Posts Tagged ‘ethics’


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.

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.

Give up on the President, Not the American People

Screenshot of President Donald Trump's Twitter message.

Screenshot of President Donald Trump’s Twitter message.

President Donald Trump is not going to change how he treats the press.


President Donald Trump continued his attacks on the press Sunday when he posted a short video to Twitter showing him wrestling a person depicting CNN. The post is the latest in a string of messages over the past few days – and past few years – targeting news organizations.

Journalists and news organizations must realize at this point that President Trump will not tone down his rhetoric. He used his pulpit to attack the press when he was a rising star in the political world. He harassed and taunted news organizations and journalists when he was a candidate. He continues these behaviors 163 days into his presidency.

Instead of fruitlessly hoping the president changes his behavior, the press should immediately focus a large portion of its attention on educating the public about journalism.

The press should first make a commitment to transparency, which is a tenet in the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics. News organizations should take the time to explain how stories were reported and why the journalists made certain decisions.

The Honolulu Civil Beat sets aside time every Friday afternoon to hold “office hours” on Facebook Live, for example. Readers can submit questions and get them answered by some of the news organization’s editors.

News organizations and journalists should also reach out to community leaders to open a dialogue about the role of the local and national press. Those relationships are crucial in acquiring access to government and getting help when journalists run into proverbial roadblocks.

Leaders of the Society of Professional Journalists stopped by the offices of U.S. House and Senate members last month to say hello and talk about the press, for example.

Additionally, local and national news organizations should team up to hold town halls across the country that explain what responsible journalism is, how it’s created and why it’s important. The public can then engage with journalists and get their questions answered.

Some of these steps are easier than others, but they are all necessary if the press wants to earn back the public’s trust. No media literacy program, no partnership with a tech giant, no journalism organization and no journalist can accomplish this goal alone.

Efforts to earn back trust may seem futile when faced with the latest numbers from Gallup showing less than a third of U.S. adults say they have “a great deal” or “a fair amount” of trust in the news media. But, the public’s relationship with the press is more complex than that number.

For example, a May report from the Pew Research Center shows nearly three-quarters of people in the U.S. say they believe the press serves as a watchdog over government.

Additionally, Gallup numbers show trust in various U.S. institutions in the U.S. like the military, the criminal justice system and small business increased over the past few decades. If trust can be earned by other institutions, the same can be true for the press.

While journalists and news organizations should give up on hoping President Trump will change his behavior toward the press, they should not give up on the American people.

The press needs to teach the public what it does and why it matters. If the press succeeds, it won’t matter how many times the president publishes the words “fake news” on Twitter. The public will know the truth about responsible journalists and news organizations.


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

#PressForEthics on Capitol Hill

Ethics Week focused a lot on trying to engage journalists and the public in discussions about the press. An important part of that outreach must also include the public’s elected representatives.


President Donald Trump often attacks the press. So far, he used the term “fake news” on Twitter over three dozen times. Attorney General Jeff Sessions last week would not rule out prosecuting news organizations. A congressman from North Dakota also threatened in November to hold a hearing on “network media bias.”

The attacks and vague answers regarding the press from politicians and government officials not only makes journalists uneasy, but threatens one of the foundational elements of democracy. A dialogue is needed between the press and lawmakers as much as one is needed between journalists and the public.

The Society of Professional Journalists is using Ethics Week to begin that conversation with lawmakers in the United States by sending a letter to every member of the Senate and House of Representatives. Enclosed in each letter will be a copy of SPJ’s Code of Ethics.

The letter introduces SPJ to the lawmakers and explains the organization’s role in setting the profession’s best practices. There is also an invitation to meet with SPJ in June, when many of the organization’s leaders will be in Washington, D.C. for the annual Sigma Delta Chi Awards dinner.

SPJ is no novice when it comes to interacting with lawmakers. The organization often works alone or in concert with other groups to push for open government initiatives and improved access. In fact, SPJ closely worked with then-Representative Mike Pence in the early 2000s to implement a federal shield law that would protect journalists from prosecution. Unfortunately, those efforts fell short.

During Ethics Week, SPJ feels it’s important to show lawmakers that there is more to journalism than government and access issues. After all, ethics is often not about what is legal; it’s about what is right.

The organization wants to show lawmakers that the press largely makes ethical and responsible journalism a priority.  Mistakes are sometimes made, but the profession tends to hold those serious
offenders accountable for their actions.

The public benefits from an environment that allows and encourages journalists to provide in-depth and ethical journalism. If lawmakers care about their constituents, they should also care about the health of the press and work to foster an environment of openness as envisioned by the country’s founders.

The press belongs to everyone, and it’s up to everyone to take care of the press.

You can help this effort by encouraging your representative and senators to engage with SPJ and learn about the press, the organization’s Code of Ethics and the importance of open government.

