Doing Ethics in Media

Companion to "Doing Ethics in Media: Theories and Practical Applications"

Doing Ethics in Media - Companion to "Doing Ethics in Media: Theories and Practical Applications"

What I learned from working on the Society of Professional Journalists’ new Code of Ethics

With SPJ President David Cullier at the 2014 business meeting in Nashville.

With SPJ President David Cullier at the 2014 business meeting in Nashville, where the new ethics code passed. (Photo by Meredith Cummings)

This month’s biggest personal and professional success may not make it on my tombstone, but it is a thrill to note that words I wrote are included in the Society of Professional Journalists’ new code of ethics.

Delegates of the nation’s largest journalism association approved the code on Sept. 6, 2014, nearly 18 years after the last revision and a lifetime since the Internet fundamentally changed the business, collection, and publication of news.

While the code introduces new concepts, it insists that the fundamental ethics of journalism have not changed. The code’s four pillars remain: seek truth and report it, minimize harm, act independently, and be accountable. That fourth pillar was strengthened with the addition of “…and transparent” as a core value—an explicit reminder of principles of messenger transparency indirectly stated in previous codes but more important in the Internet age.

I was part of the 16-person committee that worked a year on the code. Committee members wrote and revised three drafts of the code, listening to each other and literally hundreds of suggestions from members. The committee met at (The) Ohio State University in July, where a long Saturday ended with a “final” draft we circulated to members before the Excellence in Journalism ’14 convention in Nashville, Tenn.

It wasn’t final, of course. While at the Opryland Hotel, we listened to concerns during a panel Friday morning open to all SPJ members. We revised the code after that meeting, listening to specific concerns from a board member who had line-edited the draft. We made more changes during an open-to-all comers committee meeting Friday afternoon. We revised the code again Saturday, listening to specific concerns from a chapter whose members had line-edited the draft. I sat on the platform to explain those changes Saturday afternoon during the sometimes-contentious SPJ business meeting, where delegates approved (and voted down) still more changes before overwhelmingly approving the code.

The result is what fellow member Stephen J.A. Ward describes as a depersonalized code, because it focuses on core values that describe ethical journalists regardless of their jobs, employers, or the channels they use to gather and disseminate news. The SPJ code remains different from journalism-focused companies whose codes are essentially employment contracts, and different from the Online News Association’s “build your own” code aimed at individuals who want to roll their own.

The code also makes SPJ different from many specialty journalism groups with specific sets of standards and practices aimed at their line of work. This is based on SPJ’s mission of being a broad-based organization aimed at all who do journalism. But this broad-based code will not be sufficient to help journalists make daily decisions, and it does not sufficiently spell out what some of its abstract values mean in practice. The next step for the committee is building its website to include documentation, case studies and practical advice for journalists. We’ll likely disagree on specifics. This is not a bad thing, because no code can rule in every situation, because the First Amendment provides freedom of the press, and because well-meaning, truth-seeking people will disagree.

Thinking online

Committee members spent a great deal of time thinking about online journalism, but a careful reader will notice that the code doesn’t include channel-specific words such as “online,” “social media,” “tweet” or “link.”

Yet the channels that have blossomed since the 1996 revision are fully represented in the code’s concerns about:
♦ Accuracy – “Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy” is new to the code, as is the reminder to verify information (even from other news sources) before spreading it.”
♦ Context – “Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.”
♦ The Internet’s report-it-as-we-go approach, which is far from the once-a-day cycle for many journalists a generation ago – “Gather, update and correct information throughout the life of a news story.”
♦ Online commenting – “Support the open and civil exchange of views, even views they [journalists] find repugnant.”
♦ Linking – “Provide access to source material when it is relevant and appropriate.”
♦ Privacy, even “private” information found in public spaces – “Weigh the consequences of publishing or broadcasting personal information.”
♦ The Internet’s “easy-to-find, never-goes-away” qualities – “Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication. Provide updated and more complete information as appropriate.”  (That’s a line I wrote that made it into the code. Roll Tide.)
♦ The Internet’s limitlessness, which provides the ability to publish or link to information simply because you can – “Recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.”
♦ Journalism isn’t just for “journalists.” As the barriers to entry have fallen, the committee used the word “journalism” instead of “journalist.” As the SPJ’s announcement says, the code believes in the idea that “journalism is an endeavor that transcends that of the professional workers and encompasses many people and many forms, the idea of speaking to the act of journalism over the actors.”
♦ Journalism isn’t just made by journalism organizations anymore. The “Be … Transparent” addition to the code’s four values is a nod to organizational changes, and the “Act Independently” entries further define the differences between journalism aimed at serving the public and content created under the guise of journalism.

