Posts Tagged ‘Truth’


Debating the Role of Debate Moderators

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

The upcoming U.S. presidential and vice presidential debates are high-stakes events for the candidates. The debates will also be defining moments for the five journalists tasked with moderating the conversations.

Each journalist will be scrutinized on a number of factors, such as the questions they ask and their ability to control the debate. More than ever, the journalists will also be judged on whether they decide to “fact check” the candidates’ statements.

The campaign of Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton called on moderators to correct her opponent if he lies during the debate. The campaign of Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump believes it’s not the role of the moderators to fact check the candidates, however.

The truth is that journalists moderating debates – whether among presidential candidates or city council members – can’t allow blatant inaccuracies to go uncorrected. The journalists also can’t be expected to catch every lie or misstatement.

Journalists should seek truth and report it, according to the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists. They don’t shed that responsibility just because they’re moderating a debate.

The truth is not partisan or biased.

If one of the candidates, for example, misstates the starting date of the invasion of Iraq, the moderator should be free to say the correct date is March 20, 2003.

Realistically, the journalists are limited by their own knowledge and certainty about a specific topic. The journalists shouldn’t barge into the discussion if they’re unsure about their own facts or figures.

The journalists also shouldn’t attempt to correct candidates on broad statements about policy issues, such as health care or national security.  Each candidate by now should be well versed in his/her opponent’s policies and ready to debate those matters.

So the question is not whether a debate moderator should correct candidates. The correct question is whether a debate moderator appropriately and fairly corrected the candidates.


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

People in Mass Media Should Be Advocates for Truth

The Society added a line to the Code of Ethics in 2014 as a nod to a new media landscape, where some people may look – but not act – like journalists. Instead of specifically calling out journalists, the Society called on “all people in all media” to be responsible stewards of truth.

On his weekly CNN show Reliable Sources, Brian Stelter ended his program with an editorial on people in media allowing Donald Trump’s vague claims that the November presidential election will be “rigged” to go unchallenged.

Stelter largely focuses on Fox News host Sean Hannity’s treatment of Trump during an interview in which the candidate says the election may be rigged. Also, a conversation with Newt Gingrich in which Hannity suggests voter fraud was a problem in the 2012 election between Mitt Romney and Barack Obama.

“Hannity’s not a journalist, but he has a megaphone, and he’s using his megaphone irresponsibly,” says Stelter.

In his criticism, Stelter hit on an area that sometimes stymies media critics. Cable networks facing criticism of Hannity or other partisan hosts typically hide behind a vague notion that certain programs in their lineup should not be held to the same standards as their news programming.

The Society’s Code of Ethics says that’s not a good enough excuse, though. If a person wants to act like a journalist by interviewing presidential candidates or other newsmakers, the person must be held accountable to some standards.

The one standard all people – whether a political reporter for The New York Times or Sean Hannity – can be held accountable to is the truth.

Journalists and other people in mass media need to be advocates for truth. Sometimes that requires people to challenge their sources or subjects. Sometimes that requires people to demand evidence from sources or subjects to support statements. Sometimes that requires people to tell their sources and subjects they’re wrong.

These actions do not mean a person should become an advocate for a certain political party, candidate or other position. The fate of Democracy is above the pay grade of any one journalist or mass media figure. Instead, it rests in the hands of the public, who should base their decisions on the truth.

When people in the mass media don’t advocate for the truth, it falls upon their peers to point out the failure and correct the record – as Stelter did to Hannity.

The truth is the least the public should be able to expect from any person in the mass media.


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

Some Points on #Pointergate

KSTP, the ABC affiliate in Minnesota’s Minneapolis- Saint Paul metropolitan area, got skewered over the past week thanks to a story about a photo it says shows Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges standing next to a convicted felon while they both flash a “known” gang sign.

The story and the controversy it caused became known as #Pointergate on Twitter. Twitter users – myself included – criticized KSTP for airing a story based on questionable evidence and ethical decisions.

The story is available here.

