Archive for the ‘Minimize Harm’ Category


Words Matter: Alt Right Alternatives

Photo via Flickr Creative Commons - NOGRAN s.r.o.

Photo via Flickr Creative Commons – NOGRAN s.r.o.

Journalists love to sprinkle their stories and reports with buzzwords in an effort to sound current. New lingo is often harmless, but not all words are universally benign.

The newly popular term “alt right” is an example of words that should be used with caution.

The term seeped into mainstream news stories over the past year as extremist groups adopted it as their moniker. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also pushed the term into the nation’s discussion when she used it during her campaign.

“Alt right” is a shortened version of the words “alternative right,” which is being used by groups that reject mainstream conservatism for extremist views. Those views may include generalized racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, white nationalism and/or antifeminism.

There are several reasons why journalists and news organizations should be cautious about casually using the words “alt right” in their day-to-day coverage.

First, the term is clumsy and ambiguous. Many Americans may not be familiar with the intricacies of “alt right.” The term may be interpreted as simply extreme conservatism or as a catch-all for right-wing politics. In some cases, those reading, watching or listening to the news may be left confused or misinformed.

People understand what it means when views or opinions are described as racist, anti-Semitic and anti-LGBT, however. Those specific words should be used in place of the generic and clumsy term “alt right.”

Obviously, journalists shouldn’t refuse to use the term or words “alt right,” but it must be put into the proper context.

For example, an organization’s views may be described as racist and anti-Semitic, and the reporter can state the group considers itself part of the “alt right.” The person reading, listening or watching that story will grasp the gist of the organization’s views and know the group identifies with the “alt right.”

Additionally, journalists and news organizations must always be on alert for groups trying to manipulate the press. In this case, the press may unconsciously help extremist groups rebrand racism, anti-LGBT views, anti-Semitism, white supremacy and other extremist views as “alt right.”

Journalists must carefully choose their words, especially when sensitive topics are being discussed. When in doubt, journalists should always err on the side of specificity and context.


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

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Journalists Should Tread Lightly When Projecting Election Results

(Photo Adapted From Flickr Creative Commons/Maltri)

(Photo Adapted From Flickr Creative Commons/Maltri)

Americans will receive up-to-the-minute data on Election Day through a partnership between Slate and data startup VoteCastr. Journalists and news organizations should be cautious about reporting certain information that may influence voters on Election Day, however.

Journalists are meant to influence people’s decisions through the reporting of accurate information. Whether a person is buying a car or voting for the next president, members of the public use information provided by journalists to make their decisions.

The relationship between journalists and the public is a foundational element of democracy.  Part of that relationship requires journalists to know when to give the public space. The space typically occurs on Election Day.

Journalists and news organizations closely follow voting projections and results, but are careful not to make any announcements that might interfere with the actual results of races. The projected winners of elections are traditionally not called by news organizations until a state’s polls are closed.

A partnership between Slate and VoteCastr is challenging that tradition by providing up-to-the-minute voting data from around the country on Election Day.

“Votecastr plans to fill that gap with turnout data — not exit polls — it collects on its own, from key polling places across the country, and will meld it with pre-election polling it has done, and then project a current vote total for specific races and geographies,” according to Recode’s Peter Kafka.

One of the main concerns is that these types of projections may suppress voter turnout. For example, people who are told Hillary Clinton is far behind Donald Trump in Pennsylvania may decide to stay home. Or, people told Donald Trump is far behind Hillary Clinton in Florida may decide to stay home.

Plus, the totals published by Slate – and apparently streaming on Vice News – will be only projections for Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Votecastr will not have access or know what votes were actually cast in each of those states. In other words, it will be an educated guess. Those projections and educated guesses may be wrong.

“The role of journalists is to bring information to people, not to protect them from it,” wrote Julia Turner, editor-in-chief of Slate, on September 10. “But on Election Day, media outlets usually take the opposite approach.”

Turner’s stance is cavalier. One of the main functions of journalism is to decide what information and data is and is not vital to the public. The indiscriminate publishing of information – as exemplified by WikiLeaks – can cause very real harm to people and national security.

