Archive for the ‘Graphic Images’ Category


CNN Source Agreement Odd, Not Blackmail

Screenshot of President Donald Trump's Twitter message.

Screenshot of President Donald Trump’s Twitter message.

Post updated Monday July 5 to include CNN’s statement.


CNN announced an unusual anonymity agreement with a source Sunday.


After tracking down the source of a video posted on Twitter by President Donald Trump, CNN said it agreed to keep the person’s identity a secret since he is a private citizen, showed remorse for his online activities, removed his online posts and promised not to repeat his past behavior.

“CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change,” according to the story reported by Andrew Kaczynski.

CNN’s Oliver Darcy posted a statement from the news organization Monday on his Twitter account about the matter.

Journalists and news organizations offer sources anonymity for various reasons, but the specifics of CNN’s agreements with its source makes it unusual.

Specifically, what would CNN do if the source breaks the agreement by once again becoming an online bully? Would CNN specifically write a story about the person breaking the agreement? Would it retroactively add his name to Sunday’s story?

Journalists should support the open and civil exchange of views, but their role is debatable when they try to police good conduct on other platforms.

Additionally, where would these types of agreements with sources end? Would journalists agree not to identify a thief because he or she promised never to steal again?

In general, concealing the identity of this specific source would not go against the spirit of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.

The Code says journalists should consider a “sources’ motives before promising anonymity. 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.”

Additionally, it 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. Weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information.”

In the case of CNN’s source, he appears to be a private individual who made offensive posts online that somehow made their way to the Presidents of the United States. He’s apparently sorry for his actions. Little is gained by identifying the person. The key is getting information explaining how such a post made it from an online forum to the President of the United States.

All of those goals can be accomplished without CNN turning into an online version of Emily Post.

CNN’s agreement with its source should not be interpreted as blackmail, however. Anonymity agreements between journalists and sources should be detailed and often include qualifying statements. The specific qualifying statement in this agreement is not something that should be common practice, though.

Of course, CNN needs to keep its promise now that it’s agreed upon by both parties.

Journalists should “be cautious when making promises, but keep the promises they make,” according to the Society’s Code.


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

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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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Ethics Week 2015: Minimizing Harm in Times of Conflict

Photo Credit/Robert Kuykendall

Photo Credit/Robert Kuykendall

Freshman journalism students are often asked to define the word journalist.


The lesson at the end of the exercise is that the definition varies from person to person. Some words make repeat appearances – like truth and bias, but the most obvious word tends to be overlooked.

In my mind, journalists are humans.

Once again, a large U.S. city is being thrust into the national spotlight as people destroy neighborhoods in the wake of a person’s death. Freddie Gray died one week after being arrested by the Baltimore police department. Sometime during the arrest, he suffered a catastrophic injury, according to CNN.

As humans, journalists should understand that they must take care of themselves when covering unpredictable situations, like street protests.

The Columbia Journalism School’s Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma is an invaluable tool for journalists covering traumatic and possibly dangerous events. During similar events in Ferguson, Missouri, the Dart Center republished a January 2011 tip sheet on covering volatile street protests.

“A press pass by itself is no protection against the probability of being caught in a barrage of rocks, police batons, gunfire, shrapnel or drifts of tear gas,” according to the document.

Several experienced journalists share lessons they learned while covering volatile street protests in the document. Some tips include:

  • Be mindful of crowds and know their moods before “diving in.”
  • Have a quick exit route.
  • Interview leaders on both sides to show you’re just doing your job.
  • Bring a gas mask. Or, bandannas soaked in vinegar, and possibly a pair of swimming goggles.
  • Get enough sleep and food.
  • Bring water.
  • “When in doubt, don’t take the risk.”

Once journalists feel secure, their attention must turn to their jobs. They must hold on to their principles – even in unpredictable situations – to act with integrity and “ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough,” according to the Society’s Code of Ethics.