Efforts to engage with your legislators are easier than ever thanks to SPJ’s staff who created a tool that will formulate a state-specific Twitter post: CLICK HERE


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

The Ethics of Looking Away

President Barack Obama departs the James S. Brady Press Briefing Room of the White House after he delivers a statement on the federal government shutdown, Oct. 16, 2013. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

Pretend for a moment that a building inspector is assigned to inspect a building. He tells the facility’s management. The very helpful building manager escorts him into one room that has been carefully arranged beforehand. The manager stays with the inspector as he inspects that pre-arranged room. Then he escorts him out of the facility. They part on great terms and the inspector writes a report accurately describing what he has seen. But, as is customary, he says nothing about being blocked from seeing any other part of the facility or about the manager escorting him at every step.

What do you call that, other than astounding? Can it be anything but corruption? Doesn’t it go beyond being horribly dangerous to all but ensuring public harm?

But aren’t those controls parallel to what journalists do when they always or almost always go through public information officers or other management to get a comment or interview someone, whether at a government office, a business, nonprofit or other entity? And don’t those similarities hold true whether journalists do it voluntarily or involuntarily?

What about all those other “rooms” — or the people who are prohibited from talking or prohibited from talking without PIO oversight?  Don’t such controls almost guarantee the story will be skewed (or partially skewed) in the way management wishes? What would members of the public think if they understood how such journalistic “inspections” work?

And then, when the building later burns down due to faulty wiring –or, say, the Veterans’ Administration is found to have all kinds of problems–aren’t those highly controlled “inspections,” by an inspector or journalist, a basic and foreseeable part of the dysfunction?

Aren’t journalists arbitrarily waiving the public’s right to understand how government and other institutions are working?

The Society of Professional Journalists has taken an historic step over the last several years in leading other journalism groups in saying these controls through public information officers or others are wrong and dangerous.

It may be time to look closely at what working under these restrictions does to the ethics of journalism itself.

The SPJ Code of Ethics says journalists should, “Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work.” Reporting that’s accurate but misleading due to the controls of the powerful represents poor accuracy indeed.

The code also says, “Verify information before releasing it.”  Please take it from some veteran reporters: when staff people can’t talk without the oversight done for the bosses, some among them might very well be able to blow your story out of the water.

Indeed, the best guess is always that if you were able to talk to several people fluidly, without the controls, the story would be different and better.

The SPJ code says, “Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.”  But the PIO controls are constructed of conflicts of interest. People in management who want to maintain a good image, their jobs and their agenda use the PIO controls to manage what the public is allowed to hear. Reporters are conflicted by the fact they can have their access cut off if they don’t submit to the controls or they otherwise do or write the wrong thing.

How could people not perceive conflict of interest, if we told them about the controls? Actually, the process would look to many people like public relations being sold as journalism.

For the journalists’ who don’t want to fight these intense restrictions, the reasons generally come in two categories. The first is, “We can’t do anything about them.”

One thing to consider there is that we can’t do anything about them probably because journalists keep saying we can’t do anything about them.

But more basically: what kind of journalistic ethics is that? Massive systems are constructed to control what the public hears—a hazard to the public, one might say—and journalists decide it’s best not to talk about it?

The second reason journalists give for not fighting these controls is that “good” reporters get the story anyway.

Notice, first off, that it is just not happening very often. Many stories are initiated by the offices or agencies themselves and there is little more in the news coverage than what the officials say and (maybe) some outside opinion. How is it possible there is nothing happening other what the centers of power announce?

But also, how can journalists ethically assume they have the whole story when millions of people are specifically silenced?

Those many, many closed doors behind PIO controls are in government, schools, universities, police forces and elsewhere, across the culture, as we know from surveys sponsored by SPJ and done by Carolyn Carlson for Kennesaw State University.

They regularly conceal much education and perspective that journalists need. But given the vast numbers of those doors, some of them also hide some of the most astoundingly evil things in our society. Think, for instance, about the institutions that hid child abuse for years and, then, about the rules against school personnel talking to reporters.


Kathryn Foxhall is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Freedom of Information Committee.

A Day of Giving for Ethics Week!

SPJ’s Ethics Week takes over Times Square in New York City on Monday, April 24.

We need ethical journalism now more than ever. That is why the Society of Professional Journalists and the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation support programming that encourages truthful, compassionate, independent, transparent journalism.


The SDX Foundation and our donors have supported:

  • JournCamp and the Excellence in Journalism annual conference, have delivered practical training to more than 15,000 journalists. Ethical, credible journalism is a constant theme.
  • “Journalism Ethics,” the pre-eminent textbook exploring the theory and real world applications practicing ethical journalism. It’s now in its fourth edition.
  • Movie licenses for SPJ chapters to screen the film, “Spotlight,” and engage the public in a discussion of what makes for ethical journalism.
  • Efforts to extend traditional ethical guidelines to new technology. For instance, the Foundation supported this program, which showed journalists how to use drones ethically in their news coverage.

