Toronto Star Fails in Vaccine Investigation

Photo Illustration (Photo Credit: Flickr/ El Alvi)

Photo Illustration (Photo Credit: Flickr/ El Alvi)

Two days after I published a post on this blog about the importance of using data to report on medicine, the Toronto Star published – what the paper called – an investigation into Gardasil, which is one of the vaccines used to prevent the human papillomavirus.


While the Star’s story included medical experts defending the vaccine, the paper relied on anecdotal reports to support a hypothesis that the drug has a “dark side” that includes undisclosed complications, including death.

As I wrote in my post on February 3, journalists have a responsibility to prevent people from being harmed by incorrect information. In this case, one can make a strong argument that the Star’s failure to adequately report its story may lead to future cancers and even deaths.

The human papillomavirus – better known as HPV – is a sexually transmitted infection responsible for a number of cancers and other complications, including genital warts. Most importantly, HPV is responsible for the vast majority of cervical cancers.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says on its website that almost all adults who are sexually active will be infected with at least one strain of HPV during their lives. Most infections will clear up on their own, but about one in 10 will persist.

There are two vaccines currently approved to protect against HPV in the U.S. Cervarix, which is manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline, and Gardasil, which is manufactured by Merck. Gardasil is the only vaccine approved for use in males, who can also get HPV and suffer from its complications.

While the CDC says the vaccines are safe and effective, the agency reports some people experience side effects ranging from pain at the injection site, headache, nausea, dizziness and fainting.

The U.S. recommends vaccination for boys and girls from ages 11 through 12 years, and teens who were not previously vaccinated. Specifically, females can get the series of three shots through age 26 and males through age 21. Gay men, bisexual men and other men who have sex with men can also receive the vaccine through age 26 years.

If people reading the Star’s story are persuaded to not be vaccinated, some may go on to develop cancers that would have been prevented by the vaccine. Additionally, some of those cancers may ultimately cause people’s deaths.

While the Star – as of right now – did not retract its story, the paper’s publisher said the publication failed in its job. Additionally, the paper’s public editor Kathy English wrote a comprehensive report on the matter on Friday.

“It’s too bad there isn’t a vaccination to prevent journalistic misstep. I suspect we’d all line up for that shot about now. The fallout here has been devastating for the newsroom,” wrote English.

English places a lot of blame on the story’s presentation, such as the accompanying headline and pictures. While those elements didn’t help, the article itself would lead a reasonable reader to assume the vaccine may cause serious complications.

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff told CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, that he suspects the Star’s story will lead some people to not be vaccinated, and ultimately develop cancers.

“And that’s really a horrible thing for the Toronto Star to have done,” he told the CBC.

The Star already took some steps to reduce the harm its article caused, including admitting the paper failed in its responsibilities and adding several notes to the online publication. My hope is that the Star will report the story again, except with a much more critical eye.


 On a personal note: I think it’s important to say that I’m currently in the middle of receiving the HPV vaccine – as recommended by the CDC.


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

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Covering the Transgender Community

Photo Illustration

Photo Illustration (Original Photo Credit: Flickr/George Kelly)

A very bright magazine cover caught my eyes one day as I waited to pay for a few items at a grocery store.


The magazine In Touch edited Bruce Jenner’s face into another picture of a woman. For effect, the magazine added bright lips, thin eyebrows and rosy cheeks.

Unlike the magazine’s name, the cover was out of touch, distasteful and offensive. The Society’s Code of Ethics is clear that journalists should treat sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.

The cover and other recent media coverage of Jenner is based on reports that the reality TV star and Olympic athlete is transgender. Jenner did not make any such public claim, however.

While U.S. journalists are increasingly familiar with transgender people in public roles, they likely haven’t reported on a high-profile person’s gender transition.

In response, the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association (NLGJA), of which I am also a member, published an open letter about covering transgender people.

We are not an advocacy group. Our mission is to ensure fair and accurate coverage of issues that affect the lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) communities.

In the letter, NLGJA offers sound advice and terms for covering transgender people. The advice also covers how to approach the unconfirmed reports about Jenner’s transition.

The letter can be found on NLGJA’s website. Additionally, the organization offers a comprehensive stylebook on LGBT terminology.


