Debating the Role of Debate Moderators

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

The upcoming U.S. presidential and vice presidential debates are high-stakes events for the candidates. The debates will also be defining moments for the five journalists tasked with moderating the conversations.

Each journalist will be scrutinized on a number of factors, such as the questions they ask and their ability to control the debate. More than ever, the journalists will also be judged on whether they decide to “fact check” the candidates’ statements.

The campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton called on moderators to correct her opponent if he lies during the debate. The campaign of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump believes it’s not the role of the moderators to fact check the candidates, however.

The truth is that journalists moderating debates – whether among presidential candidates or city council members – can’t allow blatant inaccuracies to go uncorrected. The journalists also can’t be expected to catch every lie or misstatement.

Journalists should seek truth and report it, according to the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. They don’t shed that responsibility just because they’re moderating a debate.

The truth is not partisan or biased.

If one of the candidates, for example, misstates the starting date of the invasion of Iraq, the moderator should be free to say the correct date is March 20, 2003.

Realistically, the journalists are limited by their own knowledge and certainty about a specific topic. The journalists shouldn’t barge into the discussion if they’re unsure about their own facts or figures.

The journalists also shouldn’t attempt to correct candidates on broad statements about policy issues, such as health care or national security.  Each candidate by now should be well versed in his/her opponent’s policies and ready to debate those matters.

So the question is not whether a debate moderator should correct candidates. The correct question is whether a debate moderator appropriately and fairly corrected the candidates.


Andrew M. Seaman is the ethics committee chairperson for the Society of Professional Journalists.

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Canary in the Coalmine: Trust in Media Hits New Low

untitledLess than a third of American adults trust the media at least “a fair amount,” according to a new Gallup poll. The finding is the most dismal since Gallup started taking the poll in the 1970s.

More than any other measure or metric, Gallup’s new report should be a proverbial coalmine canary for the media and democracy.

The research company writes that trust in media reached a peak in 1976, when almost three quarters of American adults believed what they read, watched and heard. As Gallup notes, 1976 followed a number of iconic investigative reports on the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.

In its most recent years, the poll’s findings appear to be cyclical with trust falling most during presidential election years and rebounding slightly during the following three years. The result is a steady decline over several decades.

No single factor explains people’s declining trust in the media. Though, a lot of it – in my opinion – is due to the internet pulling back a curtain on the media starting in the early 2000s. Like food, media is much more palatable when people don’t know what goes into it or how it’s made.

The quantity of media produced also makes the prevalence of mistakes, errors and offenses in media appear greater than in the past. People may have heard about major mistakes or scandals at newspapers or broadcast organizations prior to the internet, but today every piece of media can be picked apart and put on a stake for the world to see.

Another of the many factors influencing trust in media is the current U.S. political climate. People – especially conservatives – feel the media is largely working against their best interests.

While about half of self-identified liberals trust the media at least “a fair amount,” Gallup found trust among conservatives fell to 14 percent – from 32 percent a year ago.

There are no easy remedies to the media’s trust drought, but it needs to be addressed – especially within journalism – for altruistic and business purposes.

First, there is no democracy without a strong and independent press. There is also no democracy if the vast majority of people don’t believe its strong and independent press.

Second, journalism is a business, and truth is its product. If people don’t view stories and reports from the press as the truth, the product is little or no value to consumers and advertisers.

One of the key moves the media must make to build trust is to educate people about itself. People don’t trust what they don’t understand. People in media, media companies and the U.S. education system need to teach people to be educated and critical consumers of media.

Another equally large move that needs to be made specifically within the journalism community is to stop trying to reinvent the core mission of the profession.

As the 2016 presidential election enters its last few weeks of life, critics and commentators continue to call on journalists to invent entirely new approaches to journalism in an effort to cover what is universally seen as unprecedented events.

Journalism does not need a reinvention, however. The profession needs its practitioners to recommit themselves to its core principles, which are outlined in the Society’s Code of Ethics.

