Posts Tagged ‘Washington Post’

Twitter Fight Points to Larger Problem

Photo: Diego Cambiaso

A post on Twitter ignited a discussion Sunday about the type of relationship that exists between President-elect Donald Trump and MSNBC hosts Joe Scarborough and Mika Brzezinski. The specifics of that issue are currently being debated across the news media.

The press should take note of the issue at the heart of this current uproar as it looks to reboot itself in 2017. The issue is the relationships journalists and news media figures sometimes share with politicians and powerbrokers.

Journalists and newsroom leaders historically shared very cozy relationships with politicians, as Scarborough pointed out Monday in The Washington Post. Orthodox followers of the Society’s Code of Ethics should be shocked by the behaviors of journalism’s greatest icons.

Edward R. Murrow left CBS News in 1961 to lead the propaganda arm of the U.S. government for President John Kennedy, as Scarborough points out in his editorial.

History and precedent in this case shouldn’t dictate journalists’ future behaviors, however.

Public behavior during the recent elections and survey results from Gallup showing trust in the news media at historically low levels should be enough to convince journalists and newsroom leaders that business as usual is no longer good business.

News organizations often operate under the theory that their readers, viewers and listeners crave an insider’s perspective on news stories. As a result, opinion pages and airwaves are filled with former politicians and political operatives offering their thoughts on current events.

The problem with this theory is that more and more journalists and news media figures view themselves as insiders and the public on the receiving end of the reports continues to feel like outsiders.

Journalists and newsrooms need to shed their insider perspectives and embrace their intended roles as outsiders and representatives of the public.

Journalists should no longer view themselves as cogs in a large piece of machinery that tries to explain themselves to random bystanders. They should view themselves as bystanders with the tools to explain the machinery to their peers.

Foundational shifts such as the one I suggest are difficult to accomplish, but they are sometimes necessary to strengthen the overall structure. A change of perspective within journalism is long overdue.

The specific steps to shedding the press’s insider perspective are debatable, but the easiest move is to get journalists to interact more with the public.

Newsrooms should consider holding meet-and-greets, open houses and other community events. Journalists can also take it upon themselves to explore unfamiliar neighborhoods and communities.

Journalists should take notice of the people they meet at those events and in communities. Mental pictures and notes of people, their circumstances and daily lives can serve as powerful reminders of the people on the receiving end of news stories.

Journalists will always need to develop and depend on professional relationships with politicians and powerbrokers, but those relationships should have defined boundaries. Journalists should know at all times that they represent the public, which mostly consists of non-politicians.

A shift in perspective won’t happen overnight. Some journalists will also never change their behaviors. Those challenges shouldn’t keep journalism’s practitioners from trying to better the profession and recommit themselves to its noble purpose.

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

The Other Side: Rolling Stone’s Note

A screenshot of the editor's note attached to a Rolling Stone story about a 2012 gang rape at the University of Virginia. (captured 12/5/2014)

A screenshot of the editor’s note attached to a Rolling Stone story about a 2012 gang rape at the University of Virginia. (captured 12/5/2014)

The managing editor of Rolling Stone added an editor’s note earlier today to the magazine’s bombshell campus rape story that was published online November 19. The story described a 2012 gang rape of a woman called Jackie at a party in the house of a University of Virginia fraternity.

“In the face of new information, there now appear to be discrepancies in Jackie’s account, and we have come to the conclusion that our trust in her was misplaced,” writes Will Dana, the magazine’s managing editor, in the note, which does not specify the discrepancies.

Meanwhile, The Washington Post  published a story today detailing its own investigation into the events described in the original Rolling Stone report.

“Several key aspects of the account of a gang rape offered by a University of Virginia student in Rolling Stone magazine have been cast into doubt, including the date of the alleged attack and details about an alleged attacker, according to interviews and a statement from the magazine backing away from the article,” writes Post reporter T. Rees Shapiro.

Many news organizations and journalists are calling the Rolling Stone editor’s note added to the story a retraction. The magazine does not use that specific word, however. Instead it’s up to the reader to proceed with the caveat that some of the 9,000-or-so-word story may be inaccurate.

Dana emphasizes in his note that the magazine decided to honor the source’s “request not to contact the man she claimed orchestrated the attack on her nor any of the men she claimed participated in the attack for fear of retaliation against her.”

Some journalists experienced with reporting on rape are quoted as saying it may be acceptable to not reach out to the accused in some cases.

Most – if not all – sets of journalism standards emphasize the special care and compassion reporters must take when dealing with certain sources. The Society’s Code of Ethics is no different. “Journalists should use heightened sensitivity when dealing with juveniles, victims of sex crimes, and sources or subjects who are inexperienced or unable to give consent,” says the Code.

Ethics and responsible reporting are balancing acts, however. In this case, it’s easy to argue the seriousness of the crimes described in the Rolling Stone story warranted reaching out to all accused parties.

Additionally, investigations are typically not considered complete until all information within a story is thoroughly examined and substantiated. As I’ve been taught, sources and subjects should not be surprised when an investigation is published – it’s how a reporter knows all involved parties had the opportunity to have their responses included.

Perhaps the inability to reach out to the accused meant Jackie should not be included in the magazine’s story.

The Post also reports Jackie asked be left out of the Rolling Stone story altogether. The Columbia Journalism School’s Darte Center for Journalism and Trauma says journalists should respect an interviewee’s right to say no. The Center offers journalists a comprehensive sexual violence reporting tip sheet , which can be found here.

