Archive for the ‘Access’ Category


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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We All Lose Thanks to Sinclair’s Deal With Candidates (UPDATED)

(Photo Via Flickr Creative Commons/Owen Moore)

NOTE: After hearing from Sinclair’s representatives and viewing emails between the company and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton‘s campaign, I don’t believe the interview arrangements fell outside what would be considered ethical journalism. Therefore, I apologize to Sinclair for assuming the statements reported in the Politico story were accurate. (UPDATED May 11, 2017 to emphasize that I believe the statements reported by Politico were incorrect – not that Politico incorrectly reported the statements.) READ FULL NOTE HERE


The Maryland-based Sinclair Broadcast Group struck a deal with Donald Trump during the 2016 presidential election to air interviews with the candidate without added context in exchange for access, according to Politico.

Sinclair, which owns television stations across the country, made the offer to both candidates, Politico reports. Sen. Tim Kaine, who was former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s running mate, reportedly participated in a few of these interviews.

“It was a standard package, but an extended package, extended story where you’d hear more directly from candidate on the issue instead of hearing all the spin and all the rhetoric,” a Sinclair representative told Politico.

While Sinclair’s explanation may sound reasonable, such agreements hurt other journalists, the integrity of  Sinclair’s broadcasts and the quality of information received by viewers.

Most worrisome is that agreeing to air extended interviews with candidates without added context shackles journalists and allows candidates’ statements to go unchallenged. Essentially, Sinclair turned over editorial control to the candidates.

Sinclair viewers may end up misinformed if Kaine or Trump, who is now president-elect, misstated facts during those interviews. Journalists at Sinclair-owned stations may have wanted to correct the record after the interviews aired, but were not allowed due to the agreement.

These agreements also end up increasing the number of barriers for all journalists covering the presidential election, including those at the news organization that made the deal.

Access to a candidate is already a valuable commodity, and news organizations often try to woo campaigns to pick them for interviews or responses. News organizations increase the value of that access by giving a candidate access to readers, viewers or listeners with less and less restrictions.

A news organization can start a bidding war with others for more pleasing terms. If the campaign finds an organization offering better access to potential voters, they may come back to Sinclair for less restrictive terms.

People may argue that these deals make sense given that journalism is a business, but it’s a unique business. Journalism is based on principles, which are outlined in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.

Sinclair should have – at the very least – told their viewers about the agreements made with Trump and Kaine.

The Trump campaign told Politico that it made similar deals with other broadcast groups, such as Hearst Television. The organization denies any deal existed.

All news organizations must recommit themselves to journalism’s basic principles as they move forward in an unfamiliar environment, where the president-elect and his administration is openly hostile toward the press.

Cutting backroom deals to give politicians unfettered access to a news organization’s readers, viewers and/or listeners is not among those principles and is not in the spirit of SPJ’s Code of Ethics.

Additionally, journalists must speak up when their news organizations engage in ethically questionable activities. If speaking up may put their livelihoods in jeopardy, the journalists are welcome to reach out to SPJ’s ethics committee.

We need to hold the proverbial feet of news organizations to the fire as much as we do politicians.


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

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TV Execs, Journos Fail Viewers With Off-the-record Meeting

Screenshot of Peter Finch portraying Howard Beale in the 1976 film Network.

Screenshot of Peter Finch portraying Howard Beale in the 1976 film Network.

Television networks sent their executives and A-list personalities on Monday to Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan for an off-the-record meeting with President-elect Donald Trump.

The meeting between the executives, personalities and Trump is a slap in the face to journalists who see a new presidential administration as a way to recommit themselves to thorough and responsible journalism.

Accounts of the meeting differ, but CNN’s Brian Stelter reports Trump criticized some of the networks at the start. The future president also asked – allegedly – for a cordial relationship between the press and his White House administration.

Only those who were in the meeting will truly know what happened thanks to the networks foolishly agreeing “not to talk about the substance of the conversations.” What’s worse, few – if any – of the journalists and personalities attending today’s meeting appeared to disclose on air that they met with Trump.

Off-the-record meetings with presidents and elected officials are not new or uncommon occurrences. In fact, stories about off-the-record meetings between journalists and presidents date back to at least Franklin Roosevelt’s administration.

Precedent does not mean journalists and news organizations should blindly agree to off-the-record meetings with presidents and other government officials, however. Time, place and circumstance should dictate that decision.

In this case, Trump repeatedly harassed and taunted the press during his campaign. He actively worked to discredit fair and responsible pieces of journalism. Additionally, Trump so far failed to establish a protective press pool, which is a small group of journalists that travels with high-ranking officials.

While Trump can remedy some of these grievances, it should come as no surprise to journalists that presidents and their administrations sometimes work to make the press ineffective. The job of journalists and news organizations is to be stronger and rise above those challenges.

The major television networks that attended today’s meeting are  one of the most powerful forces in the country, but their agreement to keep its contents off the record suggests they will not use that power to fight for access or for the benefit of their viewers and listeners. Instead, they will likely beg for access and feed on the scraps thrown to them by the incoming administration.

The American people who depend on those news organizations deserve better.

The New York Times and its executives will meet tomorrow with Trump, according to Stelter. The meeting will start off the record and lead into an on-the-record conversation with reporters and columnists from the newspaper.

My hope is that journalists and news organizations realize the amount of power they still wield, and use it for the benefit of their readers, viewers, listeners and all Americans.


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

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Theater of the Absurd: Cable News Contributors

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Photo Credit: Flickr

Few stories are more common during election years than controversies surrounding cable news contributors, who are paid to come on air at the beck and call of news organizations.

Fox News let Newt Gingrich go earlier this week as reports surfaced that he may be Donald Trump’s running mate on the GOP’s White House ticket. Social media then erupted Wednesday after a website reported Corey Lewandowski, Trump’s former campaign manager, is receiving severance payments from the campaign while being employed by CNN.

The concern is usually that these cable news channels crossed an ethical line by employing people who are either too cozy with candidates or may be considering their own run for office.

But to chastise Fox News, CNN or MSNBC for employing contributors too close to presidential campaigns excuses the fact that these cable news channels are already paying newsmakers for interviews – also known as checkbook journalism.

As speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives for four years, Gingrich held one of the most powerful positions in the country. As Trump’s campaign manager, Lewandowski was one of the closest advisers to a person who may become the next president.

Fox News and CNN are guaranteed almost exclusive access to newsworthy information by signing up Gingrich and Lewandowski, respectively, as contributors.

The SPJ Code of Ethics says that ethical journalists should not pay for access to news.

There are a few ethical issues surrounding checkbook journalism. One is that offering payments will lead people to provide information to make a few dollars instead of speaking when it’s in everyone’s best interest. There is also the question of whether the information that is paid for is true or just what the source thinks the journalists wants to hear.

As Jack Shafer pointed out years ago, there are also practical reasons why journalists shouldn’t pay for news.

Calling out any news organization for checkbook journalism is a bit futile, because many regularly pay sources. Some offer money outright while others are more inventive. SPJ does point out egregious examples of checkbook journalism from time to time.

Chastising cable news channels and their contributors for being too cozy with campaigns is beyond futile, however. The cries are too late. By the time a former speaker of the house, campaign manager, politician or other newsmaker serving as a paid contributor becomes too close to the news being discussed, the journalism ethics train already left the station.


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

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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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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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