Archive for the ‘Journalism ethics’ Category


Lawsuit Accuses Fox News of Collaboration With White House

Washington Monument in Washington, D.C.

Washington Monument in Washington, D.C.

Fox News is the target of a new lawsuit claiming the channel collaborated with a supporter of President Donald Trump and the White House to fabricate a story to draw attention from the ongoing investigation into Russia’s involvement in the 2016 presidential election.

The new lawsuit filed by a Fox News commentator alleges one of the organization’s reporters attributed fabricated quotes to him, according to a story by NPR‘s David Folkenflik, who broke the story on Tuesday morning. The quotes are tied to a now-retracted Fox News story that alleged a cover-up involving the 2016 murder of a Democratic National Committee staff member.

For a complete and thorough look at the details of the lawsuit filed by Rod Wheeler, please read Folkenflik’s report. People must keep in mind that the lawsuit’s allegations are unfounded at this point in time, however.

 

If the allegations are found to be true, the actions are likely to be one of the most significant breaches of the public’s trust in the history of modern journalism.

In a post on Twitter, The Washington Post‘s Paul Farhi published a reaction from Fox News.

 

While the truth behind the Fox News story remains unknown, there is no question that the channel and its affiliate in Washington, D.C. engaged in – at the very least – irresponsible journalism. In addition to the accuracy of story’s underlying information evaporating soon after its publication, the news organizations likely caused a substantial amount of pain for the murdered staffer’s family and friends by promoting unfounded theories. The Society of Professional JournalistsCode of Ethics emphasizes that journalist must minimize harm.

Journalists and news organizations pursuing the story of the new lawsuit should keep in mind that people have already been harmed in this situation. They should not contribute to that pain.


This post was updated to include the reaction from Fox News.


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

 

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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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Give up on the President, Not the American People

Screenshot of President Donald Trump's Twitter message.

Screenshot of President Donald Trump’s Twitter message.

President Donald Trump is not going to change how he treats the press.


President Donald Trump continued his attacks on the press Sunday when he posted a short video to Twitter showing him wrestling a person depicting CNN. The post is the latest in a string of messages over the past few days – and past few years – targeting news organizations.

Journalists and news organizations must realize at this point that President Trump will not tone down his rhetoric. He used his pulpit to attack the press when he was a rising star in the political world. He harassed and taunted news organizations and journalists when he was a candidate. He continues these behaviors 163 days into his presidency.

Instead of fruitlessly hoping the president changes his behavior, the press should immediately focus a large portion of its attention on educating the public about journalism.

The press should first make a commitment to transparency, which is a tenet in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. News organizations should take the time to explain how stories were reported and why the journalists made certain decisions.

The Honolulu Civil Beat sets aside time every Friday afternoon to hold “office hours” on Facebook Live, for example. Readers can submit questions and get them answered by some of the news organization’s editors.

News organizations and journalists should also reach out to community leaders to open a dialogue about the role of the local and national press. Those relationships are crucial in acquiring access to government and getting help when journalists run into proverbial roadblocks.

Leaders of the Society of Professional Journalists stopped by the offices of U.S. House and Senate members last month to say hello and talk about the press, for example.

Additionally, local and national news organizations should team up to hold town halls across the country that explain what responsible journalism is, how it’s created and why it’s important. The public can then engage with journalists and get their questions answered.

Some of these steps are easier than others, but they are all necessary if the press wants to earn back the public’s trust. No media literacy program, no partnership with a tech giant, no journalism organization and no journalist can accomplish this goal alone.

Efforts to earn back trust may seem futile when faced with the latest numbers from Gallup showing less than a third of U.S. adults say they have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the news media. But, the public’s relationship with the press is more complex than that number.

For example, a May report from the Pew Research Center shows nearly three-quarters of people in the U.S. say they believe the press serves as a watchdog over government.

Additionally, Gallup numbers show trust in various U.S. institutions in the U.S. like the military, the criminal justice system and small business increased over the past few decades. If trust can be earned by other institutions, the same can be true for the press.

