Harnessing Energy for Change

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Ethics Week: How to Solve a Problem like Unpublishing

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Ethics Week: A New Reality

VR library through the Vrse app for iPhone

Virtual reality is one of the most exciting advancements in storytelling over the past few years. Like any knew advancement, the technology presents a number of ethical questions that need to be addressed.


The New York Times pushed virtual reality into the mainstream in November, when the news organization sent more than one million inexpensive VR viewers to subscribers. The distribution of the viewers coincided with the debut of “The Displaced,” which is a VR film about children from three war-torn countries.

The point of VR is not just to tell a story, but to help viewers understand the messages through immersion. The Times’ investment in VR was met with great fanfare, but also concern, according to the paper’s then-Public Editor Margaret Sullivan.

“Many Times readers were excited by what they experienced and sent congratulatory notes,” she wrote. “But not everyone was pleased,” she added later.

Aside from adapting to the new technology, one of the main complaints about VR is that production requires a closer interaction between journalist and subject than other methods of storytelling.

Unlike traditional news photography , VR requires journalists to strategically place cameras settings and then quickly leave the area. They must also coordinate with subjects to get special footage from bikes, cars and boats.

While those concerns are valid, it’s difficult to say that VR is more intrusive than other forms of visual media. Longform video and photography projects require some intrusiveness, and those boundaries are still debated more than a century after the introduction of both technologies.

More complicated ethical problems may present themselves when the cameras stop filming, and a journalist finds himself in the editing room.

One of the most pressing questions is how much is too much? Like traditional photography and video, VR may show the horrors of war, terrorism and other horrible events. Journalists editing VR films have to ask if the threshold of what can be shown  is lower due to the immersive nature of the technology.

In 2015, Kathleen Bartzen Culver wrote a piece for the University of Wisconsin Center for Journalism Ethics about the potential for VR to induce trauma.

“VR coverage of war, torture, rape and other violence will prompt searing questions about lasting consequences of consuming journalism that eclipse our current research on media effects,” she writes.

Bartzen Culver also quotes Dan Pacheco, of the S.I. Newhouse journalism school at Syracuse University. He suggests keeping subjects and audiences in mind more  than the possibilities of the technology.

At the end of the day, a good discussion over the ethical challenges of each new VR project may help direct journalists to the most responsible actions.

Some important questions can include:

  • Is VR the right way to tell this story?
  • What is the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable interaction with subjects?
  • What is the limit of what is acceptable for VR viewers to see?
  • Who may be especially affected by the immersive experience of this story?

Of course, there are a number of questions that could and should be considered before and during a VR project. The key is open conversation between all journalists and editors.

As always, the Society’s Code of Ethics will also be useful during those conversations.


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

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Ignoring a Problem Doesn’t Make It Go Away

image1A growing list of organizations say journalists should omit the names and images of gunmen in an effort to prevent future mass shootings.


The Brady Campaign, which works to prevent gun violence, launched on Wednesday the “Zero Minutes of Fame” tool for Google’s Chrome internet browser. The tool, which is accompanied by an ad and a petition directed at the media, replaces the names and faces of mass shooters in news stories with the names and images of their victims.

The theory is that omitting the names and images of gunmen stops future mass shootings by eliminating the possibility of fame.

Other organizations like No Notoriety promote a similar message, which is supported by the Society’s professional chapter in Florida.

While well-meaning, these initiatives are based on anecdotal and preliminary evidence, and may result in unintended consequences. The goal should be more responsible reporting – not less reporting.

Instead of completely omitting the names and images of gunmen, advocates should challenge news organizations to be especially cautious when reporting on breaking news – including mass shootings. News organizations should shun speculation and report verified facts. Additionally, news organizations should be judicious in how the images of mass shooters are portrayed to readers and viewers.

The Society encourages these practices through its Code of Ethics.

