Archive for the ‘Digital Journalism’ Category


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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Ethics Week: How to Solve a Problem like Unpublishing

Flickr Creative Commons

Flickr Creative Commons

As Sylvia Stead of the Globe and Mail declared this week, “We are not in the unpublishing business.” But that issue has become ethically – and legally – tricky in the eternal nightlife of the internet, and one that news organizations would do well to consider.

Unpublishing often gets paired with the issue of online corrections: in an era where a news story can be altered almost as quickly as it can be published, to what extent do we acknowledge the mistakes we make? Some news organizations handle it on a case-by-case basis: fixing mistakes as soon as they come up, and deciding later whether to put an explanatory note on the story depending on the severity of the mistake. A misspelled street name might not require a note stating that a previous version of the story had it wrong, while misattributing a quote might require such a note to avoid confusing the reader.

But unpublishing – actually removing a story from the online archives – is a much bigger deal, and one that seems to have little consensus.

Stead wrote that she’s had more than a dozen requests this year to remove information from the Globe and Mail for reasons varying from “embarrassing” to unflattering photos to criminal convictions. In one case, she said, a woman wanted a positive article about herself and her ex-husband removed because she didn’t want to be reminded of a bad marriage.

Kathy English of the Toronto Star told the Associated Press Media Editors that content archived by newspapers is easily accessible to the entire world and lives “virtually forever.” She conducted an online journalism credibility project, surveying policies by more than 100 North American news organizations and visiting or interviewing ombudsmen and other news organizations.

“There is an overall strong reluctance to remove published content from news web sites,” English said. “Although about half of the industry leaders surveyed have evolved policies and practices for handling unpublishing requests, no overall industry best practices have yet emerged.”

Unpublishing requests might come from the journalist, who may be embarrassed by a mistake or uncomfortable with having the subject matter attached to his name. It might come from a source who is embarrassed by the story: in a 2010 piece published by Poynter, the subject of a story asked that the story be taken down from a community news site. Publisher Barry Parr declined to do so, but instead removed the man’s name and requested that the story be removed from Google’s cache. He told Poynter that he did so because the story was essentially a brief quoting another media source, there was no wrongdoing on the part of the subject, and the subject had been “rational and respectful” in asking.

But is simply being embarrassed by a story cause enough to remove it? In many cases, news outlets decide it might be better to leave an “embarrassing” story up with an explanatory note indicating the eventual outcome.

Then comes the practical upshot: every day stories evolve, with new developments that change our perspective and understanding of a story’s meaning. How practical is it to go back and mark every previous story with the latest updates on the off chance someone is reading the archive and doesn’t know how it turned out?

There is a tendency in these days of instant electronic news to see online posts as something fleeting and malleable. It is published one moment and can be unpublished the next. Does it matter? Did anyone see it? How much of an impact did it make, when it is not printed on paper?

The classic example is a case of a person accused of a crime and later found not guilty or otherwise cleared of wrongdoing. Should that person have the story hanging around her Google results for the rest of her life?

On the other hand, making the story disappear from our archives or even from Google doesn’t make it disapper entirely. The internet is pretty much forever, and just because a newspaper removes a story from its archive doesn’t mean that there is no separate web archive or screen capture somewhere out there in the vastness of the ‘net.

“It is the equivalent of going into libraries and burning books you don’t like,” said Daily Mail Online publisher Martin Clarke in a 2014 article in the Globe and Mail on a EU court’s ruling that Google must comply with requests to remove articles from its search results.

Here’s the crux of it: unpublishing doesn’t make a story unhappen. Just ask Rolling Stone: unpublishing its famously flawed “Rape on Campus” story certainly didn’t make it disappear from the nation’s memory.

And in some cases, the unpublishing option creates a bigger stir. BuzzFeed discovered that last year when it removed an opinion piece by Arabelle Sicardi criticizing Dove’s new beauty campaign. At first the article was removed due to a “tone not consistent with BuzzFeed.” But then it was later republished, and editor Ben Smith declared on Twitter, “I blew it.” As The Atlantic later reported, BuzzFeed has a written standard that editorial posts should not be deleted because of content or because a stakeholder requested it.

