Posts Tagged ‘Society of Professional Journalists’


When Past Meets Present

Screenshot of The Courier-Journal’s controversial story about Dr. David Dao.

People’s pasts are littered with publicly available stories. How far should journalists reach back when a person finds themselves in the middle of a news story?


The internet filled with outrage on Sunday after a man was dragged from a United Airlines flight departing Chicago for Louisville, Kentucky. Some of that ire turned on Tuesday toward journalists who decided to learn more about the man.

The Courier-Journal in Louisville published an in-depth story about the past of Dr. David Dao, who was dragged and bloodied during Sunday’s incident. The story detailed Dao’s past including substantial legal troubles. Meanwhile, a reporter for the District of Columbia’s ABC affiliate known as WJLA published a post on Twitter showing documents she said detailed Dao’s “troubled past.”

People responded to The Courier-Journal’s story and the WJLA Twitter post with swift condemnation. The concerns largely focused on the theory that Dao’s past is irrelevant, because it does not excuse officials’ behaviors that resulted in his injuries.

Many people on Twitter and Facebook quoted the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, which emphasizes that journalists should balance the public’s need for “information against potential harm or discomfort.” Additionally, the Code says journalists should “realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures who seek, power, influence or attention.”

The concerns shared by members of the public were justified, but there are some caveats.

First, many of the responses to the individual journalists were reprehensible. Attacks against anyone – including journalists – are never justified. Additionally, people who want to point out ethical issues erode their own case when they become threatening and – frankly – juvenile.

As for the facts of this case, it’s important to remember that people sometimes involuntarily become public figures or gain notoriety against their will. Journalists have a responsibility to look at those people and decide what information is relevant to the public.

The executive editor of The Courier-Journal told CJR that Dao is known to people in the area due to his past legal troubles.

“His original case was pretty high profile,” Joel Christopher told CJR. “It’s a name that doesn’t come out of the blue. To not acknowledge that history and context would be unusual, frankly.”

I agree that The Courier-Journal had an obligation to its readers to point out the man is the same person they heard of years ago, but that could likely be accomplished in a paragraph of another story.

As for WJLA’s story that ultimately never materialized, there is little justification for a local news organization outside the Louisville area to focus on Dao’s past. Such a story would look like it’s simply pandering to lurid curiosity.

These situations challenge journalists and the editorial leadership of news organizations to make tough decisions. Newsrooms should harness this debate to discuss how it would handle a similar situation. As each person in the world continues to leave a growing trail on the internet, these challenges will become more common.


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

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Lessons From Flynn’s Downfall

President Barack Obama departs the White House briefing room after a statement, Oct. 16, 2013. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

Pundits and some journalists called for a reinvention of the press after Donald Trump won the White House in November, but Michael Flynn’s resignation on Monday and additional stories published Tuesday show the United States benefits most when journalists rededicate themselves to their profession’s timeless standards.

Michael Flynn resigned Monday as President Donald Trump’s national security adviser after news stories suggested he misled administration officials about his conversations with a Russian diplomat. While people disagree about whether Flynn’s actions warranted his resignation, few can argue that comprehensive news reports didn’t led to his downfall.

Journalists, media critics and the public should allow Flynn’s short and turbulent stint in the Trump administration to serve as a reminder of some basic truths about the press.

1.) The press is still powerful.

The press is sometimes painted as irrelevant in a time when people get information directly from the internet, but journalists still play powerful roles in amplifying certain stories and guiding people through a sea of lies. News organizations and individual journalists perform their timeless roles as curators of the national conversation – whether people want to admit it or not.

2.) Traditional and ethical journalism still works.

The major revelations about the Trump administration come from journalists following their profession’s abiding principles – as outlined by the Society of Professional JournalistsCode of Ethics. Truthful, responsible and thorough news reports remain the most effective pathway to deliver information to the public. New forms of storytelling may pop up from time to time, but they do best when the underlying principles of journalism remain unchanged.

3.) The press is doing its job – not waging war.