This is on top of funding for skills training, support for freedom-of-information issues and signature programs such as the Pulliam Editorial Fellowship, all of which seek to improve journalism and add to the democratic conversation.

But we can’t do it alone. SPJ and the SDX Foundation rely on donations from members and supporters. Today is Day of Giving. Show you are PROUD to be part of an organization that promotes ethical journalism. Make a contribution TODAY.

There are three ways to give:

  • Go to spj.org/426 and fill out our online form.
  • Call 317-920-4785
  • Text ENCOURAGE to 243-725 to donate to the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation.

No amount is too small. Please help us ensure that a vibrant, ethical press continues for generations to come. Contribute to SPJ Day of Giving now!


Robert Leger is the board president of the Sigma Delta Chi Foundation.

The Secret to a Successful Journalism Career Is Strong Ethics

Joseph Pulitzer’s bust is displayed alongside his quote in the lobby of Pulitzer Hall at Columbia University in New York City.

That might sound old school or boring but for me it is true: developing, adhering and staying true to journalism ethics has helped me every step of the way throughout my career.

When you are adhering to ethical standards you are able to build and keep your community’s trust. As I have moved around the United States pursuing my career, I continue to receive tips from people living in the previous markets I have worked. 

Why? They trust me. Now, they don’t necessarily mention that it is because I was ethical, but they use other words like “fair,” “responsible” and “respectful.”

You may hear those words and think what does that have to do with being an ethical journalist? What’s important to remember about journalism ethics is that it’s different than what is legal. Something that is legal may not always be ethical. If you start to think about the issue of what is legal and what is ethical separately, you’ll begin to see why the words “fair,” “responsible” and “respectful” apply to ethics.

Fair is probably the most obvious. At a basic level it means providing all (not just two) sides and individuals involved in the story an opportunity to be heard. For me though it also means going above and beyond to add context to our stories. When you’re putting together stories you are anticipating what answers may be. If you don’t receive those answers from those involved it’s still important to include and explore them in stories.

Being responsible means being honest with your users. Telling them when you get something wrong, when you don’t know something, when you couldn’t get answers, etc. Be transparent and let them into the storytelling process. If you receive information after the story airs that changes what the story was about, share that with your users and engage in the debate. As journalists we have a responsibility to inform our communities. Don’t hold back because of sweeps, competition or pride.

The old adage, “treat people how you would like to be treated,” has taken me far. That doesn’t mean I back down when there are complaints or pressure from powerful agencies or leaders. It does mean that I always encourage and welcome a conversation about the stories I produce. It means I reach out to individuals named in the story, even if a public information officer has asked me not to. I my team to do the same because I know I would want the same if my name was being mentioned in a story. 

Being ethical has not always been the easy choice. It’s also not always made me a lot of friends. But, when I have been faced with tough decisions or questioned for the ones I have made, I have been able to defend and standby my choices because I made them based off of ethical guidelines I believe in.

So, as the Society of Professional Journalists celebrates Ethics week, I encourage you to revisit your ethics, read our Code of Ethics and develop a set of guidelines you can defend.

If you’re an ethical and responsible journalist, more tips will come your way, you’ll produce better stories and you’ll be rewarded with opportunities. 


Lynn Walsh is the president of the Society of Professional Journalists.

Broadway’s Latest Star: SPJ’s Code of Ethics

SPJ’s Ethics Week takes over Times Square in New York City on Monday, April 24.

After endorsing an ethical code for almost a century, SPJ’s Code of Ethics finally gets its time in the spotlight.


The Society of Professional Journalists works every day to improve and protect journalism through its advocacy and education efforts. A big part of that work centers on SPJ’s Code of Ethics, which outlines what the profession views as ethical and responsible journalism.

As the President of the United States continues to attack the press and people’s trust in the information it provides continues to wane, SPJ wanted to do something BIG to launch its annual Ethics Week, which runs from April 24 to 28.

Nothing is bigger than New York City’s Times Square. Also, no lights shine brighter than those along Broadway.

So, the SPJ Code of Ethics and its messages are being displayed this week on nearly 7,724 square feet of digital billboard space in Times Square in New York City. The billboards sit at the intersection of 43rd Street and Seventh Avenue and soar hundreds of feet into the air.

The images will periodically pop up on the billboards throughout Ethics Week. In addition to promoting the tenets of the SPJ Code of Ethics, the billboards promote the Ethics Week hashtag #PressForEthics.

The hashtag works on several levels. The press is encouraging and advocating the use of SPJ’s Code of Ethics. The press is standing by ethical journalism. Additionally, the hashtag encourages the public to call for responsible and ethical journalism.

One of the main goals of SPJ and its ethics committee is to bridge the gap between journalists and the public. The hashtag #PressForEthics creates an opportunity for people to engage with journalists, discuss issues and build relationships.

The billboards shining bright over Times Square is just the first big surprise for Ethics Week. Stay tuned to this blog and SPJ’s Twitter and Facebook accounts for more.


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

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