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

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What We Should Ask About Williams’ Mistake

(UPDATED: February 6, 2015 at 3:13 p.m. EST and February 10, 2015 at 8:12 p.m. EST )

Brian Williams aired a heartwarming story the other night on NBC Nightly News.


He talked about a tribute he arranged for a retired soldier, who protected his NBC News crew during the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

Since then, Williams’ version of events was called into question by a report appearing in Stars and Stripes, which is a publication of the U.S. Department of Defense. Williams admitted he made a mistake by confusing whether the helicopter he rode in during the invasion was hit by ground fire.

As it turns out, Williams’ version of events changed over the years. For an excellent summary of what happened and how Williams’ story changed since 2003, I suggest you read Mike Sisak’s Tumblr post here.

Of course, people are now debating whether Williams should be fired from NBC. Also, people are debating if Williams intentionally changed his story or simply misremembered.

At this point, the public doesn’t know enough to say what Williams’ intent – if he had any – was to change his story. NBC should investigate how and why his story changed since 2003. More importantly, NBC should ask how the incorrect version of the story made it to air.

The medical

As many people pointed out over the last few days, it’s very possible Williams simply messed up the facts while remembering what happened 12 years ago.

Dr. Ford Vox, a brain injury specialist based in Atlanta, makes a compelling case on CNN.com about why people should give Williams the benefit of doubt.

“Williams has told his story many times before, and each time he tells it, he is retrieving it. Errors happen during memory retrieval all the time, just as errors happen in cell division; biology isn’t computer science. Furthermore, he is subtly modifying his memory with his every retelling. Revisions occur as the memory is re-encoded based on what’s going on at the time he tells the story. Circumstances like a gabby, friendly free-wheeling interview with David Letterman.”

I, too, will give Williams the benefit of doubt — because there is simply not enough information to know whether or not the newsman meant to deceive his viewers.

The ethical

There is enough information to say NBC News should review its editorial practices, however. Any news organization should have checks and balances in place to prevent the false memory of one person from being broadcast across the United States.

What are those checks and balances? It depends on the medium and outlet. In this case, someone had to mine the NBC News archive for video footage. Additionally, someone had to produce the package. Perhaps they can fact-check the story.

News organizations practicing due diligence is important to all journalists and society.

Monica Guzman, the vice chair of SPJ’s ethics committee, expressed these concerns during an interview with Roxanne Jones, the founding editor of ESPN The Magazine, for CNN.com:

“We know the difference between when the WWF wrestler says, ‘I’m going to kill you…’ and what Brian Williams says on a newscast. We have an expectation of accuracy and it needs to be credible. If we don’t have sources of information that we can trust, we cannot be an informed society.”

While people may be able to forgive Williams for forgetting key details of his time in Iraq, we should still ask how his confusion made it to air on one of the United State’s highest-rated news shows.

We’ll keep following the developments of this story and update the blog as needed.


UPDATE 1

Richard Esposito, the head of NBC’s investigative unit, will head an investigation into Brian Williams’ statements, according to the Associated Press.


UPDATE 2

Politico’s Dylan Byers is reporting that NBC News suspended Brian Williams for six months without pay. Byers included a memo from NBC News President Deborah Turness:

While on Nightly News on Friday, January 30, 2015, Brian misrepresented events which occurred while he was covering the Iraq War in 2003. It then became clear that on other occasions Brian had done the same while telling that story in other venues. This was wrong and completely inappropriate for someone in Brian’s position.

In addition, we have concerns about comments that occurred outside NBC News while Brian was talking about his experiences in the field.

As Managing Editor and Anchor of Nightly News, Brian has a responsibility to be truthful and to uphold the high standards of the news division at all times.


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

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Ask for Evidence and Data When Reporting on Health

My childhood doctor vaccinated me against measles, mumps and rubella as recommended by the U.S. government. A quarter century later I sat in another doctor’s office asking if the shots still protected me against those diseases.

Photographed early in 2014 in the Philippines capital city of Manila, this baby was in a hospital with measles (rubeola).  (PHOTO CREDIT: Jim Goodson, M.P.H.)

