Get the Story Even in ‘Media Free’ Zones

Flickr Creative Commons

Flickr Creative Commons

Despite a long history of protesters craving the attention of journalists, those calling for change on campuses across the U.S. are now attempting to ban media access and coverage of their campaigns.

Most recently, The Republican in Springfield, Massachusetts, quoted a sit-in organizer at nearby Smith College as saying journalists may only cover their protest if they “participate and articulate their solidarity with black students and students of color.”

While I could spend this post numerating reasons why protesters and colleges should allow media access to their gatherings, I’ll simply recommend that they read Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff’s The Race Beat, which details the crucial role of responsible journalism during the civil rights era.

Instead, this post is directed at the journalists who are faced with signs and people turning them away at protests and gatherings – which are not uncommon occurrences.

The first step is to lobby for access. Lobbying may require talking to several people and being creative. In some cases, there are legal actions that permit journalists to enter or observe locations, but that’s outside my proverbial wheelhouse.

If journalists can’t gain access, it’s important for that information to be explained in whatever story eventually emerges from the reporting. The story should detail who blocked access and why. All information should be attributed to a source.

Additionally, journalists may still be able to report on the protests through other channels. For example, what are the thoughts and comments of those who are the object of the protesters’ demands? Who is allowed in the protest or gathering space and why? What can people elsewhere say about the protests and gatherings? Do other students know what is going on inside the space?

Even though they are likely aggravated, journalists should also make sure their reporting is fair and balanced. Thorough, ethical and responsible reporting is always the best defense and character reference for journalists.

At the end of the day, journalists still need to be responsible and dogged in their reporting – even in the face of opposition.

Andrew M. Seaman is chair of SPJ‘s ethics committee.

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No Excuse for Assaulting, Threatening Journalists at University of Missouri

Screen capture from video showing woman assaulting and threatening journalists are the University of Missouri in Columbia.

Screen capture from video showing woman assaulting and threatening journalists at the University of Missouri in Columbia.

If there is any place in the U.S. that should support the freedoms guaranteed by the First Amendment and the Society’s Code of Ethics, it’s the campus of the nation’s oldest journalism school. Unfortunately, protesters and some faculty members at the University of Missouri in Columbia disagree.

Students linked arms to keep journalists — namely Tim Tai — from other students protesting the school’s administration and its lack of response to ongoing discrimination on campus, according to Slate. To make matters worse, professors — supposedly from the university’s communications school — blocked and threatened student reporters from covering their own campus.

After assaulting a reporter’s camera, a red-headed woman identified by media outlets as a communications professor, walks toward a group of protesters and asks for “some muscle over here” to remove Mark Schierbecker, who identified himself as a reporter and uploaded the video to YouTube.

There is no explanation and no excuse for professors – whether they teach communications or physics – to assault and physically threaten students. No one deserves that treatment – especially journalists trying to tell protesters’ stories. Whoever assaulted and threatened the student journalist should be ashamed and held accountable for their actions.

The student journalists in the video, on the other hand, should be commended for the responsible behavior throughout a clearly evolving and intense situation.

The bottom line is that the same First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution that protects the freedom of assembly also guarantees the freedom of the press.

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

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ONA Unveils Ethics Project

unnamed (1)The Online News Association (ONA) unveiled this week its much-anticipated project that allows people to “Build Your Own Ethics Code.”

ONA’s website features a tool that allows people to add specific “building blocks” to a group of fundamental principles that should apply to all journalists. The build-your-own approach is meant to create unique codes for people and organizations.

The project “recognizes that no single ethics code can reflect the needs of everyone in our widely varied profession,” according to ONA’s website. “We believe the best hope for convincing all journalists to adopt and live by an ethics code is to give them ownership and flexibility in creating one.”

There are obviously differences between the approaches of ONA and the Society, which continues to endorse a single document of abiding principles as its ethical code. However, comparing the two approaches is a futile exercise.

The committee responsible for revising the Society’s Code of Ethics was conscious of the fact that it should represent journalism presented in any media: print, broadcast and digital. From the small newspaper without a Twitter account or website to the Huffington Post, the Society’s Code needs to provide guidance.