The Society of Professional JournalistsCode of Ethics says journalists should “recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.” In other words, journalists shouldn’t publish information for the sake of publishing information.

The concern that early projections will decrease or suppress voter turnout is a hunch, according to Turner. “Academics examining the question have found no consistent effects on voter behavior,” she wrote.

There is evidence that media projections do have a “small yet significant effect in decreasing turnout” once researchers account for voter- and election-specific variables. Most social science papers examining media projections on voter turnout call the possible suppression the “West Coast effect” since voting ends much later in states like California and Washington. Research suggests this effect may be particularly important when races are close.

National polls currently show the U.S. presidential candidates from the two main political parties separated by 1 to 6 percentage points. While Slate and VoteCastr may not have the weight to change tomorrow’s election results, other journalists and news organizations should be hesitant to follow their paths.

Traditions frequently need to be reexamined, but sometime there are justifiable reasons and purposes behind those habits and actions.

Journalists and news organizations should hope everyday Americans vote based on the truthful stories and reports they published during the past two years about the candidates and their platforms – not mid-day projections.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the SPJ Ethics Committee.

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Election Day Video Request Misses Mark

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons - C x 2

Photo Credit: Flickr Creative Commons – C x 2

Musician and actor Justin Timberlake sparked a legal debate last month by posting a picture of him voting early in Tennessee. One of the nation’s largest broadcasters is now asking average citizens to do something similar with video.

Sinclair Broadcast Group is teaming up with Burst, which is a mobile video platform, to receive “viewer-generated video from hundreds of polling places through the Burst platform,” according to a Burst blog post. The videos will be used in Sinclair’s Election Day news coverage.

Sinclair, which is an investor of Burst, previously used the platform to collect videos from large events, according to The Baltimore Sun.

There are a couple of reasons using the platform is different on Election Day, though. Mainly, Sinclair may put its viewers and the integrity of its news broadcasts at risk if it’s successful in getting everyday Americans to take and submit videos from polling places.

Laws on taking pictures vary from state to state, according to CNN. Laws against taking videos at polling locations likely vary across the country, too.

One of my concerns is that Sinclair may lead the viewers of its 173 television stations into tricky legal situations by telling them to take videos at polling locations. People may be fined or arrested if they are not adequately informed about their state’s laws.

Unlike professional journalists who are sent to report news, everyday Americans would not have the benefit of trained media lawyers or company attorneys. Broadly asking people to take videos at polling locations also seems irresponsible since most American news organizations are cautious about encouraging people to break laws for news stories.

The integrity of Sinclair’s newscasts may also be in jeopardy if its journalists don’t independently report each video. Lies, rumors, misconceptions and other inaccuracies may make it to air and needlessly harm the integrity of the election process.

People call in tips all the time to journalists and news organizations, but professional journalists are then supposed to investigate each tip before turning it into stories that make it to print or on air.

News organizations should continue to follow and investigate news tips, but not lead their readers, viewers or listeners into legally questionable situations. Additionally, they should do everything in their power to protect the integrity of their news reports – especially on Election Day.


I sent a series of questions along with a request for a talk Thursday to three of Sinclair’s officers, but didn’t receive a response at the time this post was published.

Among my questions:

  • Will Sinclair stations provide viewers with detailed and state-specific information to keep them from being fined or arrested if they take video inside prohibited areas?
  • Will Sinclair assume financial and legal liability for its viewers if they get into trouble while filming?
  • How will Sinclair ensure the editorial integrity of its newscasts?
  • Will each video be independently reported by a Sinclair journalist?

I will update this post if I receive a response from Sinclair.


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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Daily Beast’s Apology Falls Far Short of Gold

image1 (8)The editors of The Daily Beast removed its unethical and dangerous attempt at an investigation into the sex lives of athletes at the Olympics in Brazil.

“We were wrong,” said a note published on the publication’s website. “We will do better.”

While the note offers an apology to the athletes “who may have been inadvertently compromised” by their story, the editors’ note falls far short of what those Olympians and readers deserve.

