Archive for the ‘Digital Journalism’ Category


Learning From a Leak

Caught a drip falling from the tap in the kitchen

Journalists and news organizations must work to protect their sources even when no formal promises or agreements are made between the two parties.


Missteps in handling and reporting classified information may jeopardize the identity of sources and ultimately dissuade other people from leaking important information that may be vital to the public.

The U.S. Justice Department today announced charges against a government contractor for leaking classified information to a news outlet about an hour after The Intercept published a classified document from the National Security Agency.

The document dated early May “was provided anonymously” and details – among other things – an alleged Russian-led cyberattack on a U.S. voting software supplier before the November presidential election, according to The Intercept’s story.

The Justice Department’s affidavit says the news outlet – assumed to be The Intercept – contacted the government agency on May 30 and provided a copy of the classified document. The agency examined the document and noticed “the pages of the intelligence reporting appeared to be folded and/or creased, suggesting they had been printed and hand-carried out of a secured space.

The crease and/or fold was enough to steer investigators toward employees with physical access to the information, according to the affidavit. Of the six people who printed the report, only one had email communications with the news outlet.

As far as I can tell from online news reports and the Justice Department’s affidavit, the source’s arrest cannot be directly blamed on The Intercept’s decision to turn over a copy of the leaked document. Investigators may have been able to identify the alleged leaker due to email or other activity.

The affidavit does suggest The Intercept’s decision made the government’s investigation easier, however.

Journalists and news organizations should not hand over copies of leaked documents to the government, as pointed out on Twitter by Emily Bell, who is the director of Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism in New York.

The main reason for withholding those documents from the government is to protect the source’s identity. As happened in this case, investigators may be able to find clues that lead to the source – such as a crease, fold, watermark or other marking.

The situation Bell cites in her Twitter post resulted in a legal case between The Guardian and the UK government over leaked documents that contained markings that would identify the source.

In its nightly media newsletter, CNN cites a statement from The Intercept: The NSA document was provided to us anonymously. The Intercept has no knowledge of the identity of the source.

The statement seems to conflict with the Justice Department’s affidavit that suggests the alleged leaker had some communication with the news outlet.

News organizations usually have some communication with the sources of leaked information. In those cases, the Society of Professional JournalistsCode of Ethics is clear that journalists should “keep the promises they make.”

The Code is less direct when sources simply mail information to reporters without earlier or follow-up communications. Yet, journalists and news organizations still have an implicit responsibility to do all they can to protect sources of the information.

Journalists and news organizations have a responsibility to minimize harm that should be considered when reporting, writing and ultimately publishing or broadcasting information.

Additionally, leakers need to know journalists on the receiving end of information will treat those documents with the appropriate care and won’t unwittingly turn over information that jeopardizes their safety. If people can’t trust journalists to do all they can to protect people’s identities in these types of situations, leakers may think twice before sending potentially vital information to news organizations.

Beyond the news value of such leaks, it’s in the best interest of the country for people to leak information to responsible journalists and news organization instead of places like WikiLeaks.

Whether The Intercept unknowingly guided the U.S. government to its source is debatable at this point, but the situation an important reminder to other journalists and news organizations to be aware of their responsibilities throughout the news reporting process.


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

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There Is a Role for Public Editors

New York Times Headquarters In New York

SOURCE: Flickr Creative Common

On the same day The New York Times announced a round of buyouts, the paper said it’s also eliminating the position of public editor.


The decision to eliminate the role of the public editor at The New York Times is difficult to understand considering the press continues to suffer from a lack of trust and faces nearly daily assaults from the President of the United States.

Elizabeth Spayd will leave the paper on Friday, according to The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone, who first reported the news on Wednesday. Spayd is the sixth person to hold the position since it was created in 2003.

The role of the public editor “comes with a mandate to review standards and practices at the paper while serving as a conduit to readers,” according to the Times story about Spayd’s appointment. The position was created after the high-profile plagiarism scandal involving Jayson Blair.

Arthur Sulzberger, the paper’s publisher, explained in a memo to staff that readers on the internet “collectively serve as a modern watchdog, more vigilant and forceful than one person could ever be. Our responsibility is to empower all of those watchdogs, and to listen to them, rather than to channel their voice through a single office.”

He added that the paper will increase the number of stories that allow commenting and work to engage readers through a center based on the news desk.

While the paper’s investment in reader engagement initiatives is laudable, the position of public editor is fundamentally different. The public editor operated outside the newsroom’s chain of command. Those who held the position could ruffle proverbial feathers and draw attention to issues without risking their jobs.

The public editor could also make sense of the cacophony created by those vigilant and forceful online watchdogs. The existence of social media and the internet should not have been the downfall of the public editor. Instead, it should be another tool in the editor’s arsenal.

Practically, the public editor was an educated representative of the readers who could walk among the newsroom, talk with editors and ultimately get answers.

Symbolically, the public editor sent a message to people that the paper took their questions seriously and that there was an independent arbiter who heard their concerns. In a time when trust in the press is still low, that message is an invaluable one to communicate.