Going the extreme route of eliminating any mentions and images of gunmen could lead to a chilling effect that ultimately moves coverage of gun violence off the front page and out of the public’s conscious. Typically, ignoring a problem isn’t a successful solution.

The science underpinning the movement is also far from conclusive. The most notable study supporting the theory that mass shootings are “contagious” was published online in July. The study, which was published by researchers from Arizona State University, suggests that 20 to 30 percent of shootings involving four or more victims are tied to a previous mass shooting. The study is retrospective and observational, and can’t prove cause and effect. Also, the study can’t make any conclusions about the possible role of news coverage.

In absence of a substantially larger body of evidence linking the use of gunmen’s names and images to an increased risk of mass shootings, the goal should be to encourage more responsible reporting of all  facts.

People have a right to information – whether joyful or unpleasant. Providing people with accurate information is the foundation of journalism and democracy.


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

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Ethics Week: Classic Ethics Still Important to Today’s Freelancers

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I’ve been a full-time freelancer since 2005, and while I primarily write magazine features, I regularly encounter situations in which the SPJ Code of Ethics has been immensely helpful. This is particularly true because my degree is in my business administration, not journalism. I’ve had training in business ethics, which also applies to many situations I encounter as an independent journalist and publisher, but having the SPJ Code to lean on has helped me out of a few tough spots.

Did you read this week about the Daily News editor who was fired for removing attribution from a writer’s work? That probably happens more than we realized, and it happened to me early in my freelance career. A hard lesson learned. My first national gig was writing for a homeland security magazine. The editor found me on SPJ’s freelance database, and asked me to do a piece on the state of homeland security in Seattle. The original freelancer they’d hired had disappeared, and they needed the story ASAP. I was thrilled to get such a great assignment!

During my research, I learned that Mike Carter of The Seattle Times originally broke the story of terrorist surveillance of the Washington State Ferries System. I included an update on his story in my article, attributing it to Mr. Carter. However, during the editing process, that attribution was omitted by my editor. Ugh.

Once the story was published, Mr. Carter contacted me, furious that I would not give him credit for breaking the story. I apologized to Mr. Carter and sent him a copy of the draft I submitted to my editor which showed attribution. He let me off the hook, saying he understood that this happens sometimes, and he knew it wasn’t my fault. My editor published a correction in the next issue – in tiny print in the front of the issue – but the damage was done. Mr. Carter didn’t get appropriate credit for his work. [Never plagiarize. Always attribute.]

In addition to writing for other media outlets, I publish iLoveKent.net, a hyperlocal blog about Kent, Washington. Most of my potential conflicts of interest arise from this role. For example, as an active member of my community, I am often invited to fundraisers for political candidates. I always decline, because there is always the possibility I will be covering that candidate in the future. Whether the conflict is real or perceived, I ALWAYS disclose my relationship to story subjects, interviewees, editors, etc., and when necessary, I decline assignments because of the conflict. [Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavailable conflicts.]

About 18 months ago, a marketing agency contacted me to write content for a Kent-based tourism site funded through our local lodging tax dollars. I immediately disclosed that I was the publisher of iLoveKent.net, and said that I was interested in the project, but that it was a conflict of interest. The marketing agency took my concern to the lodging tax advisory board and relevant city officials who signed off on my participation in the project. [Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavailable conflicts.]

When it comes to ethical journalism, it is important to follow your own moral compass and do what you believe is right. In addition, strong business ethics and knowledge of the SPJ Code of Ethics can help you determine what’s right for your story and your business. I keep the Code bookmarked, so it is just a click away whenever I need it.


Dana E. Neuts is a freelance writer, editor and publisher. She is also the immediate past president of SPJ.

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Ethics Week: Drone Details

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Using drones  to report the news has its advantages, but those advantages come with the added burden of some ethical issues specific to the unmanned aircrafts.

As of right now, the scope of newsgathering by drone – known as drone journalism or aerojournalism – is severely limited by the Federal Aviation Administration, which largely bans the commercial use of drones. The federal agency is expected to announce rules for commercial use later this year, however.

