Posts Tagged ‘Media Ethics’


Anonymous Sources: A Necessary Evil

Image via Flickr Creative Commons/Germaine

President Donald Trump on Friday latched on to one of journalism’s greatest vulnerabilities by attacking the use of anonymous sources in stories about his administration.


Anonymous sources are a necessary evil in journalism.

Many of the most important stories in United States history relied on information provided by people who needed their identities shielded from the public. At the same time, anonymity provides the subjects of those same stories a powerful tool to discredit the information.

“I called the fake news the enemy of the people,” said President Donald Trump on Friday at the Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Maryland. “And they are. They are the enemy of the people, because they have no sources. They just make them up when there are none.”

Trump’s comments come on the heels of a number of stories that included anonymous sources and painted his administration in unflattering light. For example, CNN used unnamed sources in a Thursday report that claimed the Federal Bureau of Investigation refused to publicly dispute allegations that Trump aides communicated with Russians during the 2016 presidential campaign.

“I saw one story recently where they said, ‘Nine people have confirmed,’” said Trump during his speech on Friday. “There are no nine people. I don’t believe there was one or two people.”

While Trump is wrong that reputable news organizations invent sources, those same organizations and their journalists should take note of his criticism that is likely shared by his supporters. Journalists need to work more diligently than ever before to find sources who will go on the record or provide documents to support their claims.

The Society of Professional JournalistsCode of Ethics stresses the importance of journalists identifying their sources. “The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources,” according to the document.

Cases do exist when the importance of the information outweighs the need for journalists to identify their sources, however. Those include cases when the source “may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere.”

In those cases, journalists and news organizations must thoroughly explain why sources were granted anonymity. The public often misunderstands the premise of anonymous sources. Journalists should be clear that they know the identity of their source and trust their information, but the public can’t know their identity due to a certain circumstance.

The Trump administration clearly plans to identify, attack and amplify any weaknesses and vulnerabilities in news stories and coverage. While mistakes will be made from time to time, it’s important that journalists and news organizations focus on minimizing those opportunities for the White House.


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


This post was updated at 1:42 on Friday, February 24, 2017 to add additional information to the penultimate paragraph about anonymous sources.

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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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Pay No Attention to the Man in Front of the Curtain

White House Press Secretary Sean Spicer offered the press a useful journalism lesson barely one day into President Donald Trump’s term. Journalists learned to treat all information from the White House with extreme skepticism and caution.

The lesson came in the form of a tirade Spicer offered in his first official comments from the lectern of the White House’s briefing room. He accused the press of manipulating coverage of Trump’s inauguration to give an inaccurate perception of crowd size. Individual journalists’ social media posts were also an issue.

While there was an initial incorrect report yesterday about a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. being removed from the Oval Office by the Trump administration, the press largely portrayed an accurate perspective of the crowd gathered for the inauguration.

 

 

Trump and his staff – like all presidential administrations – are entitled to their own opinions and versions of events, but they are not entitled to their own facts. A journalist’s main objective is to seek truth and report it.

Individual journalists may sometimes publish or broadcast incorrect information, but others – now more than ever before – soon step in to correct the record. As a whole, ethical journalists know facts are their currency.

“There’s been a lot of talk in the media about the responsibility to hold Donald Trump accountable,” said Spicer. “And I’m here to tell you that it goes two ways. We’re going to hold the press accountable, as well.”

Spicer also told the assembled journalists on Saturday that Trump will take his message directly to the American people. The apparent threat is somewhat empty, though. Presidential administrations – especially under former President Barack Obama – bypassed the press whenever possible. Journalists were still there to put those messages into context, call out falsehoods or lies. A change in administrations will not change or deter that mission.

A window from Joseph Pulitzer’s The World is displayed in Pulitzer Hall at Columbia University in NYC.

Journalism no doubt hit a rough patch during the last decade, when the digital revolution and Great Recession eroded its business model. Journalists are scrappy people, however. The history of our profession is littered with abrupt changes, but we endure.

Today, in the glow of a stained-glass window that was once housed in the building of Joseph Pulitzer’s The World, I read hundreds of news stories written by student journalists from across the United States. I can guarantee based on those stories that the future of journalism in this country is bright thanks to so many amazing young Americans signing up to hold the powerful accountable.

Those student journalists are being taught by great educators in public and private schools. They are also likely being guided by the Society of Professional JournalistsCode of Ethics, which offers a much better outline of what journalists should report than any White House press secretary.

Journalism, the press and the truth endure regardless of the obstacles thrown in their way. Democracy demands it.


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

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Social Media Ethics Must Be Taught

Jason Howie/Flickr Creative Commons

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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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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Words Matter: Alt Right Alternatives

Photo via Flickr Creative Commons - NOGRAN s.r.o.

Photo via Flickr Creative Commons – NOGRAN s.r.o.

Journalists love to sprinkle their stories and reports with buzzwords in an effort to sound current. New lingo is often harmless, but not all words are universally benign.