“I have a running war with the media,” said Trump at a January 21 visit to the Central Intelligence Agency. The president’s disdain for the press is repeated often on his Twitter accounts and by people within his administration. Despite their perspective, the press is not at war with the White House. Reporting the truth, correcting inaccurate statements and lies, following the money and holding powerful people accountable are the basic missions of journalism. No presidential administration is supposed to be fans of the press. Perhaps the Trump administration feels like the press is the “opposition party,” because they are now on the receiving end of scrutiny.

4.) The press can tell people what is going on, but it can’t tell them what to do.

Journalists report information people should know about their world. Sometimes the information is about government officials. Other times it’s about faulty consumer products. Journalists can’t force officials to resign and can’t make people change their behaviors, but the hope is people receiving accurate information will use it to make good decisions. For example, people may call their representatives in Congress if they don’t like something happening in the government. Or, people may not buy certain products known to be dangerous.

5.) The press makes mistakes from time to time.

Journalists – like all humans – make mistakes. The profession’s standards aim to reduce mistakes and irresponsible behaviors, but they’re bound to occur from time to time. The goals are for mistakes to be quickly corrected and people behaving irresponsibly to be held accountable for their actions. If the press is going to fulfill its mission of holding powerful people’s feet to the fire, it must also hold itself accountable.

6.) The press will never be wholly non-partisan.

“The press” is an inexact term. Some people may use the term to describe non-partisan news organizations like The New York Times or NPR. Other people may include partisan media organizations like Breitbart and ThinkProgress. While non-partisan news organizations largely focused on whether Flynn lied about his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S., right-leaning media organizations largely focused on the government leaks that informed news reports about those conversations. The partisan press often does not adhere to most of journalism’s best practices, but those organizations are still entitled to the protection offered by the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.

7.) The press is here to stay.

History is littered with premature obituaries for the press. Journalists and news organization operate and fulfill their missions despite troubles adapting to new technology, less centralized information pathways and shakier financial foundations. These barriers – along with hostile presidential administrations – existed before and they will pop up again. The press survived those past challenges and it will survive to overcome those barriers in the future.


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

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Society’s Code Belongs in Newsrooms, Not Courtrooms

First Lady Michelle Obama meets with Melania Trump for tea in the Yellow Oval Room of the White House, Nov. 10, 2016. (Official White House Photo by Chuck Kennedy)

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics finds itself in the middle of a $150 million lawsuit filed by the First Lady of the United States against a controversial news organization.

First Lady Melania Trump is using the Society’s Code of Ethics in a lawsuit seeking $150 million in damages from the parent company of Mail Online, which the former model says alleged in a now-retracted article she worked at one time as an “elite escort.”

The website eventually retracted the story.

The first family’s knowledge of the Society’s Code is obviously a pleasant surprise, but its use in any lawsuit or legal proceeding is inappropriate. The United States is a country of laws, which should be the determining factor in any court case.

Trump’s demand for a jury trial was filed Monday in New York. Mail Online’s conduct “violated professional standards of journalism ethics as exemplified by the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics,” according the filing that also list specific principles.

“In publishing the defamatory statements about Plaintiff [Trump], Mail Online failed to live up to any of these important ethical principles of journalism,” the filing continues.

Mail Online – as it often does – likely crossed what the Society considers lines in the proverbial sand in its article about Trump, but ethical breaches are not criminal or illegal. The Society’s code “is not, nor can it be under the First Amendment, legally enforceable,” as its footnote declares.

The Code is a document containing timeless principles the Society and its members believe are the bedrock of responsible journalism. The document is also aspirational and should be read as a whole. Individual principles should not be cited out of context.

While the Code displays these caveats and directives in its footnote, the document often finds itself in courtrooms. A journalism professor discussed the Code at length last year during the case between Terry Bollea – better known as Hulk Hogan – and Gawker Media. The case ultimately resulted in the shuttering of Gawker Media’s namesake website and the sale of its other properties to Univision.

The Society can’t keep people and their lawyers from citing its Code of Ethics, but the hope is the deciding factors in any legal action are established and constitutional laws. A document crafted by a professional organization does not fit that description.


