Sean Penn Throws Stones from Glass Houses

In this screen grab from CBS, Sean Penn sits with Charlie Rose of 60 Minutes.

In this screen grab from CBS, Sean Penn sits with Charlie Rose of 60 Minutes.

“I’m really sad about the state of journalism in our country,” Sean Penn told Charlie Rose tonight in a taped interview that aired on 60 Minutes.


Journalism in the U.S. has its problems, and many of them are exemplified by Penn, who wrote a Rolling Stone article that profiled Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

In the brief interview with Rose, Penn defended his reporting and writing. Unfortunately, he expressed no regrets about missed opportunities or the deals brokered to secure the interview, which I took issue with in my previous blog post.

Penn expressed regret that people are not talking about what he hoped they would discuss, which is the war on drugs. But, people are talking about his reporting, integrity and accountability. “Let me be clear, my article failed,” Penn told Rose.

What Penn doesn’t understand is that journalism gets the attention it deserves. Good journalism is able to stand up to the criticism and challenges lobbed its way. Bad journalism crumbles and becomes the conversation – as Rolling Stone should know.

Over the past hundred years, journalists realized what defines good journalism. The Society tries to encourage those traits through its Code of Ethics. Failing to hold people accountable is not good journalism. Failing to be independent is not good journalism.

Penn told Rose that this experience with the press is “an incredible lesson in just how much they don’t know and how disserved we are.” He’s right, but he didn’t realize he was talking about himself.


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

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Rolling Stone Gathers No Accolades

Rolling Stone ChapoA magazine that staked the reputation of countless people on one person’s account just a year ago allowed a suspected murderer and drug lord control over an article.


While Sean Penn’s name appears on an article published tonight on Rolling Stone’s website, an accompanying note makes it clear Joaquín Archivaldo Guzmán Loera – known as El Chapo – controlled its content.

Guzmán was recaptured Friday in Mexico after escaping from one of the country’s most secure prisons last year.

The Rolling Stone story cautions that “an understanding was brokered with the subject that this piece would be submitted for the subject’s approval before publication. The subject did not ask for any changes.”

Allowing any source control over a story’s content is inexcusable. The practice of pre-approval discredits the entire story – whether the subject requests changes or not. The writer, who in this case is an actor and activist, may write the story in a more favorable light and omit unflattering facts in an attempt to not to be rejected.

Forfeiting its editorial control to Guzman is the latest misstep in the lauded magazine’s modern history. Last Spring, Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism chastised Rolling Stone in a report for publishing a severely flawed article about campus rape that largely relied on the account of one person. The magazine responded to the report by doing nothing.

Earlier this week, a rejection letter from Rolling Stone’s Hunter S. Thompson circulated around the Internet. In his words, Rolling Stone, “what kind of lame, half-mad bullshit are you trying to sneak over on us?” We expect better. Get it together.


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

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Five Stories that Defined Journalism Ethics in 2015

2016

Journalism ethics is always a popular topic of discussion, and 2015 was no exception.


In the spirit of a new year and proverbial bandwagons, I decided to highlight the blog posts about the five stories that really embodied journalism ethics missteps in 2015. Since “scoring” or “ranking” ethics is impossible and irresponsible, these are in no particular order.

May this coming year bring you good luck, responsible reporting and ethical news!


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

 

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Something Odd is Happening at the Las Vegas Review-Journal

Las Vegas

Las Vegas

A series of odd and concerning events occurred this past week involving the Las Vegas Review-Journal, and it’s not over.


First, the paper is sold for a large profit and the newspaper’s journalists were told not to worry about the new owners’ identities. Now, the paper is reporting its journalists were ordered in a memo a month before the paper’s sale by the then-owners GateHouse Media to investigate three judges, which included one hearing a case involving one of the paper’s new owners.

“The memo, authored by Review-Journal Deputy Editor James G. Wright, notes the initiative was undertaken without explanation from GateHouse and over the objection of the newspaper’s management, and there was no expectation that anything would be published,” according to a story appearing Friday on the paper’s website.

District Judge Elizabeth Gonzalez, who was one of the three judges observed by reporters for two weeks, is currently hearing a case involving Sheldon Adelson and his company, the story reported.

