Posts Tagged ‘Andrea Mitchell’

Friday’s Fiasco: Journalism Can and Should be Better

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

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

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.

In Herman Cain story, being flip about journalism ethics is not an appropriate response


By Kevin Z. Smith

When presidential candidate Herman Cain decided to challenge the press coverage of the sexual harassment charges surrounding his campaign, he reached for an interesting source of support: the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.

Last week his camp handed out copies to members of the media and mailed copies to the Los Angeles Times among others. He asked the press corps to evaluate how the Politico/Washington Post coverage violated specific tenets of the code. He also took his fight to the airwaves, touting the code on Fox News. Never mind that he blundered on the name and called it the “Journalists’ Code of Conduct.”

Our initial assessment of his claims are articulated in a previous post by Ethics Committee member Irwin Gratz. While we haven’t seen anything that would suggest that the reporting violated ethical standards, there is never a bad time to raise ethical questions. Journalists have standards of professional conduct and often put themselves through the steps of evaluating their behavior and work before it reaches the public sphere. That is precisely what sound ethical decision making is about. Questioning those decisions is fair and legitimate, generally because it creates healthy debate that is usually beneficial to our profession.

What has transpired from some people, however, has been something of a panning of Cain’s efforts, not just because he dared to challenge the press’ handling of the reports, but because he suggested that journalists need to follow “codes of conduct.” Silly, right?

On Monday the defense of the media started, and what’s transpired has proved to be more problematic for the fight for journalistic ethics than anything Cain alleged.

Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus went after Cain, defending the paper but admitting she wasn’t familiar with the SPJ Code of Ethics. She wrote: “I suffer from the instinctive journalistic aversion to official codes of conduct.” Meaning that most journalists avoid such tripe, contrived codes in favor of what, flipping a coin to make an ethical decision? Consulting the Magic 8 ball on her desk?

Later Monday, MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell showed her relative lack of ethical knowledge by snarking to Politico reporter Jonathan Martin, the reporter who broke the original story, “I assume you’ve read the journalistic code of conduct, whatever that is.” His response was equally flippant: “I have my copy well thumbed.”

This dismissive attitude only bothers me in that these people have presumably elevated their journalistic game to the level that they’ve landed employment with major national media outlets and have secured a visibility and reputation for being among the elite press corps in this country.

Well, not with knowledge of ethical standards, it appears.

First, to suggest that most journalists have an instinctive aversion to codes of ethics is wrong. In fact, it’s the minority, as in any profession, who seems to be devoid of knowledge about ethical standards. Second, to treat this code as if you’ve just come across a treasure map and have reservations about its validity shows more of a lack of comprehension on your part than it says about the legitimacy of the document.

The irony to all this, of course, is that every day some journalist or citizen visits the SPJ website and reviews our code. Aside from the home page, the Code of Ethics is the most visited page on our website. And, judging by the number of times “SPJ” and “code of ethics” appear in Google searches, it’s been well noted that our code is cited more than 300 times a year in making arguments for better ethical behavior.

That people like Martin, Mitchell and Marcus haven’t heard of the code shouldn’t be a badge of honor. That they scoff at the notion of a code of conduct should be an indictment about their work, not that of the Society’s for upholding ethical standards for so long. And, it’s likely that the Post, MSNBC and Politico have internal codes of ethics that guide their journalists’ work. Are they unaware of those as well?

Our code has been translated into 16 different languages and has long been the gold standard for ethical conduct in the profession. It has been copied, emulated and revised by news organizations for internal use here in the U.S. and around the world.

This summer a copy of SPJ’s new ethics book and the code made its way into the hands of British Prime Minister David Cameron. Cameron is creating a committee to evaluate the ethical standards of the British press after the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. The code could play a helpful role in establishing or reaffirming standards in that country.

And, the same day Mitchell and company were joking about this code, I received an email from a Knight International Journalism Fellow who is going to Haiti to work with journalists. She asked if SPJ could give her a copy of its new ethics book and some codes of ethics. I’m mailing those to her this week. That very shortly Haitian journalists will learn professional ethics using our code while certain Washington press members sit back and joke about it shouldn’t be lost on the thousands of journalists who have it posted in their newsrooms, or the thousands of college students who are taught professional ethics with the code as the backdrop.

Cain’s allegations aside, the last thing the press in this country needs are self-inflicted wounds over ethical standards.

Kevin Z. Smith is a past SPJ national president and current chairman of the Ethics Committee


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