Archive for the ‘Uncategorized’ Category


Learning From a Leak

Caught a drip falling from the tap in the kitchen

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on TumblrShare on RedditPin on Pinterest

There Is a Role for Public Editors

New York Times Headquarters In New York

SOURCE: Flickr Creative Common

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on TumblrShare on RedditPin on Pinterest

Lessons From Flynn’s Downfall

President Barack Obama departs the White House briefing room after a statement, Oct. 16, 2013. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

Pundits and some journalists called for a reinvention of the press after Donald Trump won the White House in November, but Michael Flynn’s resignation on Monday and additional stories published Tuesday show the United States benefits most when journalists rededicate themselves to their profession’s timeless standards.

Michael Flynn resigned Monday as President Donald Trump’s national security adviser after news stories suggested he misled administration officials about his conversations with a Russian diplomat. While people disagree about whether Flynn’s actions warranted his resignation, few can argue that comprehensive news reports didn’t led to his downfall.

Journalists, media critics and the public should allow Flynn’s short and turbulent stint in the Trump administration to serve as a reminder of some basic truths about the press.

1.) The press is still powerful.

The press is sometimes painted as irrelevant in a time when people get information directly from the internet, but journalists still play powerful roles in amplifying certain stories and guiding people through a sea of lies. News organizations and individual journalists perform their timeless roles as curators of the national conversation – whether people want to admit it or not.

2.) Traditional and ethical journalism still works.

The major revelations about the Trump administration come from journalists following their profession’s abiding principles – as outlined by the Society of Professional JournalistsCode of Ethics. Truthful, responsible and thorough news reports remain the most effective pathway to deliver information to the public. New forms of storytelling may pop up from time to time, but they do best when the underlying principles of journalism remain unchanged.

3.) The press is doing its job – not waging war.

“I have a running war with the media,” said Trump at a January 21 visit to the Central Intelligence Agency. The president’s disdain for the press is repeated often on his Twitter accounts and by people within his administration. Despite their perspective, the press is not at war with the White House. Reporting the truth, correcting inaccurate statements and lies, following the money and holding powerful people accountable are the basic missions of journalism. No presidential administration is supposed to be fans of the press. Perhaps the Trump administration feels like the press is the “opposition party,” because they are now on the receiving end of scrutiny.

4.) The press can tell people what is going on, but it can’t tell them what to do.

Journalists report information people should know about their world. Sometimes the information is about government officials. Other times it’s about faulty consumer products. Journalists can’t force officials to resign and can’t make people change their behaviors, but the hope is people receiving accurate information will use it to make good decisions. For example, people may call their representatives in Congress if they don’t like something happening in the government. Or, people may not buy certain products known to be dangerous.

5.) The press makes mistakes from time to time.

Journalists – like all humans – make mistakes. The profession’s standards aim to reduce mistakes and irresponsible behaviors, but they’re bound to occur from time to time. The goals are for mistakes to be quickly corrected and people behaving irresponsibly to be held accountable for their actions. If the press is going to fulfill its mission of holding powerful people’s feet to the fire, it must also hold itself accountable.

6.) The press will never be wholly non-partisan.

“The press” is an inexact term. Some people may use the term to describe non-partisan news organizations like The New York Times or NPR. Other people may include partisan media organizations like Breitbart and ThinkProgress. While non-partisan news organizations largely focused on whether Flynn lied about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., right-leaning media organizations largely focused on the government leaks that informed news reports about those conversations. The partisan press often does not adhere to most of journalism’s best practices, but those organizations are still entitled to the protection offered by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

7.) The press is here to stay.

History is littered with premature obituaries for the press. Journalists and news organization operate and fulfill their missions despite troubles adapting to new technology, less centralized information pathways and shakier financial foundations. These barriers – along with hostile presidential administrations – existed before and they will pop up again. The press survived those past challenges and it will survive to overcome those barriers in the future.


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

Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on TumblrShare on RedditPin on Pinterest

News Orgs Need to Get Back to Ethical Journalism Before the U.S. Campaign Is Over

Screen Shot 2016-03-23 at 10.30.38 AM

For the Society of Professional Journalists Ethics Committee:

Of Donald Trump’s statements evaluated by Politifact.com, nearly one-third are “false” or “pants on fire.” Yet, many of Trump’s statements go unchallenged during television interviews.

“Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough,” according to the Society of Professional Journalists. Accurate, fair and thorough information leads to public enlightenment, which SPJ considers the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy.

In addition to journalists rarely questioning or challenging Trump on his stances or ideas, BuzzFeed News is reporting that sources, “confirmed the unprecedented control the television networks have surrendered to Trump in a series of private negotiations, allowing him to dictate specific details about placement of cameras at his event, to ensure coverage consists primarily of a single shot of his face.”

If these reports are true, the coverage of Trump on major television networks represents a major journalistic failure.

Regardless of Trump’s ideas or policies, there is no rationale for journalists or news organizations to cede control to a person asking to lead one branch of the U.S. government. Collusion with any person seeking office is inexcusable.

If such agreements exist, networks should rip them up and go back to practicing ethical journalism.

Getting back to ethical journalism means forgoing meaningless stories and avoiding he-said-she-said arguments between presidential campaigns. Instead, news organizations should bring on impartial policy experts to evaluate each candidate’s plans. They should also forgo meaningless and untrustworthy polling data and give people information they can actually use in the voting booths.

The business side of news organizations may balk at the idea of throwing away agreements that ultimately help the bottom line, but there is power in numbers.

If no networks or major news organizations agree to accept a campaign’s unfair terms, the campaign will be forced to relax their authoritarian ways. After all, the campaign needs news organizations to broadcasts speeches, debates and other information to the public.

Unlike collusion with presidential campaigns, collusion among journalists and news organizations in the pursuit of accurate and fair information can ultimately benefit society.

For example, dozens of news and professional news organizations collectively lobby for shield laws and improved transparency throughout government. News organizations also often join together when journalists are unfairly imprisoned.

Likewise, I hope news organizations join together to condemn campaigns and their supporters when journalists are not allowed to freely report on events. There is no place for violence — especially violence targeted toward journalists.

Hopefully, news organizations will realize that the need to improve their profits doesn’t trump the needs of a healthy Democracy, which requires the free exchange of accurate and fair information.

Photo via Matthew Trudeau on Flickr.

Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on TumblrShare on RedditPin on Pinterest

Thank You, WDBJ-7

Image accompanying WDBJ-7’s Twitter post.

Following the murders of Alison Parker and Adam Ward today in Virginia, journalists and news organizations around the country made a series of bad decisions. This blog often focuses on mistakes, but not today.

Instead, I’d like to commend the conduct of Parker and Ward’s colleagues in the WDBJ-7 newsroom following the shooting. Today, the people at that CBS affiliate were the pinnacle of good and ethical journalism.

Not only did the station’s journalists responsibly report through unimaginable circumstances, they guided and counseled their grieving community members, who were also searching for information about a developing story. Despite what many people think, good journalists are not unfeeling creatures. Passion and compassion are among the most important items in a journalist’s toolbox.

The journalists of WDBJ-7 honored Alison and Adam today by exemplifying what journalism should be.

For more information on today’s events, please visit WDBJ-7’s website here: http://www.wdbj7.com

A statement from Paul Fletcher, the president-elect of the Society of Professional Journalists, can be found here: http://www.spj.org/news.asp?REF=1375


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee. He’s a journalist in New York City.

Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on TumblrShare on RedditPin on Pinterest

We Expect Better, Gawker

Illustration of Gawker homepage of July 17, 2015

Photo illustration of Gawker homepage of 07/17/2015

(UPDATED July 17, 2015 at 3:40 p.m. EDT)

Gawker published a post yesterday suggesting the website Reddit is ignorant to the harassment and abuse that occurs within its walls.


The news and gossip site then published a post that alleges a relatively unknown married man paid a male escort for sex.

Basically, the post says the married brother of Timothy Geithner, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Treasury, contacted an unnamed escort. The man arranged to meet the escort in Chicago, but the rendezvous ultimately never occurred.

The post prompted immediate backlash toward Gawker, its editorial leadership and the post’s author. I sent tweets to both Gawker and the post’s author Jordan Sargent.

I received a few tweets and messages from people who said they shared my outrage, but they also asked why I’d expect Gawker to follow basic journalism standards anyway.

If Gawker acts like a journalism organization, walks like a journalism organization, talks like a journalism organization, it better try and follow some of journalism’s basic standards.

Earlier in the day, the website published posts about the mass shooting on a military base in Tennessee, the Islamic State and the case of the mass shooting in a Colorado movie theater. Gawker is clearly acting as a source for news produced by professional writers.