While journalists and news organizations should give up on hoping President Trump will change his behavior toward the press, they should not give up on the American people.

The press needs to teach the public what it does and why it matters. If the press succeeds, it won’t matter how many times the president publishes the words “fake news” on Twitter. The public will know the truth about responsible journalists and news organizations.


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

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Deafening Chaos: NBC’s Upcoming Interview

Screenshot of Megyn Kelly's Twitter feed.

Screenshot of Megyn Kelly’s Twitter feed.

The chaos surrounding NBC’s upcoming interview between one of its journalists and a well-known liar and conspiracy theorist is now at a level that should make the network rethink its decision to broadcast the conversation.

Alex Jones, who is known for making false and harmful claims, appears to be capitalizing on the controversy surrounding the interview by drawing people to his website with recordings of conversations with NBC’s Megyn Kelly. The interview is slated to air on Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly.

I agreed with NBC’s decision on Monday to go ahead with the broadcast. As I said in a previous blog post, journalism that focuses on controversial topics and figures is not inherently unethical. The situation evolved beyond just focusing on a controversial topic or figure, however.

At this point, it’s difficult to imagine what – if anything – the public can gain from NBC airing the interview even if it includes an introductory editor’s note or other statements.

Good journalism tells a story. Bad journalism becomes the story. The interview is now the most newsworthy element of the broadcast. The topic or original intent will likely be completely overshadowed.

There are a number of paths NBC can take to correct course.

For example, Kelly or another journalist could make a brief on-air statement during the broadcast on Sunday explaining the decision to pull the interview. The network can then reformulate the story into a look at the damaged caused to people, communities and the nation by conspiracy theorists and peddlers of misinformation.

No matter what NBC ultimately decides, it’s important to look at the factors that led to such a large blunder. NBC should evaluate its editorial and – in this case – promotional processes to see where it went wrong and describe how it will prevent future mistakes.

Responsible journalism should be a constant goal. Journalists and news organizations will inevitably make mistakes. What’s important is that they take the time to evaluate those errors and learn from their missteps to avoid future slips.


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

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Is It Ethical to Interview People Who Cause Harm?

Screenshot of Megyn Kelly's Twitter feed.

Screenshot of Megyn Kelly’s Twitter feed.

People are calling on NBC to forgo showing an upcoming interview between its journalist and a well-known conspiracy theorist.


Megyn Kelly posted a teaser on Twitter Sunday night to promote her upcoming interview with Alex Jones, a well-known conspiracy theorist. The brief video caused an immediate backlash with people calling on NBC to forgo airing the interview on Sunday.

Foremost among people’s concerns is that Jones will get airtime on NBC after his website InfoWars pushed untrue and harmful conspiracy theories that claimed the 2012 Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that resulted in 26 deaths was a hoax.

Part of the video shows Kelly in conversation with Jones. He first says the September 11, 2001 attacks were an “inside job.” Kelly then prompts him with the words, “Sandy Hook.” The answer Jones provides is as nonsensical as the stories found on his website.

The Society of Professional Journalists is often asked whether certain people or subjects should be avoided due to past harmful actions or the immense emotions they cause. The answer – like most – is more complex than just yes or no.

Journalism that focuses on controversial topics and figures is not inherently unethical. Journalists around the world dissect and analyze these types of topics each day in front of readers, viewers and listeners. What matters most is how the stories are reported.

At this point, people don’t have enough information to know how Kelly’s interview with Jones ultimately transpired beyond the few seconds published online.

For example, people may feel differently about the interview if Kelly aggressively challenges Jones about his words and confronts him with the unnecessary pain and torment he helped unleash upon grieving families.

On the other hand, people’s concerns may be justified if Kelly’s interview proceeds as a simple back and forth conversation.

In his nightly newsletter, CNN’s Brian Stelter included quotes from an interview between his colleague Dylan Byers and Liz Cole, who is executive producer of Sunday Night with Megyn Kelly.

“Until you see the full program, in the full context, I wouldn’t judge it too much,” Cole is quoted as saying. “Judge it when you see it. Megyn does a strong interview, we’re not just giving him a platform.”

