Posts Tagged ‘New York Times’


There Is a Role for Public Editors

New York Times Headquarters In New York

SOURCE: Flickr Creative Common

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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Ethics Week: A New Reality

VR library through the Vrse app for iPhone

Virtual reality is one of the most exciting advancements in storytelling over the past few years. Like any knew advancement, the technology presents a number of ethical questions that need to be addressed.


The New York Times pushed virtual reality into the mainstream in November, when the news organization sent more than one million inexpensive VR viewers to subscribers. The distribution of the viewers coincided with the debut of “The Displaced,” which is a VR film about children from three war-torn countries.

The point of VR is not just to tell a story, but to help viewers understand the messages through immersion. The Times’ investment in VR was met with great fanfare, but also concern, according to the paper’s then-Public Editor Margaret Sullivan.

“Many Times readers were excited by what they experienced and sent congratulatory notes,” she wrote. “But not everyone was pleased,” she added later.

Aside from adapting to the new technology, one of the main complaints about VR is that production requires a closer interaction between journalist and subject than other methods of storytelling.

Unlike traditional news photography , VR requires journalists to strategically place cameras settings and then quickly leave the area. They must also coordinate with subjects to get special footage from bikes, cars and boats.

While those concerns are valid, it’s difficult to say that VR is more intrusive than other forms of visual media. Longform video and photography projects require some intrusiveness, and those boundaries are still debated more than a century after the introduction of both technologies.

More complicated ethical problems may present themselves when the cameras stop filming, and a journalist finds himself in the editing room.

One of the most pressing questions is how much is too much? Like traditional photography and video, VR may show the horrors of war, terrorism and other horrible events. Journalists editing VR films have to ask if the threshold of what can be shown  is lower due to the immersive nature of the technology.

In 2015, Kathleen Bartzen Culver wrote a piece for the University of Wisconsin Center for Journalism Ethics about the potential for VR to induce trauma.

“VR coverage of war, torture, rape and other violence will prompt searing questions about lasting consequences of consuming journalism that eclipse our current research on media effects,” she writes.

Bartzen Culver also quotes Dan Pacheco, of the S.I. Newhouse journalism school at Syracuse University. He suggests keeping subjects and audiences in mind more  than the possibilities of the technology.

At the end of the day, a good discussion over the ethical challenges of each new VR project may help direct journalists to the most responsible actions.

Some important questions can include:

  • Is VR the right way to tell this story?
  • What is the boundary between acceptable and unacceptable interaction with subjects?
  • What is the limit of what is acceptable for VR viewers to see?
  • Who may be especially affected by the immersive experience of this story?

Of course, there are a number of questions that could and should be considered before and during a VR project. The key is open conversation between all journalists and editors.

As always, the Society’s Code of Ethics will also be useful during those conversations.


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

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On the Record About Off the Record

Donald Trump discussing his conversation with the New York Times on Fox News on Thursday, March 3, 2015.

Donald Trump discussing his conversation with the New York Times on Fox News on Thursday, March 3, 2015.

Tonight’s Fox News Republican presidential debate featured a discussion about off-the-record conversations.


While the concept seems straight-forward, allowing sources to go off the record should be a complex process.

In essence, off-the-record conversations allow a source to safely provide information without fear of retribution.

There is no set definition of “off the record,” however. Before granting that protection, journalists should discuss with their source what that term means. Can the journalist use the information without attribution? Is the journalist ever allowed to use that information? Can the person be an anonymous source? The discussion over the term’s definition is essential.

Whatever the journalist and source decides, the journalist should keep the promises they make, though.

In this case, the discussion at the Republican debate centered on a meeting Donald Trump had January 5 with the editorial board of the New York Times. A BuzzFeed story alleges Trump questioned whether he would stand by his views on immigration.

In a response to Margaret Sullivan, the paper’s public editor, the editorial page editor explained the meeting’s purpose:

He told me that the editorial board’s meetings with presidential candidates are often done on an off-the-record basis, at the candidates’ request. These meetings with candidates are not for the purpose of writing news articles, he emphasized, but are intended as informational sessions for the board so that board members can make observations, challenge the candidate on his or her positions, and eventually consider an endorsement.

The process is common for newspapers that endorse political candidates. However, Sullivan writes that the editorial board meeting with Trump was unusual for two reasons. Specifically, the paper’s executive editor attended the meeting and part of the conversation was on the record for news coverage.

Regardless of how the editorial meeting with Trump was different from other meetings, one legitimate concern is that off-the-record information appears to have leaked out from the discussion. This is something the New York Times should investigate.

However, there are no reasons Trump can’t ask the New York Times to release the audio of his conversation with its editorial board. As I said above, off-the-record conversations are to protect sources – not journalists. Of course, it would be up to the New York Times to release the audio.

The best solution is for journalists to push for as many discussions as possible – especially those with policymakers and political candidates – to be on the record.


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

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Friday’s Fiasco: Journalism Can and Should be Better

MSNBC's Kerry Sanders on Friday. (via screenshot of MSNBC.com)

MSNBC’s Kerry Sanders on Friday. (via screenshot of MSNBC.com)

A flood of people and equipment poured through the door of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik’s apartment on Friday.


The couple murdered 14 people and injured another 26 just two days earlier at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California.

Carrying microphones, lights, cameras and any other electronics capable of broadcasting, people raced through the apartment to capture any detail of the space once occupied by mass murderers.

