Archive for the ‘Media Trust’ Category


Reporting on Disasters

Expected path of Hurricane Irma as of Tuesday, September 6 (via @NOAA)

Hurricane Harvey last week devastated parts of the Gulf Coast of the United States. The storm and its aftermath also led to a discussion on social media about how to best report from areas in the middle of natural or man-made disasters.

As the United States faces another potentially deadly hurricane, it’s important to revisit the role of journalists during such complex and emergency situations.

One question often posed to the Society of Professional Journalists during and after disasters is whether the ethics of journalism are different in emergencies, for example. The answer is no. SPJ’s Code of Ethics is written broadly so it can be applied to all media and all situations. Journalists – especially during emergencies and breaking news – should keep its tenets in mind.

  • Seek Truth and Report It
  • Minimize Harm
  • Act Independently
  • Be Accountable and Transparent

Journalists must also expect and prepare for criticism while covering emergencies.

Journalism often looks opportunistic and vulture-like during disasters. Television and radio journalists are especially susceptible to being perceived as exploitive since the emotions of victims are much more apparent and palpable.

Journalists should be especially careful when selecting people to interview on-air during traumatic events. People should not be put in front of cameras or microphones during such events unless they want to tell their stories. Some people will want to speak about their experience as – almost – a form of therapy. Other people may not be ready to share, and that’s okay.

The SPJ Code of Ethics says journalists should be especially sensitive to people not used to dealing with the press. Pre-interviews or brief discussions off camera can go a long way to preparing people to tell their stories. If after those conversations a person is still unsure whether to share their experience, a journalist should feel empowered to decide not to move ahead with the interview for the sake of the source and the people watching or listening to the report.

Even the best planning may not offer complete protection against offending a person, however. CNN’s Rosa Flores on-air interview with a mother during Hurricane Harvey took a turn for the worst despite taking precautions.

Journalists must also be especially mindful during emergencies about the comments or reports they publish on social media. A post on Twitter may lack important context due to length restrictions and result in misinterpretation. If cell service or internet access is compromised, journalists may be unable to clear up questions or concerns in a timely manner.

ABC NewsTom Llamas ignited a firestorm on social media during Hurricane Harvey when he published a post on Twitter saying his team informed police of nearby looting at a grocery store. He later clarified that they mentioned the looting while discussing the discovery of a body with the police.

Of course, journalists are human and will make mistakes while reporting these and any stories. They and their news organizations must work to quickly correct any incorrect information and clear up any confusion. More than ever, people cling to information on social media and it’s important to give them the most accurate picture of what’s happening on the ground.

What’s most important is that journalists not forget the service they provide during emergencies and disasters. People – near and far – want to know what’s happening. Journalists put their safety and health on the line by charging into these situations to bring that information back to people. Those images lead people to call charities or take to social media asking about ways to help. Those reports result in people calling their lawmakers and telling them to act.

Journalists serve a purpose in these situations.


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

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Journalists Are Journalists Because They Like Our Country

Constitution Of the United StatesMost people in New York City carry some type of bag to work or the market. Bags are incredibly useful in a city that requires a lot of walking. What I carry in my bag changes from day to day, but one item is always tucked inside a pocket: a worn copy of the Constitution of the United States of America.

My copy of the Constitution dates back to 2007 when I was just finishing my freshman year of college. A stack of the tiny blue books sat on a table at some conference. I picked up a copy and put it in my bag. The bags changed over the years, but not the little book.

Until yesterday I never worked out in my mind why I carry a copy of the Constitution with me wherever I go. Until yesterday my little blue book was like a lucky penny or prayer card a person tucks away in their wallet. Until yesterday no president of the United States ever accused me of not liking the country, however.

“You have some very fair journalists,” President Donald Trump told a group of his supporters in Phoenix. “But for the most part, honestly, these are really, really dishonest people, and they’re bad people. And I really think they don’t like our country. I really believe that.”

My heart broke a bit when I heard his accusation because I honestly believe good journalism is the cornerstone of democracy. I am a journalist because I like and love our country. I know the vast majority of journalists share that feeling.

Thousands and thousands of journalists around the United States show up for work each day to tell their fellow citizens about the world. People can then use that information to make decisions. Sometimes that decision involves buying a car and sometimes that decision involves electing someone to be president.

The Constitution peaked out at me from my bag’s front pocket last night as I got my papers ready for today. I asked myself why I carry this little book around with me wherever I go. I rarely refer to it in my day-to-day life. Plus, I already memorized my favorite part.

Constitution Of the United StatesMy favorite part of the Constitution is its First Amendment. The whole document is important, but the 45 words of the First Amendment are so vital to everyday life. The small section guarantees everyone within the United States the freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.

Freedom of the press is obviously near and dear to my heart as a journalist. For as flawed as our founding fathers were, they had the foresight to know that a free press is vital to the health and future of the nation. My profession and my life are intertwined with the foundation of the United States and its ideals.

Carrying a copy of the Constitution around in my bag turns out to just be natural. Through my work, the document really is a part of who I am and I am a part of it. Leaving home without it would be like leaving a piece of me behind.

The president is wrong. Journalists do like our country. I like our country. In fact, we like it so much we chose to continue a mission so important that the country’s creators protected it in the nation’s foundational document.

President Trump probably won’t hear me out, but I won’t let that stop me from telling other people why it’s important to support good journalism. I’ll have my little blue book handy to help make my point.


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

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Journalists Should Speak Out Against Discrimination

The Academic Village at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia.

The Academic Village at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville, Virginia. (via Phil Roeder on Flickr Creative Commons)

Objectivity is correctly cited as an elemental trait of good journalists, which is exhibited in their ability to separate fact from fiction regardless of their personal biases. Some people unfortunately confuse that trait with the concept of equivalence that suggests all points of view are inherently equal. Objectivity and equivalence are not the same.

People and journalists in the United States are asking a lot of questions in the wake of the deadly protests, riots and attacks that occurred over the weekend in Charlottesville, Virginia. Those questions grow more complex as the White House continues to issue conflicting statements.

For journalists covering Charlottesville, its effect on their communities or similar events, the question may be: How can I objectively cover people who spew racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and other outdated and repugnant beliefs?

The answer is that we objectively know that discrimination based on sex, race, ethnicity, religion, sexual orientation, gender identity, disability and other inherited traits is wrong. Journalists should feel free to say so and forcefully challenge people who believe otherwise.

The Society of Professional JournalistsCode of Ethics takes a hard line against discrimination in several ways. The Code says ethical journalism boldly tells the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience and doesn’t stereotype. The document also says ethical journalism “treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.”

The profession would also be hypocritical to promote diversity in newsrooms in one moment and then suggest discriminatory views inherently deserve an equal airing in another.

Journalists and news organizations can’t ignore people with those hateful views, however. The events and horrors that occurred in Charlottesville can’t go unnoticed. In those cases, journalists must remain professional and civil. They and their news organization must be especially cautious not to inflate situations or make matters worse.

Additionally, journalists and news organizations need to be on the scene to record the events and send them to people in their homes. Those who disagree should read Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff’s The Race Beat.

“If it hadn’t been for the media – the print and television media – the civil rights movement would have been like a bird without wings, a choir without a song,” civil rights icon and U.S. Representative John Lewis (D-GA5) is quoted as saying at the end of the book.

Conversations about racism and discrimination are uncomfortable, but unavoidable in a country that has slavery and oppression in its genetic code.

Journalists and news organizations can’t make this problem go away by ignoring it. Fortunately it’s a problem with a well-known and proven answer. Journalists should tell and lead by example by promoting that answer: discrimination is wrong.


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

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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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