Posts Tagged ‘New York Times’

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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NYT carsonI have taken the New York Times to task occasionally for overuse of unnamed sources. So I join my friend Erik Wemple in saluting the Times for excellent use of an on-the-record source for a story about efforts to educate presidential candidate Ben Carson about foreign affairs.

Consider how differently this paragraph would read without the source’s name:

‘Nobody has been able to sit down with him and have him get one iota of intelligent information about the Middle East,’ Duane R. Clarridge, a top adviser to Mr. Carson on terrorism and national security, said in an interview. He also said Mr. Carson needed weekly conference calls briefing him on foreign policy so ‘we can make him smart.’

Without the name, I might wonder how high in the Carson campaign this “top adviser” really is. I would wonder if the adviser is really sitting in these briefings with Carson or hearing about them second-hand. I would wonder if the adviser is about to get fired and venting frustration on the way out the door. Some readers might wonder if the adviser really exists.

Instead, I can use Google to learn quickly that Clarridge is a former high official in the CIA (author of A Spy for All Seasons). I can read an interview with Clarridge and judge for myself how credible he is or I can read about his role in the Iran/Contra scandal of the 1980s.

I’m usually not going to do that much research, but the very fact that the source used his name, whether I know anything about that person or not, means that the source stands behind his account of what’s happening int he Carson campaign. The fact that he’s willing to take the heat from Carson and his supporters gives the story credibility.

If the Times writes that story based on an unnamed source, the Carson campaign’s response would be a well-deserved rebuke to the Times for using “anonymous” sources, an easy way to attack the credibility of a story. Instead, the Carson campaign weakly accused the Times of “taking advantage of an elderly gentleman.” That, of course, raised the question of why the campaign was taking the advice of such a feeble-minded person (and, as Wemple pointed out, why Carson business manager Armstrong Williams suggested the Times reporter talk to Clarridge).

You can love Ben Carson or you can hate him (as I noted earlier, meme-makers love him). You can agree with his views on foreign affairs or disagree. But with Clarridge on the record, you know that at least one of his advisers doesn’t find Carson to be a quick study on foreign issues.

Congratulations (and thanks) to the New York Times for reporting this story strongly with a named source.

Earlier posts on using unnamed sources

New York Times story based on unnamed sources: 2 big corrections

New York Times frequently violates its attribution standards

Washington Examiner story on unnamed sources

Dean Baquet needs to get mad about NY Times’ use of unnamed sources

ESPN’s Ray Rice reporting made responsible use of unnamed sources

From 2005: Unnamed sources should have unpublished opinions

Judith Miller still blames sources for her false reporting

Again: journalists, not sources, are responsible for the accuracy of our stories

Anonymous sources: Factors to consider in using them (and don’t call them anonymous)

A 2005 handout on confidential sources: ‘You didn’t hear this from me …’

Updated lessons: Use confidential sources to get on-the-record interviews

Wall Street Journal lets cowardly sources avoid accountability in Goldman Sachs story

Spokespeople should be named; set the bar high for confidentiality


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My Oculus Rift selfie

My Oculus Rift selfie

Virtual reality has long been one of those things on my someday list, a list that often gets more intention than attention. Unless I get a nudge. Like a request from the dean.

I sent Jerry Ceppos, dean of LSU’s Manship School of Mass Communication, an email earlier this month, asking him to pass on to the faculty my willingness to guest-teach some classes this month. I was excused from teaching a regular course this semester because of my ever-changing plans for finishing my lymphoma treatment. But I enjoyed guest-teaching for a couple of colleagues early in November and had a fairly open calendar for the rest of the month (because I thought I might be in the hospital), so I offered to guest for some other faculty colleagues.

I turned down a colleague who asked about a topic on which I lacked expertise. I figure you should teach what you know. But somehow when the dean asked if I could teach something on my someday list, I decided someday was today (yesterday, actually).

So I taught a class on ethical issues in virtual reality journalism Tuesday, even though I have consumed little VR and produced none. Generally I prefer to teach matters on which I have some expertise, but I also like to continue expanding my expertise, so I agreed to lead a discussion of virtual reality issues in Jerry’s ethics class. I had about two days to learn enough about VR to teach it in a class.

Let’s back up a little: I wasn’t starting at zero here. I’ve heard speculation about VR being the future of news or entertainment or business for a decade or two, always curious. 360-degree visual technology certainly transformed video games from the flat original Super Mario Brothers games I used to play with my sons (though the boys have grown up and moved away, so I don’t play today’s 360 games). Even if video games are more virtual than reality, the concept is the same: Presenting an experience that feels real. Or “virtually” real, whatever that means.