Society should not get into the habit of forcing journalists to shy away from harmful, painful or emotional subjects. Instead, it should push journalists to uphold their profession’s abiding principles and show people what is fact and what is fiction.

If nothing else, the public outcry over the upcoming interview sends a very loud and clear message to NBC and Kelly that they must be conducted with extreme care and awareness of the subject’s complexity.

People will learn on Sunday night whether NBC and Kelly got the message.


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

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Learning From a Leak

Caught a drip falling from the tap in the kitchen

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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There Is a Role for Public Editors

New York Times Headquarters In New York

SOURCE: Flickr Creative Common

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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The Press Must Rise to the Challenge

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

Journalists must be a source of confidence in the United States as allegations are made at the top levels of government.


The press should always be accurate and fair in its work, but certain moments in history require journalists to be beyond meticulous while reporting, composing and disseminating their stories.

The United States is now in one of those moments.

President Donald Trump removed James Comey as director of the FBI on Tuesday. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said later that night that Americans may believe “the decision to fire Director Comey was part of a cover up” if a special prosecutor is not appointed to carry on the FBI’s investigation into Trump’s associates.

To put it plainly: One of the nation’s most senior lawmakers says people are right to suspect the U.S. president fired the director of the FBI to impede an investigation.

Rarely is such a serious accusation thrown around among the nation’s leaders.

The press needs to serve two purposes during these moments. Journalists must use their tools and knowledge to find the truth and report it. They must also inform the public about the actions of government officials.

While fulfilling these purposes, news organizations and journalists must convey to the public that they understand the seriousness of the circumstances and will work to get the truth. The public also needs to know they can turn to journalists and news organizations for accurate and up-to-date information about their elected leaders and government.

In these moments, journalists and news organizations may want to be direct with their readers, viewers and listeners about their mission. Editor’s notes and brief statements during broadcasts can get those messages across.

Words without actions are meaningless, of course. The press needs to follow through on these assurances by paying attention to details, being more cautious with words, thinking twice before sending out social media posts, reminding themselves of the Society of Professional JournalistsCode of Ethics and adhering to time-tested editorial processes that ensure accuracy and fairness.

Mistakes are bound to happen, but the press must do its best to correct errors as quickly as possible and prevent irresponsible journalism from making its way to print or broadcast. Good journalism tells the story. Bad journalism becomes the story.

The public deserves and expects journalists to find and report the answers to these serious questions – no matter where they lead. Three quarters of adults in the U.S. last year believed news organizations keep political leaders from doing things that shouldn’t be done, according to the Pew Research Center.

More than ever, the press can’t let the public down.


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

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#PressForEthics on Capitol Hill

Ethics Week focused a lot on trying to engage journalists and the public in discussions about the press. An important part of that outreach must also include the public’s elected representatives.


President Donald Trump often attacks the press. So far, he used the term “fake news” on Twitter over three dozen times. Attorney General Jeff Sessions last week would not rule out prosecuting news organizations. A congressman from North Dakota also threatened in November to hold a hearing on “network media bias.”

The attacks and vague answers regarding the press from politicians and government officials not only makes journalists uneasy, but threatens one of the foundational elements of democracy. A dialogue is needed between the press and lawmakers as much as one is needed between journalists and the public.

The Society of Professional Journalists is using Ethics Week to begin that conversation with lawmakers in the United States by sending a letter to every member of the Senate and House of Representatives. Enclosed in each letter will be a copy of SPJ’s Code of Ethics.

The letter introduces SPJ to the lawmakers and explains the organization’s role in setting the profession’s best practices. There is also an invitation to meet with SPJ in June, when many of the organization’s leaders will be in Washington, D.C. for the annual Sigma Delta Chi Awards dinner.

SPJ is no novice when it comes to interacting with lawmakers. The organization often works alone or in concert with other groups to push for open government initiatives and improved access. In fact, SPJ closely worked with then-Representative Mike Pence in the early 2000s to implement a federal shield law that would protect journalists from prosecution. Unfortunately, those efforts fell short.