Granted, Gawker is not a shining example of journalism integrity, but people go to it and similar websites to get information presented in quick, entertaining and often smart methods.

My biggest problem with the post – other than it being in poor taste, is that it appears no thought was spared to consider the potential damage this post would bring upon the married man, his wife and children. Also, other than having a prominent brother and – what I’m assuming is – a well-paying job, the married man has little relevancy outside of his family and profession.

Under the tenet of minimize harm, the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists says journalists should “realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention.”

What’s more, the Code says journalists should, “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”

Why did anyone need to read a post based on the word of an unnamed person that a private individual allegedly tried to arrange a meeting? None. What’s more, it likely caused significant harm and turmoil in several people’s lives.

As for the escort remaining anonymous, the Code says journalists should identify sources clearly, because the “public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.”

The Code goes on to say that journalists should “consider sources’ motives before promising anonymity.” They should also, “reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere. Explain why anonymity was granted.”

In this case, the post says the male escort “does not want to reveal his identity for professional reasons.” My question to the post’s author is why did Gawker agree to protect the identity of someone who admitted to blackmailing a person, and then turn around and publish a hit piece with no regard for the subject’s life or the lives of his family?

When the initial backlash began, a Twitter account allegedly belonging to Max Read, Gawker’s editor-in-chief, showed no remorse for the post.

Several people responded to his tweet with what I consider to be an appropriate response: Why?

While the damage is likely already done, I hope Gawker’s leadership and the author of the post will apologize.

Until then, shame on you, Gawker.


 UPDATE – July 17 at 3:40 p.m. EDT

In a post published this afternoon, Gawker founder Nick Denton said the original story has been pulled from the website. While Denton acknowledges the post likely led to embarrassment for the subject, he did not apologize for the website causing that harm.

This action will not turn back the clock. David Geithner’s embarrassment will not be eased. But this decision will establish a clear standard for future stories. It is not enough for them simply to be true. They have to reveal something meaningful. They have to be true and interesting. These texts were interesting, but not enough, in my view.

 

Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on TumblrShare on RedditPin on Pinterest

Ethics Week 2015: Minimizing Harm

SPJ_ETHICS_WEEK

(This post was updated on April 27, 2015 at 11:10 a.m. EDT)

The Society’s Ethics Week is focusing on minimizing harm, which is a key tenet of the Code of Ethics.


The Society’s Code of Ethics is composed of four key tenets and almost three dozen underlying principles. While all four tenets are crucial to the Code, one tends to be at the heart of more Ethics Hotline queries than the others: Minimize Harm.

When the staff at the Society’s headquarters asked for an Ethics Week 2015 theme, it was obvious that “Minimize Harm” should be the highlight.

The Society’s social media will focus throughout the week on content that helps journalists minimize harm in their work. This blog will host guest posts on several days about the subject. The Code’s supporting documents will be introduced in the coming days. The Society will host Twitter chats related to the topic of harm, too.

We also hope that journalists and non-journalists will contribute to the conversation by interacting with the Society’s Twitter and Facebook accounts. As someone who often receives emails and calls about various journalism missteps, I know people have a lot to contribute to the discussion.

While the emphasis of the week is on minimizing harm, journalists should not simply shy away from sensitive or uncomfortable subjects to achieve that goal. Instead, they should be reminded after this week that all stories need to be responsibly executed.

As I often tell people when I speak, journalists are invited into people’s homes and personal lives throughout the day in print, digital and broadcast form. Journalists should not abuse that privilege. They should be like any other guest and be respectful of their hosts.

To get started, I’d like to invite you to read the latest Quill cover story by ethics committee co-vice chair Mónica Guzmán here: http://bit.ly/1EWGYjL. In the story, Monica tackles some of the emerging ethical issues journalists should watch for when reporting stories.

Also, check out the latest “From The President” by Dana Neuts, and my “Ethics Toolbox.”


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee. He is a journalist in New York City.

Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on TumblrShare on RedditPin on Pinterest

CBS’s 60 Minutes Airs Graphic Footage

People who tuned into CBS’s 60 Minutes on Sunday night watched “the most disturbing footage in its 47-year history,” according to the network.

The footage was part of a segment presented by Scott Pelley, the anchor and managing editor of CBS Evening News. The  segment focused on a 2013 sarin gas attack near the Syrian city of Damascus. The U.S. estimates that the attack killed an estimated 1,429 civilians. About a third of the deaths were children, according to CBS.