While journalists wait for the rules to be announced, it’s a good idea to start thinking about the potential uses and limitations of the technology while there is time to do so.

For example, just like any other form of journalism, journalists want to make sure they’re not unnecessarily violating people’s privacy with drones. The technology provides unprecedented access.

With a drone, one has the ability to fly over homes, see into backyards and possibly get views inside homes through windows. While TV cameras could get some footage like this, drones make it easier to obtain. As suggested by the Society’s Code of Ethics, just because journalists can obtain information doesn’t mean they should publish or broadcast that information.

Journalists can identify situations needing extra caution by asking themselves some questions:

  • Is the information newsworthy?
  • Is what you’re seeing from your drone what you could see from the sidewalk if you were just walking by?
  • Does the individual(s) you are capturing on video know you are there? Can they see you?
  • Do the people likely have an expectation of privacy in that location?

In addition to privacy concerns, journalists using drones should consider the public’s safety.

  • Is the drone interfering with an active police or fire response?
  • Is the drone’s use putting any members of the public in harms way? Is it distracting to drivers?
  • Is the drone in an area that may disrupt public utilities, like power lines?
  • Are weather conditions safe for the use of drones?

Since most professional journalists can’t use drones for newsgathering at this moment, they’ll likely first encounter footage from amateur drone operators. Like any piece of journalism submitted by a member of the public, journalists should approach with caution and be inquisitive about its origins.

For more information on the responsible use of drones in journalism, the Professional Society of Drone Journalism has some information on its website: http://www.dronejournalism.org/learn/


Lynn Walsh is president-elect for SPJ and also serves on the ethics and FOI committees. She works in San Diego for NBC 7 Investigates where she is the executive producer for the investigative unit. You can follow her on Twitter, @LWalsh.

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Ethics Week: Are Social Media Ethics Codes Needed?

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Jason Howie/Flickr Creative Commons

The Online News Association announced April 1 that it was introducing an ethics code for newsgathering practices on social media.

The ONA Social Newsgathering Ethics Code – whose founding supporters included CNN, Agence France-Presse, The Guardian and Storyful – was designed to give guidance on social newsgathering practices, from rights and verifying information, to the safety of sources and journalists themselves.

Eric Carvin, the social media editor for the Associated Press and a co-founder of ONA’s social newsgathering working group, wrote in a blog post announcing the code that it was in response to the growing trend of newsgathering by social media, and had been made available after three years of development.

Carvin wrote that recent incidents, including the attacks in Brussels earlier this year, served as a reminder of why the practices were important.

“Moments like these challenge us, as journalists, to tell a fast-moving story in a way that’s informative, detailed and accurate,” Carvin wrote. “These days, a big part of that job involves wading through a roiling sea of digital content and making sense out of what we surface.”

The introduction of the code comes amid a continuing conversation about the role social media has in journalism today, from the business aspects prompted by features on Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat, to how news organizations can engage audiences and uphold the same standards of journalism on these new platforms.

This code has the only specific mention of social newsgathering of any journalism development organization. The SPJ’s Code of Ethics, which itself was revised in 2014, does not mention social media platforms specifically, but the Ethics Committee advises to apply the four principles of the code (Seek truth and report it, Minimize harm, Be accountable and transparent, and Act independent) to all types of journalism, irrespective of platform.

Yet, what does the introduction of this code mean for ethics in social media journalism, and how have these principles impacted how journalists think about journalism in the age of Facebook and Twitter? Additionally, should other organizations, like SPJ, follow ONA’s lead and add specific ethics requirements to social media journalism?

Randi Shaffer, a social media assistant with the Chicago Tribune, says while the ONA guide can be helpful for younger journalists, no other guides, including SPJ’s, should be changed.