MSNBC’s Kerry Sanders was one of the first reporters to enter the apartment. He was soon combing through items and holding up pictures of children, identification cards and other objects to the camera. Andrea Mitchell, who was anchoring the network at the time, grew uneasy and asked to cut away, according to CNN.

Sanders was not alone, of course. Reporters from most national news organizations like CNN, CBS and The New York Times were present along with reporters from local news organizations. They were soon joined by random people from the neighborhood.

In the wake of the reporters converging on the apartment like a swarm of locusts, people were outraged. The reporters looked like leeches, and served as a visual explanation of why only four in 10 people trust the media.

Those outraged people were correct.

For the most part, what happened on air Friday from that apartment was not journalism. Instead, what happened was the type of sensationalized and voyeuristic nonsense the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics shuns.

From beginning to end, the events on Friday violated what SPJ considers the profession’s best practices.

  • While there is still debate over how the media gained access to the apartment, several reports say a crew from Inside Edition paid for access to the apartment. A journalist with even a shred of dignity doesn’t consider paying for news, and should call out those who engage in checkbook journalism.Paying for news sets a dangerous precedent, and allows news to go to the highest bidder. Readers, viewers and listeners should also question the accuracy and integrity of any news stories purchased outright or through other backdoor fees.
  • The journalists who rushed into the apartment should have also made the ethical decision and turned off their cameras. “Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort,” says SPJ’s code. Journalists should know going into an apartment cleared by the Federal Bureau of Investigation was not likely to yield any significant evidence. There was no need for viewers or listeners to be exposed to that scene as it unfolded. As SPJ’s code also reminds journalists, legal access to information differs from the ethical justification to publish.
  • The reporters inside the apartment should have also realized that no good could have come from broadcasting random artifacts. The people in those pictures and named on those documents may have no connection to Friday’s events, but are now linked and possibly in danger thanks to the recklessness of the reporters.

MSNBC, who took the brunt of the blowback on Friday, issued a brief mea culpa (while also patting itself on the back) on Friday.

Meanwhile, Fox News and CNN also issued statements that they had been allowed in the apartment, but were careful not to show pictures and other documents.

All of the journalists who were broadcasting live from the scene on Friday – including those on social media – are all in the same boat, however. They should have known better than to run into the apartment while broadcasting without knowing what they would find.

The best advice would be for the offenders to implement new editorial strategies to prevent these kinds of mistakes in the future, but I can only write that advice so many times. Instead, it’s imperative that other journalists call out unethical journalism whenever and wherever possible.

Journalists need to realize that MSNBC, Inside Edition and other news organizations that take part in this type of cavalier coverage are harming all journalists. Whether we like it or not, cable networks are often the face of journalism for the American people. When they screw up, we all suffer.


Andrew M. Seaman is chair of SPJ’s ethics committee.

*This post was updated at 10 a.m. on December 9th to fix a typo in the penultimate paragraph.
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Ho, ho, hoax – Marie Christmas

@JewyMarie's Twitter Posts

@JewyMarie’s Twitter Posts

Social media is a proverbial gold mine for journalists, but it’s also filled with landmines.


A number of eyewitness accounts were sent out on Twitter as news about the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, emerged on Wednesday. One post that caught my eye on Twitter was from the handle @JewyMarie, who is also known as Marie Christmas.

“I saw the shooter shooting people in San Bernardino,” @JewyMarie posted. “I’m scared for my life at the moment in hiding.”

In the end, accounts of the shooting from @JewyMarie made it into reports from the AP (and The New York Times as a result), the International Business Times and an on-air interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

There is obviously a person behind @JewyMarie’s Twitter account, but the person’s accounts of events are fake.

While embarrassing, the ordeal is a reminder that a person’s word is not proof. People lie. Anonymous people on the Internet lie – a lot.

Steve Buttry, director of student media at Louisiana State University and tireless blogger of journalism practices, uncovered the fabrication while following up with @JewyMarie. You can read his full account (and a few of my comments) here: http://bit.ly/1ItAb4C

As Buttry’s post points out, I had my doubts about @JewyMarie.

Specifically, the account itself is anonymized. The profile picture is of a cartoon. There are no messages or descriptions that explain who the person is or where they live. The existing messages aren’t anything of substance either.

Additionally, @JewyMarie responded to people asking for interviews by saying they didn’t have a phone and was using wireless Internet to post. “I can’t do audio interviews,” they posted.

For that to be true, the person would likely need to be using an Internet-connected iPad or tablet for Twitter updates, which the @JewyMarie account had been doing right before the post about seeing “the shooter.” The other option is the person fleeing the scene was using a laptop.

Taken together, these facts alone should make journalists doubt the person is an eyewitness. Admittedly, it’s not impossible they’re an eyewitness, but it’s unlikely.

Without additional verification from a person that proves they are an eyewitness, journalists should move on. Stories about mass killings are too big and too important to the public for journalists to blindly trust an anonymous Internet user, who apparently gets their kicks from making light of mass murder.

If journalists are often told to investigate their own mothers’ love, they should apply that standard to random people on the Internet.

As for organizations that fell for the ruse, the newsrooms shouldn’t waste time scolding anonymous Twitter users with questionable consciences. The best path forward is for the journalists to admit the mistake, correct the record and implement strategies to prevent these occurrences in the future.


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

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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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