Posts Tagged ‘Media 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events, the question may be: How can I objectively cover people who spew racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia and other outdated and repugnant beliefs?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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Give up on the President, Not the American People

Screenshot of President Donald Trump's Twitter message.

Screenshot of President Donald Trump’s Twitter message.

President Donald Trump is not going to change how he treats the press.


President Donald Trump continued his attacks on the press Sunday when he posted a short video to Twitter showing him wrestling a person depicting CNN. The post is the latest in a string of messages over the past few days – and past few years – targeting news organizations.

Journalists and news organizations must realize at this point that President Trump will not tone down his rhetoric. He used his pulpit to attack the press when he was a rising star in the political world. He harassed and taunted news organizations and journalists when he was a candidate. He continues these behaviors 163 days into his presidency.

Instead of fruitlessly hoping the president changes his behavior, the press should immediately focus a large portion of its attention on educating the public about journalism.

The press should first make a commitment to transparency, which is a tenet in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. News organizations should take the time to explain how stories were reported and why the journalists made certain decisions.

The Honolulu Civil Beat sets aside time every Friday afternoon to hold “office hours” on Facebook Live, for example. Readers can submit questions and get them answered by some of the news organization’s editors.

News organizations and journalists should also reach out to community leaders to open a dialogue about the role of the local and national press. Those relationships are crucial in acquiring access to government and getting help when journalists run into proverbial roadblocks.

Leaders of the Society of Professional Journalists stopped by the offices of U.S. House and Senate members last month to say hello and talk about the press, for example.

Additionally, local and national news organizations should team up to hold town halls across the country that explain what responsible journalism is, how it’s created and why it’s important. The public can then engage with journalists and get their questions answered.

Some of these steps are easier than others, but they are all necessary if the press wants to earn back the public’s trust. No media literacy program, no partnership with a tech giant, no journalism organization and no journalist can accomplish this goal alone.

Efforts to earn back trust may seem futile when faced with the latest numbers from Gallup showing less than a third of U.S. adults say they have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the news media. But, the public’s relationship with the press is more complex than that number.

For example, a May report from the Pew Research Center shows nearly three-quarters of people in the U.S. say they believe the press serves as a watchdog over government.

Additionally, Gallup numbers show trust in various U.S. institutions in the U.S. like the military, the criminal justice system and small business increased over the past few decades. If trust can be earned by other institutions, the same can be true for the press.

While journalists and news organizations should give up on hoping President Trump will change his behavior toward the press, they should not give up on the American people.

The press needs to teach the public what it does and why it matters. If the press succeeds, it won’t matter how many times the president publishes the words “fake news” on Twitter. The public will know the truth about responsible journalists and news organizations.


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

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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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#PressForEthics on Capitol Hill

Ethics Week focused a lot on trying to engage journalists and the public in discussions about the press. An important part of that outreach must also include the public’s elected representatives.


President Donald Trump often attacks the press. So far, he used the term “fake news” on Twitter over three dozen times. Attorney General Jeff Sessions last week would not rule out prosecuting news organizations. A congressman from North Dakota also threatened in November to hold a hearing on “network media bias.”

The attacks and vague answers regarding the press from politicians and government officials not only makes journalists uneasy, but threatens one of the foundational elements of democracy. A dialogue is needed between the press and lawmakers as much as one is needed between journalists and the public.

The Society of Professional Journalists is using Ethics Week to begin that conversation with lawmakers in the United States by sending a letter to every member of the Senate and House of Representatives. Enclosed in each letter will be a copy of SPJ’s Code of Ethics.

The letter introduces SPJ to the lawmakers and explains the organization’s role in setting the profession’s best practices. There is also an invitation to meet with SPJ in June, when many of the organization’s leaders will be in Washington, D.C. for the annual Sigma Delta Chi Awards dinner.

SPJ is no novice when it comes to interacting with lawmakers. The organization often works alone or in concert with other groups to push for open government initiatives and improved access. In fact, SPJ closely worked with then-Representative Mike Pence in the early 2000s to implement a federal shield law that would protect journalists from prosecution. Unfortunately, those efforts fell short.

