Posts Tagged ‘San Bernardino’


Five Stories that Defined Journalism Ethics in 2015

2016

Journalism ethics is always a popular topic of discussion, and 2015 was no exception.


In the spirit of a new year and proverbial bandwagons, I decided to highlight the blog posts about the five stories that really embodied journalism ethics missteps in 2015. Since “scoring” or “ranking” ethics is impossible and irresponsible, these are in no particular order.

May this coming year bring you good luck, responsible reporting and ethical news!


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

 

GUEST POST: SPJ’s San Bernardino statement still doesn’t state much

While I am typically the only person who posts to this blog, I’m always happy to entertain guest posts and analyses. In this case, SPJ D.C. Pro Board Member Gideon Grudo took issue with the Society’s response to journalists’ behavior following this month’s mass shooting in San Bernardino, California. After his initial post on the Region 2 blog, I offered him an opportunity to share his thoughts here. – Andrew M. Seaman, SPJ’s ethics chair


By Gideon Grudo

Before anything else: Andrew Seaman has graciously let me use this ethics blog to post a critique of this ethics blog (in so many words, anyway—you’ll see). That’s awesome and so is he.

Twelve days after the San Bernardino apartment crawl on MSNBC, this is still all SPJ has said about it

Journalists should feel free to investigate stories when and where possible. They need to minimize harm in their reporting, however. Walking into a building and live broadcasting the pictures, addresses and other identifying information of children or other people who may have no involvement in the story does not represent best and ethical practices.

…kinda. That’s not even SPJ’s statement (if you want to call it that). It’s SPJ’s ethics chair’s statement. His name is Andrew Seaman. In an email, Seaman told me that—before his time—“SPJ started using blogs and other types of statements to respond to things like San Bernardino.”

“In this case, it’s a Friday afternoon when a lot of people were out of contact. I can’t summon the SPJ board, but I can use my voice as its ethics chair. So, I do not speak for the entire organization, but I can express my opinion,” he wrote me in a later email. “So, as the headline says: Statement from SPJ Ethics chair…”

Okay. But does the public know all this? Cutting red tape is always a good idea. Who really cares whether SPJ the institution speaks out or someone SPJ’s president chose to chair its ethics committee speaks out?

However, no one knows the difference if we’re not clear about it. It’s confusing, too.

Last Tuesday, when Seaman (who’s a volunteer putting lots of hours into this, by the by) released his analysis of the apartment crawl broadcast, a former Florida chapter president asked me on Facebook if I was “appeased.”

Nope, I replied. Why? Because an analysis isn’t a statement (or a follow up to a statement, or anything related to a statement), and an ethics blog isn’t a place where SPJ says whatever official thing it needs to say.

That is, unless it says so in big bold letters, like this: HOLLER: THIS BLOG IS HOW WE SAY WHATEVER OFFICIAL THING WE NEED TO SAY. SIGNED, SPJ. Or something like that.

So what do I want? I’m not looking for some San Bernardino coverage justice. That’s just an example I’ve almost definitely overused at this point. I’m more focused on the next instance, which will inevitably and unfortunately come knocking: I want us to say what we mean.

Maybe we don’t want to say anything, in which case we shouldn’t issue pseudo-statements.

How do we issue statements about which we may know little but also about which the public is curious and confused? Easy, we (a chair or a regional director or whoever we trust) tell the truth in three simple steps:

  1. This is what we know (journalism is good/journalism is bad)
    1. MSNBC done effed up
  2. This is what we don’t know
    1. Other outlets may have been involved
  3. This is what we’re going to do about it (an analysis, an angry letter, a sit-in, a peaceful protest, a boycott, maybe nothing)
    1. We’re going to analyze the s$%^ out of this and tell you all about it in the coming days so you’re more aware.

Seaman’s analysis is great at telling us that what happened was ethical or unethical. It doesn’t tell us what should be done about it.

Well, except this:

The best advice would be for the offenders to implement new editorial strategies to prevent these kinds of mistakes in the future, but I can only write that advice so many times. Instead, it’s imperative that other journalists call out unethical journalism whenever and wherever possible.

Nice. Whenever possible is now. Wherever possible is here.

 

Friday’s Fiasco: Journalism Can and Should be Better

MSNBC's Kerry Sanders on Friday. (via screenshot of MSNBC.com)

MSNBC’s Kerry Sanders on Friday. (via screenshot of MSNBC.com)

A flood of people and equipment poured through the door of Syed Farook and Tashfeen Malik’s apartment on Friday.


The couple murdered 14 people and injured another 26 just two days earlier at the Inland Regional Center in San Bernardino, California.

Carrying microphones, lights, cameras and any other electronics capable of broadcasting, people raced through the apartment to capture any detail of the space once occupied by mass murderers.

MSNBC’s Kerry Sanders was one of the first reporters to enter the apartment. He was soon combing through items and holding up pictures of children, identification cards and other objects to the camera. Andrea Mitchell, who was anchoring the network at the time, grew uneasy and asked to cut away, according to CNN.