The call to commit to those principles may seem out of touch, but at some point people must realize the core mission of journalism is largely unchanged since the dawn of communication.

“While tastes have ebbed and flowed and news has been at times more and less serious, historians have discovered that the basic news values have remained relatively constant throughout time,” write Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in their book The Elements of Journalism.

What changes in journalism is not the underlying mission or principles, but the delivery systems – from print to broadcast to digital.

Journalists need to be advocates for the truth and shun speculation, innuendos, rumors partisanship and lies. Once reported, it’s up to the public to use that information to make decisions in their daily lives and in voting booths.

The road to rebuilding trust between the media and Americans is long, but it’s a journey journalists, news organizations and media companies must start on if they want to continue doing their work beyond the next few decades.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chairperson of the Society’s ethics committee.

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What Should Journalists Learn From Gawker’s Demise?

image1Gawker launched in 2003, but didn’t come into my orbit until three years later during my first year of college. I don’t remember the first Gawker post I read, but the website quickly became one of my daily sources of entertainment and – yes – information.

Now, Gawker is closing up shop after its sale to Univision, which purchased the website’s parent company at a bankruptcy auction earlier this week. The company’s downfall was instigated by a judgment that awarded $140 million to Terry Bollea, who is better known as Hulk Hogan.

Gawker posted secretly recorded video in 2012 of Bollea having sex with a friend’s wife. Tech billionaire Peter Thiel, who Gawker reported as gay in 2007, bankrolled Bollea’s lawsuit as revenge. He openly offered to do the same for other people wronged by Gawker.

A quick Google search will show that the Society of Professional Journalists had an interesting and strained relationship with Gawker during its existence. Last year, the Society stood with the website as it battled a $79,000 bill to fulfill a Public Information Act request. Less than two weeks later, I wrote a post for this blog criticizing Gawker for publicly outing a married man with children for no specific reason.

As the Society’s ethics committee chairperson, I shouldn’t like Gawker. Many of its actions stood in direct opposition to what the Society considers ethical and moral behavior for people in the media. Yet, I rooted for Gawker and that made its missteps all the more painful.

Gawker was bold and brave, but it wasn’t smart enough to save it from itself.

Over the past few months, I gave a lot of thought to what lessons people should take away from Gawker’s legal troubles. Now, I wonder what people should learn from its demise.

Looking back on the events that led to the shuttering of the website, I think the message is that responsible journalism is a good investment.

While people can place blame with Bollea and Thiel for dealing the deadly blow to the website, the truth is that Gawker died from a thousand self-inflicted cuts.

The website shrugged and recoiled time and time again at journalism’s best practices. Time is the only thing that stood in the way of Gawker acting outside the bounds of the law, too.

For example, anyone taking a basic journalism ethics course could see it was an unacceptable act for Gawker to out Thiel in 2007. The post was not illegal, however.

As a jury decided earlier this year, its posting of Bollea’s sex tape in 2012 was illegal. Obviously, posting a sex tape irrelevant to the public is unethical in the eyes of the Society’s Code of Ethics, too.

The bottom line is that Gawker likely would still be publishing next week if it adhered to at least some basic journalistic principles.

Those principles are not meant to make media organizations play it safe. Instead, they’re to show which fights are worth the battle. When journalists follow those principles, the journalism community will rally around their cause. Publishing irrelevant rumors and sex tapes fall outside that realm, however.

This post is not meant to kick Gawker or its employees while they’re down. Instead, it’s to remind other media organizations to use Gawker’s rise and fall as an education. Being bold and brave is not enough. Media organizations need to be responsible, too.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chairperson of the Society’s ethics committee.

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Daily Beast’s Apology Falls Far Short of Gold

image1 (8)The editors of The Daily Beast removed its unethical and dangerous attempt at an investigation into the sex lives of athletes at the Olympics in Brazil.

“We were wrong,” said a note published on the publication’s website. “We will do better.”

While the note offers an apology to the athletes “who may have been inadvertently compromised” by their story, the editors’ note falls far short of what those Olympians and readers deserve.

