Posts Tagged ‘Code of Ethics’


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events, the question may be: How can I objectively cover people who spew racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and other outdated and repugnant beliefs?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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CNN Source Agreement Odd, Not Blackmail

Screenshot of President Donald Trump's Twitter message.

Screenshot of President Donald Trump’s Twitter message.

Post updated Monday July 5 to include CNN’s statement.


CNN announced an unusual anonymity agreement with a source Sunday.


After tracking down the source of a video posted on Twitter by President Donald Trump, CNN said it agreed to keep the person’s identity a secret since he is a private citizen, showed remorse for his online activities, removed his online posts and promised not to repeat his past behavior.

“CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change,” according to the story reported by Andrew Kaczynski.

CNN’s Oliver Darcy posted a statement from the news organization Monday on his Twitter account about the matter.

Journalists and news organizations offer sources anonymity for various reasons, but the specifics of CNN’s agreements with its source makes it unusual.

Specifically, what would CNN do if the source breaks the agreement by once again becoming an online bully? Would CNN specifically write a story about the person breaking the agreement? Would it retroactively add his name to Sunday’s story?

Journalists should support the open and civil exchange of views, but their role is debatable when they try to police good conduct on other platforms.

Additionally, where would these types of agreements with sources end? Would journalists agree not to identify a thief because he or she promised never to steal again?

In general, concealing the identity of this specific source would not go against the spirit of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.

The Code says journalists should consider a “sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere. Explain why anonymity was granted.”

Additionally, it says journalists should “realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention. Weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information.”

In the case of CNN’s source, he appears to be a private individual who made offensive posts online that somehow made their way to the Presidents of the United States. He’s apparently sorry for his actions. Little is gained by identifying the person. The key is getting information explaining how such a post made it from an online forum to the President of the United States.

All of those goals can be accomplished without CNN turning into an online version of Emily Post.

CNN’s agreement with its source should not be interpreted as blackmail, however. Anonymity agreements between journalists and sources should be detailed and often include qualifying statements. The specific qualifying statement in this agreement is not something that should be common practice, though.

Of course, CNN needs to keep its promise now that it’s agreed upon by both parties.

Journalists should “be cautious when making promises, but keep the promises they make,” according to the Society’s Code.


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

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Learning From a Leak

Caught a drip falling from the tap in the kitchen

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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The Press Must Rise to the Challenge

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

Journalists must be a source of confidence in the United States as allegations are made at the top levels of government.


The press should always be accurate and fair in its work, but certain moments in history require journalists to be beyond meticulous while reporting, composing and disseminating their stories.

The United States is now in one of those moments.

President Donald Trump removed James Comey as director of the FBI on Tuesday. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said later that night that Americans may believe “the decision to fire Director Comey was part of a cover up” if a special prosecutor is not appointed to carry on the FBI’s investigation into Trump’s associates.

To put it plainly: One of the nation’s most senior lawmakers says people are right to suspect the U.S. president fired the director of the FBI to impede an investigation.

Rarely is such a serious accusation thrown around among the nation’s leaders.

The press needs to serve two purposes during these moments. Journalists must use their tools and knowledge to find the truth and report it. They must also inform the public about the actions of government officials.

While fulfilling these purposes, news organizations and journalists must convey to the public that they understand the seriousness of the circumstances and will work to get the truth. The public also needs to know they can turn to journalists and news organizations for accurate and up-to-date information about their elected leaders and government.

In these moments, journalists and news organizations may want to be direct with their readers, viewers and listeners about their mission. Editor’s notes and brief statements during broadcasts can get those messages across.

Words without actions are meaningless, of course. The press needs to follow through on these assurances by paying attention to details, being more cautious with words, thinking twice before sending out social media posts, reminding themselves of the Society of Professional JournalistsCode of Ethics and adhering to time-tested editorial processes that ensure accuracy and fairness.

Mistakes are bound to happen, but the press must do its best to correct errors as quickly as possible and prevent irresponsible journalism from making its way to print or broadcast. Good journalism tells the story. Bad journalism becomes the story.

The public deserves and expects journalists to find and report the answers to these serious questions – no matter where they lead. Three quarters of adults in the U.S. last year believed news organizations keep political leaders from doing things that shouldn’t be done, according to the Pew Research Center.

More than ever, the press can’t let the public down.


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

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Why a Code of Ethics is Important

No one can split a hair like a journalist. You can fill an entire after-work happy hour with debates about the proper use of the verb “claimed” and whether a suspect should be a subject or a person of interest.

We are, after all, the profession that will go to war over the Oxford comma and whether or not “internet” should be capitalized.

As journalists, we spend a lot of time interpreting the Society of Professional Journalists‘ Code of Ethics for particular situations and debating the fine points of the Code as it applies to our work. That is an important discussion, one to which the Ethics Committee is dedicated and that will help shape and inform our work to come.

The changes in our profession have created new realms of ethical controversy, from the appropriate and compassionate treatment of subjects online to managing comment sections to the ethical use of social media for reporting and investigation to the questions of unpublishing, original source documents, and the wild world of online news video.

