Archive for the ‘First Amendment’ Category


Lessons From Flynn’s Downfall

President Barack Obama departs the White House briefing room after a statement, Oct. 16, 2013. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

Pundits and some journalists called for a reinvention of the press after Donald Trump won the White House in November, but Michael Flynn’s resignation on Monday and additional stories published Tuesday show the United States benefits most when journalists rededicate themselves to their profession’s timeless standards.

Michael Flynn resigned Monday as President Donald Trump’s national security adviser after news stories suggested he misled administration officials about his conversations with a Russian diplomat. While people disagree about whether Flynn’s actions warranted his resignation, few can argue that comprehensive news reports didn’t led to his downfall.

Journalists, media critics and the public should allow Flynn’s short and turbulent stint in the Trump administration to serve as a reminder of some basic truths about the press.

1.) The press is still powerful.

The press is sometimes painted as irrelevant in a time when people get information directly from the internet, but journalists still play powerful roles in amplifying certain stories and guiding people through a sea of lies. News organizations and individual journalists perform their timeless roles as curators of the national conversation – whether people want to admit it or not.

2.) Traditional and ethical journalism still works.

The major revelations about the Trump administration come from journalists following their profession’s abiding principles – as outlined by the Society of Professional JournalistsCode of Ethics. Truthful, responsible and thorough news reports remain the most effective pathway to deliver information to the public. New forms of storytelling may pop up from time to time, but they do best when the underlying principles of journalism remain unchanged.

3.) The press is doing its job – not waging war.

“I have a running war with the media,” said Trump at a January 21 visit to the Central Intelligence Agency. The president’s disdain for the press is repeated often on his Twitter accounts and by people within his administration. Despite their perspective, the press is not at war with the White House. Reporting the truth, correcting inaccurate statements and lies, following the money and holding powerful people accountable are the basic missions of journalism. No presidential administration is supposed to be fans of the press. Perhaps the Trump administration feels like the press is the “opposition party,” because they are now on the receiving end of scrutiny.

4.) The press can tell people what is going on, but it can’t tell them what to do.

Journalists report information people should know about their world. Sometimes the information is about government officials. Other times it’s about faulty consumer products. Journalists can’t force officials to resign and can’t make people change their behaviors, but the hope is people receiving accurate information will use it to make good decisions. For example, people may call their representatives in Congress if they don’t like something happening in the government. Or, people may not buy certain products known to be dangerous.

5.) The press makes mistakes from time to time.

Journalists – like all humans – make mistakes. The profession’s standards aim to reduce mistakes and irresponsible behaviors, but they’re bound to occur from time to time. The goals are for mistakes to be quickly corrected and people behaving irresponsibly to be held accountable for their actions. If the press is going to fulfill its mission of holding powerful people’s feet to the fire, it must also hold itself accountable.

6.) The press will never be wholly non-partisan.

“The press” is an inexact term. Some people may use the term to describe non-partisan news organizations like The New York Times or NPR. Other people may include partisan media organizations like Breitbart and ThinkProgress. While non-partisan news organizations largely focused on whether Flynn lied about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., right-leaning media organizations largely focused on the government leaks that informed news reports about those conversations. The partisan press often does not adhere to most of journalism’s best practices, but those organizations are still entitled to the protection offered by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

7.) The press is here to stay.

History is littered with premature obituaries for the press. Journalists and news organization operate and fulfill their missions despite troubles adapting to new technology, less centralized information pathways and shakier financial foundations. These barriers – along with hostile presidential administrations – existed before and they will pop up again. The press survived those past challenges and it will survive to overcome those barriers in the future.


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

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Society’s Code Belongs in Newsrooms, Not Courtrooms

First Lady Michelle Obama meets with Melania Trump for tea in the Yellow Oval Room of the White House, Nov. 10, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics finds itself in the middle of a $150 million lawsuit filed by the First Lady of the United States against a controversial news organization.

First Lady Melania Trump is using the Society’s Code of Ethics in a lawsuit seeking $150 million in damages from the parent company of Mail Online, which the former model says alleged in a now-retracted article she worked at one time as an “elite escort.”

The website eventually retracted the story.

The first family’s knowledge of the Society’s Code is obviously a pleasant surprise, but its use in any lawsuit or legal proceeding is inappropriate. The United States is a country of laws, which should be the determining factor in any court case.