I often highlight journalism missteps on this blog, but – in this case – I’d like to applaud CBS for explaining why it decided to show such graphic footage, which included images of  seizures, vomiting and respiratory failure.

“We just wanted to stop and show it to the world so that people can understand the hideousness of this weapon,” Pelley says in an article explaining the decision to air the footage.

While it’s not an often cited principle, the Society’s Code of Ethics says ethical journalists should “explain ethical choices and processes to audiences. Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content.”

In fact, the Code elevates the idea under the tenet of “be accountable and transparent,” which explains that “ethical journalism means taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public.”

By explaining its choice to the public, CBS shows that it put thought into what viewers would be exposed to during the broadcast.

The Poynter Institute‘s Al Tompkins has a detailed explanation of CBS’s decision here: http://bit.ly/1Ixjf8N

Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on TumblrShare on RedditPin on Pinterest

Columbia J-School Issues Rolling Stone Report

A screenshot of the editor's note attached to a Rolling Stone story about a 2012 gang rape at the University of Virginia. (captured 12/5/2014)

A screenshot of the editor’s note attached to a Rolling Stone story about a 2012 gang rape at the University of Virginia. (captured 12/5/2014)

Systemic problems within Rolling Stone allowed for the release of a story that the Columbia Journalism School called a “journalistic failure that was avoidable” in a new report of the magazine’s editorial processes.

“The failure encompassed reporting, editing, editorial supervision and fact-checking,” wrote Columbia Journalism School Deans Steve Coll and Sheila Coronel in the lengthy report, which was published Sunday night on the websites of Rolling Stone and the Columbia Journalism Review. Derek Kravitz, a researcher at Columbia, is also an author of the report.

Rolling Stone reported the events surrounding an alleged 2012 gang rape of a freshman woman named “Jackie” on the Charlottesville campus of the University of Virginia in a November 19, 2014, story. Subsequent reporting by journalists and investigation by local police questioned the accuracy of the story.

In addition to pointing to an overall failure of the magazine’s staff to prevent the story from being published, the report highlights several actions that were especially egregious:

  • The magazine did not seek comments from the person accused of orchestrating the rape.
  • The magazine relied on “Jackie” for most of the information for the article.
  • The magazine did not attempt to verify the information even when “Jackie” did not request restrictions.
  • The magazine did not provide a full account of what “Jackie” described to the university or the fraternity at the center of the story.
  • The magazine did not make clear what was known and what was unknown.

As a result of the report, Rolling Stone removed the original story from its website. The magazine now directs people to the report instead of the story. Sabrina Rubin Erdely, freelance journalist and the author of the story in question, also issued an apology on Sunday night.

“I hope that my mistakes in reporting this story do not silence the voices of victims that need to be heard,” Erdely wrote, according to The New York Times.

Journalists should take note of the report, because it shows that sloppy journalism causes harm. In this case, the failures of a reporter and Rolling Stone caused harm to “Jackie,” several men, a fraternity, so-called Greek life, the University of Virginia and all victims of sex crimes.

What’s more, the failures of Ms. Erdely and Rolling Stone likely harmed journalism as a whole. The situation may force ethical journalists to work harder to gain the trust of sources and readers.

As I wrote on this blog in December, it’s important for people to know that the blame for harm caused by the November article falls on the shoulders of Rolling Stone, which the magazine’s managing editor Will Dana also admitted on Twitter.

“Jackie” nor any other source forced Rolling Stone to publish an unverified article in a magazine that reaches about 1.5 million people. The magazine’s leadership is solely responsible for that decision.

Without question, one of most egregious errors committed by Rolling Stone’s leadership was not requiring Ms. Erdely to get a response from the men accused of rape.

In a note added last year to the story by Mr. Dana, he said the magazine respected the wish of “Jackie” not to contact the man she claimed orchestrated the attack.

Ethical journalists attempt to be respectful to the requests of people who are victims of sex crimes, but those journalists are also responsible for verifying their work. It’s simply irresponsible for any news organization to not seek comments from people accused of such serious crimes.

Also, as exhibited by the excellent reporting by The Washington Post and detailed in the report, there are other sources that questioned the reliability of the information provided to Rolling Stone, such as activity and work logs.

