Posts Tagged ‘Poynter’

Learning from Gawker’s Attempt to Erase the Past

Visit for information on its Code of Ethics.

Visit for information on its Code of Ethics.

Journalism is a high-risk profession. While the work is rewarding, one mistake may lead to a very public downfall.

Journalists and journalism organizations sometimes think one click helps erase the past.’s Jordan Sargent published a story on Thursday night alleging an executive at a publishing company mailed money to an escort for a rendezvous in Chicago. In terms of journalism ethics, the story is garbage. By Friday night, Gawker Media’s Founder and CEO Nick Denton removed the story.

Denton acknowledges that removing the story won’t turn back the clock and erase the embarrassment the subject feels, but “this decision will establish a clear standard for future stories.”

A statement from Gawker Media’s staff, which recently unionized, revealed the decision to remove the story was made by the executive arm of the company. The staff said it was an example of the management breaching the divide between the company’s business and editorial units.

Putting aside the apparent conflict within Gawker, both Denton and Gawker Media’s staff ignore the question of whether removing the story from the website was the right decision.

Denton’s reasoning to remove the story is that it doesn’t align with the website’s values, which appear to evolve within his post. The Gawker Media staff appears more concerned about the business arm of the company making editorial decisions.

As a general rule, stories should not be removed once they are published – online or in physical archives. Removing or “unpublishing” stories undermines the public’s trust in journalism. Also, stories – especially those archived on the Internet – don’t completely disappear. Journalists should remain in control of the information they publish.

In Gawker’s case, the story became so widely circulated and cited that unpublishing likely had little impact on correcting the wrongs it caused. After all, the story is still available through Internet archive websites.

Instead of unpublishing stories, Mallary Tenore suggests some alternative actions on that may be more acceptable to readers and sources. For example, the news organization can add an addendum to the archived story. Or, write another story about the situation.

There are a few exceptions to the general rule, however. For example, stories may be removed or “unpublished” when there are legal concerns and the potential for significant harm.

All newsrooms should have a policy on when to remove stories from its archives, but less than half had such a policy as of 2009, according to a report by Kathy English, the public editor of The Toronto Star. English looked at the topic as part of the Online Journalism Credibility Projects of the Associated Press Managing Editors, which is now known as the Associated Press Media Editors.

Journalism organizations need a policy on unpublishing in place. Throughout Europe, people may bypass news organizations and request that search engines like Google remove links about them from search results. In fact, over a quarter million people in Europe asked Google to remove information about them from search results, according to’s Mona Chalabi on NPR.

In the U.S., people need to go directly to the person or entity – like news organizations – who own the original content, however.

Based on her report, English offers some best practices for newsroom. Those include having a policy in place, explaining the newsroom’s unpublishing policy to readers and considering the implications of a story before publishing. She also suggests questions journalists in newsrooms should ask themselves about unpublishing.

When a news organization makes the decision to unpublish a story, it must also realize that action is not the final step in the process. Readers deserve to be informed about the reason and decision to unpublish a story.

Kelly McBride writes on how news organizations can maintain credibility when they unpublish stories. For example, a news organization can write a precisely worded explanation about why the story was removed. Or, redirect people to accurate information if the original story was inaccurate. later added a note to the story’s original link, which explains that the story was removed from the website. The addendum also links to a story about the decision, Denton’s note and the statement from the editorial staff.

While mistakes can never be completely avoided, errors can be minimized when journalism organizations subscribe to the profession’s best practices and implement editorial policies that ensure only true, accurate and fair stories make it to publication. When that fails, the process to remove a story should be open and explained in detail to readers.

As always, good journalism is the best defense for journalists, sources, readers and democracy.

Andrew Seaman is the ethics chair for the Society of Professional Journalists.


Osama bin Laden photos: To show or not to show?

By Kevin Z. Smith

With news advancing every day that the White House is considering releasing photos showing Osama bin Laden’s body, journalists will soon be pondering ethical standards and asking themselves if they want or need to use the graphic images.

[UPDATE: 5/4/2011 1:49 p.m. ET – CNN reports that President Obama has decided against releasing the photos:]

(What do you think? How will your newsroom decide? If you aren’t a newsroom manager, will you try to persuade the “higher ups” a certain way? Comment below.)

It’s a debate that’s sure to take place in hundreds of newsrooms around the nation. It’s also a debate that will involve more than journalists and newsrooms, as thousands of bloggers will be eager to be a part of sharing of these images.

For more than 16 years, the Society of Professional Journalists, through its four editions of ethics books, has addressed the rationale for conducting open, thoughtful and deliberate discussions whenever graphic images are under consideration. Such discussions are necessary in order to provide the public with a reasonable explanation about how and why the outlet chose to use or not use the images.

To quote Chapter 10 from SPJ’s latest ethics book – “Journalism Ethics: A Casebook of Professional Conduct for News Media” – “Photo and video images tend to generate the most heated debates within newsrooms. And it’s clear that the ire of the public can easily be provoked by a single photo or a short piece of video.”

What will undoubtedly make its way into conversations is the use of the photos online. There was a time when traditional news outlets could make such ethical decisions within a “professional vacuum,” meaning that there was little chance that the images would ever been seen by the public cooperation of the news media.

That hasn’t been the case for almost a generation of information consumers. What the community newspaper may withhold could be circulated one thousand times within that same community via blogs and social media.

In addition to the questions below, news outlets will need to decide if they want to be forced into making their ethical decisions based on decisions by non-journalists.  If the photos go viral on the Internet – and nothing suggests that this won’t be the case – will there be pressure to succumb even if it might violate existing standards in the news organization (and nearly every news outlet has some policy about graphic images)?

To those who read SPJ’s Code of Ethics and point out that it identifies an ethical journalist’s first obligation is to “seek truth and report it” (and therefore using these images meets that sacred public trust of unvarnished truth), I also refer you to the next section of the Code headlined “minimize harm.” This section suggests that truth can be told with moral consideration to those who are involved or are subjected to the harmful effects of reporting. If we didn’t believe this, we’d be compelled to run news pages and newscasts filled solely with images of dead soldiers, crime victims and those who meet tragic consequences.

Whatever the decision, it should be based on solid principles, values and rationale. To say, “We’re doing it because everyone else is,” isn’t, and hasn’t been, an excuse for circumventing ethics.

Prior to publication or broadcast, the following questions need to be asked:

  1. Do I need more information about facts or context?
  2. Can I verify that photo or images are accurate and the source/s reliable?
  3. What is the news value of the image?
  4. What is the motivation for publishing the photo or broadcasting the video image?
  5. What are the ethical and legal concerns?
  6. Who will be offended? Does the offense outweigh the value of presenting the image?
  7. What are the possible consequences of using the photo or the image? The consequences of not using it?
  8. How would I react if I saw the photo?
  9. Can alternative ways to present the information minimize the harm while still telling the story in a clear way.
  10. Will the ends justify our actions
  11. Is there a potential of establishing a new set of ethical standards by using or not using this image? Do I want that  to happen? Will I adhere to those new guidelines and make them a part of future discussions?
  12. Can I justify my decision?

For additional perspective, see posts on this topic from Ryan Murphy at RTDNA and Al Tompkins at Poynter.

Kevin Z. Smith is chairman of the SPJ Ethics Committee and past national president (2009-10)



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