First, the athletes who were possibly reported as gay or bisexual were not “inadvertently compromised.” The Daily Beast and its reporter Nico Hines deliberately set up fake dates with athletes in the Olympic village for the story.

Second, news consumers are getting tired of news organizations failing, shrugging and saying they’ll do better next time. Instead of offering empty words and promises, news organizations need to explain what went wrong with the initial story and how editors plan to prevent similar mistakes in the future.

Over a year ago, the Columbia Journalism School published a comprehensive report of the actions that led to Rolling Stone’s now-infamous investigation into campus rape. The authors of the report offered several suggestions to improve coverage, including confronting subjects with evidence and reducing the use of pseudonyms.

While the editors of Rolling Stone at the time committed to learning from their mistakes, such as not relying on the word of a single source, they then turned over editorial control of a cover story to its sole subject less than a year later.

Readers need to know what happened leading up to the publication of The Daily Beast’s report. They also need to know what will happen within the news organization to make sure something similar doesn’t happen again at a later date.

Journalism is built on trust. Mistakes like these harm not only the reputations and livelihoods of good journalists and editors at The Daily Beast, but every other journalist.

The Daily Beast and all news organizations that commit serious breaches of professional standards owe their sources, readers and colleagues a better and more concrete explanation than they’ll “do better.”


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

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The Daily Beast Wins Nothing At Olympics

image1 (6)The Daily Beast sent a reporter to cover the Olympics in Rio de Janeiro. Instead of a story on the numerous important issues affecting the region, the website decided to publish a report that is journalistic trash, unethical and dangerous.


Nico Hines, of The Daily Beast, spent part of his Tuesday night using several mobile dating apps to arrange dates and liaisons with Olympic athletes. He reportedly secured three dates within an hour. The resulting story explains those interactions and the numerous athletes who were also using the apps.

The aim of the report was to answer whether the average person could join the “bacchanalia” of the Olympic village, which is stocked with condoms and virile athletes.

While Hines apparently used a range of dating apps, he was most successful with those catering toward men who have sex with men, such as Grindr. The story has been updated, but the first published version included details that could be used to identify athletes.

There are several major ethical issues with the story, including the fact that this type of reporting is dangerous and can cause needless harm.

For example, many Olympic athletes come from countries where being gay or bisexual is – in some way – punishable by law. Furthermore, some athletes may not be in a position in their personal lives to reveal their sexual orientation.

The reasonable person can argue that people using dating apps give up their expectation of privacy. The Society’s Code of Ethics argues that access to information does not equal the ethical justification to publish or broadcast, however.

Additionally, the pseudo-surreptitious reporting methods used by Hines were completely unnecessary and unjustified. The Society’s Code of Ethics suggests undercover and other surreptitious methods may be used on two conditions. Other reporting methods must have failed. Also, the information must be vital to the public’s interest.

The Daily Beast story does not say whether Hines attempted other reporting methods. Also, there is no reason any person needs to know whether an Olympic athlete is having sexual relations with other people during competition – other than lurid curiosity.

Hines, who is straight, writes that he didn’t lie to the athletes and identified himself as a journalist when asked. Yet, he apparently set up dates and liaisons with athletes for no other reason than to write the story.

Assuming a news organization wished to spend its resources on a story about the sex life of Olympic athletes, it could be easily done with much more tact. For example, a reporter could use dating apps to contact athletes to arrange interviews instead of fake dates. They could also include relevant details about how the various Olympic organizations provide or don’t provide sexual health services to the athletes.

The Daily Beast’s story is a failure that should prompt a review of editorial practices and oversight within the organization. The athletes adversely affected by the story also deserve an apology.

Such a story has no place in a modern media organization.


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

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Harnessing Energy for Change

Flickr Creative Commons

Flickr Creative Commons

There is a lively conversation about how journalists should cover traumatic events, and it’s time to harness that energy to facilitate change.


Wednesday’s post about the movement to omit the names and images of gunmen from news stories elicited a strong online response. People offered their various opinions on how journalists should cover traumatic events. While those opinions differ, responsible journalism is the shared goal.