Adelson and his family were revealed as the new owners of the Las Vegas Review-Journal in a story posted Wednesday on the paper’s website. The family confirmed the purchase Thursday in an editor’s note on the paper’s second page.

None of the 15,000 words the reporters wrote by mid-November about their two weeks monitoring the three judges were ever published, the new story reports.

However, a Connecticut paper operated by the overseer of the family-backed company that now owns the Las Vegas Review-Journal published a story at the end of November critical of the Nevada judge hearing the case involving Adelson.

If this wasn’t strange enough, the article lists as the author Edward Clarkin, who is basically a ghost.

“Attempts to locate Clarkin have been unsuccessful. Herald executives did not respond to requests for information, but a newspaper staffer said no one by that name works there,” according to the paper. “A nationwide search turned up no writer by that name, though laudatory reviews from Edward Clarkin, identified as being from the New Britain Herald and a sister paper, the Bristol Press, appear on the website of Tennessee mystery writer Keith Donnelly.”

Michael Schroeder, who now manages the Adelson-backed company overseeing the Las Vegas newspaper and owns the company the operates the Connecticut newspaper, declined to tell the reporters “how the article came about or discuss Clarkin’s role at the papers.”

What does this all mean? Michael Reed, the chief executive officer of the company that sold the paper to the Adelson family and still oversees the day-to-day operations, says nothing.

The paper quotes Reed as saying they’re trying to create a story. They should be focusing on the positive, not the negative, he told the reporters.

Frankly, the entire ordeal feels like the famed magic shows of Las Vegas. There are so many moving parts that it confuses the audience and makes them unsure what’s going on.

As the Society turned to its Code of Ethics earlier this week to demand the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s new owners to reveal themselves, I too want to point out that a core element of responsible journalism is accountability and transparency.

Part of being accountable and transparent is to “respond quickly to questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness.” Until that happens, the world is left with at least a couple questions.

  • Why were the Las Vegas Review-Journal’s reporters told to spend two week observing judges? If it was – as the paper’s former owner claims, a multi-newsroom project, name the other newsrooms involved.
  • Does Edward Clarkin exist? Typically a person’s existence is an important and easily verifiable fact.

While this is very concerning, it’s important to note that there is a possibility that this is all an odd coincidence. However, the questions remain until the Las Vegas paper’s previous owner (and current operator) and the overseers of the Connecticut paper are transparent.

Frankly, the journalists in the Las Vegas Review-Journal endured enough turmoil over the past week. As shown by the reporters’ dogged and admirable pursuit of these stories, they are hard workers and good journalists. They deserve at least to know answers to these basic questions

Also, the people of Las Vegas deserve to know whether their state’s largest newspaper will produce responsible and thorough information to learn about their community – local and global. Quality information allows people to make informed decision and participate in democracy.

The questions are simple, but not trivial.


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

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GUEST POST: SPJ’s San Bernardino statement still doesn’t state much

While I am typically the only person who posts to this blog, I’m always happy to entertain guest posts and analyses. In this case, SPJ D.C. Pro Board Member Gideon Grudo took issue with the Society’s response to journalists’ behavior following this month’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. After his initial post on the Region 2 blog, I offered him an opportunity to share his thoughts here. – Andrew M. Seaman, SPJ’s ethics chair


By Gideon Grudo

Before anything else: Andrew Seaman has graciously let me use this ethics blog to post a critique of this ethics blog (in so many words, anyway—you’ll see). That’s awesome and so is he.

Twelve days after the San Bernardino apartment crawl on MSNBC, this is still all SPJ has said about it

Journalists should feel free to investigate stories when and where possible. They need to minimize harm in their reporting, however. Walking into a building and live broadcasting the pictures, addresses and other identifying information of children or other people who may have no involvement in the story does not represent best and ethical practices.

…kinda. That’s not even SPJ’s statement (if you want to call it that). It’s SPJ’s ethics chair’s statement. His name is Andrew Seaman. In an email, Seaman told me that—before his time—“SPJ started using blogs and other types of statements to respond to things like San Bernardino.”

