Archive for the ‘Online Journalism’ Category


Society’s Code Belongs in Newsrooms, Not Courtrooms

First Lady Michelle Obama meets with Melania Trump for tea in the Yellow Oval Room of the White House, Nov. 10, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics finds itself in the middle of a $150 million lawsuit filed by the First Lady of the United States against a controversial news organization.

First Lady Melania Trump is using the Society’s Code of Ethics in a lawsuit seeking $150 million in damages from the parent company of Mail Online, which the former model says alleged in a now-retracted article she worked at one time as an “elite escort.”

The website eventually retracted the story.

The first family’s knowledge of the Society’s Code is obviously a pleasant surprise, but its use in any lawsuit or legal proceeding is inappropriate. The United States is a country of laws, which should be the determining factor in any court case.

Trump’s demand for a jury trial was filed Monday in New York. Mail Online’s conduct “violated professional standards of journalism ethics as exemplified by the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics,” according the filing that also list specific principles.

“In publishing the defamatory statements about Plaintiff [Trump], Mail Online failed to live up to any of these important ethical principles of journalism,” the filing continues.

Mail Online – as it often does – likely crossed what the Society considers lines in the proverbial sand in its article about Trump, but ethical breaches are not criminal or illegal. The Society’s code “is not, nor can it be under the First Amendment, legally enforceable,” as its footnote declares.

The Code is a document containing timeless principles the Society and its members believe are the bedrock of responsible journalism. The document is also aspirational and should be read as a whole. Individual principles should not be cited out of context.

While the Code displays these caveats and directives in its footnote, the document often finds itself in courtrooms. A journalism professor discussed the Code at length last year during the case between Terry Bollea – better known as Hulk Hogan – and Gawker Media. The case ultimately resulted in the shuttering of Gawker Media’s namesake website and the sale of its other properties to Univision.

The Society can’t keep people and their lawyers from citing its Code of Ethics, but the hope is the deciding factors in any legal action are established and constitutional laws. A document crafted by a professional organization does not fit that description.


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

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Facebook Tackles Fake News

Jason Howie/Flickr Creative Commons

Facebook announced last Wednesday changes to its trending topics section, which is the box of subjects users see on the top-right corner of the screen. The social network’s software will only recognize subjects covered by multiple credible sources, according to The Wall Street Journal. The subjects won’t be adjusted to user preferences.

The new announcement is a step forward when it comes to digital media literacy and the relationship between Facebook and its users. More work is needed, particularly around its trending topics algorithm, which has been the subject of controversy because of the sources that are cited when it comes to certain subjects. Nevertheless, this change shows Facebook is taking seriously its role as a gatekeeper. The social network is adapting to ensure the public receives the most valuable information possible – no matter the subject.

The move is also positive for journalists, who continue to disseminate information ethically on a platform fundamental to the future of the industry. Facebook is a necessary platform for journalists and news organizations to engage with audiences.

The rules for producing ethical journalism for journalists remain the same regardless of the platform, be it through a social media or something more traditional like newspapers. The Society’s Code of Ethics reminds journalists that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy when it comes to informing your audience.

Overall, these changes implemented by Facebook are a win-win for the members of the public who seek news and information 24 hours a day, and for the journalists who continue to seek truth and report it – their most important task.


Alex Veeneman, a Chicago based SPJ member, is SPJ’s Community Coordinator and a contributor to the SPJ blog network. He also is a member of SPJ’s Ethics Committee.

Outside of SPJ, Veeneman is a Managing Editor and contributing writer for Kettle Magazine, an online publication in the UK. You can interact with Veeneman on Twitter here.

The views expressed in this blog post unless otherwise specified are that of the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Committee, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

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Social Media Ethics Must Be Taught

Jason Howie/Flickr Creative Commons

Social media remains at the center of news consumption for audiences. The platforms have become ubiquitous with news consumption, as they become publishers and media companies in their own right. They also have been ingrained in how audiences see and perceive the news.