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

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Harnessing Energy for Change

Flickr Creative Commons

Flickr Creative Commons

There is a lively conversation about how journalists should cover traumatic events, and it’s time to harness that energy to facilitate change.


Wednesday’s post about the movement to omit the names and images of gunmen from news stories elicited a strong online response. People offered their various opinions on how journalists should cover traumatic events. While those opinions differ, responsible journalism is the shared goal.

The Society of Professional Journalists works each day to encourage and promote responsible journalism through its Code of Ethics, which is widely viewed as the industry’s standard. The reason it’s so widely accepted and referenced is that – at least in its current form – it’s the result of hours of discussions, public input and review.

The same rigor that serves as the foundation for the Society’s code should be applied to the conversation surrounding the coverage of traumatic events. The result will be an evidence- and practice-based document that provides journalists with guidelines for covering events spanning from suicides, natural disasters, domestic terrorism and mass shootings.

In the coming months, I’ll be working to bring together a group of journalists, journalism organizations, news organizations, ethicists, researchers, victim rights advocates and key interest groups. My hope is that the group will meet in person over two days to discuss best practices and create the document. Then, it will be open for public comment and discussion before its final adoption by members of the working group.

Then, an education campaign will be needed to disseminate the guidelines and inform journalists of their importance.

This will not happen overnight, however. To ensure this process is a success, there will need to be a lot of work and cooperation between different people, groups and organizations.  I hope to have an update soon, and that will be posted to this blog.

If you’d like to be part of the working group, please feel free to sign up for more information below:


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

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GUEST POST: SPJ’s San Bernardino statement still doesn’t state much

While I am typically the only person who posts to this blog, I’m always happy to entertain guest posts and analyses. In this case, SPJ D.C. Pro Board Member Gideon Grudo took issue with the Society’s response to journalists’ behavior following this month’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. After his initial post on the Region 2 blog, I offered him an opportunity to share his thoughts here. – Andrew M. Seaman, SPJ’s ethics chair


By Gideon Grudo

Before anything else: Andrew Seaman has graciously let me use this ethics blog to post a critique of this ethics blog (in so many words, anyway—you’ll see). That’s awesome and so is he.

Twelve days after the San Bernardino apartment crawl on MSNBC, this is still all SPJ has said about it

Journalists should feel free to investigate stories when and where possible. They need to minimize harm in their reporting, however. Walking into a building and live broadcasting the pictures, addresses and other identifying information of children or other people who may have no involvement in the story does not represent best and ethical practices.

…kinda. That’s not even SPJ’s statement (if you want to call it that). It’s SPJ’s ethics chair’s statement. His name is Andrew Seaman. In an email, Seaman told me that—before his time—“SPJ started using blogs and other types of statements to respond to things like San Bernardino.”

“In this case, it’s a Friday afternoon when a lot of people were out of contact. I can’t summon the SPJ board, but I can use my voice as its ethics chair. So, I do not speak for the entire organization, but I can express my opinion,” he wrote me in a later email. “So, as the headline says: Statement from SPJ Ethics chair…”

Okay. But does the public know all this? Cutting red tape is always a good idea. Who really cares whether SPJ the institution speaks out or someone SPJ’s president chose to chair its ethics committee speaks out?

However, no one knows the difference if we’re not clear about it. It’s confusing, too.

Last Tuesday, when Seaman (who’s a volunteer putting lots of hours into this, by the by) released his analysis of the apartment crawl broadcast, a former Florida chapter president asked me on Facebook if I was “appeased.”

Nope, I replied. Why? Because an analysis isn’t a statement (or a follow up to a statement, or anything related to a statement), and an ethics blog isn’t a place where SPJ says whatever official thing it needs to say.

That is, unless it says so in big bold letters, like this: HOLLER: THIS BLOG IS HOW WE SAY WHATEVER OFFICIAL THING WE NEED TO SAY. SIGNED, SPJ. Or something like that.