“In this case, it’s a Friday afternoon when a lot of people were out of contact. I can’t summon the SPJ board, but I can use my voice as its ethics chair. So, I do not speak for the entire organization, but I can express my opinion,” he wrote me in a later email. “So, as the headline says: Statement from SPJ Ethics chair…”

Okay. But does the public know all this? Cutting red tape is always a good idea. Who really cares whether SPJ the institution speaks out or someone SPJ’s president chose to chair its ethics committee speaks out?

However, no one knows the difference if we’re not clear about it. It’s confusing, too.

Last Tuesday, when Seaman (who’s a volunteer putting lots of hours into this, by the by) released his analysis of the apartment crawl broadcast, a former Florida chapter president asked me on Facebook if I was “appeased.”

Nope, I replied. Why? Because an analysis isn’t a statement (or a follow up to a statement, or anything related to a statement), and an ethics blog isn’t a place where SPJ says whatever official thing it needs to say.

That is, unless it says so in big bold letters, like this: HOLLER: THIS BLOG IS HOW WE SAY WHATEVER OFFICIAL THING WE NEED TO SAY. SIGNED, SPJ. Or something like that.

So what do I want? I’m not looking for some San Bernardino coverage justice. That’s just an example I’ve almost definitely overused at this point. I’m more focused on the next instance, which will inevitably and unfortunately come knocking: I want us to say what we mean.

Maybe we don’t want to say anything, in which case we shouldn’t issue pseudo-statements.

How do we issue statements about which we may know little but also about which the public is curious and confused? Easy, we (a chair or a regional director or whoever we trust) tell the truth in three simple steps:

  1. This is what we know (journalism is good/journalism is bad)
    1. MSNBC done effed up
  2. This is what we don’t know
    1. Other outlets may have been involved
  3. This is what we’re going to do about it (an analysis, an angry letter, a sit-in, a peaceful protest, a boycott, maybe nothing)
    1. We’re going to analyze the s$%^ out of this and tell you all about it in the coming days so you’re more aware.

Seaman’s analysis is great at telling us that what happened was ethical or unethical. It doesn’t tell us what should be done about it.

Well, except this:

The best advice would be for the offenders to implement new editorial strategies to prevent these kinds of mistakes in the future, but I can only write that advice so many times. Instead, it’s imperative that other journalists call out unethical journalism whenever and wherever possible.

Nice. Whenever possible is now. Wherever possible is here.

 

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Friday’s Fiasco: Journalism Can and Should be Better

MSNBC's Kerry Sanders on Friday. (via screenshot of MSNBC.com)

MSNBC’s Kerry Sanders on Friday. (via screenshot of MSNBC.com)

A flood of people and equipment poured through the door of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik’s apartment on Friday.


The couple murdered 14 people and injured another 26 just two days earlier at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California.

Carrying microphones, lights, cameras and any other electronics capable of broadcasting, people raced through the apartment to capture any detail of the space once occupied by mass murderers.

MSNBC’s Kerry Sanders was one of the first reporters to enter the apartment. He was soon combing through items and holding up pictures of children, identification cards and other objects to the camera. Andrea Mitchell, who was anchoring the network at the time, grew uneasy and asked to cut away, according to CNN.

Sanders was not alone, of course. Reporters from most national news organizations like CNN, CBS and The New York Times were present along with reporters from local news organizations. They were soon joined by random people from the neighborhood.

In the wake of the reporters converging on the apartment like a swarm of locusts, people were outraged. The reporters looked like leeches, and served as a visual explanation of why only four in 10 people trust the media.

Those outraged people were correct.

For the most part, what happened on air Friday from that apartment was not journalism. Instead, what happened was the type of sensationalized and voyeuristic nonsense the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics shuns.

From beginning to end, the events on Friday violated what SPJ considers the profession’s best practices.