To accomplish its goal, the committee avoided language specific to any media. After all, journalism is essentially unchanged since the dawn of time: something happens and people tell each other about that something. Journalists now just tell people about events in different ways.

Also, the Society’s Code “is not a set of rules, rather a guide that encourages all who engage in journalism to take responsibility for the information they provide, regardless of medium,” according to the document.

ONA, on the other hand, took a much different approach by allowing people and organizations to create very specific codes. The project is reminiscent of a common project employed by college journalism professors, who often encourage their students to create personal ethical codes.

The ONA approach also mirrors that of large news organizations that create unique ethical codes. Those organizations include the New York Times, NPR, Reuters and AP.

What’s interesting is that many of the people who worked on ONA’s project also helped last year to revise the Society’s Code. The common origin shows there is room in the world for both codes from ONA and the Society – along with the dozens of codes from other journalism and news organizations.

In general, every person – whether he or she is a journalist or not – has an innate sense of right and wrong that will not be perfectly captured by an ethical code. What’s wonderful is that there are more and more resources to provide people with guidance as they wrestle with the unique challenges of being a journalist.

Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society’s Ethics Committee. He’s also a journalist in New York.

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All Student Journalists Need the First Amendment

Flickr/Ed Uthman (

Flickr/Ed Uthman (

Few actions are more offensive than educational institutions stomping on the First Amendment rights of students.

Those breaches include the all-too-frequent contamination of student media by administrators and marketing officials.

Butler University, a private school in Indianapolis, recently removed and replaced the faculty adviser of its student newspaper with one of the institution’s spokesmen, according to the Indianapolis Business Journal (IBJ).

While the reason for her removal wasn’t explained, Loni McKown told the news organization she believes it’s due to accidentally forwarding a confidential email to the paper’s student editor. McKown remains on the faculty of the university, but was told termination is possible if she advises students working for the paper, according to the IBJ.

Regardless of the reason for McKown’s removal, Butler University should be ashamed and embarrassed for replacing her with its own spokesman. There are obvious lines in what is and is not acceptable in journalism, and one must wonder whether the people making decisions for Butler University’s school newspaper and journalism school understand those very basic principles.

Educational institutions are small ecosystems that mimic the larger world. The administration and its student government are the politicians of that system, and the student media is its proverbial fourth estate. No U.S. citizen should accept the government restraining the press, and that should not stop at the grounds of any educational institution.

Student media at educational institutions serve two very important purposes. The first purpose is to inform the university community about events – both good and bad – impacting their lives. The second purpose is to train students who will someday go on to become journalists and news consumers. People should question an intuition’s motives and value if it ever tries to disturb either of those missions.

In this case, the IBJ writes that the Butler University spokesman appointed as the new adviser offers an impressive resume that includes decades of experience at one of the U.S.’s great newspapers and a year serving as the school newspaper’s public editor. Still, would the average person feel comfortable with one of President Obama’s press secretaries editing the New York Times?

Student media are the laboratories for many of the U.S.’s future journalists, who are the torchbearers of public enlightenment. The Society of Professional Journalists firmly states in its Code of Ethics that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy.  If people allow the education and training of the country’s future journalists to be compromised, they are taking a sledgehammer to one of the tenets of democracy.

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


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Thank You, WDBJ-7

Image accompanying WDBJ-7’s Twitter post.

Following the murders of Alison Parker and Adam Ward today in Virginia, journalists and news organizations around the country made a series of bad decisions. This blog often focuses on mistakes, but not today.

Instead, I’d like to commend the conduct of Parker and Ward’s colleagues in the WDBJ-7 newsroom following the shooting. Today, the people at that CBS affiliate were the pinnacle of good and ethical journalism.

Not only did the station’s journalists responsibly report through unimaginable circumstances, they guided and counseled their grieving community members, who were also searching for information about a developing story. Despite what many people think, good journalists are not unfeeling creatures. Passion and compassion are among the most important items in a journalist’s toolbox.