Trump’s demand for a jury trial was filed Monday in New York. Mail Online’s conduct “violated professional standards of journalism ethics as exemplified by the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics,” according the filing that also list specific principles.

“In publishing the defamatory statements about Plaintiff [Trump], Mail Online failed to live up to any of these important ethical principles of journalism,” the filing continues.

Mail Online – as it often does – likely crossed what the Society considers lines in the proverbial sand in its article about Trump, but ethical breaches are not criminal or illegal. The Society’s code “is not, nor can it be under the First Amendment, legally enforceable,” as its footnote declares.

The Code is a document containing timeless principles the Society and its members believe are the bedrock of responsible journalism. The document is also aspirational and should be read as a whole. Individual principles should not be cited out of context.

While the Code displays these caveats and directives in its footnote, the document often finds itself in courtrooms. A journalism professor discussed the Code at length last year during the case between Terry Bollea – better known as Hulk Hogan – and Gawker Media. The case ultimately resulted in the shuttering of Gawker Media’s namesake website and the sale of its other properties to Univision.

The Society can’t keep people and their lawyers from citing its Code of Ethics, but the hope is the deciding factors in any legal action are established and constitutional laws. A document crafted by a professional organization does not fit that description.


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

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Pay No Attention to the Man in Front of the Curtain

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer offered the press a useful journalism lesson barely one day into President Donald Trump’s term. Journalists learned to treat all information from the White House with extreme skepticism and caution.

The lesson came in the form of a tirade Spicer offered in his first official comments from the lectern of the White House’s briefing room. He accused the press of manipulating coverage of Trump’s inauguration to give an inaccurate perception of crowd size. Individual journalists’ social media posts were also an issue.

While there was an initial incorrect report yesterday about a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. being removed from the Oval Office by the Trump administration, the press largely portrayed an accurate perspective of the crowd gathered for the inauguration.

 

 

Trump and his staff – like all presidential administrations – are entitled to their own opinions and versions of events, but they are not entitled to their own facts. A journalist’s main objective is to seek truth and report it.

Individual journalists may sometimes publish or broadcast incorrect information, but others – now more than ever before – soon step in to correct the record. As a whole, ethical journalists know facts are their currency.

“There’s been a lot of talk in the media about the responsibility to hold Donald Trump accountable,” said Spicer. “And I’m here to tell you that it goes two ways. We’re going to hold the press accountable, as well.”

Spicer also told the assembled journalists on Saturday that Trump will take his message directly to the American people. The apparent threat is somewhat empty, though. Presidential administrations – especially under former President Barack Obama – bypassed the press whenever possible. Journalists were still there to put those messages into context, call out falsehoods or lies. A change in administrations will not change or deter that mission.

A window from Joseph Pulitzer’s The World is displayed in Pulitzer Hall at Columbia University in NYC.

Journalism no doubt hit a rough patch during the last decade, when the digital revolution and Great Recession eroded its business model. Journalists are scrappy people, however. The history of our profession is littered with abrupt changes, but we endure.

Today, in the glow of a stained-glass window that was once housed in the building of Joseph Pulitzer’s The World, I read hundreds of news stories written by student journalists from across the United States. I can guarantee based on those stories that the future of journalism in this country is bright thanks to so many amazing young Americans signing up to hold the powerful accountable.

Those student journalists are being taught by great educators in public and private schools. They are also likely being guided by the Society of Professional JournalistsCode of Ethics, which offers a much better outline of what journalists should report than any White House press secretary.

Journalism, the press and the truth endure regardless of the obstacles thrown in their way. Democracy demands it.


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

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BuzzFeed and CNN Are Not “Fake News”

The term “fake news” meant very little before President-elect Donald Trump’s first press conference since winning the White House. Social media users largely misused the term into obscurity by labeling even accurate information as “fake news.”

The term experienced a rebirth today during Trump’s press conference. He pointed at CNN’s Jim Acosta after an uncomfortable exchange. “You are fake news,” said Trump.

“Fake news” suddenly turned from a cringe-worthy and laughable label into something more sinister. The future president of the United States used the term to discredit one of the country’s best-known news organizations. Trump also called BuzzFeed a “failing pile of garbage.”

CNN drew Trump’s ire by publishing a story Tuesday claiming he and President Barack Obama were briefed last week about “allegations that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.” BuzzFeed released the documents outlining the unverified allegations soon after CNN published its story.

