Archive for the ‘Editing’ Category


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.

Words Matter: Alt Right Alternatives

Photo via Flickr Creative Commons - NOGRAN s.r.o.

Photo via Flickr Creative Commons – NOGRAN s.r.o.

Journalists love to sprinkle their stories and reports with buzzwords in an effort to sound current. New lingo is often harmless, but not all words are universally benign.

The newly popular term “alt right” is an example of words that should be used with caution.

The term seeped into mainstream news stories over the past year as extremist groups adopted it as their moniker. Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton also pushed the term into the nation’s discussion when she used it during her campaign.

“Alt right” is a shortened version of the words “alternative right,” which is being used by groups that reject mainstream conservatism for extremist views. Those views may include generalized racism, anti-Semitism, homophobia, white nationalism and/or antifeminism.

There are several reasons why journalists and news organizations should be cautious about casually using the words “alt right” in their day-to-day coverage.

First, the term is clumsy and ambiguous. Many Americans may not be familiar with the intricacies of “alt right.” The term may be interpreted as simply extreme conservatism or as a catch-all for right-wing politics. In some cases, those reading, watching or listening to the news may be left confused or misinformed.

People understand what it means when views or opinions are described as racist, anti-Semitic and anti-LGBT, however. Those specific words should be used in place of the generic and clumsy term “alt right.”

Obviously, journalists shouldn’t refuse to use the term or words “alt right,” but it must be put into the proper context.

For example, an organization’s views may be described as racist and anti-Semitic, and the reporter can state the group considers itself part of the “alt right.” The person reading, listening or watching that story will grasp the gist of the organization’s views and know the group identifies with the “alt right.”

Additionally, journalists and news organizations must always be on alert for groups trying to manipulate the press. In this case, the press may unconsciously help extremist groups rebrand racism, anti-LGBT views, anti-Semitism, white supremacy and other extremist views as “alt right.”

Journalists must carefully choose their words, especially when sensitive topics are being discussed. When in doubt, journalists should always err on the side of specificity and context.


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

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.

Ethics Week 2015: #ACESchat with David Cohn

SPJ_ETHICS_WEEKThe first Twitter chat of the Society’s Ethics Week happened Wednesday afternoon with Ethics Committee Member David Cohn, who is an executive producer at AJ+.

The American Society of Copy Editors hosted the discussion as part of its #ACESchat on Twitter.

Check out a Storify of the discussion, which focused on minimizing harm in digital editing, below:

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