Posts Tagged ‘ethics’


To Publish or Not to Publish

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

CNN broke news on Tuesday afternoon that U.S. intelligence officials briefed President Barack Obama and President-elect Donald Trump on “allegations that Russian operatives claim to have compromising personal and financial information about Mr. Trump.”

The story didn’t provide many details about the potentially compromising information, because CNN “has not independently corroborated the specific allegations.” BuzzFeed soon published the set of documents containing the unverified allegations, however.

Journalists and others on Twitter soon questioned the ethics of BuzzFeed posting unverified information. President-elect Trump also posted a link on Twitter to a story chastising BuzzFeed for its actions.

The unfortunate truth is that publishing hacked and unverified information – especially any involving public officials – often falls into the gray areas of journalism ethics. Arguments can be made on both sides of the debate.

People may argue that the dearth of details in CNN’s story led people to speculate about the specifics of the allegations. BuzzFeed’s decision to publish could be seen as a way to squash that speculation and show people the scope of the allegations.

From the standpoint of a journalism ethics purist: journalists should not publish or broadcast unverified information.

The value of journalism rests in its ability to provide answers and credible information. The public expects journalists and news organizations to say whether a piece of information is true or false. No value exists in throwing unverified information into the world.

More than ever before, journalists and news organizations need to tell the public what is and is not accurate information.

Yet, the public is bombarded on an almost daily basis with unverified information from news organizations. Breaking news stories often come with the disclaimer that the information isn’t confirmed. Emails allegedly hacked from the Democratic National Committee were reported on and carried similar caveats.

Journalists who want their profession to be trusted, respected and profitable need to hold themselves and their peers to its best practices, which are spelled out in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.

The actions of news organizations involved with this story will continue to be debated over the coming days, but the more important issue moving forward is that these allegations are now out in the world. Responsible, thorough and thoughtful journalists are needed to inform people about this information and its worth.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chairperson of the Society of Professional Journalists‘ Ethics Committee.

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Twitter Fight Points to Larger Problem

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

A post on Twitter ignited a discussion Sunday about the type of relationship that exists between President-elect Donald Trump and MSNBC hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. The specifics of that issue are currently being debated across the news media.

The press should take note of the issue at the heart of this current uproar as it looks to reboot itself in 2017. The issue is the relationships journalists and news media figures sometimes share with politicians and powerbrokers.

Journalists and newsroom leaders historically shared very cozy relationships with politicians, as Scarborough pointed out Monday in The Washington Post. Orthodox followers of the Society’s Code of Ethics should be shocked by the behaviors of journalism’s greatest icons.

Edward R. Murrow left CBS News in 1961 to lead the propaganda arm of the U.S. government for President John Kennedy, as Scarborough points out in his editorial.

History and precedent in this case shouldn’t dictate journalists’ future behaviors, however.

Public behavior during the recent elections and survey results from Gallup showing trust in the news media at historically low levels should be enough to convince journalists and newsroom leaders that business as usual is no longer good business.

News organizations often operate under the theory that their readers, viewers and listeners crave an insider’s perspective on news stories. As a result, opinion pages and airwaves are filled with former politicians and political operatives offering their thoughts on current events.

The problem with this theory is that more and more journalists and news media figures view themselves as insiders and the public on the receiving end of the reports continues to feel like outsiders.

Journalists and newsrooms need to shed their insider perspectives and embrace their intended roles as outsiders and representatives of the public.

Journalists should no longer view themselves as cogs in a large piece of machinery that tries to explain themselves to random bystanders. They should view themselves as bystanders with the tools to explain the machinery to their peers.

Foundational shifts such as the one I suggest are difficult to accomplish, but they are sometimes necessary to strengthen the overall structure. A change of perspective within journalism is long overdue.

The specific steps to shedding the press’s insider perspective are debatable, but the easiest move is to get journalists to interact more with the public.

Newsrooms should consider holding meet-and-greets, open houses and other community events. Journalists can also take it upon themselves to explore unfamiliar neighborhoods and communities.

Journalists should take notice of the people they meet at those events and in communities. Mental pictures and notes of people, their circumstances and daily lives can serve as powerful reminders of the people on the receiving end of news stories.

Journalists will always need to develop and depend on professional relationships with politicians and powerbrokers, but those relationships should have defined boundaries. Journalists should know at all times that they represent the public, which mostly consists of non-politicians.

A shift in perspective won’t happen overnight. Some journalists will also never change their behaviors. Those challenges shouldn’t keep journalism’s practitioners from trying to better the profession and recommit themselves to its noble purpose.


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

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TV Execs, Journos Fail Viewers With Off-the-record Meeting

Screenshot of Peter Finch portraying Howard Beale in the 1976 film Network.