First, the athletes who were possibly reported as gay or bisexual were not “inadvertently compromised.” The Daily Beast and its reporter Nico Hines deliberately set up fake dates with athletes in the Olympic village for the story.

Second, news consumers are getting tired of news organizations failing, shrugging and saying they’ll do better next time. Instead of offering empty words and promises, news organizations need to explain what went wrong with the initial story and how editors plan to prevent similar mistakes in the future.

Over a year ago, the Columbia Journalism School published a comprehensive report of the actions that led to Rolling Stone’s now-infamous investigation into campus rape. The authors of the report offered several suggestions to improve coverage, including confronting subjects with evidence and reducing the use of pseudonyms.

While the editors of Rolling Stone at the time committed to learning from their mistakes, such as not relying on the word of a single source, they then turned over editorial control of a cover story to its sole subject less than a year later.

Readers need to know what happened leading up to the publication of The Daily Beast’s report. They also need to know what will happen within the news organization to make sure something similar doesn’t happen again at a later date.

Journalism is built on trust. Mistakes like these harm not only the reputations and livelihoods of good journalists and editors at The Daily Beast, but every other journalist.

The Daily Beast and all news organizations that commit serious breaches of professional standards owe their sources, readers and colleagues a better and more concrete explanation than they’ll “do better.”


Andrew M. Seaman is the chairperson of the Society’s ethics committee.

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The Daily Beast Wins Nothing At Olympics

image1 (6)The Daily Beast sent a reporter to cover the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Instead of a story on the numerous important issues affecting the region, the website decided to publish a report that is journalistic trash, unethical and dangerous.


Nico Hines, of The Daily Beast, spent part of his Tuesday night using several mobile dating apps to arrange dates and liaisons with Olympic athletes. He reportedly secured three dates within an hour. The resulting story explains those interactions and the numerous athletes who were also using the apps.

The aim of the report was to answer whether the average person could join the “bacchanalia” of the Olympic village, which is stocked with condoms and virile athletes.

While Hines apparently used a range of dating apps, he was most successful with those catering toward men who have sex with men, such as Grindr. The story has been updated, but the first published version included details that could be used to identify athletes.

There are several major ethical issues with the story, including the fact that this type of reporting is dangerous and can cause needless harm.

For example, many Olympic athletes come from countries where being gay or bisexual is – in some way – punishable by law. Furthermore, some athletes may not be in a position in their personal lives to reveal their sexual orientation.

The reasonable person can argue that people using dating apps give up their expectation of privacy. The Society’s Code of Ethics argues that access to information does not equal the ethical justification to publish or broadcast, however.

Additionally, the pseudo-surreptitious reporting methods used by Hines were completely unnecessary and unjustified. The Society’s Code of Ethics suggests undercover and other surreptitious methods may be used on two conditions. Other reporting methods must have failed. Also, the information must be vital to the public’s interest.

The Daily Beast story does not say whether Hines attempted other reporting methods. Also, there is no reason any person needs to know whether an Olympic athlete is having sexual relations with other people during competition – other than lurid curiosity.

Hines, who is straight, writes that he didn’t lie to the athletes and identified himself as a journalist when asked. Yet, he apparently set up dates and liaisons with athletes for no other reason than to write the story.

Assuming a news organization wished to spend its resources on a story about the sex life of Olympic athletes, it could be easily done with much more tact. For example, a reporter could use dating apps to contact athletes to arrange interviews instead of fake dates. They could also include relevant details about how the various Olympic organizations provide or don’t provide sexual health services to the athletes.

The Daily Beast’s story is a failure that should prompt a review of editorial practices and oversight within the organization. The athletes adversely affected by the story also deserve an apology.

Such a story has no place in a modern media organization.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chairperson of the Society’s ethics committee.

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People in Mass Media Should Be Advocates for Truth

The Society added a line to the Code of Ethics in 2014 as a nod to a new media landscape, where some people may look – but not act – like journalists. Instead of specifically calling out journalists, the Society called on “all people in all media” to be responsible stewards of truth.