During Ethics Week, SPJ feels it’s important to show lawmakers that there is more to journalism than government and access issues. After all, ethics is often not about what is legal; it’s about what is right.

The organization wants to show lawmakers that the press largely makes ethical and responsible journalism a priority.  Mistakes are sometimes made, but the profession tends to hold those serious
offenders accountable for their actions.

The public benefits from an environment that allows and encourages journalists to provide in-depth and ethical journalism. If lawmakers care about their constituents, they should also care about the health of the press and work to foster an environment of openness as envisioned by the country’s founders.

The press belongs to everyone, and it’s up to everyone to take care of the press.

You can help this effort by encouraging your representative and senators to engage with SPJ and learn about the press, the organization’s Code of Ethics and the importance of open government.

Efforts to engage with your legislators are easier than ever thanks to SPJ’s staff who created a tool that will formulate a state-specific Twitter post: CLICK HERE


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

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Why a Code of Ethics is Important

No one can split a hair like a journalist. You can fill an entire after-work happy hour with debates about the proper use of the verb “claimed” and whether a suspect should be a subject or a person of interest.

We are, after all, the profession that will go to war over the Oxford comma and whether or not “internet” should be capitalized.

As journalists, we spend a lot of time interpreting the Society of Professional Journalists‘ Code of Ethics for particular situations and debating the fine points of the Code as it applies to our work. That is an important discussion, one to which the Ethics Committee is dedicated and that will help shape and inform our work to come.

The changes in our profession have created new realms of ethical controversy, from the appropriate and compassionate treatment of subjects online to managing comment sections to the ethical use of social media for reporting and investigation to the questions of unpublishing, original source documents, and the wild world of online news video.

Still there is a common belief that journalism ethics should simply be innate, that if you’ve been a reporter or editor for a certain amount of time, you should be aware of the ethical constraints of our profession and follow the rules, whether or not they’re written down.

But the problem we find is that the real ethical quandaries are not the big yes-or-no questions that comprise the “duh” section of Journalism 101. They come in those little gray areas, the moments when the rush to get the news online fast washes away the perspective of ethical journalism.

This is why a code written down on paper is important. We must have clear boundaries to help us guide our decisions on deadline, a list of rules of the road to give us a framework for those decisions – and sometimes, to provide reporters with some cover when the editor is out of the office.

But I’d like to add another consideration: Ethics codes are not just for journalists.

Creating and following an ethics code is vitally important for our work, but almost as important is the public’s trust in us. As we all know, that trust has eroded greatly, whether deserved or undeserved. I know that I have grown weary of arguing against the latest idiotic meme alleging that we are all part of some vast corporate conspiracy and cover the news based on dictates from anonymous masters who are in the pocket of one party or another.

The problem is: people believe the memes more than they believe us.

And I feel we are partly to blame for that. Not because they are correct, but because we do a terrible job of publicizing the structures and ethical guidelines of our profession. So much of the news-reading population has no idea that ethics codes even exist or are adhered to by any newsrooms.

By writing our ethics codes down on paper, using them, revising them, and sharing them as much as possible, we educate the public about the work that we do. It provides the same transparency that we demand of our public officials, that the “how” and “why” of a story is as important as the story itself.

We must stop assuming that the readers know how a newsroom works, that they understand the strictures of the profession. They don’t know unless we tell them. They don’t trust us anymore, and we need to show them, by word and example, that they can.

And that means our Code of Ethics cannot stay stagnant. Our understanding of ethical values might not change over the years, but the practical application of those values can and will change as the world changes. Any code is only as good as the people locked in a room to write it, and the people who continue to interpret it and share it with colleagues and the public.

That means we aren’t done, and the conversation will have to continue – with or without happy hour. That conversation needs to be public, so that the readers can see that this is important, that we care, that talking heads on TV are not the sole representatives of the news media.

There are a lot of us doing this job. We care about what we do. And we have a code.


Elizabeth Donald is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee.

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