Simply put, the code is a reminder that journalism should be ethical regardless of platform or pace. I’m reminded of Robert Townsend’s 1970s management book Up the Organization, which included a warning against going too fast when moving to computers: “Make sure your present … system is reasonably clean and effective before you automate. Otherwise your new computer will just speed up the mess.” The code clarifies, and hopes to clean, the messes that speedier journalism can cause.

What I learned

No one paid me to serve on the committee. If you count SPJ membership fees, travel costs and the time invested, then I paid thousands of dollars to be a helper. It was worth it.

Professors are supposed to be lifelong learners, and the code revision provided plenty of lessons. Some takeaways:

♦ It helps to agree on the big things.

While others outside the committee still may not agree with our decision to maintain a “depersonalized” code approach, the committee found its footing when it chose this path.

♦ The following is a false syllogism: We all believe we are ethical. We all are journalists. Therefore, we all can write an ethics code.

While many well-meaning people offered strong suggestions, and many were implemented, others did not understand or accept the committee’s approach.

♦ It requires political acumen to accomplish things in an organization.

People who lived through the 1996 update to the ethics code told stories of the difficulties of passing their revisions, with three versions of the code competing on the floor of the business meeting. As a result, the code was held over for a year.

This year, we listened to comments throughout the process. SPJ held a straw vote of members before the convention, and members overwhelmingly favored the change. In Nashville, committee members sat with everyone who brought suggested changes before the meeting. We settled on nearly all of their concerns, and the few major disagreements went to the floor for a vote. The result was a much smoother process, much more buy-in, and a successful vote. Ethics is sometimes about compromise.

♦ You cannot please everybody.

Some still have fundamental disagreements over principles in the code. Some still quibble over style. A few don’t like anything you do. But only a fool would argue that the SPJ’s Code of Ethics isn’t better.

* The code still remains unenforced and unenforceable.

On Saturday, Sept. 6, the code passed with what the SPJ news release called “a more hardline approach to checkbook journalism. Before, it merely said ‘Avoid bidding for news.’ Now it says ‘… do not pay for access to news. Identify content provided by outside sources, whether paid or not.’ ”

On Monday, Sept. 8, broke the most-talked-about U.S. story of the week with video showing NFL Baltimore Ravens back Ray Rice punching his fiancé in an elevator. TMZ paid for the video, prompting New York Times media columnist David Carr to write:

“While networks continue to play peekaboo about whether they pay for news — many do — TMZ is more than happy to pony up for information that will tilt the field and draw hits. A line in the sand long drawn by journalism’s church ladies and observed by most mainstream organizations has all but been blown away. Most people don’t care where the news came from or how it was obtained.”

Does that make the SPJ code irrelevant? Maybe so, in the way that this voluntary-for-journalists code written by a group of volunteers for a not-required-to-join-to-be-a-journalist group has always been irrelevant.

Or maybe not, in that the code likely will attract new members and keep old ones. Moreover, it will remain flag that students, some in the industry, and the public will rally around when they think about what characteristics make for ethical journalism.

♦ A code is merely a code. What matters is each individual.

Jay Black, my academic mentor and co-author, was a member of the SPJ ethics committee in the 1980s and 1990s. In the first edition of his Journal of Mass Media Ethics, he and journal co-founder Ralph Barney wrote The Case Against Mass Media Codes of Ethics, which argues that rule-based codes are ultimately inferior to principles adopted and lived by morally developed practitioners.

Their warnings occurred to me while serving, and the new code is much more focused on the key values and aspirational goals than previous and other codes. Among my few contributions was, when leading the “Seek Truth and Report It” subcommittee during the second revision, trying to arrange that value’s bullet points into a more logical order that begins with aspirations and ends with the minimum expectations of “Never plagiarize. Always attribute.”

Black published that piece in 1985. But there he was a decade later, working on a code, knowing that it provides a path that leads to morally developed practitioners.

I’m proud to have followed in his footsteps, and to have been part of a smart, dedicated group of people. And decades from now, when I have a tombstone, maybe one of my fellow students can follow in mine.

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How the updated SPJ code of ethics helps justify one newspaper’s stand against naming a sex-crime suspect

Making a decision about ethics sometimes means doing your own thing while everyone else is doing something else — in public.

One news organization did this in reporting the arrest of a 49-year-old man charged with possession of child pornography in Calhoun County, Ala.