The Society of Professional Journalists works each day to encourage and promote responsible journalism through its Code of Ethics, which is widely viewed as the industry’s standard. The reason it’s so widely accepted and referenced is that – at least in its current form – it’s the result of hours of discussions, public input and review.

The same rigor that serves as the foundation for the Society’s code should be applied to the conversation surrounding the coverage of traumatic events. The result will be an evidence- and practice-based document that provides journalists with guidelines for covering events spanning from suicides, natural disasters, domestic terrorism and mass shootings.

In the coming months, I’ll be working to bring together a group of journalists, journalism organizations, news organizations, ethicists, researchers, victim rights advocates and key interest groups. My hope is that the group will meet in person over two days to discuss best practices and create the document. Then, it will be open for public comment and discussion before its final adoption by members of the working group.

Then, an education campaign will be needed to disseminate the guidelines and inform journalists of their importance.

This will not happen overnight, however. To ensure this process is a success, there will need to be a lot of work and cooperation between different people, groups and organizations.  I hope to have an update soon, and that will be posted to this blog.

If you’d like to be part of the working group, please feel free to sign up for more information below:


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

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Ignoring a Problem Doesn’t Make It Go Away

image1A growing list of organizations say journalists should omit the names and images of gunmen in an effort to prevent future mass shootings.


The Brady Campaign, which works to prevent gun violence, launched on Wednesday the “Zero Minutes of Fame” tool for Google’s Chrome internet browser. The tool, which is accompanied by an ad and a petition directed at the media, replaces the names and faces of mass shooters in news stories with the names and images of their victims.

The theory is that omitting the names and images of gunmen stops future mass shootings by eliminating the possibility of fame.

Other organizations like No Notoriety promote a similar message, which is supported by the Society’s professional chapter in Florida.

While well-meaning, these initiatives are based on anecdotal and preliminary evidence, and may result in unintended consequences. The goal should be more responsible reporting – not less reporting.

Instead of completely omitting the names and images of gunmen, advocates should challenge news organizations to be especially cautious when reporting on breaking news – including mass shootings. News organizations should shun speculation and report verified facts. Additionally, news organizations should be judicious in how the images of mass shooters are portrayed to readers and viewers.

The Society encourages these practices through its Code of Ethics.

Going the extreme route of eliminating any mentions and images of gunmen could lead to a chilling effect that ultimately moves coverage of gun violence off the front page and out of the public’s conscious. Typically, ignoring a problem isn’t a successful solution.

The science underpinning the movement is also far from conclusive. The most notable study supporting the theory that mass shootings are “contagious” was published online in July. The study, which was published by researchers from Arizona State University, suggests that 20 to 30 percent of shootings involving four or more victims are tied to a previous mass shooting. The study is retrospective and observational, and can’t prove cause and effect. Also, the study can’t make any conclusions about the possible role of news coverage.

In absence of a substantially larger body of evidence linking the use of gunmen’s names and images to an increased risk of mass shootings, the goal should be to encourage more responsible reporting of all  facts.

People have a right to information – whether joyful or unpleasant. Providing people with accurate information is the foundation of journalism and democracy.


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

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Friday’s Fiasco: Journalism Can and Should be Better

MSNBC's Kerry Sanders on Friday. (via screenshot of MSNBC.com)

MSNBC’s Kerry Sanders on Friday. (via screenshot of MSNBC.com)

A flood of people and equipment poured through the door of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik’s apartment on Friday.


The couple murdered 14 people and injured another 26 just two days earlier at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California.

Carrying microphones, lights, cameras and any other electronics capable of broadcasting, people raced through the apartment to capture any detail of the space once occupied by mass murderers.

MSNBC’s Kerry Sanders was one of the first reporters to enter the apartment. He was soon combing through items and holding up pictures of children, identification cards and other objects to the camera. Andrea Mitchell, who was anchoring the network at the time, grew uneasy and asked to cut away, according to CNN.

Sanders was not alone, of course. Reporters from most national news organizations like CNN, CBS and The New York Times were present along with reporters from local news organizations. They were soon joined by random people from the neighborhood.