Photographed early in 2014 in the Philippines capital city of Manila, this baby was in a hospital with measles (rubeola). (PHOTO CREDIT: Jim Goodson, M.P.H.)

In an ideal world, we wouldn’t need to ask whether effective vaccines still work as intended. Even if someone’s immune system isn’t working properly, the rest of the vaccinated population should still keep the disease at bay.

We do not live in an ideal world, however.

Measles, a once-eradicated virus, is spreading across North America. Health experts put most blame at the feet of people who refuse to vaccinate themselves and their children against diseases because of unproven fears about side effects.

While journalists aren’t to blame for these parents’ refusals, we do have a responsibility to minimize harm from incorrect information. Unfortunately, news reports continue to feature doctors and others who provide unchallenged anecdotal evidence that vaccines do more harm than good.

No substance, natural or manufactured, is free of risks. But the best available medical research shows that the vaccines recommended by the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention are extremely safe and effective.

Because the weight of evidence is so heavily stacked in favor of vaccines, people who are against vaccinations – so-called anti-vaxxers – should be challenged by journalists to provide data to support their claims.

As always, balanced reporting is important, but not all arguments carry equal weight.

One of the most popular myths is that the measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) vaccine causes autism spectrum disorders, which are a collection of developmental disabilities. This myth gained momentum when it was supported in a 1998 article in a medical journal. Since then, the 1998 paper and its author were proved incorrect time and time again.

For example, a study reported in 2002 in The New England Journal of Medicine, involving more than 500,000 Danish children from 1991 through 1998, found that 82 percent – or roughly 410,000 – received the MMR vaccine. Overall, 738 children – or less than two-tenths of one percent – were diagnosed with an autism spectrum disorder. There was no increased risk of a child being diagnosed among the children who received MMR vaccines.

There are also reports of kids having seizures and other developmental delays after a vaccination. Research shows that many of those children have Dravet syndrome, a rare genetic condition triggered by fevers and stress. Research also suggests that outcomes among kids with Dravet syndrome are similar with or without vaccinations.

People who suggest a link between vaccines and developmental conditions or severe injury should be asked to back those claims with the same quality evidence that supports vaccinations.

Especially with health issues, journalists must realize that their stories have consequences. Infectious diseases are only whispers from the past to modern U.S. parents. A 35-year-old father may choose not to vaccinate his children if a news report suggests they may be left disabled from a shot that protects against an eradicated disease.

Measles causes flu-like symptoms and a rash across the body. It’s spread through the air and is highly contagious. One measles virus infection may lead to 12 to 18 secondary infections.

About 30 percent of measles patients will have complications such as ear infections (sometimes with permanent hearing loss), diarrhea, pneumonia, brain swelling and death, the CDC warns. There’s also a risk for complications later in life.

The CDC says children should receive one dose of the MMR vaccine between 12 and 15 months of age and a second dose between ages four and six.  Most people will become immunized after the first dose; the second dose will likely protect those who didn’t respond to the first shot.

Babies younger than 12 months can’t be vaccinated against measles; they’re protected only by whatever limited immunity they may have inherited from their vaccinated mothers. Also vulnerable to measles and its complications are people with compromised immune systems, as from cancer treatment.

While a blood test confirmed that I’m still protected against measles thanks to my MMR vaccines, I continue to worry about my friends and family who are too young to be immunized or have weakened immune systems.

The Society’s Code of Ethics says journalists should seek truth and minimize harm. To me, that means we should do due diligence to make sure people have the most accurate medical information to protect themselves, their loved ones and society. As of now, the evidence says people should be immunized according to the CDC’s schedule. If others disagree, they should be required to present equally compelling evidence.


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

 

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The Other Side: Rolling Stone’s Note

A screenshot of the editor's note attached to a Rolling Stone story about a 2012 gang rape at the University of Virginia. (captured 12/5/2014)

A screenshot of the editor’s note attached to a Rolling Stone story about a 2012 gang rape at the University of Virginia. (captured 12/5/2014)

The managing editor of Rolling Stone added an editor’s note earlier today to the magazine’s bombshell campus rape story that was published online November 19. The story described a 2012 gang rape of a woman called Jackie at a party in the house of a University of Virginia fraternity.