The journalists of WDBJ-7 honored Alison and Adam today by exemplifying what journalism should be.

For more information on today’s events, please visit WDBJ-7’s website here:

A statement from Paul Fletcher, the president-elect of the Society of Professional Journalists, can be found here:

Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee. He’s a journalist in New York City.

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Journalists Can Responsibly Use Hacked Data

Ashley Madison HackStories are starting to trickle out of the massive hack of Ashley Madison, which is touted as a dating website for people who are already married.

The hack exposed the information of an estimated 30 million people.

Obviously, people are hesitant to report and read stories based on a hack, because the data are stolen and offer little value to the public. These are fair and rational arguments, but I disagree with both.

It’s a very dangerous precedent for journalists to ignore information on the basis of whether or not it’s stolen from the owner.  As long as journalists were not involved in the actual theft of the material, they should feel free to take a look at the information to see if it’s of interest to the public.

In this case, the data is from a website that facilitates the affairs of married people. One may argue that there is no public interest in the personal lives of anyone who pops up in the data. In general, this argument is valid, but should not be generalized to the entire data dump.

For example, there is no public interest in John Smith from down the street having an affair. The situations changes when John Smith is using his government email address and/or credit card to manage his website membership, however.

The bottom line is that journalists should feel free to mine the data from hacks for information that should be elevated to the public, but those stories must be responsibly reported.

In this case, journalists should verify information and allow people accused of having an account a chance to respond to allegations. Journalists must also explain why they believe people should know about the information. The explanation must be better than to simply pander to lurid curiosity.

Finally, journalists and news organization should aim to minimize harm. Minimizing harm does not mean journalists should simply avoid reporting on important stories. All journalism, in general, creates some level of harm – ranging from discomfort to mental distress. The good of the information being brought to light should outweigh the harms.

As in many cases, the question is not whether a story should be done. The question is how to responsibly report a story.

Andrew M. Seaman is the Society’s ethics chairman. He lives and works in New York City.

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It’s Alive: Code’s Supporting Documents Linked

Screenshot of the SPJ Code of Ethics on the organization's website.

Screenshot of the SPJ Code of Ethics on the organization’s website.

After a year of work by the Society’s Ethics Committee, I’m happy to announce that each principle in the Society’s Code of Ethics offers additional resources to guide journalists in making responsible decisions.

The new resources are not part of the Code or formally endorsed by the Society. Instead, they are meant to show journalists and other people interested in the profession’s practices potential avenues of action.

For example, a journalist considering granting a person anonymity can consult the “Seek Truth and Report It” tenet of the Code. There, they will find the principle warning journalists against granting anonymity. If they click on the principle in the online version of the Code, they will find additional explanations and suggested actions from the Society, Reuters and NPR.

The supporting documents behind the Code’s principles are never meant to be complete. Instead, each page accompanying the principles will change as resources are found or become obsolete.

For those with unanswered ethical questions after consulting the Code and its supporting documents, please contact the Society’s Ethics Hotline.

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


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Learning from Gawker’s Attempt to Erase the Past

Visit for information on its Code of Ethics.

Visit for information on its Code of Ethics.

Journalism is a high-risk profession. While the work is rewarding, one mistake may lead to a very public downfall.

Journalists and journalism organizations sometimes think one click helps erase the past.’s Jordan Sargent published a story on Thursday night alleging an executive at a publishing company mailed money to an escort for a rendezvous in Chicago. In terms of journalism ethics, the story is garbage. By Friday night, Gawker Media’s Founder and CEO Nick Denton removed the story.

Denton acknowledges that removing the story won’t turn back the clock and erase the embarrassment the subject feels, but “this decision will establish a clear standard for future stories.”

A statement from Gawker Media’s staff, which recently unionized, revealed the decision to remove the story was made by the executive arm of the company. The staff said it was an example of the management breaching the divide between the company’s business and editorial units.

Putting aside the apparent conflict within Gawker, both Denton and Gawker Media’s staff ignore the question of whether removing the story from the website was the right decision.

