Archive for the ‘Anonymous comments’ Category


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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Maybe Cain’s “Code of Conduct,” But Not Ours

We appreciate the efforts of the Herman Cain PAC to publicize the standards and practices contained in the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) Code of Ethics. The Cain PAC has been fighting back against allegations of sexual harassment circulating in the media. But we think it’s important to point out our code is not “the Journalists Code of Conduct,” rather SPJ’s attempt to model a Code of Ethics for journalism organizations. Many such organizations promulgate their own codes of ethics, a practice we heartily endorse.

Our code does indeed recommend journalists “Identify sources whenever feasible.” It goes on to say, “The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.” And it suggests journalists, “Always question sources’ motives before promising anonymity.” And, “Clarify conditions attached to any promise made in exchange for information.”

However, in this, as in many areas, SPJ’s code avoids taking absolutist positions against journalistic practice. We do so because we believe there are occasions when the public’s right to know must be paramount.

Whether journalism organizations have handled the allegations against Mr. Cain ethically can be a matter of debate. The SPJ code can help frame the terms of that debate. But nothing in the code should be used to pre-judge the outcome.

Irwin Gratz is a past national president of SPJ and current member of the Ethics Committee. He is “Morning Edition” host for Maine Public Broadcasting.

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When the good guys take center stage

It’s not often we give credit to journalists who do the right thing when it comes to ethics. That’s too bad.

Most of the 18 years I’ve spent on SPJ’s Ethics Committee has been used admonishing journalists when their professional conduct falls short. Every day I get Google Alerts on my cell phone telling me when SPJ’s name is used. Many times it occurs when ethics are involved. SPJ isn’t the only one chiding media types for their ethical lapses. According to these Google Alerts, about three times a day someone is citing our ethics code and taking someone to task.

Just for the record, those of us at SPJ would rather see proactive discussions using our ethics code instead of using it as a tool for punishment. Talk ethics all the time and the code becomes a living organism and not a bludgeoning device.

So, in my book, when there’s an opportunity to say congratulations for standing up and doing the right thing, we need to hear that as well.

Two cases to mention.

The first involves the leaders of an Alaskan TV station who took a bold step to suspend their newscasts for an evening so they could gather staff  to talk ethics. Here’s the Associated Press’ account:

A TV station took the unusual step of canceling its evening
newscasts Wednesday so the staff could discuss ethics after the flap
over a voicemail two producers accidentally left for a GOP Senate
candidate’s spokesman.

The Oct. 28 recorded message by the KTVA producers involved possible
scenarios for covering a rally for Republican Joe Miller, who had
been endorsed by Sarah Palin.

Miller’s camp says producers were discussing making up stories about
the candidate. Palin said the recording showed media bias.

Station general manager Jerry Bever wrote on the KTVA website that
Wednesday’s 5 and 6 p.m. broadcasts were canceled for the internal
discussion.

The station instead aired reruns of “The New Adventures of Old
Christine,” the Anchorage Daily News reported Thursday.

The two producers involved in the recording are no longer with the
station, a CBS affiliate.

“Events over the last week and a half have been challenging for our
station,” Bever wrote. “As the result of a conversation within our
newsroom that was accidentally recorded and released to the public,
our newsroom credibility has been called into question, and the
public’s trust in us has been tested.

“Our job as journalists carry a far greater responsibility than that
of media personalities and pundits,” Bever wrote. “We have been
given the public’s trust … now we must keep it.”

Let me say this is a bold initiative. It’s one thing to bring staff together and talk, but to make a statement that says “we’re not doing another newscast, showing our faces on the air until we make sure our ethics house is in order” takes courage and commitment. Nice job.

The second incident involves an online publication, North by Northwestern, at Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.

A story published online featured a student’s comments about finances and college life that resulted in a harsh backlash from other students who logged onto the site and commented. The student took a beating. So the story was taken off the site.

Here’s what editor Nick Castele said about his decision to remove the story from publication:

Now, North by Northwestern cannot hold itself responsible for every reaction of every reader. Readers must be responsible for themselves. In an Internet environment where anyone may attack others while remaining anonymous, readers must consider their own responsibility to the Web community.

But we do hold ourselves responsible for minimizing the harm caused in the process of making public the lives of real people. The Society of Professional Journalists, in its Code of Ethics, calls for media to uphold that responsibility.

That is why I removed the story from the Web when I became aware of the attacks. Until I could better assess the reporting and effect of the story, I wanted to minimize what seemed to be undue personal harm to one of our sources.