So what do I want? I’m not looking for some San Bernardino coverage justice. That’s just an example I’ve almost definitely overused at this point. I’m more focused on the next instance, which will inevitably and unfortunately come knocking: I want us to say what we mean.

Maybe we don’t want to say anything, in which case we shouldn’t issue pseudo-statements.

How do we issue statements about which we may know little but also about which the public is curious and confused? Easy, we (a chair or a regional director or whoever we trust) tell the truth in three simple steps:

  1. This is what we know (journalism is good/journalism is bad)
    1. MSNBC done effed up
  2. This is what we don’t know
    1. Other outlets may have been involved
  3. This is what we’re going to do about it (an analysis, an angry letter, a sit-in, a peaceful protest, a boycott, maybe nothing)
    1. We’re going to analyze the s$%^ out of this and tell you all about it in the coming days so you’re more aware.

Seaman’s analysis is great at telling us that what happened was ethical or unethical. It doesn’t tell us what should be done about it.

Well, except this:

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.

Nice. Whenever possible is now. Wherever possible is here.

 

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All Student Journalists Need the First Amendment

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

 

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Learning from Gawker’s Attempt to Erase the Past

Visit SPJ.org for information on its Code of Ethics.

Visit SPJ.org for information on its Code of Ethics.

Journalism is a high-risk profession. While the work is rewarding, one mistake may lead to a very public downfall.


Journalists and journalism organizations sometimes think one click helps erase the past.

Gawker.com’s Jordan Sargent published a story on Thursday night alleging an executive at a publishing company mailed money to an escort for a rendezvous in Chicago. In terms of journalism ethics, the story is garbage. By Friday night, Gawker Media’s Founder and CEO Nick Denton removed the story.

Denton acknowledges that removing the story won’t turn back the clock and erase the embarrassment the subject feels, but “this decision will establish a clear standard for future stories.”

A statement from Gawker Media’s staff, which recently unionized, revealed the decision to remove the story was made by the executive arm of the company. The staff said it was an example of the management breaching the divide between the company’s business and editorial units.

Putting aside the apparent conflict within Gawker, both Denton and Gawker Media’s staff ignore the question of whether removing the story from the website was the right decision.

Denton’s reasoning to remove the story is that it doesn’t align with the website’s values, which appear to evolve within his post. The Gawker Media staff appears more concerned about the business arm of the company making editorial decisions.

As a general rule, stories should not be removed once they are published – online or in physical archives. Removing or “unpublishing” stories undermines the public’s trust in journalism. Also, stories – especially those archived on the Internet – don’t completely disappear. Journalists should remain in control of the information they publish.

In Gawker’s case, the story became so widely circulated and cited that unpublishing likely had little impact on correcting the wrongs it caused. After all, the story is still available through Internet archive websites.

Instead of unpublishing stories, Mallary Tenore suggests some alternative actions on Poynter.org that may be more acceptable to readers and sources. For example, the news organization can add an addendum to the archived story. Or, write another story about the situation.

There are a few exceptions to the general rule, however. For example, stories may be removed or “unpublished” when there are legal concerns and the potential for significant harm.

All newsrooms should have a policy on when to remove stories from its archives, but less than half had such a policy as of 2009, according to a report by Kathy English, the public editor of The Toronto Star. English looked at the topic as part of the Online Journalism Credibility Projects of the Associated Press Managing Editors, which is now known as the Associated Press Media Editors.

Journalism organizations need a policy on unpublishing in place. Throughout Europe, people may bypass news organizations and request that search engines like Google remove links about them from search results. In fact, over a quarter million people in Europe asked Google to remove information about them from search results, according to FiveThirtyEight.com’s Mona Chalabi on NPR.

In the U.S., people need to go directly to the person or entity – like news organizations – who own the original content, however.

Based on her report, English offers some best practices for newsroom. Those include having a policy in place, explaining the newsroom’s unpublishing policy to readers and considering the implications of a story before publishing. She also suggests questions journalists in newsrooms should ask themselves about unpublishing.

When a news organization makes the decision to unpublish a story, it must also realize that action is not the final step in the process. Readers deserve to be informed about the reason and decision to unpublish a story.