On his weekly CNN show Reliable Sources, Brian Stelter ended his program with an editorial on people in media allowing Donald Trump’s vague claims that the November presidential election will be “rigged” to go unchallenged.

Stelter largely focuses on Fox News host Sean Hannity’s treatment of Trump during an interview in which the candidate says the election may be rigged. Also, a conversation with Newt Gingrich in which Hannity suggests voter fraud was a problem in the 2012 election between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.

“Hannity’s not a journalist, but he has a megaphone, and he’s using his megaphone irresponsibly,” says Stelter.

In his criticism, Stelter hit on an area that sometimes stymies media critics. Cable networks facing criticism of Hannity or other partisan hosts typically hide behind a vague notion that certain programs in their lineup should not be held to the same standards as their news programming.

The Society’s Code of Ethics says that’s not a good enough excuse, though. If a person wants to act like a journalist by interviewing presidential candidates or other newsmakers, the person must be held accountable to some standards.

The one standard all people – whether a political reporter for The New York Times or Sean Hannity – can be held accountable to is the truth.

Journalists and other people in mass media need to be advocates for truth. Sometimes that requires people to challenge their sources or subjects. Sometimes that requires people to demand evidence from sources or subjects to support statements. Sometimes that requires people to tell their sources and subjects they’re wrong.

These actions do not mean a person should become an advocate for a certain political party, candidate or other position. The fate of Democracy is above the pay grade of any one journalist or mass media figure. Instead, it rests in the hands of the public, who should base their decisions on the truth.

When people in the mass media don’t advocate for the truth, it falls upon their peers to point out the failure and correct the record – as Stelter did to Hannity.

The truth is the least the public should be able to expect from any person in the mass media.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chairperson of the Society’s ethics committee.

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SPJ is Not Behind a Mass Media Conspiracy to Skew Coverage of Terrorism

The Society’s Twitter mentions periodically get inundated by people who believe the organization is orchestrating a plot among major media organizations – for unknown reasons – to spin news about acts of terrorism.

In its latest iteration, a popular Twitter user with the name Amy Mek posted Sunday that a Society memo “teaching media how to spin Muslim terrorism” leaked.

Some Twitter users assumed the memo was part of the hack involving the Democratic National Committee.

The truth is that the memo is not a memo. There is no conspiracy or plot. Also, it wasn’t leaked online.

The poorly edited graphic that accompanies all these Twitter posts is from a resolution passed by the Society in October 2001 at its national convention in Seattle. The resolution – as far as I can tell – has been available on the Society’s website since at least July 2006.

While I was only in middle school when the resolution was passed by the Society, I glean from the information that it was created in response to the September 11 attacks in New York, Washington and Pennsylvania.

Since this graphic appears to show up on Twitter every few months, I think it’s important to clarify its origin – even if some people won’t believe the explanation.

As for the text, the heart of its message is still relevant today as journalists report on an evolving world of terrorism.

I encourage everyone to read the whole document to understand that its goal – like the Society’s Code of Ethics – is to encourage responsible reporting of all people and events.

You can read the whole document here.


Andrew Seaman is the chairperson of the Society’s ethics committee.

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Theater of the Absurd: Cable News Contributors

unnamed

Photo Credit: Flickr

Few stories are more common during election years than controversies surrounding cable news contributors, who are paid to come on air at the beck and call of news organizations.

Fox News let Newt Gingrich go earlier this week as reports surfaced that he may be Donald Trump’s running mate on the GOP’s White House ticket. Social media then erupted Wednesday after a website reported Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, is receiving severance payments from the campaign while being employed by CNN.

The concern is usually that these cable news channels crossed an ethical line by employing people who are either too cozy with candidates or may be considering their own run for office.

But to chastise Fox News, CNN or MSNBC for employing contributors too close to presidential campaigns excuses the fact that these cable news channels are already paying newsmakers for interviews – also known as checkbook journalism.

As speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives for four years, Gingrich held one of the most powerful positions in the country. As Trump’s campaign manager, Lewandowski was one of the closest advisers to a person who may become the next president.