After carefully reviewing the reporting process and verifying it was done in accordance with the best reporting practices, Castele decided the story should be reposted but wanted to stick to his conviction of minimizing harm.

Consider this line from the SPJ Code of Ethics: “Recognize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than do public officials and others who seek power, influence or attention.”

Only one source quoted in this story is a public official within the Northwestern community. All others are private students. The story is not really about them as individuals. They appear in the story to give voice to the very different financial backgrounds and experiences found among students at this university. This piece is not about four students. It’s about all of us.

I have therefore decided to republish the story with sources’ names withheld. None of the sources requested anonymity — and, upon the story’s initial publication, it was not the reporter’s or the editors’ responsibility to conceal identities.

But it seems important to consider the degree of personal harm one of our sources experienced as a result of publication. I believe that granting anonymity is an appropriate step toward minimizing that harm.

This is another bold move by a journalist, fairly unprecedented in my time in the field, but certainly a decision that seems to come with a lot of careful deliberation. And, in the end, that’s what we want from ethics — sound moral decisions though deliberation allowing all perspectives that are ultimately defendable.

In both cases these bold moves, albeit unorthodox, showed initiative, courage, conviction and resulted in defendable decisions.

And,  for that they deserve our admiration.

Kevin Z. Smith is the chairman of SPJ’s Ethics Committee and the immediate past president of the Society.

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Who the anonymice are

For the Boston Globe’s Sunday magazine, Neil Swidey looked at the people who post anonymously at Boston.com.

Is posting after stories a fun, lively outlet for outspoken people?

Or a haven for the brash and insensitive?

If you think one way or the other, or somewhere in between, this might be the most telling detail in the story: In one day, Boston.com had to examine 1,330 comments flagged as possibly being over the line (whatever that line is).

Does your newspaper have the staff and time to police hundreds or thousands of comments a day to weed out the sludge? Isn’t that a waste of everyone’s time?

Remember, the 1,330 were only the comments that were flagged.

And that’s at one point in time. The cesspool under each each story has the potential to grow all day, every day.

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A storm of anonymity

The publication of anonymous reader comments by newspapers is unethical and should be discontinued, except in rare and unusual circumstances.

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics emphasizes that journalists should:
• Seek truth and report it
• Minimize harm
• Be fair and accurate
• Be accountable
• Show good taste

However, it also says journalists should:
• Support open exchange of views, but should not misrepresent the facts
• Give voice to the voiceless
• Encourage the public to voice grievances

So, how can newspapers manage all that – be fair and accountable and support open exchange? They have been doing that for many years.

They have managed with features called “letters to the editor” and the “op-ed” page. Those features do not permit anonymity, except in rare occasions, and even then require that writers’ identity be known to the editors before articles are published.

Now, with the internet and online editions of newspapers, anyone with access to a computer can comment anonymously. Oversight is minimal. Newspapers would have to increase staff to authenticate each online submission, as is done with letters to the editor and op-ed articles. That will not happen, especially in these times of deep newspaper staff cutbacks.

The result has been a storm of anonymous comments – some of them quite nasty – in online newspapers. Rather than give voice to the voiceless, this practice in fact both provides venue and protection to unethical voices. It is unfair, is often inaccurate, harmful, in poor taste, and is not accountable.

Granted, those reader comments are not “journalistic” efforts but they are published by journalists who not only lend credibility to the irresponsible but also shield them from accountability. Newspapers cannot ignore the unethical aspects of anonymous reader comments.

The “voiceless” are not voiceless. There are many online avenues for them to air their opinions anonymously if they choose to do so. Newspapers should not be among those avenues. Doing so is irresponsible and not ethical.

Paul R. LaRocque, member, SPJ Ethics Committee
This comment is my personal opinion and not necessarily that of the Ethics Committee.

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Trying to stomp out the student press

As much as I dislike the nastiness of anonymous comments, trying to shut down a school newspaper that allows them is a whole new level of harm.

The staff of Virginia Tech’s Collegiate Times must be allowed the freedom to practice and learn journalism and the difficult decisions inherent to the craft. One of those decisions is taste and decorum in opinion – choosing where to draw the line in comments in print and online.

The Foundation for Indvidual Rights in Education is correct. The standards of civility, sensitivity and respect in expression are ideal, but should be aspirational.

Silencing a student newspaper is a drastic step, beyond disrespectful. It’s Draconian.

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