On-Air Interviews – A Complex Equation

Erin Burnett interviewing Sam Nunberg on March 6.

Journalists must know when to move discussions off air.


Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign aide, granted many interviews to journalists Monday that produced several accusations and conflicting statements.

Some interviews with Nunberg were conducted live on television, including one in which CNN’s Erin Burnett said she smelled alcohol on his breath. Nunberg said he was not drinking.

Nunberg’s exchanges throughout the day ignited questions on social media about the ethics of journalists interviewing people who are acting erratic or possibly under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

(There is no evidence – other than Burnett’s statement and question – that Nunberg was under the influence of any substance.)

Like most questions about ethics, the answer is complicated and must account for several factors. Some of those basic factors include – but are not limited to – a person’s experience with media, the topic of the story, the person’s role in the story and the person’s age.

Thinking more broadly, journalists must also consider whether the information being provided by the person is accurate and how it affects people at home reading the newspaper, watching television, listening to the radio or interacting with the news online.

In most cases, these factors would lead journalists to forgo interviewing people for person-on-the-street columns or about local news events like fires and robberies.

The story Nunberg is involved in is not routine, however. He is also not a random person on the street.

Nunberg reportedly has experience dealing with the media. He worked – at one point – for the future president and is now involved in an investigation into accusations that could have very serious consequences. There is no question that his words are newsworthy.

Journalists should not be chastised for speaking with Nunberg, but that does not mean each of his statements and accusations should be printed or broadcast.

By the time he arrived on air with CNN’s Burnett, Nunberg already claimed a former Trump advisor colluded with Russia and criticized the appearance of the president’s press secretary. Burnett said she smelled alcohol on Nunberg’s breath, which he denied. Also, the seriousness of the investigation at the heart of the interview cannot be overstated.

The combination of these factors suggests it may have been best and more responsible to tape an interview with Nunberg instead of airing it on live television. The decision would give journalists, editors and producers more time to evaluate the accusations he made during the interview. They could also put his statements into context.

To be fair, the same could be said for many other interviews when questions about alcohol and mental health don’t arise.

The bottom line is that a journalist’s primary obligation is to present the truth as they know it right now and minimize harm in its pursuit. A journalist should ask if they are leaving their readers, viewers or listeners with the most accurate information without causing unnecessary harm.

In many cases – including this one, I think journalists can do better.


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


The Power of Words

Screen capture of President-elect Donald Trump’s first press conference since winning the November 8 elections – as viewed from CSPAN.

“Why are we having all these people from shithole countries come here?,” President Donald Trump reportedly asked Thursday at a White House meeting discussing immigration policies and protections for people from Haiti, El Salvador and the African continent.

The president’s remark made news organizations around the world decide how to handle words that are viewed by many as offensive. In this case, news organizations needed to engage with their audiences on how they would print or broadcast the word.

In their reporting of the meeting and the president’s remark, ABC and CBS did not utter the word on air, while NBC did, prefaced by a warning from anchor Lester Holt. NPR initially didn’t use the word but then changed its mind, and had its standards and practices editor, Mark Memmott, on Friday’s All Things Considered to discuss why.

The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette’s publisher asked journalists there to remove the language from the AP lede. No explanation was immediately available.

The utterance of that word was an element necessary to reporting the story because it was said by the president.

SPJ’s Code of Ethics encourages journalists to seek truth and report it, but they must also minimize harm. It’s also essential that news organizations explain their actions as to why they did or did not use the word – as part of the call to be accountable and transparent.

While many news organizations were upfront as to how they were treating the language, some, like The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, were not, and owe their readers an explanation as to why the language was removed.

If this occasion has any lessons, let it be this – honesty always is the best policy. The more transparent a journalist is, the more credible they are. In this age of information, credibility is essential, and the act of transparency is something news organizations must keep in mind in their pursuit of the truth.


Alex Veeneman is a freelance journalist in Minneapolis, and a member of SPJ’s Ethics and FOI Committees. You can interact with him on Twitter @alex_veeneman.

The views expressed unless otherwise specified are that of the author’s, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Committee, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, nor its members.


Transparency a Must During Harassment Investigations

Garrison Keillor (via Michael O'Brien/Flickr Creative Commons)

Garrison Keillor (via Michael O’Brien/Creative Commons)

Minnesota Public Radio should follow the lead of other news organizations in dealing with harassment allegations.


Minnesota Public Radio journalists are seeking answers from their company after it severed ties Wednesday with Garrison Keillor, who is accused of “inappropriate behavior with an individual who worked with him.”