CNN and BuzzFeed – like most news organizations – are staffed with many great journalists who go to work wanting to fulfill their roles in democracy by reporting the truth and holding powerful people’s feet to the proverbial fire.

While I may disagree with decisions made by CNN and BuzzFeed from time to time, I know neither organization is “fake news” or a “pile of garbage.”

The above statement sounds silly at first, but I fear it’s a necessary declaration as the incoming administration grows more hostile each day to different members of the press.

Based on Trump’s actions since his election and today’s press conference, journalists – now more than ever – need to visibly and actively stand up for each other when singled out or excluded by the incoming administration.

If CNN and BuzzFeed are excluded or shut out from the White House, the next may be MSNBC, CBS, The New York Times or any other news organization.

Journalists should not be afraid to advocate on the behalf of their peers. Advocacy of press freedom and open government is enshrined in the Society of Professional JournalistsCode of Ethics.

“Recognize a special obligation to serve as watchdogs over public affairs and government,” reads one of the Code’s principles. “Seek to ensure that the public’s business is conducted in the open, and that public records are open to all.”

Perhaps journalists fulfill that principle by asking a question on behalf of a journalist being shunned during press conferences. Or, perhaps journalists fulfill that principle by confirming a peer’s reporting after the president labels it “fake news.”

The bottom line is that journalists need to put aside some of the competitiveness and disagreements and prepare themselves to stick up for each other from time to time.

Trump and his administration may become more receptive to the press and its mission after the inauguration, but journalists and news organization must be prepared if that is not the case.

 


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

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NJ Press Should Rally Against Unconstitutional Order

Screenshot illustration of The Trentonian’s website.

Journalism is a competitive business. Reporters and news organizations try to get scoops for praise or financial gain. Certain circumstances require cooperation and unity to prevail over those rivalries, however.

An injunction imposed by a New Jersey Superior Court Judge Craig Corson is currently preventing The Trentonian and its reporter Isaac Avilucea from reporting on a document issued by the state’s child protection agency. The case is complicated and sensitive, but Avilucea handled the story with care.

If there was ever a time for cooperation and unity to prevail among the press in New Jersey, it’s now.

The order against The Trentonian and Avilucea can’t be allowed to seep into the nation’s proverbial water supply and embolden judges across the country to impose similar unconstitutional restrictions on the press for every leaked government document.

Other news organizations and journalists in New Jersey and surrounding areas should show solidarity by responsibly covering the story at the heart of the document. A dozen or so ethically reported stories on the issue will show Judge Corson he cannot stop a valid news story from seeing the light of day.

Additionally, the editorial arms of news organizations should continue to show support for The Trentonian and Avilucea by explaining to their readers, viewers and listeners why prior restraint is unconstitutional and a blow to foundational elements of our democracy.

The Society of Professional Journalists states in its Code of Ethics that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough.

The Society and its professional chapter in New Jersey issued a statement this afternoon against the order.

As the Bill of Rights enshrines the freedoms of speech and press into the U.S. Constitution, so does the state constitution of New Jersey.

“Every person may freely speak, write and publish his sentiments on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right,” according to the document. “No law shall be passed to restrain or abridge the liberty of speech or of the press.”

The order of prior restraint levied against The Trentonian is not only an attack on core American values; it’s also an insult to those New Jerseyans hold close to their hearts.

Journalists in New Jersey should realize the danger this order poses to their news organizations, colleagues around the country and democracy. They should diligently work to make sure this story is not silenced and this order does not stand.


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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The Times and Trump’s Taxes

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

The New York Times on Saturday published excerpts from Donald Trump’s 1995 income tax returns. The decades-old documents give insight into the financial history of the Republican nominee for the White House.

Throughout the campaign, Trump repeatedly declined to release his tax returns. In an email to the Times, his lawyer claimed the publication of the records is “illegal because Mr. Trump has not authorized the disclosure of any of his tax returns.”

While I’m not a lawyer or expert on tax law, The Washington Post previously reported that “federal law prohibits ‘any person’ from printing, publishing or soliciting tax-return information without the taxpayer’s authorization.”

If true, the Times may find itself in a courtroom in the near future.

The words legal and ethical are not synonyms, however. What is legal is not always ethical, and what is ethical is not always legal.