“It’s important for social media managers to keep ethics in mind when posting, but for our line of work, it does not differ from traditional journalistic ethics,” Shaffer said in a telephone interview. “Ethics have always had a huge part in journalism. Just because social media presents new ways to tell stories does not mean you can throw them out of the window.”

Shaffer says that journalists should be aware of the ethics that surround social media newsgathering, and there should not be an issue when it comes to the technology.

“If you remain true to the heart of journalism, if you understand the ethics, there shouldn’t be an issue when it comes to tech,” Shaffer said.

Laura Hazard Owen, the deputy editor for Nieman Lab based at Harvard University, says although ethics in social media newsgathering is an open and ongoing debate, it would not hurt for organizations to include provisions on social newsgathering and raise issues of discussion to members.

“There is a general understanding of a need for ethics but it is not agreed on what those ethics should be,” Hazard Owen said in a telephone interview. “I would be interested in seeing a revised Ethics Code, but it would be difficult to take different situations into a one size fit all approach.”

Indeed, Shaffer says, social media has influenced how content is presented in the public interest. The case is true surrounding a graphic video released late last year by the Chicago Police Department of the shooting of African-American teenager Laquan McDonald, which later saw the firing of the city’s police chief and increased calls for the resignation of Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez and Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

At the time the video was released, the Tribune posted disclaimers and warnings surrounding the content, and while criticism of the release of the video came, Shaffer says the Tribune made the right call in publishing it in that sense.

“Readers have the right to see it from their own eyes,” Shaffer said.

Shaffer adds ultimately that no matter the platform, the ethics still apply.

“Social makes it easier to get to the tip of the iceberg, but it does not give any insight to below the water,” Shaffer said. “Journalism is still journalism. No matter the medium, the message is the same.”

However, Hazard Owen says it’s a good idea to stay on top of new platforms and changes in technology, and to think about the ethics of working on those platforms.

“The new platforms will keep arising,” Hazard Owen said. “It’s good for organizations to be thinking about these things and have an updated list of standards or guidelines. It doesn’t ever hurt to tell your members you’re thinking about this.”


Alex Veeneman, a Chicago based SPJ member, is SPJ’s Community Coordinator and founder of the SPJ Digital community. He blogs for Net Worked, SPJ’s digital journalism blog, on social media’s role in the future of journalism. Outside of SPJ, Veeneman is Long Form Editor and a contributor to Kettle Magazine, an online publication based in the UK. You can interact with him on Twitter @alex_veeneman.

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Ethics Week 2016: New Tech, New Problems

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Every few years brings a surprising number of new technologies to newsrooms around the world. News organizations are now investing heavily into virtual reality, automated reporting systems and new partnerships with social media platforms.

While those technologies expand the number of ways journalists can tell stories and reach people, they also increase the number of ethical questions and problems needing to be addressed.

For this entire week, the Society of Professional Journalists will be focusing on how journalists can ethically navigate new technologies. Each day a new blog post will explore ethical situations spanning from drones to virtual reality.

On top of the first-hand tips and suggestions from people within the Society, each post will point to resources around the Internet. For example, the resources may include newly released guidelines from the Online News Association about newsgathering from social media.

In addition to the blog posts, we also hope you’ll continue the conversation online through the Society’s Facebook page or on Twitter with the hashtag #SPJethicstech.

Of course, please use the comment section of these blogs to add your own opinion or suggest additional resources!


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

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News Orgs Need to Get Back to Ethical Journalism Before the U.S. Campaign Is Over

Screen Shot 2016-03-23 at 10.30.38 AM

For the Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Committee:

Of Donald Trump’s statements evaluated by Politifact.com, nearly one-third are “false” or “pants on fire.” Yet, many of Trump’s statements go unchallenged during television interviews.

“Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough,” according to the Society of Professional Journalists. Accurate, fair and thorough information leads to public enlightenment, which SPJ considers the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy.