Denton’s reasoning to remove the story is that it doesn’t align with the website’s values, which appear to evolve within his post. The Gawker Media staff appears more concerned about the business arm of the company making editorial decisions.

As a general rule, stories should not be removed once they are published – online or in physical archives. Removing or “unpublishing” stories undermines the public’s trust in journalism. Also, stories – especially those archived on the Internet – don’t completely disappear. Journalists should remain in control of the information they publish.

In Gawker’s case, the story became so widely circulated and cited that unpublishing likely had little impact on correcting the wrongs it caused. After all, the story is still available through Internet archive websites.

Instead of unpublishing stories, Mallary Tenore suggests some alternative actions on that may be more acceptable to readers and sources. For example, the news organization can add an addendum to the archived story. Or, write another story about the situation.

There are a few exceptions to the general rule, however. For example, stories may be removed or “unpublished” when there are legal concerns and the potential for significant harm.

All newsrooms should have a policy on when to remove stories from its archives, but less than half had such a policy as of 2009, according to a report by Kathy English, the public editor of The Toronto Star. English looked at the topic as part of the Online Journalism Credibility Projects of the Associated Press Managing Editors, which is now known as the Associated Press Media Editors.

Journalism organizations need a policy on unpublishing in place. Throughout Europe, people may bypass news organizations and request that search engines like Google remove links about them from search results. In fact, over a quarter million people in Europe asked Google to remove information about them from search results, according to’s Mona Chalabi on NPR.

In the U.S., people need to go directly to the person or entity – like news organizations – who own the original content, however.

Based on her report, English offers some best practices for newsroom. Those include having a policy in place, explaining the newsroom’s unpublishing policy to readers and considering the implications of a story before publishing. She also suggests questions journalists in newsrooms should ask themselves about unpublishing.

When a news organization makes the decision to unpublish a story, it must also realize that action is not the final step in the process. Readers deserve to be informed about the reason and decision to unpublish a story.

Kelly McBride writes on how news organizations can maintain credibility when they unpublish stories. For example, a news organization can write a precisely worded explanation about why the story was removed. Or, redirect people to accurate information if the original story was inaccurate. later added a note to the story’s original link, which explains that the story was removed from the website. The addendum also links to a story about the decision, Denton’s note and the statement from the editorial staff.

While mistakes can never be completely avoided, errors can be minimized when journalism organizations subscribe to the profession’s best practices and implement editorial policies that ensure only true, accurate and fair stories make it to publication. When that fails, the process to remove a story should be open and explained in detail to readers.

As always, good journalism is the best defense for journalists, sources, readers and democracy.

Andrew Seaman is the ethics chair for the Society of Professional Journalists.


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We Expect Better, Gawker

Illustration of Gawker homepage of July 17, 2015

Photo illustration of Gawker homepage of 07/17/2015

(UPDATED July 17, 2015 at 3:40 p.m. EDT)

Gawker published a post yesterday suggesting the website Reddit is ignorant to the harassment and abuse that occurs within its walls.

The news and gossip site then published a post that alleges a relatively unknown married man paid a male escort for sex.

Basically, the post says the married brother of Timothy Geithner, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Treasury, contacted an unnamed escort. The man arranged to meet the escort in Chicago, but the rendezvous ultimately never occurred.

The post prompted immediate backlash toward Gawker, its editorial leadership and the post’s author. I sent tweets to both Gawker and the post’s author Jordan Sargent.

I received a few tweets and messages from people who said they shared my outrage, but they also asked why I’d expect Gawker to follow basic journalism standards anyway.

If Gawker acts like a journalism organization, walks like a journalism organization, talks like a journalism organization, it better try and follow some of journalism’s basic standards.

Earlier in the day, the website published posts about the mass shooting on a military base in Tennessee, the Islamic State and the case of the mass shooting in a Colorado movie theater. Gawker is clearly acting as a source for news produced by professional writers.

Granted, Gawker is not a shining example of journalism integrity, but people go to it and similar websites to get information presented in quick, entertaining and often smart methods.

