Archive for the ‘Breaking News’ Category


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 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.

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.

Streamed Crime: A Challenge for News and Social Media Companies

Jason Howie/Flickr Creative Commons

Social media ignited Sunday afternoon when news broke that a man in Cleveland streamed a video of himself on Facebook allegedly shooting an elderly person. The crime is part of an ongoing challenge for news organizations and social media companies.

The challenge is different for each of the entities, however.

News organizations are tasked with taking in raw material and determining what, when and how to describe and show that information. In this and similar cases, journalists are challenged by several factors, including:

  • The raw material is graphic.
  • The raw material often cannot be verified.
  • The raw material is likely available online.
  • The family of the victim(s) may not know of the crime.

Before the internet, modern journalists didn’t often come into contact with graphic material to use with stories. Additionally, they often heard of crimes from official sources that could verify material and knew whether the family of the victim was notified. Plus, graphic images, video or audio weren’t circulating in public.

The instinct of many people – including journalists – is to share what is publicly available, but the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics makes a clear statement by saying “legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.”

Some news organizations and journalists take the position that they should not hide information from the public, but that’s a ridiculous stance. One of the central missions of journalism is to distill the world into concise reports that tell the public what information they need in their day to day lives.

Journalists in the 20th century decided those who were part of their profession should act ethically while fulfilling that mission. The current version of SPJ’s Code of Ethics says journalists should “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort.” Additionally, they should “show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage.”

There will never be one answer for how journalists and news organizations deal with video of crimes streamed online, but taking the time to think beyond access of material to the responsible retelling and synthesis will lead to much better decisions than have been made in the past.

The challenge for social media companies like Facebook, Twitter and Snapchat is somewhat different, but the answers are not.

Unlike journalists who get the opportunity to pause before publishing information, social media companies are more like newsstands that allow any person to put their information or publication on display. Except, the companies have more control than many people think.

The people in charge of Facebook and Twitter clearly care about what happens on their platforms. Otherwise, Facebook wouldn’t prioritize some content over others and Twitter wouldn’t weed out certain notifications or posts.

While these companies historically shut down any claim or notion that they are media companies or news organizations, they can’t be so ignorant to the fact that they exist in the same orbit. In that case, they can find answers within SPJ’s Code of Ethics, too.

If Facebook can prioritize an advertisement or post, the company can also put protections in place that will prevent the abuse of their platforms and tools. The same goes for Twitter, Snapchat, Tumblr and the rest.

Again, there will likely be no one answer for every company, but the people in charge must at least try to prevent members of the public from using their  platforms and tools for sinister purposes while allowing others to use those same elements for good.

These problems are not going away. Fortunately, there is still time to address them before they get out of hand.


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

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.

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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