Posts Tagged ‘Minimize 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.

Journalists Can Responsibly Use Hacked Data

Ashley Madison HackStories are starting to trickle out of the massive hack of Ashley Madison, which is touted as a dating website for people who are already married.


The hack exposed the information of an estimated 30 million people.

Obviously, people are hesitant to report and read stories based on a hack, because the data are stolen and offer little value to the public. These are fair and rational arguments, but I disagree with both.

It’s a very dangerous precedent for journalists to ignore information on the basis of whether or not it’s stolen from the owner.  As long as journalists were not involved in the actual theft of the material, they should feel free to take a look at the information to see if it’s of interest to the public.

In this case, the data is from a website that facilitates the affairs of married people. One may argue that there is no public interest in the personal lives of anyone who pops up in the data. In general, this argument is valid, but should not be generalized to the entire data dump.

For example, there is no public interest in John Smith from down the street having an affair. The situations changes when John Smith is using his government email address and/or credit card to manage his website membership, however.

The bottom line is that journalists should feel free to mine the data from hacks for information that should be elevated to the public, but those stories must be responsibly reported.

In this case, journalists should verify information and allow people accused of having an account a chance to respond to allegations. Journalists must also explain why they believe people should know about the information. The explanation must be better than to simply pander to lurid curiosity.

Finally, journalists and news organization should aim to minimize harm. Minimizing harm does not mean journalists should simply avoid reporting on important stories. All journalism, in general, creates some level of harm – ranging from discomfort to mental distress. The good of the information being brought to light should outweigh the harms.

As in many cases, the question is not whether a story should be done. The question is how to responsibly report a story.


Andrew M. Seaman is the Society’s ethics chairman. He lives and works in New York City.

We Expect Better, Gawker

Illustration of Gawker homepage of July 17, 2015

Photo illustration of Gawker homepage of 07/17/2015

(UPDATED July 17, 2015 at 3:40 p.m. EDT)

Gawker published a post yesterday suggesting the website Reddit is ignorant to the harassment and abuse that occurs within its walls.


The news and gossip site then published a post that alleges a relatively unknown married man paid a male escort for sex.

Basically, the post says the married brother of Timothy Geithner, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Treasury, contacted an unnamed escort. The man arranged to meet the escort in Chicago, but the rendezvous ultimately never occurred.

The post prompted immediate backlash toward Gawker, its editorial leadership and the post’s author. I sent tweets to both Gawker and the post’s author Jordan Sargent.

I received a few tweets and messages from people who said they shared my outrage, but they also asked why I’d expect Gawker to follow basic journalism standards anyway.

If Gawker acts like a journalism organization, walks like a journalism organization, talks like a journalism organization, it better try and follow some of journalism’s basic standards.

Earlier in the day, the website published posts about the mass shooting on a military base in Tennessee, the Islamic State and the case of the mass shooting in a Colorado movie theater. Gawker is clearly acting as a source for news produced by professional writers.

Granted, Gawker is not a shining example of journalism integrity, but people go to it and similar websites to get information presented in quick, entertaining and often smart methods.

My biggest problem with the post – other than it being in poor taste, is that it appears no thought was spared to consider the potential damage this post would bring upon the married man, his wife and children. Also, other than having a prominent brother and – what I’m assuming is – a well-paying job, the married man has little relevancy outside of his family and profession.

Under the tenet of minimize harm, the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists 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.”

What’s more, the Code says journalists should, “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”

Why did anyone need to read a post based on the word of an unnamed person that a private individual allegedly tried to arrange a meeting? None. What’s more, it likely caused significant harm and turmoil in several people’s lives.

As for the escort remaining anonymous, the Code says journalists should identify sources clearly, because the “public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.”

The Code goes on to say that journalists should “consider sources’ motives before promising anonymity.” They should also, “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.”

In this case, the post says the male escort “does not want to reveal his identity for professional reasons.” My question to the post’s author is why did Gawker agree to protect the identity of someone who admitted to blackmailing a person, and then turn around and publish a hit piece with no regard for the subject’s life or the lives of his family?

When the initial backlash began, a Twitter account allegedly belonging to Max Read, Gawker’s editor-in-chief, showed no remorse for the post.

Several people responded to his tweet with what I consider to be an appropriate response: Why?

While the damage is likely already done, I hope Gawker’s leadership and the author of the post will apologize.

Until then, shame on you, Gawker.


 UPDATE – July 17 at 3:40 p.m. EDT

In a post published this afternoon, Gawker founder Nick Denton said the original story has been pulled from the website. While Denton acknowledges the post likely led to embarrassment for the subject, he did not apologize for the website causing that harm.

This action will not turn back the clock. David Geithner’s embarrassment will not be eased. But this decision will establish a clear standard for future stories. It is not enough for them simply to be true. They have to reveal something meaningful. They have to be true and interesting. These texts were interesting, but not enough, in my view.

 

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.

Ethics Week 2015: Reporting from the Internet

Illustration Credit Sean MacEntee

Illustration Credit Sean MacEntee

In today’s journalism world, obtaining and sharing information can be instantaneous. 


Especially in breaking news situations we can find ourselves, as journalists, scrambling to collect, verify and publish the latest news we have.