Oxford Dictionaries announced last month that post-truth is its international word of the year. Post-truth, an adjective, is defined as: “Relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

The decision by the Dictionaries comes as Facebook is under scrutiny for promoting inaccurate or fake news articles, and people question the information and facts spread on social media during U.S. and UK political votes. Though Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and other social media are new to the market, it does not excuse journalists using those platforms from the evolving rules and ethics of journalism.

The Society’s Code of Ethics calls for journalists to seek truth and report it, and that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy. Seek truth and report it presents a two-fold role in the social media age – informing audiences with the most up-to-date information but also using it to get the facts, verifying user generated content and help it tell the most accurate and impartial story possible.

In a time where relations between audiences and journalists in the U.S. continue to be strained, it is quintessential that a particular emphasis be made on ethics in the social media age, an emphasis that should be made not just in newsrooms here and around the world, but also journalism schools.

While ethics is a cornerstone of the journalism curriculum, it needs to adapt to meet the needs of the student looking to have a career in 21st Century journalism. They need to know that Twitter is more than an opportunity to build one’s brand in 140 character messages, and that Facebook and Instagram are more than just platforms to talk about food or popular culture.

Social media curriculum should include how to be thorough, and how to make the best possible contribution to the public good. That includes the importance of verification and newsgathering in the social media age, why audiences continue to be important as the platforms change, and that it isn’t about trying to one up a competitor, but about educating and engaging anyone who is looking for information on a certain story.

Most of all, they need to know how social media can help journalists tell the best story possible.

Social media platforms, in spite of their faults, are important to the business of journalism, and will help shape the idea and role of journalism in the years ahead. As such, everyone needs to be aware of how all of that correlates with the practice and production of quality, ethical journalism.

Ethics in journalism is something that must not be taken for granted, no matter the platform being used. Neither the evolution of technology, nor journalism ethics, take a holiday.

We as journalists are educators – education is in our DNA – to help inform, engage and do the most good for the public. We are educated by educators, and colleges, universities and newsrooms are doing a disservice to the journalism community without properly incorporating ethics training on these social media platforms.

More of that must be done, so the individual, be it in journalism school or starting in a newsroom, looking to achieve a career in the industry can continue the traditions so paramount to journalism’s objective in enriching a democracy.

It also guarantees one other thing – the goal central with journalism and democracy, seek truth and report it, can continue, and not be in vain.


Alex Veeneman, a Chicago based SPJ member, is SPJ’s Community Coordinator and is a contributor to the SPJ blog network. He also is a member of SPJ’s Ethics Committee.

The views expressed in this blog post unless otherwise specified are that of the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the SPJ Ethics Committee, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.

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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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“Our Republic and Its Press Will Rise or Fall Together”

Joseph Pulitzer's bust stands next to a plaque bearing his words in the lobby of Pulitzer Hall, which houses the Columbia University Graduation School of Journalism. (Picture via Matt Drange)

A bust of Joseph Pulitzer stands next to a plaque bearing his words in the lobby of Pulitzer Hall, which houses the Columbia University Graduation School of Journalism. (Picture via Matt Drange)

The text on one of the plaques mounted in the lobby of Pulitzer Hall at Columbia University in New York caught my eye as I left the building earlier this month. The words its bronze letters spell out are easily the most famous Joseph Pulitzer ever put on paper.

“Our Republic and its press will rise or fall together,” the quote begins.

As an alumnus of the Graduate School of Journalism, I passed by the plaque hundreds or thousands of times during my life. I always agreed with Pulitzer’s observation, but I now find it haunting.

All journalists should be troubled by the events taking place during these last few weeks of the 2016 presidential election. There is no doubt that a significant portion of people on both sides of the political spectrum distrust journalists and the press.

A substantial amount of work is needed to rebuild the public’s trust, but there are only 22 days until the election. Journalists and news organizations must take action during these last few weeks to restore at least some people’s faith in reporting and stories.

The shared knowledge among journalists that our colleagues across the country are fulfilling their duties is no longer good enough.

One potential approach is to be aggressively transparent for stories involving the election. Journalists and news organizations should go out of their ways to explain the reporting process for each story. If necessary, create a footnote. Seeing is believing in today’s world.

