Archive for October, 2016


Journalists Should Be Guided by Fairness and Impartiality in Election’s Final Days

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

Social media coverage drives the conversation surrounding the 2016 presidential campaign – whether it’s live-tweeting of a campaign stop or a Facebook Live broadcast of a campaign speech. The presidential election is one of the most significant news stories of the year. Audiences expect quality analysis and insight.

Instead of in newspapers or over the airwaves, stories often start on Twitter and other social media platforms. Yet, the change of venue doesn’t mean the rules for journalists change.

The Society’s Code of Ethics encourages journalists to seek truth and report it, irrespective of platform. Impartiality is the cornerstone of this principle – whether a journalist is reporting a campaign speech or assessing the race thus far. They have to be fair.

Impartiality extends to the curation of the conversation about news, be it on a journalist’s account or on a news organization’s account. Journalists, as private citizens, may have political opinions that differ from one political party or the other, but coverage of the election is not about them or their views. Instead, it’s about the information readers, viewers and listeners need to know before stepping into a voting booth.

The results of the election, from local to federal office, will have implications beyond this night. People are coming to journalists for help understanding what these results mean for them. The audience comes to journalists because they trust them, and that’s a bond not worth breaking.

Protecting that bond also means journalists must be careful about how they interact with different viewpoints. The Code of Ethics says journalists need to promote the civil, open exchange of views – including views that you may find repulsive or disagree with. That also applies when they’re curating a conversation. Don’t demean people for their views.

The same rule should be remembered after election night, too. When  journalists  are covering a speech or other event, they shouldn’t editorialize. The language they use may be interpreted differently by others.

Just state the facts, and remember the six fundamental questions of journalism – who, what, when, where, why and how. Include various and evidence-based viewpoints and provide context to help guide the conversation that follows.

Sound and impartial reporting – whether on social media or traditional media – will keep readers, viewers and listeners coming back for information, including on election night.


Alex Veeneman, a Chicago based SPJ member and founder of the SPJ Digital community, is SPJ’s Community Coordinator and a contributor to its blog network. He is also a member of SPJ’s Ethics Committee.
Outside of SPJ, Veeneman is a Managing Editor and contributing writer for Kettle Magazine (www.kettlemag.co.uk), an online publication in the UK. You can interact with Veeneman on Twitter @alex_veeneman.
The views expressed in this blog post unless otherwise specified are that of the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SPJ Ethics Committee, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.
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“Our Republic and Its Press Will Rise or Fall Together”

Joseph Pulitzer's bust stands next to a plaque bearing his words in the lobby of Pulitzer Hall, which houses the Columbia University Graduation School of Journalism. (Picture via Matt Drange)

A bust of Joseph Pulitzer stands next to a plaque bearing his words in the lobby of Pulitzer Hall, which houses the Columbia University Graduation School of Journalism. (Picture via Matt Drange)

The text on one of the plaques mounted in the lobby of Pulitzer Hall at Columbia University in New York caught my eye as I left the building earlier this month. The words its bronze letters spell out are easily the most famous Joseph Pulitzer ever put on paper.

“Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together,” the quote begins.

As an alumnus of the Graduate School of Journalism, I passed by the plaque hundreds or thousands of times during my life. I always agreed with Pulitzer’s observation, but I now find it haunting.

All journalists should be troubled by the events taking place during these last few weeks of the 2016 presidential election. There is no doubt that a significant portion of people on both sides of the political spectrum distrust journalists and the press.

A substantial amount of work is needed to rebuild the public’s trust, but there are only 22 days until the election. Journalists and news organizations must take action during these last few weeks to restore at least some people’s faith in reporting and stories.

The shared knowledge among journalists that our colleagues across the country are fulfilling their duties is no longer good enough.

One potential approach is to be aggressively transparent for stories involving the election. Journalists and news organizations should go out of their ways to explain the reporting process for each story. If necessary, create a footnote. Seeing is believing in today’s world.

Another approach in the same vein is to publish or broadcast stories explaining the editorial processes in newsrooms. For example, who assigns stories? Do reporters pitch stories? Once assigned, how are stories reported? Who writes and edits the stories? How does the newsroom guarantee fairness? Who owns the news organization? Do the owners dictate what stories are told?

These approaches may seem odd or strange, but so are the current discussions taking place across the U.S.

Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for the White House, is repeatedly stating the upcoming election will be rigged with help from the press, for example. While I can’t find data to estimate how many people share his belief, it’s safe to assume that many people are at least talking about his comments.

In the past, journalists and news organizations could offer comfort to the American people during elections by explaining that they’ll be fulfilling their roles as watchdogs of democracy. Without aggressively trying to restore some faith in stories and reports coming out of U.S. news organizations, I don’t know if that assurance will cut it this time around.

I understand that many Americans still believe in the stories and reports ethical journalists publish and broadcast each day. For some reason, many other Americans don’t share that belief.

Journalists and news organizations need to immediately start taking steps to address this issue.

Pulitzer realized in 1904, when he wrote his famous words, that journalists have the ability to lead the country.

“The power to mould the future of the Republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations,” he wrote.

My hope is that journalists can harness their abilities to restore faith in its work and ensure the security of democracy in the U.S.


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

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NBC Owes Viewers Explanations About Trump Tape

Photo Illustration of NBC's Mobile Homepage 10/08/16

Photo Illustration of NBC’s Mobile Homepage 10/08/16

A tape released Friday sent the 2016 U.S. presidential election into chaos, and led to prominent Republicans calling for Donald Trump, the party’s nominee, to drop out of the race. The tape should also prompt a serious discussion about the editorial oversight of NBC News.

The tape, which was first published by The Washington Post, exposes a 2005 conversation between Trump and Billy Bush, who was then co-anchor of Access Hollywood – distributed by a subsidiary of NBCUniversal. Bush is now “co-host of the third hour of NBC News’ ‘TODAY,’ according to the show’s website.

Sources at NBC told CNN’s Brian Stelter that Access Hollywood and its news division were working on stories about the 2005 conversation before The Washington Post published its story. Since any news stories about the conversation from NBC would also severely harm one of the network’s stars, it’s important to remain skeptical about those reports.

Even if Stelter’s sources are correct, NBC should realize – at the very least – the cross pollination of talent between its subsidiaries is harming the reputation of the organization’s news division. At most, NBC News’ fundamental journalism mission has been usurped by the larger organization’s bottom line.

As someone who often speaks out when news organizations violated the basic ethical principles of journalism, I often choose not to write about violations involving TODAY or ABC’s Good Morning America. Those shows have a long history of cringe-worthy ethical violations, and cries of foul fall on deaf ears.

Remaining questions about the existence of the 2005 tape  point to more systemic issues at NBC, however. For example, why are NBC News employees colluding with Access Hollywood? Also, does NBC News know of any similar conversations caught on tape for other NBC programs, such as The Apprentice?

There are also legitimate questions surrounding Bush’s future role within NBC News. For example, will he be back Monday on TODAY? I don’t think bringing Bush back before the end of the 2016 election can be viewed as a responsible decision.

People who get their news from NBC deserve answers and explanations to these questions. They also deserve an assurance that NBC News will be independent from other divisions of the parent organization. Until then, I think it’s justifiable to remain skeptical about the editorial oversight of an organization that allows its entertainment and journalism arms to regularly intermingle at the expense of the American people.


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

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The Times and Trump’s Taxes

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

The New York Times on Saturday published excerpts from Donald Trump’s 1995 income tax returns. The decades-old documents give insight into the financial history of the Republican nominee for the White House.

Throughout the campaign, Trump repeatedly declined to release his tax returns. In an email to the Times, his lawyer claimed the publication of the records is “illegal because Mr. Trump has not authorized the disclosure of any of his tax returns.”

While I’m not a lawyer or expert on tax law, The Washington Post previously reported that “federal law prohibits ‘any person’ from printing, publishing or soliciting tax-return information without the taxpayer’s authorization.”

If true, the Times may find itself in a courtroom in the near future.

The words legal and ethical are not synonyms, however. What is legal is not always ethical, and what is ethical is not always legal.

In my view, the Times made a sound ethical decision by publishing Trump’s tax returns.

The Society’s Code of Ethics suggests that journalism is often a balancing act. News organizations may need to take extraordinary actions if the resulting material is so beneficial and vital to the public.

Journalism is the foundation of democracy and the documents published by the Times provide needed information for people heading to voting booths in almost one month.

While people may argue over the legality of what the Times did regarding Trump’s tax returns, the paper appears to have made the ethical choice.


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

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