Posts Tagged ‘Journalism’


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.

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Transparency a Must During Harassment Investigations

Garrison Keillor (via Michael O'Brien/Flickr Creative Commons)

Garrison Keillor (via Michael O’Brien/Creative Commons)

Minnesota Public Radio should follow the lead of other news organizations in dealing with harassment allegations.


Minnesota Public Radio journalists are seeking answers from their company after it severed ties Wednesday with Garrison Keillor, who is accused of “inappropriate behavior with an individual who worked with him.”

Keillor announced his own departure and communicated with journalists from a number of news organizations. MPR management has not granted interview requests from its own journalists, however. A program director for MPR say they’ll keep looking for answers.

 

 

While the news organization should be commended for allowing its journalists to report the story like any other without fear of repercussions, the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics says journalists should be accountable and transparent and “abide by the same high standards they expect of others.”MPR and its parent company should be held to this standard, too.

Transparency is not unheard of in these types of situations. Similar work has been done at NPR, where Mary Louise Kelly interviewed CEO Jarl Mohn about the firing of former news chief Michael Oreskes.

Angie Andresen, MPR’s spokesperson, told MPR News that the organization’s commitments to transparency and confidentiality are often in conflict, and acknowledged the frustration that was felt. I reached out to Andresen for clarity on the policy and its relationship with the station’s journalism, but did not hear back prior to publication.

The news of Keillor’s firing came hours after NBC News fired Matt Lauer, the longtime co-host of Today because of allegations of sexual harassment. NBC said at the time that it was committed to being as transparent about the issue as possible. Though it is a difficult subject, and confidentiality must be honored, MPR should make the same commitment as NBC. They owe that transparency to their listeners.

They also owe that same respect to their journalists, who helped make MPR known for honoring the principles of SPJ’s Code of Ethics.


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 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, or its members.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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CNN Source Agreement Odd, Not Blackmail

Screenshot of President Donald Trump's Twitter message.

Screenshot of President Donald Trump’s Twitter message.

Post updated Monday July 5 to include CNN’s statement.


CNN announced an unusual anonymity agreement with a source Sunday.


After tracking down the source of a video posted on Twitter by President Donald Trump, CNN said it agreed to keep the person’s identity a secret since he is a private citizen, showed remorse for his online activities, removed his online posts and promised not to repeat his past behavior.

“CNN reserves the right to publish his identity should any of that change,” according to the story reported by Andrew Kaczynski.

CNN’s Oliver Darcy posted a statement from the news organization Monday on his Twitter account about the matter.

Journalists and news organizations offer sources anonymity for various reasons, but the specifics of CNN’s agreements with its source makes it unusual.

Specifically, what would CNN do if the source breaks the agreement by once again becoming an online bully? Would CNN specifically write a story about the person breaking the agreement? Would it retroactively add his name to Sunday’s story?

Journalists should support the open and civil exchange of views, but their role is debatable when they try to police good conduct on other platforms.

Additionally, where would these types of agreements with sources end? Would journalists agree not to identify a thief because he or she promised never to steal again?

In general, concealing the identity of this specific source would not go against the spirit of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.

The Code says journalists should consider a “sources’ motives before promising anonymity. Reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere. Explain why anonymity was granted.”

Additionally, it says journalists should “realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention. Weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information.”

In the case of CNN’s source, he appears to be a private individual who made offensive posts online that somehow made their way to the Presidents of the United States. He’s apparently sorry for his actions. Little is gained by identifying the person. The key is getting information explaining how such a post made it from an online forum to the President of the United States.

All of those goals can be accomplished without CNN turning into an online version of Emily Post.

CNN’s agreement with its source should not be interpreted as blackmail, however. Anonymity agreements between journalists and sources should be detailed and often include qualifying statements. The specific qualifying statement in this agreement is not something that should be common practice, though.

Of course, CNN needs to keep its promise now that it’s agreed upon by both parties.

Journalists should “be cautious when making promises, but keep the promises they make,” according to the Society’s Code.


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

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Learning From a Leak

Caught a drip falling from the tap in the kitchen

Journalists and news organizations must work to protect their sources even when no formal promises or agreements are made between the two parties.


Missteps in handling and reporting classified information may jeopardize the identity of sources and ultimately dissuade other people from leaking important information that may be vital to the public.

The U.S. Justice Department today announced charges against a government contractor for leaking classified information to a news outlet about an hour after The Intercept published a classified document from the National Security Agency.

The document dated early May “was provided anonymously” and details – among other things – an alleged Russian-led cyberattack on a U.S. voting software supplier before the November presidential election, according to The Intercept’s story.

The Justice Department’s affidavit says the news outlet – assumed to be The Intercept – contacted the government agency on May 30 and provided a copy of the classified document. The agency examined the document and noticed “the pages of the intelligence reporting appeared to be folded and/or creased, suggesting they had been printed and hand-carried out of a secured space.

