Archive for January, 2017


Pay No Attention to the Man in Front of the Curtain

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer offered the press a useful journalism lesson barely one day into President Donald Trump’s term. Journalists learned to treat all information from the White House with extreme skepticism and caution.

The lesson came in the form of a tirade Spicer offered in his first official comments from the lectern of the White House’s briefing room. He accused the press of manipulating coverage of Trump’s inauguration to give an inaccurate perception of crowd size. Individual journalists’ social media posts were also an issue.

While there was an initial incorrect report yesterday about a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. being removed from the Oval Office by the Trump administration, the press largely portrayed an accurate perspective of the crowd gathered for the inauguration.

 

 

Trump and his staff – like all presidential administrations – are entitled to their own opinions and versions of events, but they are not entitled to their own facts. A journalist’s main objective is to seek truth and report it.

Individual journalists may sometimes publish or broadcast incorrect information, but others – now more than ever before – soon step in to correct the record. As a whole, ethical journalists know facts are their currency.

“There’s been a lot of talk in the media about the responsibility to hold Donald Trump accountable,” said Spicer. “And I’m here to tell you that it goes two ways. We’re going to hold the press accountable, as well.”

Spicer also told the assembled journalists on Saturday that Trump will take his message directly to the American people. The apparent threat is somewhat empty, though. Presidential administrations – especially under former President Barack Obama – bypassed the press whenever possible. Journalists were still there to put those messages into context, call out falsehoods or lies. A change in administrations will not change or deter that mission.

A window from Joseph Pulitzer’s The World is displayed in Pulitzer Hall at Columbia University in NYC.

Journalism no doubt hit a rough patch during the last decade, when the digital revolution and Great Recession eroded its business model. Journalists are scrappy people, however. The history of our profession is littered with abrupt changes, but we endure.

Today, in the glow of a stained-glass window that was once housed in the building of Joseph Pulitzer’s The World, I read hundreds of news stories written by student journalists from across the United States. I can guarantee based on those stories that the future of journalism in this country is bright thanks to so many amazing young Americans signing up to hold the powerful accountable.

Those student journalists are being taught by great educators in public and private schools. They are also likely being guided by the Society of Professional JournalistsCode of Ethics, which offers a much better outline of what journalists should report than any White House press secretary.

Journalism, the press and the truth endure regardless of the obstacles thrown in their way. Democracy demands it.


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

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BuzzFeed and CNN Are Not “Fake News”

The term “fake news” meant very little before President-elect Donald Trump’s first press conference since winning the White House. Social media users largely misused the term into obscurity by labeling even accurate information as “fake news.”

The term experienced a rebirth today during Trump’s press conference. He pointed at CNN’s Jim Acosta after an uncomfortable exchange. “You are fake news,” said Trump.

“Fake news” suddenly turned from a cringe-worthy and laughable label into something more sinister. The future president of the United States used the term to discredit one of the country’s best-known news organizations. Trump also called BuzzFeed a “failing pile of garbage.”

CNN drew Trump’s ire by publishing a story Tuesday claiming he and President Barack Obama were briefed last week about “allegations that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.” BuzzFeed released the documents outlining the unverified allegations soon after CNN published its story.

CNN and BuzzFeed – like most news organizations – are staffed with many great journalists who go to work wanting to fulfill their roles in democracy by reporting the truth and holding powerful people’s feet to the proverbial fire.

While I may disagree with decisions made by CNN and BuzzFeed from time to time, I know neither organization is “fake news” or a “pile of garbage.”

The above statement sounds silly at first, but I fear it’s a necessary declaration as the incoming administration grows more hostile each day to different members of the press.

Based on Trump’s actions since his election and today’s press conference, journalists – now more than ever – need to visibly and actively stand up for each other when singled out or excluded by the incoming administration.

If CNN and BuzzFeed are excluded or shut out from the White House, the next may be MSNBC, CBS, The New York Times or any other news organization.