Another approach in the same vein is to publish or broadcast stories explaining the editorial processes in newsrooms. For example, who assigns stories? Do reporters pitch stories? Once assigned, how are stories reported? Who writes and edits the stories? How does the newsroom guarantee fairness? Who owns the news organization? Do the owners dictate what stories are told?

These approaches may seem odd or strange, but so are the current discussions taking place across the U.S.

Donald Trump, the Republican nominee for the White House, is repeatedly stating the upcoming election will be rigged with help from the press, for example. While I can’t find data to estimate how many people share his belief, it’s safe to assume that many people are at least talking about his comments.

In the past, journalists and news organizations could offer comfort to the American people during elections by explaining that they’ll be fulfilling their roles as watchdogs of democracy. Without aggressively trying to restore some faith in stories and reports coming out of U.S. news organizations, I don’t know if that assurance will cut it this time around.

I understand that many Americans still believe in the stories and reports ethical journalists publish and broadcast each day. For some reason, many other Americans don’t share that belief.

Journalists and news organizations need to immediately start taking steps to address this issue.

Pulitzer realized in 1904, when he wrote his famous words, that journalists have the ability to lead the country.

“The power to mould the future of the Republic will be in the hands of the journalists of future generations,” he wrote.

My hope is that journalists can harness their abilities to restore faith in its work and ensure the security of democracy in the U.S.


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

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The Times and Trump’s Taxes

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

The New York Times on Saturday published excerpts from Donald Trump’s 1995 income tax returns. The decades-old documents give insight into the financial history of the Republican nominee for the White House.

Throughout the campaign, Trump repeatedly declined to release his tax returns. In an email to the Times, his lawyer claimed the publication of the records is “illegal because Mr. Trump has not authorized the disclosure of any of his tax returns.”

While I’m not a lawyer or expert on tax law, The Washington Post previously reported that “federal law prohibits ‘any person’ from printing, publishing or soliciting tax-return information without the taxpayer’s authorization.”

If true, the Times may find itself in a courtroom in the near future.

The words legal and ethical are not synonyms, however. What is legal is not always ethical, and what is ethical is not always legal.

In my view, the Times made a sound ethical decision by publishing Trump’s tax returns.

The Society’s Code of Ethics suggests that journalism is often a balancing act. News organizations may need to take extraordinary actions if the resulting material is so beneficial and vital to the public.

Journalism is the foundation of democracy and the documents published by the Times provide needed information for people heading to voting booths in almost one month.

While people may argue over the legality of what the Times did regarding Trump’s tax returns, the paper appears to have made the ethical choice.


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

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Canary in the Coalmine: Trust in Media Hits New Low

untitledLess than a third of American adults trust the media at least “a fair amount,” according to a new Gallup poll. The finding is the most dismal since Gallup started taking the poll in the 1970s.

More than any other measure or metric, Gallup’s new report should be a proverbial coalmine canary for the media and democracy.

The research company writes that trust in media reached a peak in 1976, when almost three quarters of American adults believed what they read, watched and heard. As Gallup notes, 1976 followed a number of iconic investigative reports on the Vietnam War and the Watergate scandal.

In its most recent years, the poll’s findings appear to be cyclical with trust falling most during presidential election years and rebounding slightly during the following three years. The result is a steady decline over several decades.

No single factor explains people’s declining trust in the media. Though, a lot of it – in my opinion – is due to the internet pulling back a curtain on the media starting in the early 2000s. Like food, media is much more palatable when people don’t know what goes into it or how it’s made.

The quantity of media produced also makes the prevalence of mistakes, errors and offenses in media appear greater than in the past. People may have heard about major mistakes or scandals at newspapers or broadcast organizations prior to the internet, but today every piece of media can be picked apart and put on a stake for the world to see.

Another of the many factors influencing trust in media is the current U.S. political climate. People – especially conservatives – feel the media is largely working against their best interests.

While about half of self-identified liberals trust the media at least “a fair amount,” Gallup found trust among conservatives fell to 14 percent – from 32 percent a year ago.

There are no easy remedies to the media’s trust drought, but it needs to be addressed – especially within journalism – for altruistic and business purposes.

First, there is no democracy without a strong and independent press. There is also no democracy if the vast majority of people don’t believe its strong and independent press.