Keillor announced his own departure and communicated with journalists from a number of news organizations. MPR management has not granted interview requests from its own journalists, however. A program director for MPR say they’ll keep looking for answers.

 

 

While the news organization should be commended for allowing its journalists to report the story like any other without fear of repercussions, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics says journalists should be accountable and transparent and “abide by the same high standards they expect of others.”MPR and its parent company should be held to this standard, too.

Transparency is not unheard of in these types of situations. Similar work has been done at NPR, where Mary Louise Kelly interviewed CEO Jarl Mohn about the firing of former news chief Michael Oreskes.

Angie Andresen, MPR’s spokesperson, told MPR News that the organization’s commitments to transparency and confidentiality are often in conflict, and acknowledged the frustration that was felt. I reached out to Andresen for clarity on the policy and its relationship with the station’s journalism, but did not hear back prior to publication.

The news of Keillor’s firing came hours after NBC News fired Matt Lauer, the longtime co-host of Today because of allegations of sexual harassment. NBC said at the time that it was committed to being as transparent about the issue as possible. Though it is a difficult subject, and confidentiality must be honored, MPR should make the same commitment as NBC. They owe that transparency to their listeners.

They also owe that same respect to their journalists, who helped make MPR known for honoring the principles of SPJ’s Code of Ethics.


Alex Veeneman is a freelance journalist in Minneapolis and a member of SPJ’s Ethics and FOI Committees. You can interact with him on Twitter @alex_veeneman.

The views expressed are that of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Committee, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.


The Three Missteps of ABC News

Photo illustration of an antique television set.

(via Flicker Creative Commons/cpkatie)

An editorial misstep by an ABC News journalist led to a series of fumbles for the network.


ABC News made repeated attempts to squash an uproar that erupted Friday after one of its journalists reported incorrect information about Michael Flynn’s plea deal with federal investigators. Instead, the network made misstep after misstep after misstep.

The first misstep occurred when Brian Ross, the network’s famed investigative journalist, reported incorrect information. The second misstep happened when ABC News issued a “clarification” in an attempt to shift blame and walk back the incorrect report. The network misstepped again when it suspended Ross for four weeks without explaining how it would prevent such mistakes in the future.

While serious, these missteps are unfortunately not a rare or unique occurrence. Print, broadcast and digital news organizations often fumble their responses after mistakes. The issue usually arises when an organization decides to cover their tracks and downplay its error.

Unfortunately for Ross, his mistake occurred on one of the most important news stories of the year. As a result, his error ricocheted around the world. CNN reports that the Dow dropped soon after Ross’s report and an ABC News post with the information was passed on by tens of thousands of Twitter users. A viral video shows Joy Behar reading Ross’s report to her audience during a live taping of The View. Other organizations – like The Daily Beast – also picked up the report.

The editorial worth of a news organization should be judged on how it handles its mistakes. In this case, ABC News should have done all in its power to correct the misinformation by immediately and repeatedly correcting the information online. The network should have also made it completely clear on air that their previous report was incorrect. Instead, they offered a “clarification” on Twitter and World News Tonight With David Muir.

The network’s underwhelming actions were undoubtedly an attempt to downplay the mistake and the blame ABC News should shoulder. Fortunately, people saw through that attempt and continued pressuring the network until it released a “correction.”

After more than a day of negative attention, ABC News released a statement on Saturday afternoon apologizing for the error and announcing Ross’s suspension. The apology was repeated on the evening edition of World News Tonight.


The suspension of a senior and well-known journalist is a dramatic attempt at atonement, but it’s lackluster when a person considers that blame is shared throughout the news organization.

An ideal statement would include an explanation of how the mistake made it to air. If editorial processes weren’t followed, what happened? Most importantly, the public deserves to know what steps ABC News is taking to make sure a similar mistake won’t happen during another breaking news report.

Suspending Ross likely won’t fix the systemic problem that allowed the mistake to happen in the first place.

News organizations can no longer be allowed to botch their corrections and shift blame. Print, broadcast and digital outlets need to step up and admit their mistakes. They must also explain how editorial processes were changed to prevent future mistakes.

In an age when the amount of trust in the press is historically low and the White House stokes the flames of misinformation, journalists and news organizations must hold themselves and each other to a higher standard.


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


Journalists Must Be Held Accountable

Charlie Rose in 2006. (Flickr Creative Commons/Thomas Hawk)

Journalism organizations and institutions should not shy away from holding people accountable for their actions.


CBS News, Bloomberg and PBS cut ties with Charlie Rose on Tuesday after numerous reports of sexual misconduct. The allegations, which were first reported in The Washington Post, are the latest to strike a major figure in the world of journalism.