“In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced,” writes Will Dana, the magazine’s managing editor, in the note, which does not specify the discrepancies.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post  published a story today detailing its own investigation into the events described in the original Rolling Stone report.

“Several key aspects of the account of a gang rape offered by a University of Virginia student in Rolling Stone magazine have been cast into doubt, including the date of the alleged attack and details about an alleged attacker, according to interviews and a statement from the magazine backing away from the article,” writes Post reporter T. Rees Shapiro.

Many news organizations and journalists are calling the Rolling Stone editor’s note added to the story a retraction. The magazine does not use that specific word, however. Instead it’s up to the reader to proceed with the caveat that some of the 9,000-or-so-word story may be inaccurate.

Dana emphasizes in his note that the magazine decided to honor the source’s “request not to contact the man she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her.”

Some journalists experienced with reporting on rape are quoted as saying it may be acceptable to not reach out to the accused in some cases.

Most – if not all – sets of journalism standards emphasize the special care and compassion reporters must take when dealing with certain sources. The Society’s Code of Ethics is no different. “Journalists should use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes, and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent,” says the Code.

Ethics and responsible reporting are balancing acts, however. In this case, it’s easy to argue the seriousness of the crimes described in the Rolling Stone story warranted reaching out to all accused parties.

Additionally, investigations are typically not considered complete until all information within a story is thoroughly examined and substantiated. As I’ve been taught, sources and subjects should not be surprised when an investigation is published – it’s how a reporter knows all involved parties had the opportunity to have their responses included.

Perhaps the inability to reach out to the accused meant Jackie should not be included in the magazine’s story.

The Post also reports Jackie asked be left out of the Rolling Stone story altogether. The Columbia Journalism School’s Darte Center for Journalism and Trauma says journalists should respect an interviewee’s right to say no. The Center offers journalists a comprehensive sexual violence reporting tip sheet , which can be found here.

Obviously, there are exceptions to most rules in journalism. Still, Rolling Stone and its editorial team owed – and still owes – its sources, subjects and readers thorough reporting and verification of whatever information made its way to publication.

What’s especially upsetting about today’s development is that the controversy created by poor editorial management overshadows a very real problem. The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) cites a December 2000 U.S. Department of Justice report that found “a college with 10,000 students could experience as many as 350 rapes per year.”

Instead of those rapes being the focus of public discussion, the conversation turns to the decisions made by a magazine. The investigation into the story is likely to only create a more traumatic experience for Jackie, too. Her friends tell the Post that “they believe something traumatic happened to her.”

Rolling Stone’s Dana took a step in the right direction on Twitter earlier today, when he wrote the “failure is on us – not on her.”

Ultimately, whatever doubt Rolling Stone has in its story is its own creation – not that of sources, subjects or readers. As a result, it’s up to the magazine to make this situation right.

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#Pointergate Revisited Revisited

The chairman and chief executive officer of Hubbard Broadcasting, Inc., which owns KSTP-TV in Minneapolis, responded to the #Pointergate statement made last month by the Society’s Minnesota Pro Chapter.

In the letter dated November 26, Stanley Hubbard stands behind the controversial report that aired last month on the ABC affiliate.

Much of what Hubbard writes is covered in previous posts to this blog (here and here). However, it’s important to point to Hubbard’s comment at the beginning of the letter’s third paragraph.

Putting aside the question of whether it is an appropriate role of the Chapter to decide whether any particular new story should or should not air, we acknowledge that our reporting resulted in a great deal of criticism.

The Society’s Code of Ethics says journalists should “expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organizations.” Journalists and news consumers should be active in raising concern over news coverage that does not adhere to the profession’s best practices. There is no question about that.

Here is Hubbard’s full response via the Society’s Minnisota Pro Chapter, which will co-host on Monday “a panel discussion on the recent Pointergate issue in our local community.” Click here for additional details.

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#Pointergate Revisited

(Updated on November 21, 2014 to include information from a statement made by the Society’s Minnesota Pro Chapter.)

On Tuesday night, I published a blog post about a report that aired last week on KSTP, the ABC affiliate in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metropolitan area. The story became known as #pointergate on Twitter. On Thursday, the station aired a report defending the original story.