Stead reports that now there are “reputation specialists,” attempting to scrub the internet for clients trying to hide past misdeeds. And that’s not just a U.K. thing: witness the University of California-Davis, which has paid a public relations firm at least $175,000 to try to erase the image of a campus police officer spraying seated student protesters with pepper spray in 2011. The firm tried to remove records of the incident from Google search results, as well as counteract criticism of the administration’s response.

However, as multiple news outlets have reported: It’s ultimately useless. The Sacramento Bee found that no matter how much money the UC-Davis paid, the story was everywhere.

However any given news organization decides to handle unpublishing, it’s vitally important that a solid policy be developed and followed, making sure that editors and writers alike are trained in its standards. As English discovered, there is a tendency to fly through the internet by the seat of our pants and treat every ethical question as a case-by-case issue. But it’s those last-minute, gut-reaction decisions that can sometimes cause us to overreact and lose perspective, making decisions that we may regret, or even make the situation worse.

The bigger lesson to take from this, for both the subjects of stories and those who write them: Whether in print or online, what we put out on the internet usually can’t be taken back, for better or for worse. Unpublishing doesn’t make it go away, because the internet is forever. And that is a reminder to us to be cautious about what we write, because our mistakes will follow us as well.


Elizabeth Donald is a member of SPJ’s ethics committee.

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Ethics Week: A New Reality

VR library through the Vrse app for iPhone

Virtual reality is one of the most exciting advancements in storytelling over the past few years. Like any knew advancement, the technology presents a number of ethical questions that need to be addressed.


The New York Times pushed virtual reality into the mainstream in November, when the news organization sent more than one million inexpensive VR viewers to subscribers. The distribution of the viewers coincided with the debut of “The Displaced,” which is a VR film about children from three war-torn countries.

The point of VR is not just to tell a story, but to help viewers understand the messages through immersion. The Times’ investment in VR was met with great fanfare, but also concern, according to the paper’s then-Public Editor Margaret Sullivan.

“Many Times readers were excited by what they experienced and sent congratulatory notes,” she wrote. “But not everyone was pleased,” she added later.

Aside from adapting to the new technology, one of the main complaints about VR is that production requires a closer interaction between journalist and subject than other methods of storytelling.

Unlike traditional news photography , VR requires journalists to strategically place cameras settings and then quickly leave the area. They must also coordinate with subjects to get special footage from bikes, cars and boats.

While those concerns are valid, it’s difficult to say that VR is more intrusive than other forms of visual media. Longform video and photography projects require some intrusiveness, and those boundaries are still debated more than a century after the introduction of both technologies.

More complicated ethical problems may present themselves when the cameras stop filming, and a journalist finds himself in the editing room.

One of the most pressing questions is how much is too much? Like traditional photography and video, VR may show the horrors of war, terrorism and other horrible events. Journalists editing VR films have to ask if the threshold of what can be shown  is lower due to the immersive nature of the technology.

In 2015, Kathleen Bartzen Culver wrote a piece for the University of Wisconsin Center for Journalism Ethics about the potential for VR to induce trauma.

“VR coverage of war, torture, rape and other violence will prompt searing questions about lasting consequences of consuming journalism that eclipse our current research on media effects,” she writes.

Bartzen Culver also quotes Dan Pacheco, of the S.I. Newhouse journalism school at Syracuse University. He suggests keeping subjects and audiences in mind more  than the possibilities of the technology.

At the end of the day, a good discussion over the ethical challenges of each new VR project may help direct journalists to the most responsible actions.

Some important questions can include:

  • Is VR the right way to tell this story?
  • What is the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable interaction with subjects?
  • What is the limit of what is acceptable for VR viewers to see?
  • Who may be especially affected by the immersive experience of this story?

Of course, there are a number of questions that could and should be considered before and during a VR project. The key is open conversation between all journalists and editors.

As always, the Society’s Code of Ethics will also be useful during those conversations.


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

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