Unlike most of the previous journalists recently accused of sexual misconduct, Rose presents an awkward position for several organizations and institutions that honored him with awards to recognize his long career.

The Radio Television Digital News Association honored Rose with its lifetime achievement award in 2016. The Society of Professional JournalistsDeadline Club inducted him into its hall of fame in 2015. Arizona State University awarded Rose with its excellence in journalism award in 2015. Other organizations undoubtedly honored him over the years, too.

ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication announced on Friday it is revoking Rose’s award in an “unprecedented action.” The Deadline Club is reportedly considering revoking its award.

Rescinding awards is often a divisive conversation, but it shouldn’t be in cases such as the one involving Rose, who apologized for his “inappropriate behavior” but said not all allegations against him were “accurate.” Organizations and institutions established to support and better journalism must not shy away from holding the field’s most powerful practitioners accountable.

 


The SPJ Code of Ethics ends with the principle that journalists should “abide by the same high standards they expect of others.” If journalists fall short, there should be appropriate ramifications as would be expected in any other profession. In this case, there is no debate that sexual harassment is completely wrong and unacceptable.

Some people argued on social media in response to ASU’s decision that these honors are typically awarded for the journalism a person produces – not for the lives they lived. A person’s career does not occur in a vacuum, however. The journalism a person produces cannot be separated from the pain and damage they may have caused along the way.

Organizations must also consider the people these awards promote and hold up as the profession’s role models. Does the award honor people who created a safe and educational environment for other good people wishing to enter the field? Or, does the award honor people regardless of the work environment they created and the talented people they turned away as a result? The correct answer should be obvious.

Lastly, the element of power cannot be ignored in many of these cases of sexual misconduct. If power and prominence contributed to these actions, the profession must be proactive in removing those as catalysts.

The Washington Post, The New York Times and many other news organizations – including CBS News – must be commended for reporting on these types of behaviors in journalism and other industries. Those reporters and editors are living up to the SPJ Code of Ethics, which says journalists should “be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. Give voice to the voiceless.”

The journalism industry and profession turned a proverbial blind eye to sexual misconduct for too long. These past few weeks of revelations present an opportunity to change that culture and create a better present and future.

Ultimately, these debates come down to the question: How much sexual misconduct is acceptable? The answer is none.


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


Journalists Must Speak up for Colleagues

(Flickr Commons/Waffleboy)

Harassment and abuse has no place in the workplace – including newsrooms. Journalists must speak up.


In the wake of the scandal involving Harvey Weinstein, journalism is one of the several industries facing the reality that men – especially those in positions of power – are harassing and abusing female colleagues.

Well-known political reporter Mark Halperin lost several contracts and projects after reports of sexual harassment during his time at ABC News. Michael Oreskes also resigned as NPR’s senior vice president of news and editorial director after the networked investigated his behavior toward female colleagues. Other men resigned or were removed from their editorial positions in recent weeks in the wake of allegations.

Female journalists already shoulder an unfair burden of harassment from online trolls and people who lack civility. The last place they should be subjected to harassment or abuse is within the walls of their newsrooms and workplaces.

The recent high-profile cases should serve as a warning to other people who use positions of power to harass or abuse colleagues, but assuming that’s enough to solve the problem would be naïve and insulting to those who are the victims of these types of behaviors.

The duty then falls to the wider journalism community to help ensure safe workspaces for all journalists by calling out inappropriate behavior and supporting people who are the victims of abuse or harassment. Predators need to be put on notice that these types of actions won’t be tolerated.

Journalists are expected to call out inappropriate behavior and abuse in other industries. The quest for justice and safety should not stop at newsroom doors. After all, the Society of Professional JournalistsCode of Ethics calls on journalists to “expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organizations” and to “abide by the same high standards they expect of others.”

Journalists must also challenge their news organization’s leadership to hold people accountable for harassment and abuse. Weak responses allow predators to go unchallenged and puts more people at risk.

The goal should be to rid the workplace of predators and create an environment in newsrooms where people who consider abusing or harassing colleagues are the ones feeling scared and anxious – not women and other journalists just trying to do their jobs.

The hope is that these last few weeks serve as a long-overdue turning point in the journalism industry, but to make that true will take a sustained commitment from all journalists to be vocal against abuse and harassment.

Silence is not an option.


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


Video: The Balance Between Necessary and Excess

Photo illustration of an antique television set.

(via Flicker Creative Commons/cpkatie)

Journalists and news organizations have been intensively covering Sunday’s shooting at the Mandalay Bay hotel in Las Vegas. At least 58 people were killed and over 500 were injured as spectators enjoyed a festival of country music.