Multiple news organizations reported information provided by the Alabama Bureau of Investigation’s Cyber Crimes Unit. The suspect’s full name (and, occasionally, his mug shot) are published online by The Gadsden Times,, ABC 33/40,* Fox 6 news and others.

But not The Anniston Star, whose story includes this paragraph:

The Star typically withholds the identities of those charged with sex crimes unless they are convicted or plead guilty, because the stigma associated with such charges can linger even if the charges are dropped or the suspect is exonerated.

You could argue that The Star’s ethics policy is meaningless because the name is readily available online, any arrest for any crime already brings a stigma, and that the paper would howl if the government had done what the paper did in announcing an arrest but not the defendant’s name. And the name would be more likely to be published were it a public figure, as the paper balances “stigma” against news values. But at least give the paper’s management credit for thinking about ethics.

Two proposed additions to the Society of Professional Journalists’ code of ethics helps The Star justify its decision. The “Minimize Harm” section now says journalists should:

1. Recognize that legal access to information differs from ethical justification to publish.
2. Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication, especially online. Provide updated and more complete information as appropriate.

So far, The Star has met its first obligation and started on the second. To fully meet the second, The Star must track the case and report the outcome. (In fact, every news organization has that obligation.)

As a member of the committee working on the code’s revisions, these sorts of issues are why we’ve been hard at work.

* Tip to 33/40: Your headline, “Arrested for child pornography,” implies guilt. The others correctly wrote arrested on child pornography charges.” The difference is subtle, but not to a libel lawyer.

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A student-run newspaper misuses SPJ code of ethics to defend a decision

It’s been a difficult week at the University of California Santa Barbara, where six students died before the killer turned the gun on himself. Tragedy often brings out the best in journalists, who work difficult hours, ask difficult questions, and sometimes stifle their own pain to cover the story.

It can be particularly difficult for student journalists, who have not had the time to build the hard-but-needed shell to be able to do the job effectively.

But the bottom line is that the job must be done. In times of crisis — especially in times of crisis — the public relies on journalists to seek the truth and report it.

That ending phrase from the last paragraph — “seek truth and report it” — is the first of four key points from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.

The code’s second key — “minimize harm” — was the reason that students at The Bottom Line, the official UCSB student newspaper, offered to not cover the story. As its editorial said:

2015-05-27 Bottom Line

As stated in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, a code we at The Bottom Line strive to uphold every day in our reporting, we are to minimize harm, whether physical or emotional. Ethical “journalists should show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage.”

After extensive discussions among our Editorial Staff, advisor and alumni, we have decided to not immediately publish an article on the recent tragedy in our community of Isla Vista to minimize the emotional harm for our reporters, photographers and multimedia journalists. Before we are journalists, we are Gauchos and feel we need our time to mourn, process and recover from this senseless violence.

A former adviser for the competing student paper says the “we are Gauchos” before we are journalists is the reason for the decision, as the paper is more of a house organ for student government than a place for independent journalism.

The SPJ code is a mashup of ideas in search of an Aristotelian mean between excess and deficiency. The “seek truth and report it” is designed to balance against “minimize harm,” just as there is a tension between “act independently” and “be accountable.” While not publishing may well be the right decision in some instances, failing to write about the biggest, most obvious news on campus seems to fall on the “deficiency” side of the mean.

To justify a decision by using one portion of the code, without balancing it against the code’s entirety, is to misuse the code. In Doing Ethics in Media: Theories and Practical Applications, our final question — “How’s Your Decision Going To Look?” — cautions against first making decisions and then looking for justifications. While I have no insight into the student paper’s discussions, and I apologize if wrong, it feels as if appealing to the SPJ code was an after-the-fact justification.

Fortunately, the student-run independent newspaper, The Daily Lexus, has earned praise for its coverage. And, since the editorial was written, The Bottom Line has published a little about the killings.

It’s easy to pick on student journalists, but the past few years at The University of Alabama has shown that student journalists can thrive through the difficult times — whether covering a tornado or taking on the most powerful student groups on campus. The first loyalty was to readers, not fears about “emotional harm for our reporters, photographers and multimedia journalists.”

As a member of the committee helping to revise the SPJ code, I hope we find a way to make it clear that the code should not be the scapegoat excuse to not cover big, scary, obvious news.



The Bottom Line editors have responded to critics via, saying it was posted by a former editor without permission. The post said the paper’s staffers are reporting — and have been posting online and through Twitter – while simultaneously deciding “it would be best to gather all the necessary facts to report on such a grave and tragic incident, rather than rush to publication and print misinformation.”