Second, journalism is a business, and truth is its product. If people don’t view stories and reports from the press as the truth, the product is little or no value to consumers and advertisers.

One of the key moves the media must make to build trust is to educate people about itself. People don’t trust what they don’t understand. People in media, media companies and the U.S. education system need to teach people to be educated and critical consumers of media.

Another equally large move that needs to be made specifically within the journalism community is to stop trying to reinvent the core mission of the profession.

As the 2016 presidential election enters its last few weeks of life, critics and commentators continue to call on journalists to invent entirely new approaches to journalism in an effort to cover what is universally seen as unprecedented events.

Journalism does not need a reinvention, however. The profession needs its practitioners to recommit themselves to its core principles, which are outlined in the Society’s Code of Ethics.

The call to commit to those principles may seem out of touch, but at some point people must realize the core mission of journalism is largely unchanged since the dawn of communication.

“While tastes have ebbed and flowed and news has been at times more and less serious, historians have discovered that the basic news values have remained relatively constant throughout time,” write Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel in their book The Elements of Journalism.

What changes in journalism is not the underlying mission or principles, but the delivery systems – from print to broadcast to digital.

Journalists need to be advocates for the truth and shun speculation, innuendos, rumors partisanship and lies. Once reported, it’s up to the public to use that information to make decisions in their daily lives and in voting booths.

The road to rebuilding trust between the media and Americans is long, but it’s a journey journalists, news organizations and media companies must start on if they want to continue doing their work beyond the next few decades.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chairperson 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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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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Ethics Week: A New Reality

VR library through the Vrse app for iPhone

Virtual reality is one of the most exciting advancements in storytelling over the past few years. Like any knew advancement, the technology presents a number of ethical questions that need to be addressed.


The New York Times pushed virtual reality into the mainstream in November, when the news organization sent more than one million inexpensive VR viewers to subscribers. The distribution of the viewers coincided with the debut of “The Displaced,” which is a VR film about children from three war-torn countries.

The point of VR is not just to tell a story, but to help viewers understand the messages through immersion. The Times’ investment in VR was met with great fanfare, but also concern, according to the paper’s then-Public Editor Margaret Sullivan.

“Many Times readers were excited by what they experienced and sent congratulatory notes,” she wrote. “But not everyone was pleased,” she added later.

Aside from adapting to the new technology, one of the main complaints about VR is that production requires a closer interaction between journalist and subject than other methods of storytelling.

Unlike traditional news photography , VR requires journalists to strategically place cameras settings and then quickly leave the area. They must also coordinate with subjects to get special footage from bikes, cars and boats.

While those concerns are valid, it’s difficult to say that VR is more intrusive than other forms of visual media. Longform video and photography projects require some intrusiveness, and those boundaries are still debated more than a century after the introduction of both technologies.

More complicated ethical problems may present themselves when the cameras stop filming, and a journalist finds himself in the editing room.

One of the most pressing questions is how much is too much? Like traditional photography and video, VR may show the horrors of war, terrorism and other horrible events. Journalists editing VR films have to ask if the threshold of what can be shown  is lower due to the immersive nature of the technology.

In 2015, Kathleen Bartzen Culver wrote a piece for the University of Wisconsin Center for Journalism Ethics about the potential for VR to induce trauma.

“VR coverage of war, torture, rape and other violence will prompt searing questions about lasting consequences of consuming journalism that eclipse our current research on media effects,” she writes.

Bartzen Culver also quotes Dan Pacheco, of the S.I. Newhouse journalism school at Syracuse University. He suggests keeping subjects and audiences in mind more  than the possibilities of the technology.

At the end of the day, a good discussion over the ethical challenges of each new VR project may help direct journalists to the most responsible actions.

Some important questions can include:

  • Is VR the right way to tell this story?
  • What is the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable interaction with subjects?
  • What is the limit of what is acceptable for VR viewers to see?
  • Who may be especially affected by the immersive experience of this story?

Of course, there are a number of questions that could and should be considered before and during a VR project. The key is open conversation between all journalists and editors.

As always, the Society’s Code of Ethics will also be useful during those conversations.


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

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