Posts Tagged ‘Privacy’


What Should Journalists Learn From Gawker’s Demise?

image1Gawker launched in 2003, but didn’t come into my orbit until three years later during my first year of college. I don’t remember the first Gawker post I read, but the website quickly became one of my daily sources of entertainment and – yes – information.

Now, Gawker is closing up shop after its sale to Univision, which purchased the website’s parent company at a bankruptcy auction earlier this week. The company’s downfall was instigated by a judgment that awarded $140 million to Terry Bollea, who is better known as Hulk Hogan.

Gawker posted secretly recorded video in 2012 of Bollea having sex with a friend’s wife. Tech billionaire Peter Thiel, who Gawker reported as gay in 2007, bankrolled Bollea’s lawsuit as revenge. He openly offered to do the same for other people wronged by Gawker.

A quick Google search will show that the Society of Professional Journalists had an interesting and strained relationship with Gawker during its existence. Last year, the Society stood with the website as it battled a $79,000 bill to fulfill a Public Information Act request. Less than two weeks later, I wrote a post for this blog criticizing Gawker for publicly outing a married man with children for no specific reason.

As the Society’s ethics committee chairperson, I shouldn’t like Gawker. Many of its actions stood in direct opposition to what the Society considers ethical and moral behavior for people in the media. Yet, I rooted for Gawker and that made its missteps all the more painful.

Gawker was bold and brave, but it wasn’t smart enough to save it from itself.

Over the past few months, I gave a lot of thought to what lessons people should take away from Gawker’s legal troubles. Now, I wonder what people should learn from its demise.

Looking back on the events that led to the shuttering of the website, I think the message is that responsible journalism is a good investment.

While people can place blame with Bollea and Thiel for dealing the deadly blow to the website, the truth is that Gawker died from a thousand self-inflicted cuts.

The website shrugged and recoiled time and time again at journalism’s best practices. Time is the only thing that stood in the way of Gawker acting outside the bounds of the law, too.

For example, anyone taking a basic journalism ethics course could see it was an unacceptable act for Gawker to out Thiel in 2007. The post was not illegal, however.

As a jury decided earlier this year, its posting of Bollea’s sex tape in 2012 was illegal. Obviously, posting a sex tape irrelevant to the public is unethical in the eyes of the Society’s Code of Ethics, too.

The bottom line is that Gawker likely would still be publishing next week if it adhered to at least some basic journalistic principles.

Those principles are not meant to make media organizations play it safe. Instead, they’re to show which fights are worth the battle. When journalists follow those principles, the journalism community will rally around their cause. Publishing irrelevant rumors and sex tapes fall outside that realm, however.

This post is not meant to kick Gawker or its employees while they’re down. Instead, it’s to remind other media organizations to use Gawker’s rise and fall as an education. Being bold and brave is not enough. Media organizations need to be responsible, too.


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

Learning from Gawker’s Attempt to Erase the Past

Visit SPJ.org for information on its Code of Ethics.

Visit SPJ.org 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.

Gawker.com’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 Poynter.org 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 FiveThirtyEight.com’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 Poynter.org 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.

Gawker.com 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 Gawker.com 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.

 

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