  • While there is still debate over how the media gained access to the apartment, several reports say a crew from Inside Edition paid for access to the apartment. A journalist with even a shred of dignity doesn’t consider paying for news, and should call out those who engage in checkbook journalism.Paying for news sets a dangerous precedent, and allows news to go to the highest bidder. Readers, viewers and listeners should also question the accuracy and integrity of any news stories purchased outright or through other backdoor fees.
  • The journalists who rushed into the apartment should have also made the ethical decision and turned off their cameras. “Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort,” says SPJ’s code. Journalists should know going into an apartment cleared by the Federal Bureau of Investigation was not likely to yield any significant evidence. There was no need for viewers or listeners to be exposed to that scene as it unfolded. As SPJ’s code also reminds journalists, legal access to information differs from the ethical justification to publish.
  • The reporters inside the apartment should have also realized that no good could have come from broadcasting random artifacts. The people in those pictures and named on those documents may have no connection to Friday’s events, but are now linked and possibly in danger thanks to the recklessness of the reporters.

MSNBC, who took the brunt of the blowback on Friday, issued a brief mea culpa (while also patting itself on the back) on Friday.

Meanwhile, Fox News and CNN also issued statements that they had been allowed in the apartment, but were careful not to show pictures and other documents.

All of the journalists who were broadcasting live from the scene on Friday – including those on social media – are all in the same boat, however. They should have known better than to run into the apartment while broadcasting without knowing what they would find.

The best advice would be for the offenders to implement new editorial strategies to prevent these kinds of mistakes in the future, but I can only write that advice so many times. Instead, it’s imperative that other journalists call out unethical journalism whenever and wherever possible.

Journalists need to realize that MSNBC, Inside Edition and other news organizations that take part in this type of cavalier coverage are harming all journalists. Whether we like it or not, cable networks are often the face of journalism for the American people. When they screw up, we all suffer.


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

*This post was updated at 10 a.m. on December 9th to fix a typo in the penultimate paragraph.
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Ho, ho, hoax – Marie Christmas

@JewyMarie's Twitter Posts

@JewyMarie’s Twitter Posts

Social media is a proverbial gold mine for journalists, but it’s also filled with landmines.


A number of eyewitness accounts were sent out on Twitter as news about the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, emerged on Wednesday. One post that caught my eye on Twitter was from the handle @JewyMarie, who is also known as Marie Christmas.

“I saw the shooter shooting people in San Bernardino,” @JewyMarie posted. “I’m scared for my life at the moment in hiding.”

In the end, accounts of the shooting from @JewyMarie made it into reports from the AP (and The New York Times as a result), the International Business Times and an on-air interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

There is obviously a person behind @JewyMarie’s Twitter account, but the person’s accounts of events are fake.

While embarrassing, the ordeal is a reminder that a person’s word is not proof. People lie. Anonymous people on the Internet lie – a lot.

Steve Buttry, director of student media at Louisiana State University and tireless blogger of journalism practices, uncovered the fabrication while following up with @JewyMarie. You can read his full account (and a few of my comments) here: http://bit.ly/1ItAb4C

As Buttry’s post points out, I had my doubts about @JewyMarie.

Specifically, the account itself is anonymized. The profile picture is of a cartoon. There are no messages or descriptions that explain who the person is or where they live. The existing messages aren’t anything of substance either.

Additionally, @JewyMarie responded to people asking for interviews by saying they didn’t have a phone and was using wireless Internet to post. “I can’t do audio interviews,” they posted.

For that to be true, the person would likely need to be using an Internet-connected iPad or tablet for Twitter updates, which the @JewyMarie account had been doing right before the post about seeing “the shooter.” The other option is the person fleeing the scene was using a laptop.

Taken together, these facts alone should make journalists doubt the person is an eyewitness. Admittedly, it’s not impossible they’re an eyewitness, but it’s unlikely.

Without additional verification from a person that proves they are an eyewitness, journalists should move on. Stories about mass killings are too big and too important to the public for journalists to blindly trust an anonymous Internet user, who apparently gets their kicks from making light of mass murder.

If journalists are often told to investigate their own mothers’ love, they should apply that standard to random people on the Internet.

As for organizations that fell for the ruse, the newsrooms shouldn’t waste time scolding anonymous Twitter users with questionable consciences. The best path forward is for the journalists to admit the mistake, correct the record and implement strategies to prevent these occurrences in the future.


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

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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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