Archive for the ‘Minimize Harm’ 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 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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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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Streamed Crime: A Challenge for News and Social Media Companies

Jason Howie/Flickr Creative Commons

Social media ignited Sunday afternoon when news broke that a man in Cleveland streamed a video of himself on Facebook allegedly shooting an elderly person. The crime is part of an ongoing challenge for news organizations and social media companies.

The challenge is different for each of the entities, however.

News organizations are tasked with taking in raw material and determining what, when and how to describe and show that information. In this and similar cases, journalists are challenged by several factors, including:

  • The raw material is graphic.
  • The raw material often cannot be verified.
  • The raw material is likely available online.
  • The family of the victim(s) may not know of the crime.

Before the internet, modern journalists didn’t often come into contact with graphic material to use with stories. Additionally, they often heard of crimes from official sources that could verify material and knew whether the family of the victim was notified. Plus, graphic images, video or audio weren’t circulating in public.

The instinct of many people – including journalists – is to share what is publicly available, but the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics makes a clear statement by saying “legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.”

Some news organizations and journalists take the position that they should not hide information from the public, but that’s a ridiculous stance. One of the central missions of journalism is to distill the world into concise reports that tell the public what information they need in their day to day lives.

Journalists in the 20th century decided those who were part of their profession should act ethically while fulfilling that mission. The current version of SPJ’s Code of Ethics says journalists should “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort.” Additionally, they should “show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage.”

There will never be one answer for how journalists and news organizations deal with video of crimes streamed online, but taking the time to think beyond access of material to the responsible retelling and synthesis will lead to much better decisions than have been made in the past.

The challenge for social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat is somewhat different, but the answers are not.

Unlike journalists who get the opportunity to pause before publishing information, social media companies are more like newsstands that allow any person to put their information or publication on display. Except, the companies have more control than many people think.

The people in charge of Facebook and Twitter clearly care about what happens on their platforms. Otherwise, Facebook wouldn’t prioritize some content over others and Twitter wouldn’t weed out certain notifications or posts.

While these companies historically shut down any claim or notion that they are media companies or news organizations, they can’t be so ignorant to the fact that they exist in the same orbit. In that case, they can find answers within SPJ’s Code of Ethics, too.

If Facebook can prioritize an advertisement or post, the company can also put protections in place that will prevent the abuse of their platforms and tools. The same goes for Twitter, Snapchat, Tumblr and the rest.

Again, there will likely be no one answer for every company, but the people in charge must at least try to prevent members of the public from using their  platforms and tools for sinister purposes while allowing others to use those same elements for good.

These problems are not going away. Fortunately, there is still time to address them before they get out of hand.


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

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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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