I remember my fascination a decade ago when a real estate agent sent a photographer to the home we were planning to sell, and the photographer set a camera on a tripod, pivoting to shoot 12 (as I recall) photographs of each room of our home. Computer software would stitch the photos together into a “virtual tour” that the agent would post in a digital listing, inviting people to get a 360-degree look at each of our main rooms. I don’t know how much the virtual tour contributed, but the home sold for a good price.

I have a less detailed memory of a reporting project in the 1990s, early in the days of digital photography. I was reporting on the impact of government regulation, mandates and spending in a town, and a photojournalist shot pictures of all the businesses around the town square. A designer used some new software to stitch the pictures together into what appeared to be a panoramic photo of the town square for an informational graphic, in which I reviewed the governmental role in each of the businesses (I just looked unsuccessfully for a clip to share here, but I think my memory is accurate).

More recently, I encouraged (with mixed success) colleagues to try Gigapan panoramic photography, such as a Shanghai skyline photo stitching together 12,000 different photographs or the panoramic photograph of President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration. Click on the photograph to zoom in and move your mouse to pan around and you can clearly see members of the Obama, Bush, Cheney, Clinton and Biden families there, as well as recognizable members of the Supreme Court and Senate.

Improving technology moved the 360-degree viewing experience into video: advances in production technology, including wearable GoPro video cameras; video production software that stitches together moving images; headsets for viewing VR.

In a visit to Syracuse University last year, I first put an Oculus Rift headset on, as Dan Pacheco showed me where he was experimenting with VR applications for journalism. With the headset on, it appeared I was at a flooding scene. As I looked to the left and right or spun all the way around, it felt as if I were right at the scene, with water and flood damage all around me. I felt kind of disoriented wearing the headset and feeling surrounded by the scene. Some people actually feel motion sickness using VR headsets.

That summer, Dan worked at Gannett headquarters in Washington, helping produce a VR project for the Des Moines Register called “Harvest of Change,” giving the wearer of a headset the experience of being on an Iowa farm. (Well, not the full experience: VR technology is effective at providing the sights and sounds of a scene, but I’ve been on some Iowa farms, and you need at least one other sense to get the full experience.)

“Harvest” was a star of last year’s Online News Association conference, but I didn’t actually put on the Oculus Rift and experience the farm. Every time I went by the booth where it was being presented, the crowd was big enough that I decided to come back later.

Two Manship colleagues, Lance Porter and Tad Odell have been learning about VR and we have two Oculus Rift headsets at the school. Lance and Tad guest-taught a class for my Interactive Storytelling Tools class last spring.

I’d noticed other VR developments, including another story featured at this year’s ONA conference and an StoryNext conference last month, neither of which I could attend. So it was like the dean was telling me it was finally time to really learn something about virtual reality.

Jerry was prompted by the New York Times’ release of its project “The Displaced,” and Public Editor Margaret Sullivan’s column about reader reaction to VR, including some ethical issues raised by journalists.

Jerry loaned me the Google Cardboard viewer he received as a Times subscriber. I thought it would make a nice prop, contrasting with the Oculus Rift (shown in the selfie at the top of this post). Margaret noted the paradox of the Times’ invitation to readers to experience cutting-edge digital technology by unfolding and assembling a cardboard device:

The box itself (when assembled, it looked like a Fresh Direct container for three jumbo eggs) struck me as an almost instant anachronism: ready for its place on a historical timeline of the digital age’s evolution. This is what happened in 2015.

But the cardboard goggles generated some enthusiasm:

The structure of my class presentation was pretty easy to plan: I’d start with some discussion of the history and technology of VR, and its potential application in various communication fields represented in the class. Then we’d discuss some ethical issues.

I didn’t have time to produce a VR project, but I wasn’t asked to teach how to use VR, but to discuss ethics. While I already knew of some ethical issues, I knew it was a fairly simple reporting effort to increase my understanding of VR enough to lead the ethics discussion.

Margaret and Jerry (obviously trying to learn VR himself) provided some links that helped in my crash course:

A report from StoryNext, The State of Virtual Reality in Journalism, was perhaps most helpful, both filling in the recent development of VR as well as laying out some good ethical issues to discuss with the class. This is too new a field for me to present do’s and don’ts, but it’s unfolding quickly enough to raise some issues for the students to consider as they consume and potentially produce VR.

And I continued learning about VR after the class, as students told me of VR being used in athletic recruiting and in therapy for soldiers dealing with post-traumatic stress.

Here are the slides I used for 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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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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