In the original report, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges is posing in a picture with an unidentified man flashing “known” gang signs, according to KSTP.

The new story is reported by Stephen Tellier, who is not the reporter of the original story – Jay Kolls.

“5 EYEWITNESS NEWS admits, and reported, that the poses struck by Hodges and Gordon appear to be playful — simple pointing — and it’s hard to understand why such a seemingly innocuous photo could be potentially dangerous,” Tellier writes on KSTP’s website. “But police say the mere existence of it could put the public, and possibly police, in danger.”

As I asked in my original post, if KSTP believes its sources that the picture can cause violence toward police and the public, why would the station continue to broadcast it across the Twin Cities?

The new report is somewhat more specific on the source who brought the photo to their attention. Tellier writes that it’s a “local law enforcement source — outside the Minneapolis Police Department.”

The report says KSTP has “taken the picture to eight active police officers with multiple agencies.” Those officers – along with a retired officer – all “strongly agreed the picture was problematic,” Tellier writes. Yet, none of the active police officers are named or appear on camera.

Additionally, Tellier reiterates that KSTP concealed the identity of the man posing with the mayor and the name of the community organization that put on the event, where the photo was taken, because he “nor the group were the focus of the story — Hodges was.”

Tellier writes that other organizations made the man the focus of the report, and “5 EYEWITNESS NEWS feels it necessary to provide additional context on his recent history.”

The report then launches into a detailed description of the man’s arrest record and pictures lifted from his Instagram account.

While the man’s identity has been made public since KSTP’s original report, the question remains: Why is his arrest record, court documents and personal pictures relevant to the story? The station already established in its first report that its sources say the man is not in a gang.

The fact that a person has a criminal history does not give journalists license to publish or broadcast that information across the Internet – unless appropriate. “Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort,” according to the Society’s Code. “Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”

KSTP may say the man was not the focus of the first story, but the beginning of the original report includes a detailed description of the man’s court records.

Last Sunday, I sent Jay Kolls, the reporter of the original story, a list of questions. On Monday evening I resent those questions to him and the station’s news director, who is currently out of the office. I did not receive a response.

I can’t say what response I hoped to see from KSTP after its original report, but I know it wasn’t what the community received on Thursday.

In all likelihood, the Twin Cities will move on and #pointergate will fade to the pages of case studies. Stories like this tend to leave a stain, however. KSTP will be wearing it for a long while.


 

UPDATE

The Society’s Minnesota Pro Chapter and other local journalism groups released a statement on November 19 “expressing their concern and calling for KSTP to disavow the story.”

In addition to issuing its statement, the Minnesota Pro Chapter and other local journalism organizations “will host a public forum on the ethical issues raised by this story at Cowles Auditorium on the West Bank campus of the University of Minnesota — on Dec. 8, 2014 at 7 p.m.”

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Some Points on #Pointergate

KSTP, the ABC affiliate in Minnesota’s Minneapolis- Saint Paul metropolitan area, got skewered over the past week thanks to a story about a photo it says shows Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges standing next to a convicted felon while they both flash a “known” gang sign.

The story and the controversy it caused became known as #Pointergate on Twitter. Twitter users – myself included – criticized KSTP for airing a story based on questionable evidence and ethical decisions.

The story is available here.

(video from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFwb8z0A5nM)

The mayor and the man, who is not in a gang according to KSTP’s police sources, posed for the photograph as they were knocking on doors for a get-out-vote even in Minneapolis. The gesture, KSTP anchor Bill Lunn said, concerned law enforcement officials, who “think the mayor has put the public and police at risk.”

In the video report, a retired police officer says gangs can take the photo and say “even the mayor is with us.” The president of the Minneapolis Police Federation also questions in the report whether the mayor will support “gangs in the city or cops.”

“The allegation was so ludicrous that two reporters at the Star Tribune ignored it after it was pitched to one of them by someone in law enforcement,” wrote Joe Tevlin, a metro columnist Star Tribune, in a column posted online about the story on Tuesday.

Since the initial backlash to the story, several websites reported the organization that put on the get-out-the-vote event also posted photos and a video on its blog that shows Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau, Mayor Hodges and the man at the event together.