At the core of the coverage has been user-generated content – eyewitness footage of the shootings. The sounds of gunfire and the anxious screams of the festival goers have been replayed on cable and network news broadcasts.

These videos played a significant role on Wednesday’s CBS Evening News. The footage was aired continuously without any advisory warning of their graphic nature.

The Society’s Code of Ethics reminds journalists to seek truth and report it, but also minimize harm. There are arguments for and against the replaying of this footage.

On one hand, the footage underscores the gravity of the situation and emphasizes the scale of what happened on Sunday night. On the other hand, the repetition of such videos can be seen as sensationalism – a way to utilize drama and to encourage viewers to stay tuned to the broadcast.

Striking the right balance between the necessary and the excess is tricky. Journalists and news organizations usually exercise discretion when it comes to how much of that footage will make up the eventual coverage.

The Code encourages journalists to consider the public when it comes to broadcasting graphic footage. “Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort,” the Code reads. “Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”

There are three goals to keep in mind when covering these types of events:

  1. Verify the footage before it goes to air.
    If the video is submitted by social media, take the time to interview the creator and after determining the authenticity how it will help your story.
  2. Consider the public when broadcasting footage – and ask this question: “How much is too much?” as you plan your coverage.
  3. Be forthright with your audience.
    If the video is graphic or may upset a viewer, please state that the footage may be disturbing to some audiences, instead of just putting it on the air.

Graphic elements are sometimes necessary to tell stories. It isn’t done to scare people or to put them off. Instead, it is to help understand the story and the scale of events. An undue reliance on the footage has an impact on the public – and their relationship with the media.

Journalists should – as a result – think twice about using the footage and how it is presented, and be honest with the audience. You’ll ensure credibility and promote quality ethical journalism.


Alex Veeneman is a freelance journalist in Minneapolis and a member of SPJ’s Ethics and FOI Committees. The views expressed are that of the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Committee, the board and staff of the Society of Professional Journalists, or its members.


Puerto Rico’s Situation Is Not up for Debate

Radar image of Hurricane Maria on September 19, 2017. (via NASA)

Radar image of Hurricane Maria on September 19, 2017. (via NASA)

A majority of Puerto Rico’s 3.4 million residents are without electricity and clean drinking water more than a week after Hurricane Maria tore across the island.

The mayor of San Juan, Puerto Rico’s capital and largest city, asked for help on national television in the wake of Hurricane Maria. Instead of aid, Carmen Yulín Cruz’s pleas were met with criticism and false accusations from President Donald Trump.

As often happens when these back-and-forth arguments arise, journalists and news organizations engaged in public discussions over the merits of the president’s claims. Puerto Rico’s situation is not up for debate, however. Basic and life-sustaining supplies are scarce and the U.S. territory is in dire need of help.

CNN offered its viewers on Saturday an argument among five people about the war of words between the president and mayor, for example.

In addition to implying that this story is up for debate, these on-air yelling matches waste valuable screen time that could be spent showing viewers what is actually happening in Puerto Rico.

While conditions make reporting and broadcasting difficult, it’s not impossible. Most major news organizations have people on the island and the capabilities to get stories, images and sounds back to the mainland.

The Society of Professional JournalistsCode of Ethics tells journalists to give “voice to the voiceless.” News organizations should use those resources to show and tell viewers, readers and listeners what’s happening in San Juan and across the island. Transmit the devastation. Talk to residents, first responders, doctors and anyone else who is able to articulate what their daily lives are like in the wake of the hurricane.

The president will likely continue throwing around the term “fake news” every few hours, but those claims can’t stand up to the very real images of destruction from across the island.


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


Reporting on Disasters

Expected path of Hurricane Irma as of Tuesday, September 6 (via @NOAA)

Hurricane Harvey last week devastated parts of the Gulf Coast of the United States. The storm and its aftermath also led to a discussion on social media about how to best report from areas in the middle of natural or man-made disasters.

As the United States faces another potentially deadly hurricane, it’s important to revisit the role of journalists during such complex and emergency situations.

One question often posed to the Society of Professional Journalists during and after disasters is whether the ethics of journalism are different in emergencies, for example. The answer is no. SPJ’s Code of Ethics is written broadly so it can be applied to all media and all situations. Journalists – especially during emergencies and breaking news – should keep its tenets in mind.

  • Seek Truth and Report It
  • Minimize Harm
  • Act Independently
  • Be Accountable and Transparent

Journalists must also expect and prepare for criticism while covering emergencies.