Kelly McBride writes on Poynter.org how news organizations can maintain credibility when they unpublish stories. For example, a news organization can write a precisely worded explanation about why the story was removed. Or, redirect people to accurate information if the original story was inaccurate.

Gawker.com later added a note to the story’s original link, which explains that the story was removed from the website. The addendum also links to a Gawker.com story about the decision, Denton’s note and the statement from the editorial staff.

While mistakes can never be completely avoided, errors can be minimized when journalism organizations subscribe to the profession’s best practices and implement editorial policies that ensure only true, accurate and fair stories make it to publication. When that fails, the process to remove a story should be open and explained in detail to readers.

As always, good journalism is the best defense for journalists, sources, readers and democracy.


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

 

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Ethics Week 2015: Like a surgeon

Photo Credit/Salim Fadhley

Photo Credit/Salim Fadhley

Like doctors, journalists often inflict some level of harm to serve the greater good.


A surgeon may slice through flesh to remove a diseased organ. A primary care doctor may prescribe medicine that causes side effects to control an even worse condition. Likewise, journalists may cause disruption in families, communities or countries to achieve their mission.

Throughout the past week, the Society of Professional Journalists asked its members and the public to think about the harm journalism may create. The focus of minimizing harm is not meant to convince journalists to shy away from important stories. Instead, it should serve as a reminder about the responsibility journalists hold.

When I first started presenting sessions or talks on the Society’s Code of Ethics, a question that was often asked is: How much harm is acceptable?

It’s a difficult question to answer, because acceptable levels of harm are relative and subjective.

In medicine, screenings or tests for diseases or conditions are not recommended until their benefits outweigh the risks. While it does not explicitly say it, the Society’s Code suggests a similar balancing act.

In the Code’s preamble, the Society states that its members “believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy.” Journalists support that by ensuring “the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough.”

Elsewhere in the Code, journalists are told that even reporting practices that some people would never consider – undercover and surreptitious information gathering methods – may be acceptable if the result is “information vital to the public.” Even then, those methods should be a last resort, the Code says.

Basically, is the harm created by a reporting practice or story outweighed by the usefulness of the information it yields or presents? It’s not a perfect answer, but it’s the best advice that can be offered for such a subjective question.

The balancing act between usefulness of information and harm is supported elsewhere in the Code, too.

For example, the Code says to “recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.” Also, “avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.”

I often tell people that the words legal and ethical are not synonyms. Just because a journalist is legally allowed to do something doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

Of course, even properly evaluating the benefits and harms of a reporting practice or story may leave some – and in some cases a significant – amount of harm. Journalists must live with the consequences of their work. Being a responsible and ethical journalist should provide some  comfort.

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A public obligation

Surveys have told us that most people get their local news from television. That fact and the results of a recent Los Angeles survey are causes for serious concern.

The Norman Lear Center at University of Southern California’s Annenberg School of Communication and Journalism watched nearly 1,000 half-hours of local news on eight stations in the Los Angeles media market in August and September in 2009. It found:

“An average half-hour of L.A. local news packed all its local government coverage – including budget, law enforcement, education, layoffs, new ordinances, voting procedures, personnel changes, city and country government actions on health care, transportation and immigrations – into 22 seconds.” That’s seconds, not minutes.

Crime stories averaged 2:50, sports and weather 3:36, soft news 2:26, and teasers 2:10.

The Society of Professional Journalists believes that “public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy.” The Preamble of the SPJ Code of Ethics says, “The duty of the journalist is to further those ends by seeking truth and providing a fair and comprehensive account of events and issues.”

If the Los Angeles survey is an indication of the national TV news picture, U.S. democracy is in trouble. Twenty-two seconds of a half hour is hardly time enough to enlighten viewers on the doings of its government.

As a major source of news and a user of public airways, Los Angeles television owes its viewers more than 22 seconds of civic information. That tiny portion of a half-hour newscast is certainly not a fair and comprehensive account of local civic issues.

Paul R. LaRocque, member, SPJ Ethics Committee

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