readers something. If we are citing the contentions of an interest group or a political partisan, that tells the readers something else. If we don’t attribute our information, readers rightly wonder how we know that.

When should we attribute? Attribute any time that attribution strengthens the credibility of a story. Attribute any time you are using someone else’s words. Attribute when you are reporting information gathered by other journalists. Attribute when you are not certain of facts. Attribute statements of opinion. When you wonder whether you should attribute, you probably should attribute in some fashion. (more…)

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I have been meaning to post more of my old workshop handouts from No Train, No Gain to this blog. Unfortunately, I was prompted to post this one and another, about attribution, by a plagiarism incident at the Middletown Press. I encourage all of my Journal Register Co. and MediaNews Group colleagues to read this. Attribution is one of journalism’s most serious issues. Plagiarism is inexcusable.

Scandals in newsrooms large and small have forced news organizations to apply the same skepticism to some staff members that they do to the institutions they cover. Journalists and newsrooms can no longer presume that every journalist understands that you don’t steal and you don’t make things up. A 2005 study by the Center for Academic Integrity found that 70 percent of college students admitted to cheating and 77 percent did not consider “cut and paste” plagiarism from the Internet a serious issue. Newspapers have to recognize that some of these students find jobs in newsrooms and need to learn standards of the field that should (but can’t) go without saying. (more…)

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I wish I had seen Jay Rosen’s latest critique of “he said, she said” reporting before Saturday’s accuracy workshop at Georgetown University.

Jay provides an excellent example of reporting that is accurate but falls short of the journalistic principle of seeking the truth. That was a key point of the workshop: Yes, we taught about getting quotes accurate and verifying facts, but we stressed that accurate but incomplete or accurate but lacking context doesn’t fulfill the responsibility to seek, find and report the truth.

While I have called for updating some of the details in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, I love the direct, elegant wording of its first principle: Seek Truth and Report It. “He said, she said” reporting shrugs off this responsibility. In fact, it presents lies equally with the truth, which is hardly different from lying. (more…)

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An editor asks by email a question I hear often as journalists address the challenges of digital journalism: “Is it better to be first, or be right?”

Three times recently, the editor said, his staff was beaten (not on breaking news), but the competition had major errors in its reports. “When we published, we got the stories right, though, again, not first,” the editor said.

I regard this as a false choice, but if you must present it that way, my answer is that you always want to be right. Accuracy is one of our highest values as journalists, and you don’t sacrifice accuracy for the sake of competition. (more…)

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I don’t generally use a to-do list unless something is really important.

If I’m taking off on a long trip and need to be sure I don’t forget something, I’ll make a list the night before. If I forget something, adjusting on the plane or the road can be difficult or impossible. But I don’t start the workday with a to-do list. I know the day is going to throw me some surprises, and what’s important by the end of the day won’t be the same as what was important in the morning. So I don’t bother with a list. I just start the day, do what’s important and figure I’ll get a lot of important work done. Most days I do.

When I heard Craig Silverman talk about how effective checklists are in preventing errors, I decided I needed a checklist. After all, what’s more important than accuracy? (more…)

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Craig Silverman of Regret the Error is leading a workshop for TBD Community Network members (and staff and anyone else in the Washington area who’s interested) this evening at American University’s School of Communication. As supplemental reading for those attending the workshop, I’m posting this handout updated I developed for my Accuracy First workshop when I was presenting ethics seminars for the American Press Institute (updated somewhat). The original version of this handout was initially posted on the No Train, No Gain website.

While this handout is geared to journalists, we encourage all members of the network to follow these practices and those Craig teaches, regardless of whether they consider themselves journalists. Anyone providing information to the public should seek to ensure accuracy to maintain credibility.

In pursuit of excellence, journalists seek to develop lots of sophisticated skills, such as investigative reporting, narrative writing, social media and video. Accuracy isn’t as glamorous as those skills but without accuracy, they become worthless. Accuracy is the foundation upon which journalists must build all other skills. Ensuring accuracy involves several steps: (more…)

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Power and eagerness should be huge factors in deciding whether and when to grant confidentiality to sources.

My blog post yesterday about confidential sources represents my views on dealing with whistleblowers and prominent people such as government and military officials. But those aren’t the only people journalists write about. While my starting point remains on-the-record-spell-your-name-please, some stories present more complicated situations and demand more nuanced positions.

The powerful owe society and taxpayers a degree of openness and accountability. The powerful generally benefit enormously from media attention and deserve to take some heat when they don’t benefit. The powerful manipulate the media enough when they are being visible. To let them manipulate without any level of accountability is hardly ever justified. (more…)

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