My biggest problem with the post – other than it being in poor taste, is that it appears no thought was spared to consider the potential damage this post would bring upon the married man, his wife and children. Also, other than having a prominent brother and – what I’m assuming is – a well-paying job, the married man has little relevancy outside of his family and profession.

Under the tenet of minimize harm, the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists says journalists should “realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention.”

What’s more, the Code says journalists should, “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”

Why did anyone need to read a post based on the word of an unnamed person that a private individual allegedly tried to arrange a meeting? None. What’s more, it likely caused significant harm and turmoil in several people’s lives.

As for the escort remaining anonymous, the Code says journalists should identify sources clearly, because the “public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.”

The Code goes on to say that journalists should “consider sources’ motives before promising anonymity.” They should also, “reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere. Explain why anonymity was granted.”

In this case, the post says the male escort “does not want to reveal his identity for professional reasons.” My question to the post’s author is why did Gawker agree to protect the identity of someone who admitted to blackmailing a person, and then turn around and publish a hit piece with no regard for the subject’s life or the lives of his family?

When the initial backlash began, a Twitter account allegedly belonging to Max Read, Gawker’s editor-in-chief, showed no remorse for the post.

Several people responded to his tweet with what I consider to be an appropriate response: Why?

While the damage is likely already done, I hope Gawker’s leadership and the author of the post will apologize.

Until then, shame on you, Gawker.

 UPDATE – July 17 at 3:40 p.m. EDT

In a post published this afternoon, Gawker founder Nick Denton said the original story has been pulled from the website. While Denton acknowledges the post likely led to embarrassment for the subject, he did not apologize for the website causing that harm.

This action will not turn back the clock. David Geithner’s embarrassment will not be eased. But this decision will establish a clear standard for future stories. It is not enough for them simply to be true. They have to reveal something meaningful. They have to be true and interesting. These texts were interesting, but not enough, in my view.


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Some big news about the Society’s Code of Ethics

When the committee revising the Society’s Code of Ethics met on Ohio State University’s campus last summer, an idea without a name was born.

Screenshot of the SPJ Code of Ethics on the organization's website.

Screenshot of the SPJ Code of Ethics on the organization’s website.

The idea was to create a library of resources for people seeking additional guidance in the ethical practice of journalism.

After months of work, people now accessing the Society’s Code of Ethics on see small boxes and arrows next to specific principles. Those small boxes link to pages with resources that provide additional guidance related to that principle.

For example, a new page pops up when people click on the principle that says ethical journalists should “never plagiarize” and “always attribute.” The links on that new page include a position paper from the Society’s Ethics Committee about plagiarism and attribution, and a blog post from Steve Buttry about the importance of linking.

By the end of next week, each principle within the Society’s Code of Ethics will have supporting documents to aid people looking for guidance. The library of documents will never be complete. Instead, these lists will change as more resources are found, or as resources become obsolete.

Also, it’s important to note that these documents are not part of the Society’s Code of Ethics, which is found here.

SPJ's Code of Ethics in Arabic

SPJ’s Code of Ethics in Arabic

What’s more, people around the world will be able to begin using the Code thanks to months of work by the members of the Society’s International Journalism Community. The community’s members graciously volunteered their time to translate the Code into several languages.

Currently, the new version of the Code is available in Arabic, English, Chinese, French, German and Spanish. Soon, more languages will be added, including Russian.

As always, people with recommendations and thoughts on the supporting documents or translations should contact the Ethics Hotline at

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Newest Posts

Protected: A timely mistake November 24, 2015, 2:08 am
Introducing/remembering Austin Kiplinger November 23, 2015, 12:32 am
Get the Story Even in ‘Media Free’ Zones November 20, 2015, 2:03 am
KaLeigh Underwood of EKU is SPJ’s Member of Month November 19, 2015, 3:46 pm
Membership planning proposal approved (I voted no) November 19, 2015, 2:29 pm
Journalism codes of ethics from around the world November 18, 2015, 2:43 am
Bad news November 16, 2015, 3:21 pm

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