Fox News and CNN are guaranteed almost exclusive access to newsworthy information by signing up Gingrich and Lewandowski, respectively, as contributors.

The SPJ Code of Ethics says that ethical journalists should not pay for access to news.

There are a few ethical issues surrounding checkbook journalism. One is that offering payments will lead people to provide information to make a few dollars instead of speaking when it’s in everyone’s best interest. There is also the question of whether the information that is paid for is true or just what the source thinks the journalists wants to hear.

As Jack Shafer pointed out years ago, there are also practical reasons why journalists shouldn’t pay for news.

Calling out any news organization for checkbook journalism is a bit futile, because many regularly pay sources. Some offer money outright while others are more inventive. SPJ does point out egregious examples of checkbook journalism from time to time.

Chastising cable news channels and their contributors for being too cozy with campaigns is beyond futile, however. The cries are too late. By the time a former speaker of the house, campaign manager, politician or other newsmaker serving as a paid contributor becomes too close to the news being discussed, the journalism ethics train already left the station.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee.

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Harnessing Energy for Change

Flickr Creative Commons

Flickr Creative Commons

There is a lively conversation about how journalists should cover traumatic events, and it’s time to harness that energy to facilitate change.


Wednesday’s post about the movement to omit the names and images of gunmen from news stories elicited a strong online response. People offered their various opinions on how journalists should cover traumatic events. While those opinions differ, responsible journalism is the shared goal.

The Society of Professional Journalists works each day to encourage and promote responsible journalism through its Code of Ethics, which is widely viewed as the industry’s standard. The reason it’s so widely accepted and referenced is that – at least in its current form – it’s the result of hours of discussions, public input and review.

The same rigor that serves as the foundation for the Society’s code should be applied to the conversation surrounding the coverage of traumatic events. The result will be an evidence- and practice-based document that provides journalists with guidelines for covering events spanning from suicides, natural disasters, domestic terrorism and mass shootings.

In the coming months, I’ll be working to bring together a group of journalists, journalism organizations, news organizations, ethicists, researchers, victim rights advocates and key interest groups. My hope is that the group will meet in person over two days to discuss best practices and create the document. Then, it will be open for public comment and discussion before its final adoption by members of the working group.

Then, an education campaign will be needed to disseminate the guidelines and inform journalists of their importance.

This will not happen overnight, however. To ensure this process is a success, there will need to be a lot of work and cooperation between different people, groups and organizations.  I hope to have an update soon, and that will be posted to this blog.

If you’d like to be part of the working group, please feel free to sign up for more information below:


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee.

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Ethics Week: How to Solve a Problem like Unpublishing

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Flickr Creative Commons

As Sylvia Stead of the Globe and Mail declared this week, “We are not in the unpublishing business.” But that issue has become ethically – and legally – tricky in the eternal nightlife of the internet, and one that news organizations would do well to consider.

Unpublishing often gets paired with the issue of online corrections: in an era where a news story can be altered almost as quickly as it can be published, to what extent do we acknowledge the mistakes we make? Some news organizations handle it on a case-by-case basis: fixing mistakes as soon as they come up, and deciding later whether to put an explanatory note on the story depending on the severity of the mistake. A misspelled street name might not require a note stating that a previous version of the story had it wrong, while misattributing a quote might require such a note to avoid confusing the reader.

But unpublishing – actually removing a story from the online archives – is a much bigger deal, and one that seems to have little consensus.

Stead wrote that she’s had more than a dozen requests this year to remove information from the Globe and Mail for reasons varying from “embarrassing” to unflattering photos to criminal convictions. In one case, she said, a woman wanted a positive article about herself and her ex-husband removed because she didn’t want to be reminded of a bad marriage.

Kathy English of the Toronto Star told the Associated Press Media Editors that content archived by newspapers is easily accessible to the entire world and lives “virtually forever.” She conducted an online journalism credibility project, surveying policies by more than 100 North American news organizations and visiting or interviewing ombudsmen and other news organizations.