In addition to journalists rarely questioning or challenging Trump on his stances or ideas, BuzzFeed News is reporting that sources, “confirmed the unprecedented control the television networks have surrendered to Trump in a series of private negotiations, allowing him to dictate specific details about placement of cameras at his event, to ensure coverage consists primarily of a single shot of his face.”

If these reports are true, the coverage of Trump on major television networks represents a major journalistic failure.

Regardless of Trump’s ideas or policies, there is no rationale for journalists or news organizations to cede control to a person asking to lead one branch of the U.S. government. Collusion with any person seeking office is inexcusable.

If such agreements exist, networks should rip them up and go back to practicing ethical journalism.

Getting back to ethical journalism means forgoing meaningless stories and avoiding he-said-she-said arguments between presidential campaigns. Instead, news organizations should bring on impartial policy experts to evaluate each candidate’s plans. They should also forgo meaningless and untrustworthy polling data and give people information they can actually use in the voting booths.

The business side of news organizations may balk at the idea of throwing away agreements that ultimately help the bottom line, but there is power in numbers.

If no networks or major news organizations agree to accept a campaign’s unfair terms, the campaign will be forced to relax their authoritarian ways. After all, the campaign needs news organizations to broadcasts speeches, debates and other information to the public.

Unlike collusion with presidential campaigns, collusion among journalists and news organizations in the pursuit of accurate and fair information can ultimately benefit society.

For example, dozens of news and professional news organizations collectively lobby for shield laws and improved transparency throughout government. News organizations also often join together when journalists are unfairly imprisoned.

Likewise, I hope news organizations join together to condemn campaigns and their supporters when journalists are not allowed to freely report on events. There is no place for violence — especially violence targeted toward journalists.

Hopefully, news organizations will realize that the need to improve their profits doesn’t trump the needs of a healthy Democracy, which requires the free exchange of accurate and fair information.

Photo via Matthew Trudeau on Flickr.

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On the Record About Off the Record

Donald Trump discussing his conversation with the New York Times on Fox News on Thursday, March 3, 2015.

Donald Trump discussing his conversation with the New York Times on Fox News on Thursday, March 3, 2015.

Tonight’s Fox News Republican presidential debate featured a discussion about off-the-record conversations.


While the concept seems straight-forward, allowing sources to go off the record should be a complex process.

In essence, off-the-record conversations allow a source to safely provide information without fear of retribution.

There is no set definition of “off the record,” however. Before granting that protection, journalists should discuss with their source what that term means. Can the journalist use the information without attribution? Is the journalist ever allowed to use that information? Can the person be an anonymous source? The discussion over the term’s definition is essential.

Whatever the journalist and source decides, the journalist should keep the promises they make, though.

In this case, the discussion at the Republican debate centered on a meeting Donald Trump had January 5 with the editorial board of the New York Times. A BuzzFeed story alleges Trump questioned whether he would stand by his views on immigration.

In a response to Margaret Sullivan, the paper’s public editor, the editorial page editor explained the meeting’s purpose:

He told me that the editorial board’s meetings with presidential candidates are often done on an off-the-record basis, at the candidates’ request. These meetings with candidates are not for the purpose of writing news articles, he emphasized, but are intended as informational sessions for the board so that board members can make observations, challenge the candidate on his or her positions, and eventually consider an endorsement.

The process is common for newspapers that endorse political candidates. However, Sullivan writes that the editorial board meeting with Trump was unusual for two reasons. Specifically, the paper’s executive editor attended the meeting and part of the conversation was on the record for news coverage.

Regardless of how the editorial meeting with Trump was different from other meetings, one legitimate concern is that off-the-record information appears to have leaked out from the discussion. This is something the New York Times should investigate.

However, there are no reasons Trump can’t ask the New York Times to release the audio of his conversation with its editorial board. As I said above, off-the-record conversations are to protect sources – not journalists. Of course, it would be up to the New York Times to release the audio.

The best solution is for journalists to push for as many discussions as possible – especially those with policymakers and political candidates – to be on the record.


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

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