The newly popular term “alt right” is an example of words that should be used with caution.

The term seeped into mainstream news stories over the past year as extremist groups adopted it as their moniker. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also pushed the term into the nation’s discussion when she used it during her campaign.

“Alt right” is a shortened version of the words “alternative right,” which is being used by groups that reject mainstream conservatism for extremist views. Those views may include generalized racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, white nationalism and/or antifeminism.

There are several reasons why journalists and news organizations should be cautious about casually using the words “alt right” in their day-to-day coverage.

First, the term is clumsy and ambiguous. Many Americans may not be familiar with the intricacies of “alt right.” The term may be interpreted as simply extreme conservatism or as a catch-all for right-wing politics. In some cases, those reading, watching or listening to the news may be left confused or misinformed.

People understand what it means when views or opinions are described as racist, anti-Semitic and anti-LGBT, however. Those specific words should be used in place of the generic and clumsy term “alt right.”

Obviously, journalists shouldn’t refuse to use the term or words “alt right,” but it must be put into the proper context.

For example, an organization’s views may be described as racist and anti-Semitic, and the reporter can state the group considers itself part of the “alt right.” The person reading, listening or watching that story will grasp the gist of the organization’s views and know the group identifies with the “alt right.”

Additionally, journalists and news organizations must always be on alert for groups trying to manipulate the press. In this case, the press may unconsciously help extremist groups rebrand racism, anti-LGBT views, anti-Semitism, white supremacy and other extremist views as “alt right.”

Journalists must carefully choose their words, especially when sensitive topics are being discussed. When in doubt, journalists should always err on the side of specificity and context.


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

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Journalists Should Tread Lightly When Projecting Election Results

(Photo Adapted From Flickr Creative Commons/Maltri)

(Photo Adapted From Flickr Creative Commons/Maltri)

Americans will receive up-to-the-minute data on Election Day through a partnership between Slate and data startup VoteCastr. Journalists and news organizations should be cautious about reporting certain information that may influence voters on Election Day, however.

Journalists are meant to influence people’s decisions through the reporting of accurate information. Whether a person is buying a car or voting for the next president, members of the public use information provided by journalists to make their decisions.

The relationship between journalists and the public is a foundational element of democracy.  Part of that relationship requires journalists to know when to give the public space. The space typically occurs on Election Day.

Journalists and news organizations closely follow voting projections and results, but are careful not to make any announcements that might interfere with the actual results of races. The projected winners of elections are traditionally not called by news organizations until a state’s polls are closed.

A partnership between Slate and VoteCastr is challenging that tradition by providing up-to-the-minute voting data from around the country on Election Day.

“Votecastr plans to fill that gap with turnout data — not exit polls — it collects on its own, from key polling places across the country, and will meld it with pre-election polling it has done, and then project a current vote total for specific races and geographies,” according to Recode’s Peter Kafka.

One of the main concerns is that these types of projections may suppress voter turnout. For example, people who are told Hillary Clinton is far behind Donald Trump in Pennsylvania may decide to stay home. Or, people told Donald Trump is far behind Hillary Clinton in Florida may decide to stay home.

Plus, the totals published by Slate – and apparently streaming on Vice News – will be only projections for Colorado, Florida, Iowa, New Hampshire, Nevada, Ohio, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Votecastr will not have access or know what votes were actually cast in each of those states. In other words, it will be an educated guess. Those projections and educated guesses may be wrong.

“The role of journalists is to bring information to people, not to protect them from it,” wrote Julia Turner, editor-in-chief of Slate, on September 10. “But on Election Day, media outlets usually take the opposite approach.”

Turner’s stance is cavalier. One of the main functions of journalism is to decide what information and data is and is not vital to the public. The indiscriminate publishing of information – as exemplified by WikiLeaks – can cause very real harm to people and national security.

The Society of Professional JournalistsCode of Ethics says journalists should “recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.” In other words, journalists shouldn’t publish information for the sake of publishing information.

The concern that early projections will decrease or suppress voter turnout is a hunch, according to Turner. “Academics examining the question have found no consistent effects on voter behavior,” she wrote.

There is evidence that media projections do have a “small yet significant effect in decreasing turnout” once researchers account for voter- and election-specific variables. Most social science papers examining media projections on voter turnout call the possible suppression the “West Coast effect” since voting ends much later in states like California and Washington. Research suggests this effect may be particularly important when races are close.

National polls currently show the U.S. presidential candidates from the two main political parties separated by 1 to 6 percentage points. While Slate and VoteCastr may not have the weight to change tomorrow’s election results, other journalists and news organizations should be hesitant to follow their paths.

Traditions frequently need to be reexamined, but sometime there are justifiable reasons and purposes behind those habits and actions.

Journalists and news organizations should hope everyday Americans vote based on the truthful stories and reports they published during the past two years about the candidates and their platforms – not mid-day projections.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the SPJ Ethics Committee.

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