“There is an overall strong reluctance to remove published content from news web sites,” English said. “Although about half of the industry leaders surveyed have evolved policies and practices for handling unpublishing requests, no overall industry best practices have yet emerged.”

Unpublishing requests might come from the journalist, who may be embarrassed by a mistake or uncomfortable with having the subject matter attached to his name. It might come from a source who is embarrassed by the story: in a 2010 piece published by Poynter, the subject of a story asked that the story be taken down from a community news site. Publisher Barry Parr declined to do so, but instead removed the man’s name and requested that the story be removed from Google’s cache. He told Poynter that he did so because the story was essentially a brief quoting another media source, there was no wrongdoing on the part of the subject, and the subject had been “rational and respectful” in asking.

But is simply being embarrassed by a story cause enough to remove it? In many cases, news outlets decide it might be better to leave an “embarrassing” story up with an explanatory note indicating the eventual outcome.

Then comes the practical upshot: every day stories evolve, with new developments that change our perspective and understanding of a story’s meaning. How practical is it to go back and mark every previous story with the latest updates on the off chance someone is reading the archive and doesn’t know how it turned out?

There is a tendency in these days of instant electronic news to see online posts as something fleeting and malleable. It is published one moment and can be unpublished the next. Does it matter? Did anyone see it? How much of an impact did it make, when it is not printed on paper?

The classic example is a case of a person accused of a crime and later found not guilty or otherwise cleared of wrongdoing. Should that person have the story hanging around her Google results for the rest of her life?

On the other hand, making the story disappear from our archives or even from Google doesn’t make it disapper entirely. The internet is pretty much forever, and just because a newspaper removes a story from its archive doesn’t mean that there is no separate web archive or screen capture somewhere out there in the vastness of the ‘net.

“It is the equivalent of going into libraries and burning books you don’t like,” said Daily Mail Online publisher Martin Clarke in a 2014 article in the Globe and Mail on a EU court’s ruling that Google must comply with requests to remove articles from its search results.

Here’s the crux of it: unpublishing doesn’t make a story unhappen. Just ask Rolling Stone: unpublishing its famously flawed “Rape on Campus” story certainly didn’t make it disappear from the nation’s memory.

And in some cases, the unpublishing option creates a bigger stir. BuzzFeed discovered that last year when it removed an opinion piece by Arabelle Sicardi criticizing Dove’s new beauty campaign. At first the article was removed due to a “tone not consistent with BuzzFeed.” But then it was later republished, and editor Ben Smith declared on Twitter, “I blew it.” As The Atlantic later reported, BuzzFeed has a written standard that editorial posts should not be deleted because of content or because a stakeholder requested it.

Stead reports that now there are “reputation specialists,” attempting to scrub the internet for clients trying to hide past misdeeds. And that’s not just a U.K. thing: witness the University of California-Davis, which has paid a public relations firm at least $175,000 to try to erase the image of a campus police officer spraying seated student protesters with pepper spray in 2011. The firm tried to remove records of the incident from Google search results, as well as counteract criticism of the administration’s response.

However, as multiple news outlets have reported: It’s ultimately useless. The Sacramento Bee found that no matter how much money the UC-Davis paid, the story was everywhere.

However any given news organization decides to handle unpublishing, it’s vitally important that a solid policy be developed and followed, making sure that editors and writers alike are trained in its standards. As English discovered, there is a tendency to fly through the internet by the seat of our pants and treat every ethical question as a case-by-case issue. But it’s those last-minute, gut-reaction decisions that can sometimes cause us to overreact and lose perspective, making decisions that we may regret, or even make the situation worse.

The bigger lesson to take from this, for both the subjects of stories and those who write them: Whether in print or online, what we put out on the internet usually can’t be taken back, for better or for worse. Unpublishing doesn’t make it go away, because the internet is forever. And that is a reminder to us to be cautious about what we write, because our mistakes will follow us as well.


Elizabeth Donald is a member of SPJ’s ethics committee.

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