The crease and/or fold was enough to steer investigators toward employees with physical access to the information, according to the affidavit. Of the six people who printed the report, only one had email communications with the news outlet.

As far as I can tell from online news reports and the Justice Department’s affidavit, the source’s arrest cannot be directly blamed on The Intercept’s decision to turn over a copy of the leaked document. Investigators may have been able to identify the alleged leaker due to email or other activity.

The affidavit does suggest The Intercept’s decision made the government’s investigation easier, however.

Journalists and news organizations should not hand over copies of leaked documents to the government, as pointed out on Twitter by Emily Bell, who is the director of Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism in New York.

The main reason for withholding those documents from the government is to protect the source’s identity. As happened in this case, investigators may be able to find clues that lead to the source – such as a crease, fold, watermark or other marking.

The situation Bell cites in her Twitter post resulted in a legal case between The Guardian and the UK government over leaked documents that contained markings that would identify the source.

In its nightly media newsletter, CNN cites a statement from The Intercept: The NSA document was provided to us anonymously. The Intercept has no knowledge of the identity of the source.

The statement seems to conflict with the Justice Department’s affidavit that suggests the alleged leaker had some communication with the news outlet.

News organizations usually have some communication with the sources of leaked information. In those cases, the Society of Professional JournalistsCode of Ethics is clear that journalists should “keep the promises they make.”

The Code is less direct when sources simply mail information to reporters without earlier or follow-up communications. Yet, journalists and news organizations still have an implicit responsibility to do all they can to protect sources of the information.

Journalists and news organizations have a responsibility to minimize harm that should be considered when reporting, writing and ultimately publishing or broadcasting information.

Additionally, leakers need to know journalists on the receiving end of information will treat those documents with the appropriate care and won’t unwittingly turn over information that jeopardizes their safety. If people can’t trust journalists to do all they can to protect people’s identities in these types of situations, leakers may think twice before sending potentially vital information to news organizations.

Beyond the news value of such leaks, it’s in the best interest of the country for people to leak information to responsible journalists and news organization instead of places like WikiLeaks.

Whether The Intercept unknowingly guided the U.S. government to its source is debatable at this point, but the situation an important reminder to other journalists and news organizations to be aware of their responsibilities throughout the news reporting process.


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

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There Is a Role for Public Editors

New York Times Headquarters In New York

SOURCE: Flickr Creative Common

On the same day The New York Times announced a round of buyouts, the paper said it’s also eliminating the position of public editor.


The decision to eliminate the role of the public editor at The New York Times is difficult to understand considering the press continues to suffer from a lack of trust and faces nearly daily assaults from the President of the United States.

Elizabeth Spayd will leave the paper on Friday, according to The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone, who first reported the news on Wednesday. Spayd is the sixth person to hold the position since it was created in 2003.

The role of the public editor “comes with a mandate to review standards and practices at the paper while serving as a conduit to readers,” according to the Times story about Spayd’s appointment. The position was created after the high-profile plagiarism scandal involving Jayson Blair.

Arthur Sulzberger, the paper’s publisher, explained in a memo to staff that readers on the internet “collectively serve as a modern watchdog, more vigilant and forceful than one person could ever be. Our responsibility is to empower all of those watchdogs, and to listen to them, rather than to channel their voice through a single office.”

He added that the paper will increase the number of stories that allow commenting and work to engage readers through a center based on the news desk.

While the paper’s investment in reader engagement initiatives is laudable, the position of public editor is fundamentally different. The public editor operated outside the newsroom’s chain of command. Those who held the position could ruffle proverbial feathers and draw attention to issues without risking their jobs.

The public editor could also make sense of the cacophony created by those vigilant and forceful online watchdogs. The existence of social media and the internet should not have been the downfall of the public editor. Instead, it should be another tool in the editor’s arsenal.

Practically, the public editor was an educated representative of the readers who could walk among the newsroom, talk with editors and ultimately get answers.

Symbolically, the public editor sent a message to people that the paper took their questions seriously and that there was an independent arbiter who heard their concerns. In a time when trust in the press is still low, that message is an invaluable one to communicate.

Sulzberger wrote in his memo that the position of public editor “played a crucial part in rebuilding our readers’ trusts by acting as our in-house watchdog.”

Rebuilding trust is important, but maintaining trust is just as crucial.

The New York Times is obviously not exempt from the business struggles of modern media, but it is still among the news organizations that set the bar for the best of journalism. If it decides it does not need a public editor, most other news organizations with similar positions will take note.  Hopefully other news organizations see the value of such positions, however.


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

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The Press Must Rise to the Challenge

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

Journalists must be a source of confidence in the United States as allegations are made at the top levels of government.


The press should always be accurate and fair in its work, but certain moments in history require journalists to be beyond meticulous while reporting, composing and disseminating their stories.

