Archive for February, 2017


Anonymous Sources: A Necessary Evil

Image via Flickr Creative Commons/Germaine

President Donald Trump on Friday latched on to one of journalism’s greatest vulnerabilities by attacking the use of anonymous sources in stories about his administration.


Anonymous sources are a necessary evil in journalism.

Many of the most important stories in United States history relied on information provided by people who needed their identities shielded from the public. At the same time, anonymity provides the subjects of those same stories a powerful tool to discredit the information.

“I called the fake news the enemy of the people,” said President Donald Trump on Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Maryland. “And they are. They are the enemy of the people, because they have no sources. They just make them up when there are none.”

Trump’s comments come on the heels of a number of stories that included anonymous sources and painted his administration in unflattering light. For example, CNN used unnamed sources in a Thursday report that claimed the Federal Bureau of Investigation refused to publicly dispute allegations that Trump aides communicated with Russians during the 2016 presidential campaign.

“I saw one story recently where they said, ‘Nine people have confirmed,’” said Trump during his speech on Friday. “There are no nine people. I don’t believe there was one or two people.”

While Trump is wrong that reputable news organizations invent sources, those same organizations and their journalists should take note of his criticism that is likely shared by his supporters. Journalists need to work more diligently than ever before to find sources who will go on the record or provide documents to support their claims.

The Society of Professional JournalistsCode of Ethics stresses the importance of journalists identifying their sources. “The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources,” according to the document.

Cases do exist when the importance of the information outweighs the need for journalists to identify their sources, however. Those include cases when the source “may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere.”

In those cases, journalists and news organizations must thoroughly explain why sources were granted anonymity. The public often misunderstands the premise of anonymous sources. Journalists should be clear that they know the identity of their source and trust their information, but the public can’t know their identity due to a certain circumstance.

The Trump administration clearly plans to identify, attack and amplify any weaknesses and vulnerabilities in news stories and coverage. While mistakes will be made from time to time, it’s important that journalists and news organizations focus on minimizing those opportunities for the White House.


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


This post was updated at 1:42 on Friday, February 24, 2017 to add additional information to the penultimate paragraph about anonymous sources.

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Lessons From Flynn’s Downfall

President Barack Obama departs the White House briefing room after a statement, Oct. 16, 2013. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

Pundits and some journalists called for a reinvention of the press after Donald Trump won the White House in November, but Michael Flynn’s resignation on Monday and additional stories published Tuesday show the United States benefits most when journalists rededicate themselves to their profession’s timeless standards.

Michael Flynn resigned Monday as President Donald Trump’s national security adviser after news stories suggested he misled administration officials about his conversations with a Russian diplomat. While people disagree about whether Flynn’s actions warranted his resignation, few can argue that comprehensive news reports didn’t led to his downfall.

Journalists, media critics and the public should allow Flynn’s short and turbulent stint in the Trump administration to serve as a reminder of some basic truths about the press.

1.) The press is still powerful.

The press is sometimes painted as irrelevant in a time when people get information directly from the internet, but journalists still play powerful roles in amplifying certain stories and guiding people through a sea of lies. News organizations and individual journalists perform their timeless roles as curators of the national conversation – whether people want to admit it or not.

2.) Traditional and ethical journalism still works.

The major revelations about the Trump administration come from journalists following their profession’s abiding principles – as outlined by the Society of Professional JournalistsCode of Ethics. Truthful, responsible and thorough news reports remain the most effective pathway to deliver information to the public. New forms of storytelling may pop up from time to time, but they do best when the underlying principles of journalism remain unchanged.

3.) The press is doing its job – not waging war.

“I have a running war with the media,” said Trump at a January 21 visit to the Central Intelligence Agency. The president’s disdain for the press is repeated often on his Twitter accounts and by people within his administration. Despite their perspective, the press is not at war with the White House. Reporting the truth, correcting inaccurate statements and lies, following the money and holding powerful people accountable are the basic missions of journalism. No presidential administration is supposed to be fans of the press. Perhaps the Trump administration feels like the press is the “opposition party,” because they are now on the receiving end of scrutiny.

4.) The press can tell people what is going on, but it can’t tell them what to do.

Journalists report information people should know about their world. Sometimes the information is about government officials. Other times it’s about faulty consumer products. Journalists can’t force officials to resign and can’t make people change their behaviors, but the hope is people receiving accurate information will use it to make good decisions. For example, people may call their representatives in Congress if they don’t like something happening in the government. Or, people may not buy certain products known to be dangerous.

5.) The press makes mistakes from time to time.