Sanders was not alone, of course. Reporters from most national news organizations like CNN, CBS and The New York Times were present along with reporters from local news organizations. They were soon joined by random people from the neighborhood.

In the wake of the reporters converging on the apartment like a swarm of locusts, people were outraged. The reporters looked like leeches, and served as a visual explanation of why only four in 10 people trust the media.

Those outraged people were correct.

For the most part, what happened on air Friday from that apartment was not journalism. Instead, what happened was the type of sensationalized and voyeuristic nonsense the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics shuns.

From beginning to end, the events on Friday violated what SPJ considers the profession’s best practices.

  • While there is still debate over how the media gained access to the apartment, several reports say a crew from Inside Edition paid for access to the apartment. A journalist with even a shred of dignity doesn’t consider paying for news, and should call out those who engage in checkbook journalism.Paying for news sets a dangerous precedent, and allows news to go to the highest bidder. Readers, viewers and listeners should also question the accuracy and integrity of any news stories purchased outright or through other backdoor fees.
  • The journalists who rushed into the apartment should have also made the ethical decision and turned off their cameras. “Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort,” says SPJ’s code. Journalists should know going into an apartment cleared by the Federal Bureau of Investigation was not likely to yield any significant evidence. There was no need for viewers or listeners to be exposed to that scene as it unfolded. As SPJ’s code also reminds journalists, legal access to information differs from the ethical justification to publish.
  • The reporters inside the apartment should have also realized that no good could have come from broadcasting random artifacts. The people in those pictures and named on those documents may have no connection to Friday’s events, but are now linked and possibly in danger thanks to the recklessness of the reporters.

MSNBC, who took the brunt of the blowback on Friday, issued a brief mea culpa (while also patting itself on the back) on Friday.

Meanwhile, Fox News and CNN also issued statements that they had been allowed in the apartment, but were careful not to show pictures and other documents.

All of the journalists who were broadcasting live from the scene on Friday – including those on social media – are all in the same boat, however. They should have known better than to run into the apartment while broadcasting without knowing what they would find.

The best advice would be for the offenders to implement new editorial strategies to prevent these kinds of mistakes in the future, but I can only write that advice so many times. Instead, it’s imperative that other journalists call out unethical journalism whenever and wherever possible.

Journalists need to realize that MSNBC, Inside Edition and other news organizations that take part in this type of cavalier coverage are harming all journalists. Whether we like it or not, cable networks are often the face of journalism for the American people. When they screw up, we all suffer.


Andrew M. Seaman is chair of SPJ’s ethics committee.

*This post was updated at 10 a.m. on December 9th to fix a typo in the penultimate paragraph.

Ho, ho, hoax – Marie Christmas

@JewyMarie's Twitter Posts

@JewyMarie’s Twitter Posts

Social media is a proverbial gold mine for journalists, but it’s also filled with landmines.


A number of eyewitness accounts were sent out on Twitter as news about the mass shooting in San Bernardino, California, emerged on Wednesday. One post that caught my eye on Twitter was from the handle @JewyMarie, who is also known as Marie Christmas.

“I saw the shooter shooting people in San Bernardino,” @JewyMarie posted. “I’m scared for my life at the moment in hiding.”

In the end, accounts of the shooting from @JewyMarie made it into reports from the AP (and The New York Times as a result), the International Business Times and an on-air interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper.

There is obviously a person behind @JewyMarie’s Twitter account, but the person’s accounts of events are fake.

While embarrassing, the ordeal is a reminder that a person’s word is not proof. People lie. Anonymous people on the Internet lie – a lot.

Steve Buttry, director of student media at Louisiana State University and tireless blogger of journalism practices, uncovered the fabrication while following up with @JewyMarie. You can read his full account (and a few of my comments) here: http://bit.ly/1ItAb4C

As Buttry’s post points out, I had my doubts about @JewyMarie.

Specifically, the account itself is anonymized. The profile picture is of a cartoon. There are no messages or descriptions that explain who the person is or where they live. The existing messages aren’t anything of substance either.

Additionally, @JewyMarie responded to people asking for interviews by saying they didn’t have a phone and was using wireless Internet to post. “I can’t do audio interviews,” they posted.

For that to be true, the person would likely need to be using an Internet-connected iPad or tablet for Twitter updates, which the @JewyMarie account had been doing right before the post about seeing “the shooter.” The other option is the person fleeing the scene was using a laptop.

Taken together, these facts alone should make journalists doubt the person is an eyewitness. Admittedly, it’s not impossible they’re an eyewitness, but it’s unlikely.

Without additional verification from a person that proves they are an eyewitness, journalists should move on. Stories about mass killings are too big and too important to the public for journalists to blindly trust an anonymous Internet user, who apparently gets their kicks from making light of mass murder.

If journalists are often told to investigate their own mothers’ love, they should apply that standard to random people on the Internet.

As for organizations that fell for the ruse, the newsrooms shouldn’t waste time scolding anonymous Twitter users with questionable consciences. The best path forward is for the journalists to admit the mistake, correct the record and implement strategies to prevent these occurrences in the future.


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

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