In my view, the Times made a sound ethical decision by publishing Trump’s tax returns.

The Society’s Code of Ethics suggests that journalism is often a balancing act. News organizations may need to take extraordinary actions if the resulting material is so beneficial and vital to the public.

Journalism is the foundation of democracy and the documents published by the Times provide needed information for people heading to voting booths in almost one month.

While people may argue over the legality of what the Times did regarding Trump’s tax returns, the paper appears to have made the ethical choice.


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

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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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Ethics Week: Drone Details

Flickr Creative Commons

Flickr Creative Commons

Using drones  to report the news has its advantages, but those advantages come with the added burden of some ethical issues specific to the unmanned aircrafts.

As of right now, the scope of newsgathering by drone – known as drone journalism or aerojournalism – is severely limited by the Federal Aviation Administration, which largely bans the commercial use of drones. The federal agency is expected to announce rules for commercial use later this year, however.

While journalists wait for the rules to be announced, it’s a good idea to start thinking about the potential uses and limitations of the technology while there is time to do so.

For example, just like any other form of journalism, journalists want to make sure they’re not unnecessarily violating people’s privacy with drones. The technology provides unprecedented access.

With a drone, one has the ability to fly over homes, see into backyards and possibly get views inside homes through windows. While TV cameras could get some footage like this, drones make it easier to obtain. As suggested by the Society’s Code of Ethics, just because journalists can obtain information doesn’t mean they should publish or broadcast that information.

Journalists can identify situations needing extra caution by asking themselves some questions:

  • Is the information newsworthy?
  • Is what you’re seeing from your drone what you could see from the sidewalk if you were just walking by?
  • Does the individual(s) you are capturing on video know you are there? Can they see you?
  • Do the people likely have an expectation of privacy in that location?

In addition to privacy concerns, journalists using drones should consider the public’s safety.

  • Is the drone interfering with an active police or fire response?
  • Is the drone’s use putting any members of the public in harms way? Is it distracting to drivers?
  • Is the drone in an area that may disrupt public utilities, like power lines?
  • Are weather conditions safe for the use of drones?

Since most professional journalists can’t use drones for newsgathering at this moment, they’ll likely first encounter footage from amateur drone operators. Like any piece of journalism submitted by a member of the public, journalists should approach with caution and be inquisitive about its origins.

For more information on the responsible use of drones in journalism, the Professional Society of Drone Journalism has some information on its website: http://www.dronejournalism.org/learn/


Lynn Walsh is president-elect for SPJ and also serves on the ethics and FOI committees. She works in San Diego for NBC 7 Investigates where she is the executive producer for the investigative unit. You can follow her on Twitter, @LWalsh.

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Get the Story Even in ‘Media Free’ Zones

Flickr Creative Commons

Flickr Creative Commons

Despite a long history of protesters craving the attention of journalists, those calling for change on campuses across the U.S. are now attempting to ban media access and coverage of their campaigns.

Most recently, The Republican in Springfield, Massachusetts, quoted a sit-in organizer at nearby Smith College as saying journalists may only cover their protest if they “participate and articulate their solidarity with black students and students of color.”

While I could spend this post numerating reasons why protesters and colleges should allow media access to their gatherings, I’ll simply recommend that they read Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff’s The Race Beat, which details the crucial role of responsible journalism during the civil rights era.

Instead, this post is directed at the journalists who are faced with signs and people turning them away at protests and gatherings – which are not uncommon occurrences.

The first step is to lobby for access. Lobbying may require talking to several people and being creative. In some cases, there are legal actions that permit journalists to enter or observe locations, but that’s outside my proverbial wheelhouse.

If journalists can’t gain access, it’s important for that information to be explained in whatever story eventually emerges from the reporting. The story should detail who blocked access and why. All information should be attributed to a source.

Additionally, journalists may still be able to report on the protests through other channels. For example, what are the thoughts and comments of those who are the object of the protesters’ demands? Who is allowed in the protest or gathering space and why? What can people elsewhere say about the protests and gatherings? Do other students know what is going on inside the space?

Even though they are likely aggravated, journalists should also make sure their reporting is fair and balanced. Thorough, ethical and responsible reporting is always the best defense and character reference for journalists.

At the end of the day, journalists still need to be responsible and dogged in their reporting – even in the face of opposition.


Andrew M. Seaman is chair of SPJ‘s ethics committee.

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