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Posts Tagged ‘journalism ethics’

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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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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Rolling StoneInvestigating an allegation of rape is one of the most difficult things for a reporter (or police detective or prosecutor) to do.

I’m not going to dwell here on the Rolling Stone reporting about an alleged gang rape at a University of Virginia fraternity party. Lots of excellent journalists have commented on Rolling Stone’s faulty reporting and the related issues, and I’ll link to some of the pieces I have seen at the end of this piece.

I will say this about the Rolling Stone story: If men from the Phi Kappa Psi fraternity didn’t rape “Jackie,” the Rolling Stone’s central source, the story irresponsibly smeared any innocent men in the fraternity. If “Jackie” was raped, the story irresponsibly gave millions of rape survivors one more reason not to tell their stories. Rape is the most underreported violent crime in our society and the greatest tragedy of this journalistic travesty is that the outcry over the Rolling Stone story will undoubtedly cause some rape survivors to keep the crimes against them secret, out of fear that they won’t be believed. When writing about rape, journalists have to get their facts right. Being wrong in either direction is grossly irresponsible.

My point here, though, is not to write one more commentary on the sins of the Rolling Stone. I am writing to provide advice for journalists writing about rape and other intimate and/or traumatic topics. (more…)

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Jerry Ceppos, my dean and friend, teaches an ethics class, so I called a recent post about Fareed Zakaria’s plagiarism to his attention.

He discussed the case with his class and sent me an email with an interesting analysis by his students about different types of plagiarism. I’ll share his summary of the analysis, then comment on it.

We had a fascinating discussion about Zakaria, comparing the latest side-by-sides and discussing the Post’s wishy-washy questions. I came down pretty hard on Zakaria (and predicted a denouement by the end of the semester). I even showed a clip of him smugly talking to a British TV person about the Indian election. We did something interesting that you may or may want to follow up. Because some of the class was a little nicer than I was, we broke plagiarism down into five blocks.

  1. Words — The sports folks, tellingly, argued that there might be just one way to describe a key play. I said I found that hard to believe but might be able to accept the same words from two reporters if writer #2 had not first read writer #1.
  2. Facts — I said that I found stealing facts abominable because someone else has done the work and the reader has no idea where they came from. On the Web, in particular, it seems lazy because attribution is so easy. I did concede that it might be OK to go to the original source and “re-find” the facts if the original source is given.
  3. Ideas — I said that I found it most difficult to “copyright” ideas.
  4. Quotes — I agreed that, in this age of PR folks putting out statements for their clients or parading the same client at the same moment before a variety of reporters, it might be OK to see the same quotes in multiple stories. In fact, it would be weird not to see them the same if the source were the same.
  5. The medium — There might be some excuse if Zakaria loosely uses someone else’s information when he’s a talking head vs. when he is writing for The Times.

That’s a pretty good analysis. Some of my thoughts on each of the blocks: (more…)

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I must correct, or expand upon, something I posted earlier today. In writing about an absurd correction in the New York Times, I wrote that the Times “certainly doesn’t require linking to digital sources of information.”

Whether I was correct depends upon your definition of the word require. If it means that you have a policy encouraging links in some situations and making them mandatory in others, the Times requires links. But if require means staff members actually practice that policy, the Times falls short.

Patrick LaForge, Editor for News Presentation at the Times, sent me the following passage from the New York Times Stylebook:

Link is acceptable in reference to a hyperlink on the web. If an article refers to material of interest to readers, such as a website, document, image or video, provide an embedded link as a convenience. Readers also value links to background information and other useful content. When crediting a competitor, providing a link is mandatory.

That’s the first part of a longer entry on links. For context, I’ll post the rest at the end of this post.

That’s a better policy than most, but it’s not strong enough. It doesn’t address linking as a matter of ethics, just as a “convenience” and “value” to readers. The only mandatory part is linking to competitors, which I applaud, since news organizations are shamefully reluctant to do that. And linking should be addressed in ethics codes and policies, not just stylebooks.

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The journalism establishment has not taken seriously my insistence that we regard linking as an essential practice of ethical journalism.

Poynter ignored my advice in adopting its new Guiding Principles for the Journalist last year and the Society of Professional Journalists brushed aside my advice in adopting its new Code of Ethics. The New York Times perhaps never heard or read my advice, but it certainly doesn’t require linking to digital sources of information. Update: I have done a related follow-up post on the Times’ linking policy and practice.

But, if the Times required linking, it would have avoided this embarrassing — no, humiliating — correction on Friday’s “I Was Misinformed” column by Joyce Wadler:

An earlier version of this column was published in error. That version included what purported to be an interview that Kanye West gave to a Chicago radio station in which he compared his own derrière to that of his wife, Kim Kardashian. Mr. West’s quotes were taken, without attribution, from the satirical website The Daily Currant. There is no radio station WGYN in Chicago; the interview was fictitious, and should not have been included in the column.

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