Sulzberger wrote in his memo that the position of public editor “played a crucial part in rebuilding our readers’ trusts by acting as our in-house watchdog.”

Rebuilding trust is important, but maintaining trust is just as crucial.

The New York Times is obviously not exempt from the business struggles of modern media, but it is still among the news organizations that set the bar for the best of journalism. If it decides it does not need a public editor, most other news organizations with similar positions will take note.  Hopefully other news organizations see the value of such positions, however.


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

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The Secret to a Successful Journalism Career Is Strong Ethics

Joseph Pulitzer’s bust is displayed alongside his quote in the lobby of Pulitzer Hall at Columbia University in New York City.

That might sound old school or boring but for me it is true: developing, adhering and staying true to journalism ethics has helped me every step of the way throughout my career.

When you are adhering to ethical standards you are able to build and keep your community’s trust. As I have moved around the United States pursuing my career, I continue to receive tips from people living in the previous markets I have worked. 

Why? They trust me. Now, they don’t necessarily mention that it is because I was ethical, but they use other words like “fair,” “responsible” and “respectful.”

You may hear those words and think what does that have to do with being an ethical journalist? What’s important to remember about journalism ethics is that it’s different than what is legal. Something that is legal may not always be ethical. If you start to think about the issue of what is legal and what is ethical separately, you’ll begin to see why the words “fair,” “responsible” and “respectful” apply to ethics.

Fair is probably the most obvious. At a basic level it means providing all (not just two) sides and individuals involved in the story an opportunity to be heard. For me though it also means going above and beyond to add context to our stories. When you’re putting together stories you are anticipating what answers may be. If you don’t receive those answers from those involved it’s still important to include and explore them in stories.

Being responsible means being honest with your users. Telling them when you get something wrong, when you don’t know something, when you couldn’t get answers, etc. Be transparent and let them into the storytelling process. If you receive information after the story airs that changes what the story was about, share that with your users and engage in the debate. As journalists we have a responsibility to inform our communities. Don’t hold back because of sweeps, competition or pride.

The old adage, “treat people how you would like to be treated,” has taken me far. That doesn’t mean I back down when there are complaints or pressure from powerful agencies or leaders. It does mean that I always encourage and welcome a conversation about the stories I produce. It means I reach out to individuals named in the story, even if a public information officer has asked me not to. I my team to do the same because I know I would want the same if my name was being mentioned in a story. 

Being ethical has not always been the easy choice. It’s also not always made me a lot of friends. But, when I have been faced with tough decisions or questioned for the ones I have made, I have been able to defend and standby my choices because I made them based off of ethical guidelines I believe in.

So, as the Society of Professional Journalists celebrates Ethics week, I encourage you to revisit your ethics, read our Code of Ethics and develop a set of guidelines you can defend.

If you’re an ethical and responsible journalist, more tips will come your way, you’ll produce better stories and you’ll be rewarded with opportunities. 


Lynn Walsh is the president of the Society of Professional Journalists.

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Streamed Crime: A Challenge for News and Social Media Companies

Jason Howie/Flickr Creative Commons

Social media ignited Sunday afternoon when news broke that a man in Cleveland streamed a video of himself on Facebook allegedly shooting an elderly person. The crime is part of an ongoing challenge for news organizations and social media companies.

The challenge is different for each of the entities, however.

News organizations are tasked with taking in raw material and determining what, when and how to describe and show that information. In this and similar cases, journalists are challenged by several factors, including:

  • The raw material is graphic.
  • The raw material often cannot be verified.
  • The raw material is likely available online.
  • The family of the victim(s) may not know of the crime.

Before the internet, modern journalists didn’t often come into contact with graphic material to use with stories. Additionally, they often heard of crimes from official sources that could verify material and knew whether the family of the victim was notified. Plus, graphic images, video or audio weren’t circulating in public.

The instinct of many people – including journalists – is to share what is publicly available, but the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics makes a clear statement by saying “legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.”

Some news organizations and journalists take the position that they should not hide information from the public, but that’s a ridiculous stance. One of the central missions of journalism is to distill the world into concise reports that tell the public what information they need in their day to day lives.

Journalists in the 20th century decided those who were part of their profession should act ethically while fulfilling that mission. The current version of SPJ’s Code of Ethics says journalists should “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort.” Additionally, they should “show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage.”

There will never be one answer for how journalists and news organizations deal with video of crimes streamed online, but taking the time to think beyond access of material to the responsible retelling and synthesis will lead to much better decisions than have been made in the past.

The challenge for social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat is somewhat different, but the answers are not.

Unlike journalists who get the opportunity to pause before publishing information, social media companies are more like newsstands that allow any person to put their information or publication on display. Except, the companies have more control than many people think.

The people in charge of Facebook and Twitter clearly care about what happens on their platforms. Otherwise, Facebook wouldn’t prioritize some content over others and Twitter wouldn’t weed out certain notifications or posts.

While these companies historically shut down any claim or notion that they are media companies or news organizations, they can’t be so ignorant to the fact that they exist in the same orbit. In that case, they can find answers within SPJ’s Code of Ethics, too.