From the response:

We pride ourselves on factual and accurate reporting, not sensationalism and fear-mongering. We, as a news organization, do not want to contribute to the panic by exploiting the grief of our fellow community members. We serve our community first, and we took the steps that we thought were necessary to best serve that community. Our primary audience is UCSB and Isla Vista, who were rocked by a tragic event and have experienced a severe loss. We did not think it journalistically ethical to harass our community in its time of grief and shock, and decided to hold off premature publication of an article so that we did not hurt anyone through misinformation.

As stated in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, a code we at The Bottom Line strive to uphold every day in our reporting, we are to minimize harm, whether physical or emotional. Ethical “journalists should show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage.”

After extensive discussions among our Editorial Staff, advisor and alumni, we have decided to not immediately publish an article on the recent tragedy in our community of Isla Vista to minimize the emotional harm for our reporters, photographers and multimedia journalists. Before we are journalists, we are Gauchos and feel we need our time to mourn, process and recover from this senseless violence. – See more at:


As stated in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, a code we at The Bottom Line strive to uphold every day in our reporting, we are to minimize harm, whether physical or emotional. Ethical “journalists should show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage.”

After extensive discussions among our Editorial Staff, advisor and alumni, we have decided to not immediately publish an article on the recent tragedy in our community of Isla Vista to minimize the emotional harm for our reporters, photographers and multimedia journalists. Before we are journalists, we are Gauchos and feel we need our time to mourn, process and recover from this senseless violence. – See more at:

As stated in the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, a code we at The Bottom Line strive to uphold every day in our reporting, we are to minimize harm, whether physical or emotional. Ethical “journalists should show compassion for those who may be affected adversely by news coverage.”

After extensive discussions among our Editorial Staff, advisor and alumni, we have decided to not immediately publish an article on the recent tragedy in our community of Isla Vista to minimize the emotional harm for our reporters, photographers and multimedia journalists. Before we are journalists, we are Gauchos and feel we need our time to mourn, process and recover from this senseless violence. – See more at:
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Is there an ethical difference in reporting the ‘chemical-related’ deaths of Philip Seymour Hoffman and another person?

Had it not been Super Bowl Sunday, the world might have taken even more notice about the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, found dead on Feb. 2 wit

h a needle in his arm and 70 bags of heroin in his apartment. A quick Google News search this morning showed more than 5,300 articles about him — but little suggesting that the story shouldn’t be covered because of the harm it could cause his family.

Contrast that with Jan. 30 death of Danielle Downey, a former LPGA player and

This Feb. 3 update led to a number of people unhappy that the news was covered.

This Feb. 3 update led to a number of readers unhappy that details of the crash were reported.

head of operations for Auburn University’s women’s golf team. Three days after her death, The Birmingham News / Alabama Media Group reported that alcohol was likely a factor in her death.  Other media

covered it, too.

Underneath Carol Robinson’s Feb. 3 story and in her Facebook feed, many people were critical of her decision to report that Downey had consumed multiple beers and would not give her car keys to friends.

Some examples of reader comments:





Others came to Carol’s defense, citing the fact that it’s public record. And one commenter tied reporting of Downey’s death to the reporting of Hoffman’s death:


Reporting on tragedy is a difficult job, and it’s easy to forget that every story can potentially cause harm. And it’s also easy for reporters who cover tragedy for a living to start thinking like surgeons, forgetting that their job is as much about bedside manner as it is about dealing with flesh. (Of course, doctors bury their mistakes; journalist print theirs for all to see.)

It goes against the fundamental practice of truth-telling to leave unanswered the question of how a person died, or of waiting until after the funeral to report unflattering news that the family is likely to know. This is even more true in the case of Downey, who was a public-enough figure that Auburn released a statement announcing her death.

There are no hard-and-fast rules for decisions about what to report and what to leave out, but the Aristotelian mean lies somewhere between ignoring anything that might cause harm and the notion of New York Sun editor Charles A. Dana, who wrote: “I have always felt that whatever Divine Providence permitted to occur I was not too proud to report.” Finding that mean requires journalists to balance the public’s right to know, the “publicness” of the death and the person who died, what to do about special cases such as suicide, and other factors that must be considered in the harshness of deadline.

And readers ought to consider their own ethics, too. People who complain about how media cover the death of someone they know simply because accurate-but-unflattering news is revealed should steer clear of coverage of the Hoffmans, Presleys, Paul Walkers, and others of the world.

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Bad journalism, bad ethics, or both? Poynter’s list of biggest news mistakes and Gallup’s “ethics in professions” poll may or may not be related

Poynter_Error_Report_2014Two disparate pieces of annual news–Poynter’s list of the year’s media errors, and Gallup’s “honesty in professions” report–come together this week for a journalism ethics lesson, on a Poynter page with links to both stories but no connection.