Still there is a common belief that journalism ethics should simply be innate, that if you’ve been a reporter or editor for a certain amount of time, you should be aware of the ethical constraints of our profession and follow the rules, whether or not they’re written down.

But the problem we find is that the real ethical quandaries are not the big yes-or-no questions that comprise the “duh” section of Journalism 101. They come in those little gray areas, the moments when the rush to get the news online fast washes away the perspective of ethical journalism.

This is why a code written down on paper is important. We must have clear boundaries to help us guide our decisions on deadline, a list of rules of the road to give us a framework for those decisions – and sometimes, to provide reporters with some cover when the editor is out of the office.

But I’d like to add another consideration: Ethics codes are not just for journalists.

Creating and following an ethics code is vitally important for our work, but almost as important is the public’s trust in us. As we all know, that trust has eroded greatly, whether deserved or undeserved. I know that I have grown weary of arguing against the latest idiotic meme alleging that we are all part of some vast corporate conspiracy and cover the news based on dictates from anonymous masters who are in the pocket of one party or another.

The problem is: people believe the memes more than they believe us.

And I feel we are partly to blame for that. Not because they are correct, but because we do a terrible job of publicizing the structures and ethical guidelines of our profession. So much of the news-reading population has no idea that ethics codes even exist or are adhered to by any newsrooms.

By writing our ethics codes down on paper, using them, revising them, and sharing them as much as possible, we educate the public about the work that we do. It provides the same transparency that we demand of our public officials, that the “how” and “why” of a story is as important as the story itself.

We must stop assuming that the readers know how a newsroom works, that they understand the strictures of the profession. They don’t know unless we tell them. They don’t trust us anymore, and we need to show them, by word and example, that they can.

And that means our Code of Ethics cannot stay stagnant. Our understanding of ethical values might not change over the years, but the practical application of those values can and will change as the world changes. Any code is only as good as the people locked in a room to write it, and the people who continue to interpret it and share it with colleagues and the public.

That means we aren’t done, and the conversation will have to continue – with or without happy hour. That conversation needs to be public, so that the readers can see that this is important, that we care, that talking heads on TV are not the sole representatives of the news media.

There are a lot of us doing this job. We care about what we do. And we have a code.


Elizabeth Donald is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee.

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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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NJ Press Should Rally Against Unconstitutional Order

Screenshot illustration of The Trentonian’s website.

Journalism is a competitive business. Reporters and news organizations try to get scoops for praise or financial gain. Certain circumstances require cooperation and unity to prevail over those rivalries, however.

An injunction imposed by a New Jersey Superior Court Judge Craig Corson is currently preventing The Trentonian and its reporter Isaac Avilucea from reporting on a document issued by the state’s child protection agency. The case is complicated and sensitive, but Avilucea handled the story with care.

If there was ever a time for cooperation and unity to prevail among the press in New Jersey, it’s now.

The order against The Trentonian and Avilucea can’t be allowed to seep into the nation’s proverbial water supply and embolden judges across the country to impose similar unconstitutional restrictions on the press for every leaked government document.

Other news organizations and journalists in New Jersey and surrounding areas should show solidarity by responsibly covering the story at the heart of the document. A dozen or so ethically reported stories on the issue will show Judge Corson he cannot stop a valid news story from seeing the light of day.

Additionally, the editorial arms of news organizations should continue to show support for The Trentonian and Avilucea by explaining to their readers, viewers and listeners why prior restraint is unconstitutional and a blow to foundational elements of our democracy.

The Society of Professional Journalists states in its Code of Ethics that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough.

The Society and its professional chapter in New Jersey issued a statement this afternoon against the order.

As the Bill of Rights enshrines the freedoms of speech and press into the U.S. Constitution, so does the state constitution of New Jersey.

“Every person may freely speak, write and publish his sentiments on all subjects, being responsible for the abuse of that right,” according to the document. “No law shall be passed to restrain or abridge the liberty of speech or of the press.”

The order of prior restraint levied against The Trentonian is not only an attack on core American values; it’s also an insult to those New Jerseyans hold close to their hearts.

Journalists in New Jersey should realize the danger this order poses to their news organizations, colleagues around the country and democracy. They should diligently work to make sure this story is not silenced and this order does not stand.


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

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Sean Penn Throws Stones from Glass Houses

In this screen grab from CBS, Sean Penn sits with Charlie Rose of 60 Minutes.

In this screen grab from CBS, Sean Penn sits with Charlie Rose of 60 Minutes.

“I’m really sad about the state of journalism in our country,” Sean Penn told Charlie Rose tonight in a taped interview that aired on 60 Minutes.


Journalism in the U.S. has its problems, and many of them are exemplified by Penn, who wrote a Rolling Stone article that profiled Joaquin “El Chapo” Guzman.

In the brief interview with Rose, Penn defended his reporting and writing. Unfortunately, he expressed no regrets about missed opportunities or the deals brokered to secure the interview, which I took issue with in my previous blog post.