Journalists should not be afraid to advocate on the behalf of their peers. Advocacy of press freedom and open government is enshrined in the Society of Professional JournalistsCode of Ethics.

“Recognize a special obligation to serve as watchdogs over public affairs and government,” reads one of the Code’s principles. “Seek to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open, and that public records are open to all.”

Perhaps journalists fulfill that principle by asking a question on behalf of a journalist being shunned during press conferences. Or, perhaps journalists fulfill that principle by confirming a peer’s reporting after the president labels it “fake news.”

The bottom line is that journalists need to put aside some of the competitiveness and disagreements and prepare themselves to stick up for each other from time to time.

Trump and his administration may become more receptive to the press and its mission after the inauguration, but journalists and news organization must be prepared if that is not the case.

 


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

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To Publish or Not to Publish

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

CNN broke news on Tuesday afternoon that U.S. intelligence officials briefed President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump on “allegations that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.”

The story didn’t provide many details about the potentially compromising information, because CNN “has not independently corroborated the specific allegations.” BuzzFeed soon published the set of documents containing the unverified allegations, however.

Journalists and others on Twitter soon questioned the ethics of BuzzFeed posting unverified information. President-elect Trump also posted a link on Twitter to a story chastising BuzzFeed for its actions.

The unfortunate truth is that publishing hacked and unverified information – especially any involving public officials – often falls into the gray areas of journalism ethics. Arguments can be made on both sides of the debate.

People may argue that the dearth of details in CNN’s story led people to speculate about the specifics of the allegations. BuzzFeed’s decision to publish could be seen as a way to squash that speculation and show people the scope of the allegations.

From the standpoint of a journalism ethics purist: journalists should not publish or broadcast unverified information.

The value of journalism rests in its ability to provide answers and credible information. The public expects journalists and news organizations to say whether a piece of information is true or false. No value exists in throwing unverified information into the world.

More than ever before, journalists and news organizations need to tell the public what is and is not accurate information.

Yet, the public is bombarded on an almost daily basis with unverified information from news organizations. Breaking news stories often come with the disclaimer that the information isn’t confirmed. Emails allegedly hacked from the Democratic National Committee were reported on and carried similar caveats.

Journalists who want their profession to be trusted, respected and profitable need to hold themselves and their peers to its best practices, which are spelled out in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.

The actions of news organizations involved with this story will continue to be debated over the coming days, but the more important issue moving forward is that these allegations are now out in the world. Responsible, thorough and thoughtful journalists are needed to inform people about this information and its worth.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chairperson of the Society of Professional Journalists‘ Ethics Committee.

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Social Media Ethics Must Be Taught

Jason Howie/Flickr Creative Commons

Social media remains at the center of news consumption for audiences. The platforms have become ubiquitous with news consumption, as they become publishers and media companies in their own right. They also have been ingrained in how audiences see and perceive the news.


Oxford Dictionaries announced last month that post-truth is its international word of the year. Post-truth, an adjective, is defined as: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

The decision by the Dictionaries comes as Facebook is under scrutiny for promoting inaccurate or fake news articles, and people question the information and facts spread on social media during U.S. and UK political votes. Though Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media are new to the market, it does not excuse journalists using those platforms from the evolving rules and ethics of journalism.

The Society’s Code of Ethics calls for journalists to seek truth and report it, and that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy. Seek truth and report it presents a two-fold role in the social media age – informing audiences with the most up-to-date information but also using it to get the facts, verifying user generated content and help it tell the most accurate and impartial story possible.

In a time where relations between audiences and journalists in the U.S. continue to be strained, it is quintessential that a particular emphasis be made on ethics in the social media age, an emphasis that should be made not just in newsrooms here and around the world, but also journalism schools.

While ethics is a cornerstone of the journalism curriculum, it needs to adapt to meet the needs of the student looking to have a career in 21st Century journalism. They need to know that Twitter is more than an opportunity to build one’s brand in 140 character messages, and that Facebook and Instagram are more than just platforms to talk about food or popular culture.