If Facebook can prioritize an advertisement or post, the company can also put protections in place that will prevent the abuse of their platforms and tools. The same goes for Twitter, Snapchat, Tumblr and the rest.

Again, there will likely be no one answer for every company, but the people in charge must at least try to prevent members of the public from using their  platforms and tools for sinister purposes while allowing others to use those same elements for good.

These problems are not going away. Fortunately, there is still time to address them before they get out of hand.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of SPJ’s 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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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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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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What Should Journalists Learn From Gawker’s Demise?

image1Gawker launched in 2003, but didn’t come into my orbit until three years later during my first year of college. I don’t remember the first Gawker post I read, but the website quickly became one of my daily sources of entertainment and – yes – information.

Now, Gawker is closing up shop after its sale to Univision, which purchased the website’s parent company at a bankruptcy auction earlier this week. The company’s downfall was instigated by a judgment that awarded $140 million to Terry Bollea, who is better known as Hulk Hogan.

Gawker posted secretly recorded video in 2012 of Bollea having sex with a friend’s wife. Tech billionaire Peter Thiel, who Gawker reported as gay in 2007, bankrolled Bollea’s lawsuit as revenge. He openly offered to do the same for other people wronged by Gawker.

A quick Google search will show that the Society of Professional Journalists had an interesting and strained relationship with Gawker during its existence. Last year, the Society stood with the website as it battled a $79,000 bill to fulfill a Public Information Act request. Less than two weeks later, I wrote a post for this blog criticizing Gawker for publicly outing a married man with children for no specific reason.

As the Society’s ethics committee chairperson, I shouldn’t like Gawker. Many of its actions stood in direct opposition to what the Society considers ethical and moral behavior for people in the media. Yet, I rooted for Gawker and that made its missteps all the more painful.

Gawker was bold and brave, but it wasn’t smart enough to save it from itself.

Over the past few months, I gave a lot of thought to what lessons people should take away from Gawker’s legal troubles. Now, I wonder what people should learn from its demise.

Looking back on the events that led to the shuttering of the website, I think the message is that responsible journalism is a good investment.

While people can place blame with Bollea and Thiel for dealing the deadly blow to the website, the truth is that Gawker died from a thousand self-inflicted cuts.

The website shrugged and recoiled time and time again at journalism’s best practices. Time is the only thing that stood in the way of Gawker acting outside the bounds of the law, too.

For example, anyone taking a basic journalism ethics course could see it was an unacceptable act for Gawker to out Thiel in 2007. The post was not illegal, however.

As a jury decided earlier this year, its posting of Bollea’s sex tape in 2012 was illegal. Obviously, posting a sex tape irrelevant to the public is unethical in the eyes of the Society’s Code of Ethics, too.

The bottom line is that Gawker likely would still be publishing next week if it adhered to at least some basic journalistic principles.

Those principles are not meant to make media organizations play it safe. Instead, they’re to show which fights are worth the battle. When journalists follow those principles, the journalism community will rally around their cause. Publishing irrelevant rumors and sex tapes fall outside that realm, however.

This post is not meant to kick Gawker or its employees while they’re down. Instead, it’s to remind other media organizations to use Gawker’s rise and fall as an education. Being bold and brave is not enough. Media organizations need to be responsible, too.


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

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Daily Beast’s Apology Falls Far Short of Gold

image1 (8)The editors of The Daily Beast removed its unethical and dangerous attempt at an investigation into the sex lives of athletes at the Olympics in Brazil.

“We were wrong,” said a note published on the publication’s website. “We will do better.”

While the note offers an apology to the athletes “who may have been inadvertently compromised” by their story, the editors’ note falls far short of what those Olympians and readers deserve.

First, the athletes who were possibly reported as gay or bisexual were not “inadvertently compromised.” The Daily Beast and its reporter Nico Hines deliberately set up fake dates with athletes in the Olympic village for the story.

Second, news consumers are getting tired of news organizations failing, shrugging and saying they’ll do better next time. Instead of offering empty words and promises, news organizations need to explain what went wrong with the initial story and how editors plan to prevent similar mistakes in the future.

Over a year ago, the Columbia Journalism School published a comprehensive report of the actions that led to Rolling Stone’s now-infamous investigation into campus rape. The authors of the report offered several suggestions to improve coverage, including confronting subjects with evidence and reducing the use of pseudonyms.

While the editors of Rolling Stone at the time committed to learning from their mistakes, such as not relying on the word of a single source, they then turned over editorial control of a cover story to its sole subject less than a year later.

Readers need to know what happened leading up to the publication of The Daily Beast’s report. They also need to know what will happen within the news organization to make sure something similar doesn’t happen again at a later date.

Journalism is built on trust. Mistakes like these harm not only the reputations and livelihoods of good journalists and editors at The Daily Beast, but every other journalist.

The Daily Beast and all news organizations that commit serious breaches of professional standards owe their sources, readers and colleagues a better and more concrete explanation than they’ll “do better.”


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

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