Journalism often looks opportunistic and vulture-like during disasters. Television and radio journalists are especially susceptible to being perceived as exploitive since the emotions of victims are much more apparent and palpable.

Journalists should be especially careful when selecting people to interview on-air during traumatic events. People should not be put in front of cameras or microphones during such events unless they want to tell their stories. Some people will want to speak about their experience as – almost – a form of therapy. Other people may not be ready to share, and that’s okay.

The SPJ Code of Ethics says journalists should be especially sensitive to people not used to dealing with the press. Pre-interviews or brief discussions off camera can go a long way to preparing people to tell their stories. If after those conversations a person is still unsure whether to share their experience, a journalist should feel empowered to decide not to move ahead with the interview for the sake of the source and the people watching or listening to the report.

Even the best planning may not offer complete protection against offending a person, however. CNN’s Rosa Flores on-air interview with a mother during Hurricane Harvey took a turn for the worst despite taking precautions.

Journalists must also be especially mindful during emergencies about the comments or reports they publish on social media. A post on Twitter may lack important context due to length restrictions and result in misinterpretation. If cell service or internet access is compromised, journalists may be unable to clear up questions or concerns in a timely manner.

ABC NewsTom Llamas ignited a firestorm on social media during Hurricane Harvey when he published a post on Twitter saying his team informed police of nearby looting at a grocery store. He later clarified that they mentioned the looting while discussing the discovery of a body with the police.

Of course, journalists are human and will make mistakes while reporting these and any stories. They and their news organizations must work to quickly correct any incorrect information and clear up any confusion. More than ever, people cling to information on social media and it’s important to give them the most accurate picture of what’s happening on the ground.

What’s most important is that journalists not forget the service they provide during emergencies and disasters. People – near and far – want to know what’s happening. Journalists put their safety and health on the line by charging into these situations to bring that information back to people. Those images lead people to call charities or take to social media asking about ways to help. Those reports result in people calling their lawmakers and telling them to act.

Journalists serve a purpose in these situations.


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


Journalists Are Journalists Because They Like Our Country

Constitution Of the United StatesMost people in New York City carry some type of bag to work or the market. Bags are incredibly useful in a city that requires a lot of walking. What I carry in my bag changes from day to day, but one item is always tucked inside a pocket: a worn copy of the Constitution of the United States of America.

My copy of the Constitution dates back to 2007 when I was just finishing my freshman year of college. A stack of the tiny blue books sat on a table at some conference. I picked up a copy and put it in my bag. The bags changed over the years, but not the little book.

Until yesterday I never worked out in my mind why I carry a copy of the Constitution with me wherever I go. Until yesterday my little blue book was like a lucky penny or prayer card a person tucks away in their wallet. Until yesterday no president of the United States ever accused me of not liking the country, however.

“You have some very fair journalists,” President Donald Trump told a group of his supporters in Phoenix. “But for the most part, honestly, these are really, really dishonest people, and they’re bad people. And I really think they don’t like our country. I really believe that.”

My heart broke a bit when I heard his accusation because I honestly believe good journalism is the cornerstone of democracy. I am a journalist because I like and love our country. I know the vast majority of journalists share that feeling.

Thousands and thousands of journalists around the United States show up for work each day to tell their fellow citizens about the world. People can then use that information to make decisions. Sometimes that decision involves buying a car and sometimes that decision involves electing someone to be president.

The Constitution peaked out at me from my bag’s front pocket last night as I got my papers ready for today. I asked myself why I carry this little book around with me wherever I go. I rarely refer to it in my day-to-day life. Plus, I already memorized my favorite part.

Constitution Of the United StatesMy favorite part of the Constitution is its First Amendment. The whole document is important, but the 45 words of the First Amendment are so vital to everyday life. The small section guarantees everyone within the United States the freedom of religion, speech, press, assembly and petition.

Freedom of the press is obviously near and dear to my heart as a journalist. For as flawed as our founding fathers were, they had the foresight to know that a free press is vital to the health and future of the nation. My profession and my life are intertwined with the foundation of the United States and its ideals.

Carrying a copy of the Constitution around in my bag turns out to just be natural. Through my work, the document really is a part of who I am and I am a part of it. Leaving home without it would be like leaving a piece of me behind.

The president is wrong. Journalists do like our country. I like our country. In fact, we like it so much we chose to continue a mission so important that the country’s creators protected it in the nation’s foundational document.

President Trump probably won’t hear me out, but I won’t let that stop me from telling other people why it’s important to support good journalism. I’ll have my little blue book handy to help make my point.


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


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