In a lot of cases, this is when we turn to social media and the Internet. Whether you are looking at tweets, photos or posts online to use in your story, it’s important to carefully think about what and how you are publishing and producing this content.

Ethical issues pop up all the time when it comes to social media. Below are some points to consider if you’re going to use information or content from these sites.

Access. Asking yourself, what type of access you have to the information posted, is very important.

If you can only see the photo of John Doe because you are friends with him, is it OK to show that photo on TV in your story? I would argue it is not. But, if the same photo can be seen by anyone, so it was posted on his profile publicly, I would argue it is OK.

This is all about a person’s privacy and expectation of privacy. If the person posted it and made it so that only his friends can view it, is it ethical to share with the world because you have access as an insider or friend? I don’t think it is and wouldn’t do it unless I had permission from the individual or someone speaking on their behalf.

Self-verification. Just because someone claims to be Mary Sue online, doesn’t mean they are. Just because someone claims to be associated with a particular organization or individual online doesn’t make it true.

We have a responsibility as journalists to do our due diligence to verify the identity of the online profile and what is said on it. Use public records to help with this. Pick up the phone and call people or the organization to verify the association.

This goes for photos, posts and videos. Just because someone posted a photo or has it as their profile photo doesn’t mean it is them or even associated with them.

Always attribute. If you are pulling the information from someone’s Twitter feed or a Facebook post, say so in your story. Don’t just say an individual said this and leave out that it was said on social media.

Each social media site had its own lingo and culture. This can be important when telling your users John Doe did or said something. It also provides more insight for your audience into where and how you gathered the information.

Impact of sharing. This example always sticks with me. While at a social media seminar, the presenter (former SPJ Ethics Chair, Kevin Smith) showed a photo of car crash scene on the interstate.

A reporter had just arrived on scene, snapped a photo and posted it to Twitter. Great instant reporting.

Well, what the reporter probably didn’t think about was this: in the photo you could see the very badly damaged car and it looks like a really terrible accident. It was a powerful image for the story and really made you hope the people inside made it out alive. But, what you also saw was the vehicles license plate number.

That number identified the car, the owner and possibly family and friends. When you are just arriving on the scene of situations like this, family probably hasn’t been notified yet. How awful would it be for them to find out from your tweet?

Think about this as you share photos and videos. Try to remember to look at the whole photo before posting and consider things like license plates.

Context. If you are pulling information from social media you really have to give it complete context. If a post you are sharing from Twitter was from two years ago, mention that. I would go further to say, I think you should consider whether or not to use it at all.

Just because it was said at one point, doesn’t make it fair game in my eyes. Also, was it posted as part of a series of tweets or posts? Was it part of a response to someone else’s tweet? Was the photo taken at a theme party of some sort and that may be why the individual is dressed that way.

You really have to think about whether or not the information or photos make sense to use in the context of the story you are working on. You don’t want to misrepresent what you are presenting to the public.


This post is authored by Lynn Walsh, who is the Society’s secretary-treasurer and a member of it ethics committee. She also serves on the SPJ FOI and Generation J committees. She leads the investigative team at the NBC affiliate, KNSD Channel 7, in San Diego, California. Tweet to her, @LWalsh, or send her an email: Lynn.K.Walsh@gmail.com.

SPJ_ETHICS_WEEKThis is one of a series of posts for Ethics Week, which spans April 19-25. Click here to read more about the week and how you can celebrate. You can read the complete and new version of the SPJ Code of Ethics by clicking here.

Ethics Week 2015: Minimizing Harm

SPJ_ETHICS_WEEK

(This post was updated on April 27, 2015 at 11:10 a.m. EDT)

The Society’s Ethics Week is focusing on minimizing harm, which is a key tenet of the Code of Ethics.


The Society’s Code of Ethics is composed of four key tenets and almost three dozen underlying principles. While all four tenets are crucial to the Code, one tends to be at the heart of more Ethics Hotline queries than the others: Minimize Harm.

When the staff at the Society’s headquarters asked for an Ethics Week 2015 theme, it was obvious that “Minimize Harm” should be the highlight.

The Society’s social media will focus throughout the week on content that helps journalists minimize harm in their work. This blog will host guest posts on several days about the subject. The Code’s supporting documents will be introduced in the coming days. The Society will host Twitter chats related to the topic of harm, too.

We also hope that journalists and non-journalists will contribute to the conversation by interacting with the Society’s Twitter and Facebook accounts. As someone who often receives emails and calls about various journalism missteps, I know people have a lot to contribute to the discussion.

While the emphasis of the week is on minimizing harm, journalists should not simply shy away from sensitive or uncomfortable subjects to achieve that goal. Instead, they should be reminded after this week that all stories need to be responsibly executed.

As I often tell people when I speak, journalists are invited into people’s homes and personal lives throughout the day in print, digital and broadcast form. Journalists should not abuse that privilege. They should be like any other guest and be respectful of their hosts.

To get started, I’d like to invite you to read the latest Quill cover story by ethics committee co-vice chair Mónica Guzmán here: http://bit.ly/1EWGYjL. In the story, Monica tackles some of the emerging ethical issues journalists should watch for when reporting stories.

Also, check out the latest “From The President” by Dana Neuts, and my “Ethics Toolbox.”


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee. He is a journalist in New York City.

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