Without a doubt, the Rolling Stone story on the alleged 2012 sexual assault at the University of Virginia will be considered as one of the great journalism failings in modern history – alongside the scandals of The New York Times’s Jayson Blair scandal and The Washington Post’s Janet Cooke.

Following the report, I assume the public will be hearing about several changes within Rolling Stone. Many of those changes are detailed within the report. No changes in staff will be made based on the report or the failure of the magazine.

Additionally, Rolling Stone should publish an accurate and thorough report about sexual assaults on U.S. college campuses. The topic, which is known to be a significant problem, was lost among the discussion of the magazine’s failures.

Until then, people looking for information or resources can check the website of the National Sexual Violence Resource Center here: http://bit.ly/1IhuXqZ

The Society’s ethics committee will continue to follow the events that occur in the wake of Columbia Journalism School’s report, and will update the blog as necessary.


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

* An official statement from the Society will be released separately. When available, it will be posted here.

Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on TumblrShare on RedditPin on Pinterest

Toronto Star Fails in Vaccine Investigation

Photo Illustration (Photo Credit: Flickr/ El Alvi)

Photo Illustration (Photo Credit: Flickr/ El Alvi)

Two days after I published a post on this blog about the importance of using data to report on medicine, the Toronto Star published – what the paper called – an investigation into Gardasil, which is one of the vaccines used to prevent the human papillomavirus.


While the Star’s story included medical experts defending the vaccine, the paper relied on anecdotal reports to support a hypothesis that the drug has a “dark side” that includes undisclosed complications, including death.

As I wrote in my post on February 3, journalists have a responsibility to prevent people from being harmed by incorrect information. In this case, one can make a strong argument that the Star’s failure to adequately report its story may lead to future cancers and even deaths.

The human papillomavirus – better known as HPV – is a sexually transmitted infection responsible for a number of cancers and other complications, including genital warts. Most importantly, HPV is responsible for the vast majority of cervical cancers.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says on its website that almost all adults who are sexually active will be infected with at least one strain of HPV during their lives. Most infections will clear up on their own, but about one in 10 will persist.

There are two vaccines currently approved to protect against HPV in the U.S. Cervarix, which is manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline, and Gardasil, which is manufactured by Merck. Gardasil is the only vaccine approved for use in males, who can also get HPV and suffer from its complications.

While the CDC says the vaccines are safe and effective, the agency reports some people experience side effects ranging from pain at the injection site, headache, nausea, dizziness and fainting.

The U.S. recommends vaccination for boys and girls from ages 11 through 12 years, and teens who were not previously vaccinated. Specifically, females can get the series of three shots through age 26 and males through age 21. Gay men, bisexual men and other men who have sex with men can also receive the vaccine through age 26 years.

If people reading the Star’s story are persuaded to not be vaccinated, some may go on to develop cancers that would have been prevented by the vaccine. Additionally, some of those cancers may ultimately cause people’s deaths.

While the Star – as of right now – did not retract its story, the paper’s publisher said the publication failed in its job. Additionally, the paper’s public editor Kathy English wrote a comprehensive report on the matter on Friday.

“It’s too bad there isn’t a vaccination to prevent journalistic misstep. I suspect we’d all line up for that shot about now. The fallout here has been devastating for the newsroom,” wrote English.

English places a lot of blame on the story’s presentation, such as the accompanying headline and pictures. While those elements didn’t help, the article itself would lead a reasonable reader to assume the vaccine may cause serious complications.

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff told CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, that he suspects the Star’s story will lead some people to not be vaccinated, and ultimately develop cancers.

“And that’s really a horrible thing for the Toronto Star to have done,” he told the CBC.

The Star already took some steps to reduce the harm its article caused, including admitting the paper failed in its responsibilities and adding several notes to the online publication. My hope is that the Star will report the story again, except with a much more critical eye.


 On a personal note: I think it’s important to say that I’m currently in the middle of receiving the HPV vaccine – as recommended by the CDC.


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

Email this to someoneTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Share on FacebookShare on TumblrShare on RedditPin on Pinterest

Connect

Twitter Facebook Google Plus RSS Instagram Pinterest Pinterest LinkedIn


© Society of Professional Journalists. All rights reserved. Legal

Society of Professional Journalists
Eugene S. Pulliam National Journalism Center, 3909 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, IN 46208
317/927-8000 | Fax: 317/920-4789 | Contact SPJ Headquarters | Employment Opportunities | Advertise with SPJ