The initial report raises several questions about the ethical decision made during the reporting and airing of the story.

Specifically, how is the hand gesture a “known” gang sign? If the hand gesture is a gang sign capable of inciting violence, why did KSTP broadcast it across the metropolitan area? Why is the criminal record of the person in the picture with Mayor Hodges relevant to the story? Who are the law enforcement officials that are outraged?

I emailed Lindsay Radford, KSTP’s news director, with my concerns and questions on Sunday. She is out of the office and forwarded my email to Jay Kolls, who reported the story.

“I am not the story,” Kolls replied to my email. “We did everything ethically. But, fine. Put them in writing and I will respond to each one.” He also responded to some of the concerns I mentioned in my first email.

As of press time (abuot 9:00 pm. EST on Tuesday) Kolls did not respond to my additional questions.

It’s safe to assume – based on the video posted by the organization behind the get-out-the-vote event – that the sign Mayor Hodges and the man are making in the photo is not a gang symbol. Instead, it’s more likely a spur-of-the-moment gesture.

Additionally, a simple Internet search does not show that hand gesture as the sign of any large gang.

An attempt at independent verification, which is included in one of leading principles within the Society’s Code of Ethics, should have at least made KSTP’s editorial leadership question whether or not that specific hand gesture is a “known” gang sign.

Additionally, if KSTP trusted its sources and believed the sign is capable of inciting violence against the police and public, it leads to the question: Why would they broadcast it across the Twin Cities?

The Code speaks broadly about “potential harm.” Violence against police and the general public would fall under that language.

“He posted the photo on Facebook,” Kolls wrote in his original reply to me. “It was already publicly available, so broadcasting it was not releasing it.”

The picture may have been publicly available on Facebook, but it’s safe to assume the number of people navigating to the man’s profile is less than KSTP’s viewership.

In the same vein of minimizing harm, one of the tenets of the Code, KSTP should have questioned whether the criminal record of the man in the picture with Mayor Hodges is relevant to the story.

Yes, criminal records are public documents, but the  Code is clear that the legal right to information does not justify the ethical decision to publish or broadcast that information. Also, “private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures.”

Kolls wrote to me in his original reply that they “went out of our way to not identify him or his organization to not make him the focus of the story. Others did that; not us.”

The video story flashes the man’s court records across the screen toward the beginning of the report – although they appear anonymized. The accompanying print story also details the man’s criminal records in its second paragraph. Clearly KSTP made this man is a prominent figure in the story.

Lastly, the fact that no named law enforcement official associated with the unit that discovered the picture came forward to air their concerns should raise red flags – as it apparently did at the Star Tribune.

Sources should be identified clearly, according to the Code. “The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.”

What’s more, the Code is clear that journalists need to consider the source’s motive for requesting anonymity. The journalist also should explain why anonymity was granted.

While these concerns should – hopefully – cause editorial teams to reconsider publishing or broadcasting a story like this, KSTP aired an additional report and issued a statement following its initial story.

While the Society’s Code may not answer every question journalists may encounter, it can at least provide sufficient guidance in publishing or broadcasting reports that at least meet basic best practices: Seek Truth and Report It, Minimize Harm, Act Independently and Be Accountable and Transparent.

In this case, KSTP’s report fell short in many places.

 

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The Intersection of Communication History

The bust of Walter Cronkite greets visitors to the Walter Cronkite Memorial at Missouri Western University in St. Joseph, Missouri.

The bust of Walter Cronkite greets visitors to the Walter Cronkite Memorial at Missouri Western University in St. Joseph, Missouri.

The city of St. Joseph is about a 40-minute drive north of Kansas City in Missouri. The city hugs the banks of the Missouri River and is blanketed with stately buildings that give any visitor the sense that it’s an intersection of history.

I visited St. Joseph earlier this month to speak at a conference on media ethics and integrity held at Missouri Western State University. The conference was held in honor of the late Walter Cronkite, the famed broadcaster and St. Joseph native.

In addition to being the place of Cronkite’s birth, St. Joseph is also the location where riders began their journey for the Pony Express. Serendipitously, in my opinion, the city gave birth to two of history’s most storied communication figures.

