Archive for the ‘Exclusives’ Category


RE: Sinclair’s “Deal” With Campaigns

(See note at bottom for changes)

A significant portion of the Society of Professional JournalistsCode of Ethics focuses on what to do if errors are made in a story. The bottom line is that you own up to your mistakes and correct the record.

I published a post Saturday on this blog based off a Politico story, which alleged 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. The report was repeated by other news organizations.

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 Politico story, which was based off third-party reports, were accurate.

From what I can tell, the situation is a victim of a game of telephone. One person makes a statement, another person repeats that statement with some errors and it builds upon itself. Unfortunately, I made myself part of the chain by not reaching out to Sinclair for clarification. I’m sorry.

While my posts are commentary and I stand by my interpretation of the alleged situation as it applies to SPJ’s Code of Ethics, I should have not assumed the reported statements were correct.

I’ll be keeping the post up with a prominently displayed note linking to this post.

You can view an example of Sinclair’s interview with Trump here.

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This post was updated on 12/19 to clarify that I believe the statements reported by Politico were incorrect – not that Politico incorrectly reported the statements.

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Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society of Professional Journalistsethics 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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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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Sean Penn Throws Stones from Glass Houses

In this screen grab from CBS, Sean Penn sits with Charlie Rose of 60 Minutes.

In this screen grab from CBS, Sean Penn sits with Charlie Rose of 60 Minutes.

“I’m really sad about the state of journalism in our country,” Sean Penn told Charlie Rose tonight in a taped interview that aired on 60 Minutes.


Journalism in the U.S. has its problems, and many of them are exemplified by Penn, who wrote a Rolling Stone article that profiled Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

In the brief interview with Rose, Penn defended his reporting and writing. Unfortunately, he expressed no regrets about missed opportunities or the deals brokered to secure the interview, which I took issue with in my previous blog post.

Penn expressed regret that people are not talking about what he hoped they would discuss, which is the war on drugs. But, people are talking about his reporting, integrity and accountability. “Let me be clear, my article failed,” Penn told Rose.

What Penn doesn’t understand is that journalism gets the attention it deserves. Good journalism is able to stand up to the criticism and challenges lobbed its way. Bad journalism crumbles and becomes the conversation – as Rolling Stone should know.

Over the past hundred years, journalists realized what defines good journalism. The Society tries to encourage those traits through its Code of Ethics. Failing to hold people accountable is not good journalism. Failing to be independent is not good journalism.

Penn told Rose that this experience with the press is “an incredible lesson in just how much they don’t know and how disserved we are.” He’s right, but he didn’t realize he was talking about himself.


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

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We Expect Better, Gawker

Illustration of Gawker homepage of July 17, 2015

Photo illustration of Gawker homepage of 07/17/2015

(UPDATED July 17, 2015 at 3:40 p.m. EDT)

Gawker published a post yesterday suggesting the website Reddit is ignorant to the harassment and abuse that occurs within its walls.


The news and gossip site then published a post that alleges a relatively unknown married man paid a male escort for sex.

Basically, the post says the married brother of Timothy Geithner, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Treasury, contacted an unnamed escort. The man arranged to meet the escort in Chicago, but the rendezvous ultimately never occurred.

The post prompted immediate backlash toward Gawker, its editorial leadership and the post’s author. I sent tweets to both Gawker and the post’s author Jordan Sargent.

I received a few tweets and messages from people who said they shared my outrage, but they also asked why I’d expect Gawker to follow basic journalism standards anyway.

If Gawker acts like a journalism organization, walks like a journalism organization, talks like a journalism organization, it better try and follow some of journalism’s basic standards.

Earlier in the day, the website published posts about the mass shooting on a military base in Tennessee, the Islamic State and the case of the mass shooting in a Colorado movie theater. Gawker is clearly acting as a source for news produced by professional writers.

Granted, Gawker is not a shining example of journalism integrity, but people go to it and similar websites to get information presented in quick, entertaining and often smart methods.

My biggest problem with the post – other than it being in poor taste, is that it appears no thought was spared to consider the potential damage this post would bring upon the married man, his wife and children. Also, other than having a prominent brother and – what I’m assuming is – a well-paying job, the married man has little relevancy outside of his family and profession.

Under the tenet of minimize harm, the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists says journalists should “realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention.”

What’s more, the Code says journalists should, “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”

Why did anyone need to read a post based on the word of an unnamed person that a private individual allegedly tried to arrange a meeting? None. What’s more, it likely caused significant harm and turmoil in several people’s lives.

As for the escort remaining anonymous, the Code says journalists should identify sources clearly, because the “public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.”

The Code goes on to say that journalists should “consider sources’ motives before promising anonymity.” They should also, “reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere. Explain why anonymity was granted.”

In this case, the post says the male escort “does not want to reveal his identity for professional reasons.” My question to the post’s author is why did Gawker agree to protect the identity of someone who admitted to blackmailing a person, and then turn around and publish a hit piece with no regard for the subject’s life or the lives of his family?

When the initial backlash began, a Twitter account allegedly belonging to Max Read, Gawker’s editor-in-chief, showed no remorse for the post.

Several people responded to his tweet with what I consider to be an appropriate response: Why?

While the damage is likely already done, I hope Gawker’s leadership and the author of the post will apologize.

Until then, shame on you, Gawker.


 UPDATE – July 17 at 3:40 p.m. EDT

In a post published this afternoon, Gawker founder Nick Denton said the original story has been pulled from the website. While Denton acknowledges the post likely led to embarrassment for the subject, he did not apologize for the website causing that harm.

This action will not turn back the clock. David Geithner’s embarrassment will not be eased. But this decision will establish a clear standard for future stories. It is not enough for them simply to be true. They have to reveal something meaningful. They have to be true and interesting. These texts were interesting, but not enough, in my view.

 

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The ‘First’ Amendment

News people shall make no claim to be “First” on a story or to have an “Exclusive” unless it honestly, truly, 100 percent is.

Which is a tough proposition, sometimes. I recently read about a journo excited to have gotten the scoop on the field online by roughly 90 seconds.

An SPJer recently e-mailed me, steamed over a Nancy Grace segment that was inappropriately billed as an “Exclusive.”

The “exclusive” claim might have referred to HLN’s jump on its broadcast competitors, but who knows?

Perhaps HLN should stick to promos easier to defend. I suggest “Interesting!” or “Jaw-dropping!” or “We’re first on this story*! (don’t pay attention to the asterisk)”

Andy Schotz, chairman, SPJ Ethics Committee

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