During Ethics Week, SPJ feels it’s important to show lawmakers that there is more to journalism than government and access issues. After all, ethics is often not about what is legal; it’s about what is right.

The organization wants to show lawmakers that the press largely makes ethical and responsible journalism a priority.  Mistakes are sometimes made, but the profession tends to hold those serious
offenders accountable for their actions.

The public benefits from an environment that allows and encourages journalists to provide in-depth and ethical journalism. If lawmakers care about their constituents, they should also care about the health of the press and work to foster an environment of openness as envisioned by the country’s founders.

The press belongs to everyone, and it’s up to everyone to take care of the press.

You can help this effort by encouraging your representative and senators to engage with SPJ and learn about the press, the organization’s Code of Ethics and the importance of open government.

Efforts to engage with your legislators are easier than ever thanks to SPJ’s staff who created a tool that will formulate a state-specific Twitter post: CLICK HERE


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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A Day of Giving for Ethics Week!

SPJ’s Ethics Week takes over Times Square in New York City on Monday, April 24.

We need ethical journalism now more than ever. That is why the Society of Professional Journalists and the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation support programming that encourages truthful, compassionate, independent, transparent journalism.


The SDX Foundation and our donors have supported:

  • JournCamp and the Excellence in Journalism annual conference, have delivered practical training to more than 15,000 journalists. Ethical, credible journalism is a constant theme.
  • “Journalism Ethics,” the pre-eminent textbook exploring the theory and real world applications practicing ethical journalism. It’s now in its fourth edition.
  • Movie licenses for SPJ chapters to screen the film, “Spotlight,” and engage the public in a discussion of what makes for ethical journalism.
  • Efforts to extend traditional ethical guidelines to new technology. For instance, the Foundation supported this program, which showed journalists how to use drones ethically in their news coverage.

This is on top of funding for skills training, support for freedom-of-information issues and signature programs such as the Pulliam Editorial Fellowship, all of which seek to improve journalism and add to the democratic conversation.

But we can’t do it alone. SPJ and the SDX Foundation rely on donations from members and supporters. Today is Day of Giving. Show you are PROUD to be part of an organization that promotes ethical journalism. Make a contribution TODAY.

There are three ways to give:

  • Go to spj.org/426 and fill out our online form.
  • Call 317-920-4785
  • Text ENCOURAGE to 243-725 to donate to the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation.

No amount is too small. Please help us ensure that a vibrant, ethical press continues for generations to come. Contribute to SPJ Day of Giving now!


Robert Leger is the board president of the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation.

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Broadway’s Latest Star: SPJ’s Code of Ethics

SPJ’s Ethics Week takes over Times Square in New York City on Monday, April 24.

After endorsing an ethical code for almost a century, SPJ’s Code of Ethics finally gets its time in the spotlight.


The Society of Professional Journalists works every day to improve and protect journalism through its advocacy and education efforts. A big part of that work centers on SPJ’s Code of Ethics, which outlines what the profession views as ethical and responsible journalism.

As the President of the United States continues to attack the press and people’s trust in the information it provides continues to wane, SPJ wanted to do something BIG to launch its annual Ethics Week, which runs from April 24 to 28.

Nothing is bigger than New York City’s Times Square. Also, no lights shine brighter than those along Broadway.

So, the SPJ Code of Ethics and its messages are being displayed this week on nearly 7,724 square feet of digital billboard space in Times Square in New York City. The billboards sit at the intersection of 43rd Street and Seventh Avenue and soar hundreds of feet into the air.

The images will periodically pop up on the billboards throughout Ethics Week. In addition to promoting the tenets of the SPJ Code of Ethics, the billboards promote the Ethics Week hashtag #PressForEthics.

The hashtag works on several levels. The press is encouraging and advocating the use of SPJ’s Code of Ethics. The press is standing by ethical journalism. Additionally, the hashtag encourages the public to call for responsible and ethical journalism.

One of the main goals of SPJ and its ethics committee is to bridge the gap between journalists and the public. The hashtag #PressForEthics creates an opportunity for people to engage with journalists, discuss issues and build relationships.

The billboards shining bright over Times Square is just the first big surprise for Ethics Week. Stay tuned to this blog and SPJ’s Twitter and Facebook accounts for more.


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

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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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