A wall of Walter Cronkite's most famous broadcasts is displayed at the Walter Cronkite Memorial at Missouri Western University in St. Joseph, Missouri.

A wall of Walter Cronkite’s most famous broadcasts is displayed at the Walter Cronkite Memorial at Missouri Western University in St. Joseph, Missouri.

The Cronkite Memorial, which houses artifacts from the journalist’s life, housed the conference. Clips from his most famous broadcasts, caricatures and multimedia presentations are displayed on the walls.

A copy of the St. Joseph Daily Gazette issue carried by the first Pony Express riders hangs in the Pony Express National Museum in St. Joseph, Missouri.

A copy of the St. Joseph Daily Gazette issue carried by the first Pony Express riders hangs in the Pony Express National Museum in St. Joseph, Missouri. (Click to Enlarge)

Downtown in St. Joseph, the Pony Express National Museum chronicles the detailed history of the business that connected communications between Midwestern and Western U.S. states in record time.

As I walked through the Cronkite Memorial and the Pony Express National Museum, my mind resonated with what I often say about journalism ethics: technology may change but principles remain unchanged.

The first Pony Express riders carried a copy of the St. Joseph Daily Gazette to California in 10 days. On the other hand, Cronkite’s image and voice instantaneously beamed into the homes of millions of Americans. Yet, both aimed to responsibly deliver accurate information.

Please stay tuned for another blog post about the conference and (possible video) of the panel featuring ONA, RTDNA and SPJ representatives.

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Ebola in America

Ebola virus disease is a terrifying ailment. After transmission, symptoms start two to 21 days later. The often-deadly disease usually begins with a fever and progresses to more serious symptoms, such as internal and external bleeding. Even more terrifying, the disease is caused by a virus that’s invisible to the naked eye.

As a health writer, I watched since early this year as reports of the current Ebola virus disease outbreak trickle out of West Africa. Fear and anxiety spread among Americans as it became clear that the disease would eventually reach the U.S.

While the Code of Ethics is clear that ethical journalism ensures the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough, Americans were on the receiving end of journalism during the past couple months that often failed to meet those standards.

The truth is that a person can’t develop Ebola virus disease unless they come in direct contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids, such as blood, vomit or semen. Vox offers information on Ebola virus disease here: http://bit.ly/1wYFa2w.

While many people wave off irresponsible journalism as the result of the digital world hungry for constant content, reports that lead to more questions than answers may also lead to harm.

First, there are the people with Ebola virus disease. There is a gray area whenever journalists deal with people suffering from an illness – especially a contagious disease. By releasing those patients’ names, will it affect their livelihood? Will this information put them at risk in some way? How will their family be affected by the news coverage? Simply put: do the benefits of releasing this information outweigh the harm it may cause?

Second, there is the general U.S. public, who – for the most part – only know of Ebola virus disease through the stories and images they received in years past from Africa. Journalists have the responsibility to act and provide accurate answers through thorough reporting. It’s not the job of journalists to drum up unwarranted fear or concern.

Unlike many countries in Africa, the U.S. is in a much better position to control any cases of the Ebola virus disease. While there are challenges and errors, the journalists reporting on Ebola should not consider the situations comparable.

The most recent poll from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found about a third of adults in the U.S. are at least “somewhat worried” that someone in their family will be exposed to the Ebola virus.

In addition to the wear and tear of general anxiety, the potential harm of unchecked rumors and fear among the general public can be seen in U.S. history books. Fear and uncertainty over the transmission of HIV in 1987 led to a ban on people infected with the virus, which causes AIDS, from entering the U.S. The ban stayed on the books until 2009, a year after then-President George W. Bush began the repeal process.

Fortunately, health officials, health experts, journalists and the general U.S. population are in a better position than they were during the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Ebola virus disease is not new. The first outbreak occurred in 1976, according to the World Health Organization. People know how the virus spreads and how to give people infected with it the best chance at survival.

As with any topic, journalists with questions about Ebola virus disease or possible cases in communities should do what they always do – ask questions and provide accurate information.

For more information, I encourage reporters to always refer to the Code of Ethics. Additionally, the statement of principles from the Association of Health Care Journalists provides guidance to people covering health care.

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