Obviously, there are exceptions to most rules in journalism. Still, Rolling Stone and its editorial team owed – and still owes – its sources, subjects and readers thorough reporting and verification of whatever information made its way to publication.

What’s especially upsetting about today’s development is that the controversy created by poor editorial management overshadows a very real problem. The Rape, Abuse and Incest National Network (RAINN) cites a December 2000 U.S. Department of Justice report that found “a college with 10,000 students could experience as many as 350 rapes per year.”

Instead of those rapes being the focus of public discussion, the conversation turns to the decisions made by a magazine. The investigation into the story is likely to only create a more traumatic experience for Jackie, too. Her friends tell the Post that “they believe something traumatic happened to her.”

Rolling Stone’s Dana took a step in the right direction on Twitter earlier today, when he wrote the “failure is on us – not on her.”

Ultimately, whatever doubt Rolling Stone has in its story is its own creation – not that of sources, subjects or readers. As a result, it’s up to the magazine to make this situation right.

In Herman Cain story, being flip about journalism ethics is not an appropriate response


By Kevin Z. Smith

When presidential candidate Herman Cain decided to challenge the press coverage of the sexual harassment charges surrounding his campaign, he reached for an interesting source of support: the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics.

Last week his camp handed out copies to members of the media and mailed copies to the Los Angeles Times among others. He asked the press corps to evaluate how the Politico/Washington Post coverage violated specific tenets of the code. He also took his fight to the airwaves, touting the code on Fox News. Never mind that he blundered on the name and called it the “Journalists’ Code of Conduct.”

Our initial assessment of his claims are articulated in a previous post by Ethics Committee member Irwin Gratz. While we haven’t seen anything that would suggest that the reporting violated ethical standards, there is never a bad time to raise ethical questions. Journalists have standards of professional conduct and often put themselves through the steps of evaluating their behavior and work before it reaches the public sphere. That is precisely what sound ethical decision making is about. Questioning those decisions is fair and legitimate, generally because it creates healthy debate that is usually beneficial to our profession.

What has transpired from some people, however, has been something of a panning of Cain’s efforts, not just because he dared to challenge the press’ handling of the reports, but because he suggested that journalists need to follow “codes of conduct.” Silly, right?

On Monday the defense of the media started, and what’s transpired has proved to be more problematic for the fight for journalistic ethics than anything Cain alleged.

Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus went after Cain, defending the paper but admitting she wasn’t familiar with the SPJ Code of Ethics. She wrote: “I suffer from the instinctive journalistic aversion to official codes of conduct.” Meaning that most journalists avoid such tripe, contrived codes in favor of what, flipping a coin to make an ethical decision? Consulting the Magic 8 ball on her desk?

Later Monday, MSNBC’s Andrea Mitchell showed her relative lack of ethical knowledge by snarking to Politico reporter Jonathan Martin, the reporter who broke the original story, “I assume you’ve read the journalistic code of conduct, whatever that is.” His response was equally flippant: “I have my copy well thumbed.”

This dismissive attitude only bothers me in that these people have presumably elevated their journalistic game to the level that they’ve landed employment with major national media outlets and have secured a visibility and reputation for being among the elite press corps in this country.

Well, not with knowledge of ethical standards, it appears.

First, to suggest that most journalists have an instinctive aversion to codes of ethics is wrong. In fact, it’s the minority, as in any profession, who seems to be devoid of knowledge about ethical standards. Second, to treat this code as if you’ve just come across a treasure map and have reservations about its validity shows more of a lack of comprehension on your part than it says about the legitimacy of the document.

The irony to all this, of course, is that every day some journalist or citizen visits the SPJ website and reviews our code. Aside from the home page, the Code of Ethics is the most visited page on our website. And, judging by the number of times “SPJ” and “code of ethics” appear in Google searches, it’s been well noted that our code is cited more than 300 times a year in making arguments for better ethical behavior.

That people like Martin, Mitchell and Marcus haven’t heard of the code shouldn’t be a badge of honor. That they scoff at the notion of a code of conduct should be an indictment about their work, not that of the Society’s for upholding ethical standards for so long. And, it’s likely that the Post, MSNBC and Politico have internal codes of ethics that guide their journalists’ work. Are they unaware of those as well?

Our code has been translated into 16 different languages and has long been the gold standard for ethical conduct in the profession. It has been copied, emulated and revised by news organizations for internal use here in the U.S. and around the world.

This summer a copy of SPJ’s new ethics book and the code made its way into the hands of British Prime Minister David Cameron. Cameron is creating a committee to evaluate the ethical standards of the British press after the News of the World phone-hacking scandal. The code could play a helpful role in establishing or reaffirming standards in that country.

And, the same day Mitchell and company were joking about this code, I received an email from a Knight International Journalism Fellow who is going to Haiti to work with journalists. She asked if SPJ could give her a copy of its new ethics book and some codes of ethics. I’m mailing those to her this week. That very shortly Haitian journalists will learn professional ethics using our code while certain Washington press members sit back and joke about it shouldn’t be lost on the thousands of journalists who have it posted in their newsrooms, or the thousands of college students who are taught professional ethics with the code as the backdrop.

Cain’s allegations aside, the last thing the press in this country needs are self-inflicted wounds over ethical standards.

Kevin Z. Smith is a past SPJ national president and current chairman of the Ethics Committee


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