A rapidly evolving and unstable situation is no excuse for carelessness in reporting. While text, images and audio pour into a newsroom, it’s crucial that journalists continue to act as gatekeepers to serve the public good.

For example, a journalist must weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting unverified reports. They must also determine whether the good of broadcasting graphic images or audio outweighs the potential harm to the people on the receiving end of the media.

While journalists and their organizations may feel social media is the competitor to scoop, “neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy,” according to the Society’s Code.

Journalists should always take time to review the Code before major events or marathon reporting sessions. Especially in a frantic event, those few moments of reflection may lead to more responsible reporting and ultimately less harm to journalists and to the people on the receiving end of news reports.

“Scrutinize the guidelines, and a common theme emerges,” says the Ethics Committee’s position paper on covering grief, tragedy and victims. “Most important, journalists have a responsibility to report these stories in a careful – not careless – fashion.”

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CBS’s 60 Minutes Airs Graphic Footage

People who tuned into CBS’s 60 Minutes on Sunday night watched “the most disturbing footage in its 47-year history,” according to the network.

The footage was part of a segment presented by Scott Pelley, the anchor and managing editor of CBS Evening News. The  segment focused on a 2013 sarin gas attack near the Syrian city of Damascus. The U.S. estimates that the attack killed an estimated 1,429 civilians. About a third of the deaths were children, according to CBS.

I often highlight journalism missteps on this blog, but – in this case – I’d like to applaud CBS for explaining why it decided to show such graphic footage, which included images of  seizures, vomiting and respiratory failure.

“We just wanted to stop and show it to the world so that people can understand the hideousness of this weapon,” Pelley says in an article explaining the decision to air the footage.

While it’s not an often cited principle, the Society’s Code of Ethics says ethical journalists should “explain ethical choices and processes to audiences. Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content.”

In fact, the Code elevates the idea under the tenet of “be accountable and transparent,” which explains that “ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public.”

By explaining its choice to the public, CBS shows that it put thought into what viewers would be exposed to during the broadcast.

The Poynter Institute‘s Al Tompkins has a detailed explanation of CBS’s decision here: http://bit.ly/1Ixjf8N

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When is a picture too much?

By Andrew M. Seaman

One of the last moments of Ki Suk Han’s life was broadcast to the world on the cover of Tuesday’s New York Post.

The 58-year-old Queens man was pushed in front of an oncoming Q train in New York City’s subway system on Monday. On the cover, Han is shown clinging to the subway platform seconds before being pinned between it and the cars, according to the Post’s description of events. He later died of his injuries.

The front page caught the attention of several journalists, whose Twitter reactions and judgments were nicely curated by Poynter’s Jeff Sonderman.

“Grim,” “sickening” and “over the line” were all used to describe the Post’s front page.

SPJ’s own Kevin Smith, chair of the Ethics Committee, wrote in a tweet that the Post’s decision showed an “astounding lack of ethics.”

Indeed, the SPJ Code of Ethics is clear that journalists should minimize harm by showing good taste and not pandering to lurid curiosity.

Unlike gut-wrenching pictures that show the human toll of wars or the devastating impact of natural disasters, the photo of Han on the Post’s cover does not add to the public discourse. The picture tells us nothing more than Han was most likely terrified in the last moments of his conscious life.

This is not the fault of the photographer – R. Umar Abbasi – who is now facing public backlash and questions about whether he could have done more to save Han. Like many of the photographers asked by Gawker, I don’t have enough information to weigh in on that argument.

Blame, however, does fall on the editors of the Post, who had time to make the decision to publish the image on the cover – with an oversized “DOOMED” splashed across the bottom.

A quick look at the paper’s website shows that there are other photographs the Post could have used, including exteriors of the subway station and a waiting ambulance. Though they may not be as jarring as the image of Han about to be hit by a train, those pictures are more respectful toward him and his family – another lesson from the Code of Ethics.