Social media curriculum should include how to be thorough, and how to make the best possible contribution to the public good. That includes the importance of verification and newsgathering in the social media age, why audiences continue to be important as the platforms change, and that it isn’t about trying to one up a competitor, but about educating and engaging anyone who is looking for information on a certain story.

Most of all, they need to know how social media can help journalists tell the best story possible.

Social media platforms, in spite of their faults, are important to the business of journalism, and will help shape the idea and role of journalism in the years ahead. As such, everyone needs to be aware of how all of that correlates with the practice and production of quality, ethical journalism.

Ethics in journalism is something that must not be taken for granted, no matter the platform being used. Neither the evolution of technology, nor journalism ethics, take a holiday.

We as journalists are educators – education is in our DNA – to help inform, engage and do the most good for the public. We are educated by educators, and colleges, universities and newsrooms are doing a disservice to the journalism community without properly incorporating ethics training on these social media platforms.

More of that must be done, so the individual, be it in journalism school or starting in a newsroom, looking to achieve a career in the industry can continue the traditions so paramount to journalism’s objective in enriching a democracy.

It also guarantees one other thing – the goal central with journalism and democracy, seek truth and report it, can continue, and not be in vain.


Alex Veeneman, a Chicago based SPJ member, is SPJ’s Community Coordinator and is a contributor to the SPJ blog network. He also is a member of SPJ’s Ethics Committee.

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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Twitter Fight Points to Larger Problem

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

A post on Twitter ignited a discussion Sunday about the type of relationship that exists between President-elect Donald Trump and MSNBC hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. The specifics of that issue are currently being debated across the news media.

The press should take note of the issue at the heart of this current uproar as it looks to reboot itself in 2017. The issue is the relationships journalists and news media figures sometimes share with politicians and powerbrokers.

Journalists and newsroom leaders historically shared very cozy relationships with politicians, as Scarborough pointed out Monday in The Washington Post. Orthodox followers of the Society’s Code of Ethics should be shocked by the behaviors of journalism’s greatest icons.

Edward R. Murrow left CBS News in 1961 to lead the propaganda arm of the U.S. government for President John Kennedy, as Scarborough points out in his editorial.

History and precedent in this case shouldn’t dictate journalists’ future behaviors, however.

Public behavior during the recent elections and survey results from Gallup showing trust in the news media at historically low levels should be enough to convince journalists and newsroom leaders that business as usual is no longer good business.

News organizations often operate under the theory that their readers, viewers and listeners crave an insider’s perspective on news stories. As a result, opinion pages and airwaves are filled with former politicians and political operatives offering their thoughts on current events.

The problem with this theory is that more and more journalists and news media figures view themselves as insiders and the public on the receiving end of the reports continues to feel like outsiders.

Journalists and newsrooms need to shed their insider perspectives and embrace their intended roles as outsiders and representatives of the public.

Journalists should no longer view themselves as cogs in a large piece of machinery that tries to explain themselves to random bystanders. They should view themselves as bystanders with the tools to explain the machinery to their peers.

Foundational shifts such as the one I suggest are difficult to accomplish, but they are sometimes necessary to strengthen the overall structure. A change of perspective within journalism is long overdue.

The specific steps to shedding the press’s insider perspective are debatable, but the easiest move is to get journalists to interact more with the public.

Newsrooms should consider holding meet-and-greets, open houses and other community events. Journalists can also take it upon themselves to explore unfamiliar neighborhoods and communities.

Journalists should take notice of the people they meet at those events and in communities. Mental pictures and notes of people, their circumstances and daily lives can serve as powerful reminders of the people on the receiving end of news stories.

Journalists will always need to develop and depend on professional relationships with politicians and powerbrokers, but those relationships should have defined boundaries. Journalists should know at all times that they represent the public, which mostly consists of non-politicians.

A shift in perspective won’t happen overnight. Some journalists will also never change their behaviors. Those challenges shouldn’t keep journalism’s practitioners from trying to better the profession and recommit themselves to its noble purpose.


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

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