Penn expressed regret that people are not talking about what he hoped they would discuss, which is the war on drugs. But, people are talking about his reporting, integrity and accountability. “Let me be clear, my article failed,” Penn told Rose.

What Penn doesn’t understand is that journalism gets the attention it deserves. Good journalism is able to stand up to the criticism and challenges lobbed its way. Bad journalism crumbles and becomes the conversation – as Rolling Stone should know.

Over the past hundred years, journalists realized what defines good journalism. The Society tries to encourage those traits through its Code of Ethics. Failing to hold people accountable is not good journalism. Failing to be independent is not good journalism.

Penn told Rose that this experience with the press is “an incredible lesson in just how much they don’t know and how disserved we are.” He’s right, but he didn’t realize he was talking about himself.


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

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ONA Unveils Ethics Project

unnamed (1)The Online News Association (ONA) unveiled this week its much-anticipated project that allows people to “Build Your Own Ethics Code.”


ONA’s website features a tool that allows people to add specific “building blocks” to a group of fundamental principles that should apply to all journalists. The build-your-own approach is meant to create unique codes for people and organizations.

The project “recognizes that no single ethics code can reflect the needs of everyone in our widely varied profession,” according to ONA’s website. “We believe the best hope for convincing all journalists to adopt and live by an ethics code is to give them ownership and flexibility in creating one.”

There are obviously differences between the approaches of ONA and the Society, which continues to endorse a single document of abiding principles as its ethical code. However, comparing the two approaches is a futile exercise.

The committee responsible for revising the Society’s Code of Ethics was conscious of the fact that it should represent journalism presented in any media: print, broadcast and digital. From the small newspaper without a Twitter account or website to the Huffington Post, the Society’s Code needs to provide guidance.

To accomplish its goal, the committee avoided language specific to any media. After all, journalism is essentially unchanged since the dawn of time: something happens and people tell each other about that something. Journalists now just tell people about events in different ways.

Also, the Society’s Code “is not a set of rules, rather a guide that encourages all who engage in journalism to take responsibility for the information they provide, regardless of medium,” according to the document.

ONA, on the other hand, took a much different approach by allowing people and organizations to create very specific codes. The project is reminiscent of a common project employed by college journalism professors, who often encourage their students to create personal ethical codes.

The ONA approach also mirrors that of large news organizations that create unique ethical codes. Those organizations include the New York Times, NPR, Reuters and AP.

What’s interesting is that many of the people who worked on ONA’s project also helped last year to revise the Society’s Code. The common origin shows there is room in the world for both codes from ONA and the Society – along with the dozens of codes from other journalism and news organizations.

In general, every person – whether he or she is a journalist or not – has an innate sense of right and wrong that will not be perfectly captured by an ethical code. What’s wonderful is that there are more and more resources to provide people with guidance as they wrestle with the unique challenges of being a journalist.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society’s Ethics Committee. He’s also a journalist in New York.

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All Student Journalists Need the First Amendment

Flickr/Ed Uthman (http://bit.ly/1KHZL70)

Flickr/Ed Uthman (http://bit.ly/1KHZL70)

Few actions are more offensive than educational institutions stomping on the First Amendment rights of students.


Those breaches include the all-too-frequent contamination of student media by administrators and marketing officials.

Butler University, a private school in Indianapolis, recently removed and replaced the faculty adviser of its student newspaper with one of the institution’s spokesmen, according to the Indianapolis Business Journal (IBJ).

While the reason for her removal wasn’t explained, Loni McKown told the news organization she believes it’s due to accidentally forwarding a confidential email to the paper’s student editor. McKown remains on the faculty of the university, but was told termination is possible if she advises students working for the paper, according to the IBJ.

Regardless of the reason for McKown’s removal, Butler University should be ashamed and embarrassed for replacing her with its own spokesman. There are obvious lines in what is and is not acceptable in journalism, and one must wonder whether the people making decisions for Butler University’s school newspaper and journalism school understand those very basic principles.

Educational institutions are small ecosystems that mimic the larger world. The administration and its student government are the politicians of that system, and the student media is its proverbial fourth estate. No U.S. citizen should accept the government restraining the press, and that should not stop at the grounds of any educational institution.

Student media at educational institutions serve two very important purposes. The first purpose is to inform the university community about events – both good and bad – impacting their lives. The second purpose is to train students who will someday go on to become journalists and news consumers. People should question an intuition’s motives and value if it ever tries to disturb either of those missions.

In this case, the IBJ writes that the Butler University spokesman appointed as the new adviser offers an impressive resume that includes decades of experience at one of the U.S.’s great newspapers and a year serving as the school newspaper’s public editor. Still, would the average person feel comfortable with one of President Obama’s press secretaries editing the New York Times?

Student media are the laboratories for many of the U.S.’s future journalists, who are the torchbearers of public enlightenment. The Society of Professional Journalists firmly states in its Code of Ethics that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy.  If people allow the education and training of the country’s future journalists to be compromised, they are taking a sledgehammer to one of the tenets of democracy.


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

 

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