In this case, the damage has been done. Others reproduced, linked, tweeted, blogged and disseminated the cover throughout the world.

Perhaps the best we can hope for is that the Post and other news organizations will learn from the ample public backlash brought on by this cover.

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Osama bin Laden photos: To show or not to show?

By Kevin Z. Smith

With news advancing every day that the White House is considering releasing photos showing Osama bin Laden’s body, journalists will soon be pondering ethical standards and asking themselves if they want or need to use the graphic images.

[UPDATE: 5/4/2011 1:49 p.m. ET – CNN reports that President Obama has decided against releasing the photos: http://bit.ly/lSDLGg]

(What do you think? How will your newsroom decide? If you aren’t a newsroom manager, will you try to persuade the “higher ups” a certain way? Comment below.)

It’s a debate that’s sure to take place in hundreds of newsrooms around the nation. It’s also a debate that will involve more than journalists and newsrooms, as thousands of bloggers will be eager to be a part of sharing of these images.

For more than 16 years, the Society of Professional Journalists, through its four editions of ethics books, has addressed the rationale for conducting open, thoughtful and deliberate discussions whenever graphic images are under consideration. Such discussions are necessary in order to provide the public with a reasonable explanation about how and why the outlet chose to use or not use the images.

To quote Chapter 10 from SPJ’s latest ethics book – “Journalism Ethics: A Casebook of Professional Conduct for News Media” – “Photo and video images tend to generate the most heated debates within newsrooms. And it’s clear that the ire of the public can easily be provoked by a single photo or a short piece of video.”

What will undoubtedly make its way into conversations is the use of the photos online. There was a time when traditional news outlets could make such ethical decisions within a “professional vacuum,” meaning that there was little chance that the images would ever been seen by the public cooperation of the news media.

That hasn’t been the case for almost a generation of information consumers. What the community newspaper may withhold could be circulated one thousand times within that same community via blogs and social media.

In addition to the questions below, news outlets will need to decide if they want to be forced into making their ethical decisions based on decisions by non-journalists.  If the photos go viral on the Internet – and nothing suggests that this won’t be the case – will there be pressure to succumb even if it might violate existing standards in the news organization (and nearly every news outlet has some policy about graphic images)?

To those who read SPJ’s Code of Ethics and point out that it identifies an ethical journalist’s first obligation is to “seek truth and report it” (and therefore using these images meets that sacred public trust of unvarnished truth), I also refer you to the next section of the Code headlined “minimize harm.” This section suggests that truth can be told with moral consideration to those who are involved or are subjected to the harmful effects of reporting. If we didn’t believe this, we’d be compelled to run news pages and newscasts filled solely with images of dead soldiers, crime victims and those who meet tragic consequences.

Whatever the decision, it should be based on solid principles, values and rationale. To say, “We’re doing it because everyone else is,” isn’t, and hasn’t been, an excuse for circumventing ethics.

Prior to publication or broadcast, the following questions need to be asked:

  1. Do I need more information about facts or context?
  2. Can I verify that photo or images are accurate and the source/s reliable?
  3. What is the news value of the image?
  4. What is the motivation for publishing the photo or broadcasting the video image?
  5. What are the ethical and legal concerns?
  6. Who will be offended? Does the offense outweigh the value of presenting the image?
  7. What are the possible consequences of using the photo or the image? The consequences of not using it?
  8. How would I react if I saw the photo?
  9. Can alternative ways to present the information minimize the harm while still telling the story in a clear way.
  10. Will the ends justify our actions
  11. Is there a potential of establishing a new set of ethical standards by using or not using this image? Do I want that  to happen? Will I adhere to those new guidelines and make them a part of future discussions?
  12. Can I justify my decision?

For additional perspective, see posts on this topic from Ryan Murphy at RTDNA and Al Tompkins at Poynter.

Kevin Z. Smith is chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee and past national president (2009-10)

 

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