The United States is now in one of those moments.

President Donald Trump removed James Comey as director of the FBI on Tuesday. Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer of New York said later that night that Americans may believe “the decision to fire Director Comey was part of a cover up” if a special prosecutor is not appointed to carry on the FBI’s investigation into Trump’s associates.

To put it plainly: One of the nation’s most senior lawmakers says people are right to suspect the U.S. president fired the director of the FBI to impede an investigation.

Rarely is such a serious accusation thrown around among the nation’s leaders.

The press needs to serve two purposes during these moments. Journalists must use their tools and knowledge to find the truth and report it. They must also inform the public about the actions of government officials.

While fulfilling these purposes, news organizations and journalists must convey to the public that they understand the seriousness of the circumstances and will work to get the truth. The public also needs to know they can turn to journalists and news organizations for accurate and up-to-date information about their elected leaders and government.

In these moments, journalists and news organizations may want to be direct with their readers, viewers and listeners about their mission. Editor’s notes and brief statements during broadcasts can get those messages across.

Words without actions are meaningless, of course. The press needs to follow through on these assurances by paying attention to details, being more cautious with words, thinking twice before sending out social media posts, reminding themselves of the Society of Professional JournalistsCode of Ethics and adhering to time-tested editorial processes that ensure accuracy and fairness.

Mistakes are bound to happen, but the press must do its best to correct errors as quickly as possible and prevent irresponsible journalism from making its way to print or broadcast. Good journalism tells the story. Bad journalism becomes the story.

The public deserves and expects journalists to find and report the answers to these serious questions – no matter where they lead. Three quarters of adults in the U.S. last year believed news organizations keep political leaders from doing things that shouldn’t be done, according to the Pew Research Center.

More than ever, the press can’t let the public down.


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

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Why a Code of Ethics is Important

No one can split a hair like a journalist. You can fill an entire after-work happy hour with debates about the proper use of the verb “claimed” and whether a suspect should be a subject or a person of interest.

We are, after all, the profession that will go to war over the Oxford comma and whether or not “internet” should be capitalized.

As journalists, we spend a lot of time interpreting the Society of Professional Journalists‘ Code of Ethics for particular situations and debating the fine points of the Code as it applies to our work. That is an important discussion, one to which the Ethics Committee is dedicated and that will help shape and inform our work to come.

The changes in our profession have created new realms of ethical controversy, from the appropriate and compassionate treatment of subjects online to managing comment sections to the ethical use of social media for reporting and investigation to the questions of unpublishing, original source documents, and the wild world of online news video.

Still there is a common belief that journalism ethics should simply be innate, that if you’ve been a reporter or editor for a certain amount of time, you should be aware of the ethical constraints of our profession and follow the rules, whether or not they’re written down.

But the problem we find is that the real ethical quandaries are not the big yes-or-no questions that comprise the “duh” section of Journalism 101. They come in those little gray areas, the moments when the rush to get the news online fast washes away the perspective of ethical journalism.

This is why a code written down on paper is important. We must have clear boundaries to help us guide our decisions on deadline, a list of rules of the road to give us a framework for those decisions – and sometimes, to provide reporters with some cover when the editor is out of the office.

But I’d like to add another consideration: Ethics codes are not just for journalists.

Creating and following an ethics code is vitally important for our work, but almost as important is the public’s trust in us. As we all know, that trust has eroded greatly, whether deserved or undeserved. I know that I have grown weary of arguing against the latest idiotic meme alleging that we are all part of some vast corporate conspiracy and cover the news based on dictates from anonymous masters who are in the pocket of one party or another.

The problem is: people believe the memes more than they believe us.

And I feel we are partly to blame for that. Not because they are correct, but because we do a terrible job of publicizing the structures and ethical guidelines of our profession. So much of the news-reading population has no idea that ethics codes even exist or are adhered to by any newsrooms.

By writing our ethics codes down on paper, using them, revising them, and sharing them as much as possible, we educate the public about the work that we do. It provides the same transparency that we demand of our public officials, that the “how” and “why” of a story is as important as the story itself.

We must stop assuming that the readers know how a newsroom works, that they understand the strictures of the profession. They don’t know unless we tell them. They don’t trust us anymore, and we need to show them, by word and example, that they can.

And that means our Code of Ethics cannot stay stagnant. Our understanding of ethical values might not change over the years, but the practical application of those values can and will change as the world changes. Any code is only as good as the people locked in a room to write it, and the people who continue to interpret it and share it with colleagues and the public.

That means we aren’t done, and the conversation will have to continue – with or without happy hour. That conversation needs to be public, so that the readers can see that this is important, that we care, that talking heads on TV are not the sole representatives of the news media.

There are a lot of us doing this job. We care about what we do. And we have a code.


Elizabeth Donald is a member of the Society of Professional Journalists’ ethics committee.

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