Posts Tagged ‘press ethics’


On-Air Interviews – A Complex Equation

Erin Burnett interviewing Sam Nunberg on March 6.

Journalists must know when to move discussions off air.


Sam Nunberg, a former Trump campaign aide, granted many interviews to journalists Monday that produced several accusations and conflicting statements.

Some interviews with Nunberg were conducted live on television, including one in which CNN’s Erin Burnett said she smelled alcohol on his breath. Nunberg said he was not drinking.

Nunberg’s exchanges throughout the day ignited questions on social media about the ethics of journalists interviewing people who are acting erratic or possibly under the influence of alcohol or drugs.

(There is no evidence – other than Burnett’s statement and question – that Nunberg was under the influence of any substance.)

Like most questions about ethics, the answer is complicated and must account for several factors. Some of those basic factors include – but are not limited to – a person’s experience with media, the topic of the story, the person’s role in the story and the person’s age.

Thinking more broadly, journalists must also consider whether the information being provided by the person is accurate and how it affects people at home reading the newspaper, watching television, listening to the radio or interacting with the news online.

In most cases, these factors would lead journalists to forgo interviewing people for person-on-the-street columns or about local news events like fires and robberies.

The story Nunberg is involved in is not routine, however. He is also not a random person on the street.

Nunberg reportedly has experience dealing with the media. He worked – at one point – for the future president and is now involved in an investigation into accusations that could have very serious consequences. There is no question that his words are newsworthy.

Journalists should not be chastised for speaking with Nunberg, but that does not mean each of his statements and accusations should be printed or broadcast.

By the time he arrived on air with CNN’s Burnett, Nunberg already claimed a former Trump advisor colluded with Russia and criticized the appearance of the president’s press secretary. Burnett said she smelled alcohol on Nunberg’s breath, which he denied. Also, the seriousness of the investigation at the heart of the interview cannot be overstated.

The combination of these factors suggests it may have been best and more responsible to tape an interview with Nunberg instead of airing it on live television. The decision would give journalists, editors and producers more time to evaluate the accusations he made during the interview. They could also put his statements into context.

To be fair, the same could be said for many other interviews when questions about alcohol and mental health don’t arise.

The bottom line is that a journalist’s primary obligation is to present the truth as they know it right now and minimize harm in its pursuit. A journalist should ask if they are leaving their readers, viewers or listeners with the most accurate information without causing unnecessary harm.

In many cases – including this one, I think journalists can do better.


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

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.

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.

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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