(video from https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=oFwb8z0A5nM)

The mayor and the man, who is not in a gang according to KSTP’s police sources, posed for the photograph as they were knocking on doors for a get-out-vote even in Minneapolis. The gesture, KSTP anchor Bill Lunn said, concerned law enforcement officials, who “think the mayor has put the public and police at risk.”

In the video report, a retired police officer says gangs can take the photo and say “even the mayor is with us.” The president of the Minneapolis Police Federation also questions in the report whether the mayor will support “gangs in the city or cops.”

“The allegation was so ludicrous that two reporters at the Star Tribune ignored it after it was pitched to one of them by someone in law enforcement,” wrote Joe Tevlin, a metro columnist Star Tribune, in a column posted online about the story on Tuesday.

Since the initial backlash to the story, several websites reported the organization that put on the get-out-the-vote event also posted photos and a video on its blog that shows Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau, Mayor Hodges and the man at the event together.

The initial report raises several questions about the ethical decision made during the reporting and airing of the story.

Specifically, how is the hand gesture a “known” gang sign? If the hand gesture is a gang sign capable of inciting violence, why did KSTP broadcast it across the metropolitan area? Why is the criminal record of the person in the picture with Mayor Hodges relevant to the story? Who are the law enforcement officials that are outraged?

I emailed Lindsay Radford, KSTP’s news director, with my concerns and questions on Sunday. She is out of the office and forwarded my email to Jay Kolls, who reported the story.

“I am not the story,” Kolls replied to my email. “We did everything ethically. But, fine. Put them in writing and I will respond to each one.” He also responded to some of the concerns I mentioned in my first email.

As of press time (abuot 9:00 pm. EST on Tuesday) Kolls did not respond to my additional questions.

It’s safe to assume – based on the video posted by the organization behind the get-out-the-vote event – that the sign Mayor Hodges and the man are making in the photo is not a gang symbol. Instead, it’s more likely a spur-of-the-moment gesture.

Additionally, a simple Internet search does not show that hand gesture as the sign of any large gang.

An attempt at independent verification, which is included in one of leading principles within the Society’s Code of Ethics, should have at least made KSTP’s editorial leadership question whether or not that specific hand gesture is a “known” gang sign.

Additionally, if KSTP trusted its sources and believed the sign is capable of inciting violence against the police and public, it leads to the question: Why would they broadcast it across the Twin Cities?

The Code speaks broadly about “potential harm.” Violence against police and the general public would fall under that language.

“He posted the photo on Facebook,” Kolls wrote in his original reply to me. “It was already publicly available, so broadcasting it was not releasing it.”

The picture may have been publicly available on Facebook, but it’s safe to assume the number of people navigating to the man’s profile is less than KSTP’s viewership.

In the same vein of minimizing harm, one of the tenets of the Code, KSTP should have questioned whether the criminal record of the man in the picture with Mayor Hodges is relevant to the story.

Yes, criminal records are public documents, but the  Code is clear that the legal right to information does not justify the ethical decision to publish or broadcast that information. Also, “private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures.”

Kolls wrote to me in his original reply that they “went out of our way to not identify him or his organization to not make him the focus of the story. Others did that; not us.”

The video story flashes the man’s court records across the screen toward the beginning of the report – although they appear anonymized. The accompanying print story also details the man’s criminal records in its second paragraph. Clearly KSTP made this man is a prominent figure in the story.

Lastly, the fact that no named law enforcement official associated with the unit that discovered the picture came forward to air their concerns should raise red flags – as it apparently did at the Star Tribune.

Sources should be identified clearly, according to the Code. “The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.”

What’s more, the Code is clear that journalists need to consider the source’s motive for requesting anonymity. The journalist also should explain why anonymity was granted.

While these concerns should – hopefully – cause editorial teams to reconsider publishing or broadcasting a story like this, KSTP aired an additional report and issued a statement following its initial story.

While the Society’s Code may not answer every question journalists may encounter, it can at least provide sufficient guidance in publishing or broadcasting reports that at least meet basic best practices: Seek Truth and Report It, Minimize Harm, Act Independently and Be Accountable and Transparent.

In this case, KSTP’s report fell short in many places.

 

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