Screenshot of Peter Finch portraying Howard Beale in the 1976 film Network.

Television networks sent their executives and A-list personalities on Monday to Trump Tower in midtown Manhattan for an off-the-record meeting with President-elect Donald Trump.

The meeting between the executives, personalities and Trump is a slap in the face to journalists who see a new presidential administration as a way to recommit themselves to thorough and responsible journalism.

Accounts of the meeting differ, but CNN’s Brian Stelter reports Trump criticized some of the networks at the start. The future president also asked – allegedly – for a cordial relationship between the press and his White House administration.

Only those who were in the meeting will truly know what happened thanks to the networks foolishly agreeing “not to talk about the substance of the conversations.” What’s worse, few – if any – of the journalists and personalities attending today’s meeting appeared to disclose on air that they met with Trump.

Off-the-record meetings with presidents and elected officials are not new or uncommon occurrences. In fact, stories about off-the-record meetings between journalists and presidents date back to at least Franklin Roosevelt’s administration.

Precedent does not mean journalists and news organizations should blindly agree to off-the-record meetings with presidents and other government officials, however. Time, place and circumstance should dictate that decision.

In this case, Trump repeatedly harassed and taunted the press during his campaign. He actively worked to discredit fair and responsible pieces of journalism. Additionally, Trump so far failed to establish a protective press pool, which is a small group of journalists that travels with high-ranking officials.

While Trump can remedy some of these grievances, it should come as no surprise to journalists that presidents and their administrations sometimes work to make the press ineffective. The job of journalists and news organizations is to be stronger and rise above those challenges.

The major television networks that attended today’s meeting are  one of the most powerful forces in the country, but their agreement to keep its contents off the record suggests they will not use that power to fight for access or for the benefit of their viewers and listeners. Instead, they will likely beg for access and feed on the scraps thrown to them by the incoming administration.

The American people who depend on those news organizations deserve better.

The New York Times and its executives will meet tomorrow with Trump, according to Stelter. The meeting will start off the record and lead into an on-the-record conversation with reporters and columnists from the newspaper.

My hope is that journalists and news organizations realize the amount of power they still wield, and use it for the benefit of their readers, viewers, listeners and all Americans.


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

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Journalists Should Be Guided by Fairness and Impartiality in Election’s Final Days

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

Social media coverage drives the conversation surrounding the 2016 presidential campaign – whether it’s live-tweeting of a campaign stop or a Facebook Live broadcast of a campaign speech. The presidential election is one of the most significant news stories of the year. Audiences expect quality analysis and insight.

Instead of in newspapers or over the airwaves, stories often start on Twitter and other social media platforms. Yet, the change of venue doesn’t mean the rules for journalists change.

The Society’s Code of Ethics encourages journalists to seek truth and report it, irrespective of platform. Impartiality is the cornerstone of this principle – whether a journalist is reporting a campaign speech or assessing the race thus far. They have to be fair.

Impartiality extends to the curation of the conversation about news, be it on a journalist’s account or on a news organization’s account. Journalists, as private citizens, may have political opinions that differ from one political party or the other, but coverage of the election is not about them or their views. Instead, it’s about the information readers, viewers and listeners need to know before stepping into a voting booth.

The results of the election, from local to federal office, will have implications beyond this night. People are coming to journalists for help understanding what these results mean for them. The audience comes to journalists because they trust them, and that’s a bond not worth breaking.

Protecting that bond also means journalists must be careful about how they interact with different viewpoints. The Code of Ethics says journalists need to promote the civil, open exchange of views – including views that you may find repulsive or disagree with. That also applies when they’re curating a conversation. Don’t demean people for their views.

The same rule should be remembered after election night, too. When  journalists  are covering a speech or other event, they shouldn’t editorialize. The language they use may be interpreted differently by others.

Just state the facts, and remember the six fundamental questions of journalism – who, what, when, where, why and how. Include various and evidence-based viewpoints and provide context to help guide the conversation that follows.

Sound and impartial reporting – whether on social media or traditional media – will keep readers, viewers and listeners coming back for information, including on election night.


Alex Veeneman, a Chicago based SPJ member and founder of the SPJ Digital community, is SPJ’s Community Coordinator and a contributor to its blog network. He is also a member of SPJ’s Ethics Committee.
Outside of SPJ, Veeneman is a Managing Editor and contributing writer for Kettle Magazine (www.kettlemag.co.uk), an online publication in the UK. You can interact with Veeneman on Twitter @alex_veeneman.
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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“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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Daily Beast’s Apology Falls Far Short of Gold

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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The Daily Beast Wins Nothing At Olympics

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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