Journalists – like all humans – make mistakes. The profession’s standards aim to reduce mistakes and irresponsible behaviors, but they’re bound to occur from time to time. The goals are for mistakes to be quickly corrected and people behaving irresponsibly to be held accountable for their actions. If the press is going to fulfill its mission of holding powerful people’s feet to the fire, it must also hold itself accountable.

6.) The press will never be wholly non-partisan.

“The press” is an inexact term. Some people may use the term to describe non-partisan news organizations like The New York Times or NPR. Other people may include partisan media organizations like Breitbart and ThinkProgress. While non-partisan news organizations largely focused on whether Flynn lied about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., right-leaning media organizations largely focused on the government leaks that informed news reports about those conversations. The partisan press often does not adhere to most of journalism’s best practices, but those organizations are still entitled to the protection offered by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

7.) The press is here to stay.

History is littered with premature obituaries for the press. Journalists and news organization operate and fulfill their missions despite troubles adapting to new technology, less centralized information pathways and shakier financial foundations. These barriers – along with hostile presidential administrations – existed before and they will pop up again. The press survived those past challenges and it will survive to overcome those barriers in the future.


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

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Society’s Code Belongs in Newsrooms, Not Courtrooms

First Lady Michelle Obama meets with Melania Trump for tea in the Yellow Oval Room of the White House, Nov. 10, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics finds itself in the middle of a $150 million lawsuit filed by the First Lady of the United States against a controversial news organization.

First Lady Melania Trump is using the Society’s Code of Ethics in a lawsuit seeking $150 million in damages from the parent company of Mail Online, which the former model says alleged in a now-retracted article she worked at one time as an “elite escort.”

The website eventually retracted the story.

The first family’s knowledge of the Society’s Code is obviously a pleasant surprise, but its use in any lawsuit or legal proceeding is inappropriate. The United States is a country of laws, which should be the determining factor in any court case.

Trump’s demand for a jury trial was filed Monday in New York. Mail Online’s conduct “violated professional standards of journalism ethics as exemplified by the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics,” according the filing that also list specific principles.

“In publishing the defamatory statements about Plaintiff [Trump], Mail Online failed to live up to any of these important ethical principles of journalism,” the filing continues.

Mail Online – as it often does – likely crossed what the Society considers lines in the proverbial sand in its article about Trump, but ethical breaches are not criminal or illegal. The Society’s code “is not, nor can it be under the First Amendment, legally enforceable,” as its footnote declares.

The Code is a document containing timeless principles the Society and its members believe are the bedrock of responsible journalism. The document is also aspirational and should be read as a whole. Individual principles should not be cited out of context.

While the Code displays these caveats and directives in its footnote, the document often finds itself in courtrooms. A journalism professor discussed the Code at length last year during the case between Terry Bollea – better known as Hulk Hogan – and Gawker Media. The case ultimately resulted in the shuttering of Gawker Media’s namesake website and the sale of its other properties to Univision.

The Society can’t keep people and their lawyers from citing its Code of Ethics, but the hope is the deciding factors in any legal action are established and constitutional laws. A document crafted by a professional organization does not fit that description.


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

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Facebook Tackles Fake News

Jason Howie/Flickr Creative Commons

Facebook announced last Wednesday changes to its trending topics section, which is the box of subjects users see on the top-right corner of the screen. The social network’s software will only recognize subjects covered by multiple credible sources, according to The Wall Street Journal. The subjects won’t be adjusted to user preferences.

The new announcement is a step forward when it comes to digital media literacy and the relationship between Facebook and its users. More work is needed, particularly around its trending topics algorithm, which has been the subject of controversy because of the sources that are cited when it comes to certain subjects. Nevertheless, this change shows Facebook is taking seriously its role as a gatekeeper. The social network is adapting to ensure the public receives the most valuable information possible – no matter the subject.

The move is also positive for journalists, who continue to disseminate information ethically on a platform fundamental to the future of the industry. Facebook is a necessary platform for journalists and news organizations to engage with audiences.

The rules for producing ethical journalism for journalists remain the same regardless of the platform, be it through a social media or something more traditional like newspapers. The Society’s Code of Ethics reminds journalists that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy when it comes to informing your audience.

Overall, these changes implemented by Facebook are a win-win for the members of the public who seek news and information 24 hours a day, and for the journalists who continue to seek truth and report it – their most important task.


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

Outside of SPJ, Veeneman is a Managing Editor and contributing writer for Kettle Magazine, an online publication in the UK. You can interact with Veeneman on Twitter here.

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 Committee, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

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