In the wake of the reporters converging on the apartment like a swarm of locusts, people were outraged. The reporters looked like leeches, and served as a visual explanation of why only four in 10 people trust the media.

Those outraged people were correct.

For the most part, what happened on air Friday from that apartment was not journalism. Instead, what happened was the type of sensationalized and voyeuristic nonsense the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics shuns.

From beginning to end, the events on Friday violated what SPJ considers the profession’s best practices.

  • While there is still debate over how the media gained access to the apartment, several reports say a crew from Inside Edition paid for access to the apartment. A journalist with even a shred of dignity doesn’t consider paying for news, and should call out those who engage in checkbook journalism.Paying for news sets a dangerous precedent, and allows news to go to the highest bidder. Readers, viewers and listeners should also question the accuracy and integrity of any news stories purchased outright or through other backdoor fees.
  • The journalists who rushed into the apartment should have also made the ethical decision and turned off their cameras. “Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort,” says SPJ’s code. Journalists should know going into an apartment cleared by the Federal Bureau of Investigation was not likely to yield any significant evidence. There was no need for viewers or listeners to be exposed to that scene as it unfolded. As SPJ’s code also reminds journalists, legal access to information differs from the ethical justification to publish.
  • The reporters inside the apartment should have also realized that no good could have come from broadcasting random artifacts. The people in those pictures and named on those documents may have no connection to Friday’s events, but are now linked and possibly in danger thanks to the recklessness of the reporters.

MSNBC, who took the brunt of the blowback on Friday, issued a brief mea culpa (while also patting itself on the back) on Friday.

Meanwhile, Fox News and CNN also issued statements that they had been allowed in the apartment, but were careful not to show pictures and other documents.

All of the journalists who were broadcasting live from the scene on Friday – including those on social media – are all in the same boat, however. They should have known better than to run into the apartment while broadcasting without knowing what they would find.

The best advice would be for the offenders to implement new editorial strategies to prevent these kinds of mistakes in the future, but I can only write that advice so many times. Instead, it’s imperative that other journalists call out unethical journalism whenever and wherever possible.

Journalists need to realize that MSNBC, Inside Edition and other news organizations that take part in this type of cavalier coverage are harming all journalists. Whether we like it or not, cable networks are often the face of journalism for the American people. When they screw up, we all suffer.


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

*This post was updated at 10 a.m. on December 9th to fix a typo in the penultimate paragraph.
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Journalists Can Responsibly Use Hacked Data

Ashley Madison HackStories are starting to trickle out of the massive hack of Ashley Madison, which is touted as a dating website for people who are already married.


The hack exposed the information of an estimated 30 million people.

Obviously, people are hesitant to report and read stories based on a hack, because the data are stolen and offer little value to the public. These are fair and rational arguments, but I disagree with both.

It’s a very dangerous precedent for journalists to ignore information on the basis of whether or not it’s stolen from the owner.  As long as journalists were not involved in the actual theft of the material, they should feel free to take a look at the information to see if it’s of interest to the public.

In this case, the data is from a website that facilitates the affairs of married people. One may argue that there is no public interest in the personal lives of anyone who pops up in the data. In general, this argument is valid, but should not be generalized to the entire data dump.

For example, there is no public interest in John Smith from down the street having an affair. The situations changes when John Smith is using his government email address and/or credit card to manage his website membership, however.

The bottom line is that journalists should feel free to mine the data from hacks for information that should be elevated to the public, but those stories must be responsibly reported.

In this case, journalists should verify information and allow people accused of having an account a chance to respond to allegations. Journalists must also explain why they believe people should know about the information. The explanation must be better than to simply pander to lurid curiosity.

Finally, journalists and news organization should aim to minimize harm. Minimizing harm does not mean journalists should simply avoid reporting on important stories. All journalism, in general, creates some level of harm – ranging from discomfort to mental distress. The good of the information being brought to light should outweigh the harms.

As in many cases, the question is not whether a story should be done. The question is how to responsibly report a story.


Andrew M. Seaman is the Society’s ethics chairman. He lives and works in New York City.

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