Posts Tagged ‘Harm’


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.

Ethics Week 2015: Like a surgeon

Photo Credit/Salim Fadhley

Photo Credit/Salim Fadhley

Like doctors, journalists often inflict some level of harm to serve the greater good.


A surgeon may slice through flesh to remove a diseased organ. A primary care doctor may prescribe medicine that causes side effects to control an even worse condition. Likewise, journalists may cause disruption in families, communities or countries to achieve their mission.

Throughout the past week, the Society of Professional Journalists asked its members and the public to think about the harm journalism may create. The focus of minimizing harm is not meant to convince journalists to shy away from important stories. Instead, it should serve as a reminder about the responsibility journalists hold.

When I first started presenting sessions or talks on the Society’s Code of Ethics, a question that was often asked is: How much harm is acceptable?

It’s a difficult question to answer, because acceptable levels of harm are relative and subjective.

In medicine, screenings or tests for diseases or conditions are not recommended until their benefits outweigh the risks. While it does not explicitly say it, the Society’s Code suggests a similar balancing act.

In the Code’s preamble, the Society states that its members “believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy.” Journalists support that by ensuring “the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough.”

Elsewhere in the Code, journalists are told that even reporting practices that some people would never consider – undercover and surreptitious information gathering methods – may be acceptable if the result is “information vital to the public.” Even then, those methods should be a last resort, the Code says.

Basically, is the harm created by a reporting practice or story outweighed by the usefulness of the information it yields or presents? It’s not a perfect answer, but it’s the best advice that can be offered for such a subjective question.

The balancing act between usefulness of information and harm is supported elsewhere in the Code, too.

For example, the Code says to “recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.” Also, “avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.”

I often tell people that the words legal and ethical are not synonyms. Just because a journalist is legally allowed to do something doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

Of course, even properly evaluating the benefits and harms of a reporting practice or story may leave some – and in some cases a significant – amount of harm. Journalists must live with the consequences of their work. Being a responsible and ethical journalist should provide some  comfort.

Toronto Star Fails in Vaccine Investigation

Photo Illustration (Photo Credit: Flickr/ El Alvi)

Photo Illustration (Photo Credit: Flickr/ El Alvi)

Two days after I published a post on this blog about the importance of using data to report on medicine, the Toronto Star published – what the paper called – an investigation into Gardasil, which is one of the vaccines used to prevent the human papillomavirus.


While the Star’s story included medical experts defending the vaccine, the paper relied on anecdotal reports to support a hypothesis that the drug has a “dark side” that includes undisclosed complications, including death.

As I wrote in my post on February 3, journalists have a responsibility to prevent people from being harmed by incorrect information. In this case, one can make a strong argument that the Star’s failure to adequately report its story may lead to future cancers and even deaths.

The human papillomavirus – better known as HPV – is a sexually transmitted infection responsible for a number of cancers and other complications, including genital warts. Most importantly, HPV is responsible for the vast majority of cervical cancers.

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) says on its website that almost all adults who are sexually active will be infected with at least one strain of HPV during their lives. Most infections will clear up on their own, but about one in 10 will persist.

There are two vaccines currently approved to protect against HPV in the U.S. Cervarix, which is manufactured by GlaxoSmithKline, and Gardasil, which is manufactured by Merck. Gardasil is the only vaccine approved for use in males, who can also get HPV and suffer from its complications.

While the CDC says the vaccines are safe and effective, the agency reports some people experience side effects ranging from pain at the injection site, headache, nausea, dizziness and fainting.

The U.S. recommends vaccination for boys and girls from ages 11 through 12 years, and teens who were not previously vaccinated. Specifically, females can get the series of three shots through age 26 and males through age 21. Gay men, bisexual men and other men who have sex with men can also receive the vaccine through age 26 years.

If people reading the Star’s story are persuaded to not be vaccinated, some may go on to develop cancers that would have been prevented by the vaccine. Additionally, some of those cancers may ultimately cause people’s deaths.

While the Star – as of right now – did not retract its story, the paper’s publisher said the publication failed in its job. Additionally, the paper’s public editor Kathy English wrote a comprehensive report on the matter on Friday.

“It’s too bad there isn’t a vaccination to prevent journalistic misstep. I suspect we’d all line up for that shot about now. The fallout here has been devastating for the newsroom,” wrote English.

English places a lot of blame on the story’s presentation, such as the accompanying headline and pictures. While those elements didn’t help, the article itself would lead a reasonable reader to assume the vaccine may cause serious complications.

Dr. Yoni Freedhoff told CBC, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, that he suspects the Star’s story will lead some people to not be vaccinated, and ultimately develop cancers.

“And that’s really a horrible thing for the Toronto Star to have done,” he told the CBC.

The Star already took some steps to reduce the harm its article caused, including admitting the paper failed in its responsibilities and adding several notes to the online publication. My hope is that the Star will report the story again, except with a much more critical eye.


 On a personal note: I think it’s important to say that I’m currently in the middle of receiving the HPV vaccine – as recommended by the CDC.


Andrew Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee.

Some Points on #Pointergate

KSTP, the ABC affiliate in Minnesota’s Minneapolis- Saint Paul metropolitan area, got skewered over the past week thanks to a story about a photo it says shows Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges standing next to a convicted felon while they both flash a “known” gang sign.

The story and the controversy it caused became known as #Pointergate on Twitter. Twitter users – myself included – criticized KSTP for airing a story based on questionable evidence and ethical decisions.

The story is available here.

(video from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFwb8z0A5nM)

The mayor and the man, who is not in a gang according to KSTP’s police sources, posed for the photograph as they were knocking on doors for a get-out-vote even in Minneapolis. The gesture, KSTP anchor Bill Lunn said, concerned law enforcement officials, who “think the mayor has put the public and police at risk.”

In the video report, a retired police officer says gangs can take the photo and say “even the mayor is with us.” The president of the Minneapolis Police Federation also questions in the report whether the mayor will support “gangs in the city or cops.”

“The allegation was so ludicrous that two reporters at the Star Tribune ignored it after it was pitched to one of them by someone in law enforcement,” wrote Joe Tevlin, a metro columnist Star Tribune, in a column posted online about the story on Tuesday.

Since the initial backlash to the story, several websites reported the organization that put on the get-out-the-vote event also posted photos and a video on its blog that shows Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau, Mayor Hodges and the man at the event together.

The initial report raises several questions about the ethical decision made during the reporting and airing of the story.

Specifically, how is the hand gesture a “known” gang sign? If the hand gesture is a gang sign capable of inciting violence, why did KSTP broadcast it across the metropolitan area? Why is the criminal record of the person in the picture with Mayor Hodges relevant to the story? Who are the law enforcement officials that are outraged?

I emailed Lindsay Radford, KSTP’s news director, with my concerns and questions on Sunday. She is out of the office and forwarded my email to Jay Kolls, who reported the story.

“I am not the story,” Kolls replied to my email. “We did everything ethically. But, fine. Put them in writing and I will respond to each one.” He also responded to some of the concerns I mentioned in my first email.

As of press time (abuot 9:00 pm. EST on Tuesday) Kolls did not respond to my additional questions.

It’s safe to assume – based on the video posted by the organization behind the get-out-the-vote event – that the sign Mayor Hodges and the man are making in the photo is not a gang symbol. Instead, it’s more likely a spur-of-the-moment gesture.

Additionally, a simple Internet search does not show that hand gesture as the sign of any large gang.

An attempt at independent verification, which is included in one of leading principles within the Society’s Code of Ethics, should have at least made KSTP’s editorial leadership question whether or not that specific hand gesture is a “known” gang sign.

Additionally, if KSTP trusted its sources and believed the sign is capable of inciting violence against the police and public, it leads to the question: Why would they broadcast it across the Twin Cities?

The Code speaks broadly about “potential harm.” Violence against police and the general public would fall under that language.

“He posted the photo on Facebook,” Kolls wrote in his original reply to me. “It was already publicly available, so broadcasting it was not releasing it.”

The picture may have been publicly available on Facebook, but it’s safe to assume the number of people navigating to the man’s profile is less than KSTP’s viewership.

In the same vein of minimizing harm, one of the tenets of the Code, KSTP should have questioned whether the criminal record of the man in the picture with Mayor Hodges is relevant to the story.

Yes, criminal records are public documents, but the  Code is clear that the legal right to information does not justify the ethical decision to publish or broadcast that information. Also, “private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures.”

Kolls wrote to me in his original reply that they “went out of our way to not identify him or his organization to not make him the focus of the story. Others did that; not us.”

The video story flashes the man’s court records across the screen toward the beginning of the report – although they appear anonymized. The accompanying print story also details the man’s criminal records in its second paragraph. Clearly KSTP made this man is a prominent figure in the story.

Lastly, the fact that no named law enforcement official associated with the unit that discovered the picture came forward to air their concerns should raise red flags – as it apparently did at the Star Tribune.

Sources should be identified clearly, according to the Code. “The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.”

What’s more, the Code is clear that journalists need to consider the source’s motive for requesting anonymity. The journalist also should explain why anonymity was granted.

While these concerns should – hopefully – cause editorial teams to reconsider publishing or broadcasting a story like this, KSTP aired an additional report and issued a statement following its initial story.

While the Society’s Code may not answer every question journalists may encounter, it can at least provide sufficient guidance in publishing or broadcasting reports that at least meet basic best practices: Seek Truth and Report It, Minimize Harm, Act Independently and Be Accountable and Transparent.

In this case, KSTP’s report fell short in many places.

 

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