Poynter’s Craig Silverman released his yearly list of funny, scary, awful and goofy media errors for 2013, with two huge mistakes atop the list.
The biggest was 60 Minutes’ report on the Benghazi attacks, for its unblinking belief in a liar who was the star of the report, for not telling viewers that the liar was peddling a book published by a CBS subsidiary, and for its ham-handed response (including a “we-stand-by-the-story” defense) to the news that its report was thoroughly wrong. Second was the New York Post’s screaming “BAG MEN” headline, which pretty much everyone but The Post understood to mean that the guys in the picture were responsible for the Boston Marathon bombing and not the innocent guys now suing the paper.

Meanwhile, the Gallup Poll released its yearly Ethics in Professions poll, in which the public is asked to rate the honesty and ethical standards of a couple dozen professions. Gallup’s key finding was that, for the first time, fewer than half of respondents say clergy have high or very high standards. (Health professionals tend to rank tops; lobbyists, Congress and car salesmen tend to rank butt-naked last.)

For Poynter, the news is that ratings for “high or very high” ethical standards remain low for folks in the news media. A PDF of trend data show:

  1. Newspaper reporters rated 21 percent, actually a percentage point higher than the 1998 study and just a percentage point lower than the all-time high.
  2. TV reporters were at 20 percent, down from an all-time high of 23%.
  3. The high-falutin’ term “journalist” leads to higher trust ratings–24% in 2012, always a few percentage points higher than TV or newspaper “reporter.”

It’s hard to know where ethics fits into this because, in many cases, mistakes are just that. I’ve always sighed at people who believe mass media is a singular entity of organizations who team up to present a world that doesn’t reinforce their confirmation bias. The better explanation is from Robert Heinlein’s The Green Hills of Earth: “You have attributed conditions to villainy that simply result from stupidity.” Or, in the case of non-mendacious  journalism, conditions that result from bad sources, too little time, bad or no editing, the tug of PR’s spin, etc.

We don’t have insight into the hearts, minds, and thinking of folks who made these mistakes, so we cannot parse the ethical thought went into their decision-making. The result is that journalism ethics are sometimes incorrectly inferred from journalistic performance. Moreover, most duty-based ethicists would tell us that it’s wrong to judge based on a decision’s outcome, as long as we’re thorough in our thinking, our work, and in our willingness to stand behind our decision-making.

On one hand, continuing to make mistakes–big or small, made with full-speed integrity or while tripping ethics mines–will forever leave journalism in a credibility slump.

On the other hand, as students of our textbook are reminded: Credibility is what people think you are. Ethics is what you really are.



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Washington Post column on Redskins name change uses different standards for in-print, online publication

By Caroline Meintzer

Protesters in Green Bay before a September game. Photo by Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post

On Oct. 7, 2013, The Washington Post ran an article in their printed newspaper that included an editorial by Dana Milbank. Milbank’s editorial called out the Washington Redskins’ team name for being racist, and he further illustrated his point by asking people to compare the Redskins name to other racial epithets. In print, he wrote:

To see whether it’s right to use ‘Redskins’ as a mascot, NFL owners gathering in Georgetown on Tuesday for their fall meeting should substitute some other common racial epithets for Hispanics, African Americans, Asians and Jews and see how they would sound. That would be enough to send anybody to the shotgun formation.

The online version, however, ran a bit differently:

“To see whether it’s right to use ‘Redskins’ as a mascot, NFL owners gathering in Georgetown on Tuesday for their fall meeting should substitute some other common racial epithets and see how they would sound: The Washington Wetbacks? The Houston Hymies? The Chicago Chinks? Or perhaps the New York Niggers? That would be enough to send anybody to the shotgun formation.”


What’s your problem?
Do the same ethical standards apply to the print and online versions of The Washington Post (or any newspaper for that matter)?


Why not follow the rules?
Rules and practices seem hazy regarding the consistency between online and printed journalism. Many media organizations in their practices have drawn a difference between the two, and often that decision seems to be made based on getting more web clicks than out of actual ethical decision-making.

Despite actual practices, many organization and journalists have spoken in promotion of a consistency across platforms for journalism. They say what is justified and unjustified in print should find the same rules online. The Poynter Institute has upheld through various articles and conferences that journalistic principles should be constant across the board. In other words, journalists are journalists no matter what they’re writing for.

These guidelines haven’t been the case for major news organizations, though. In the Ethical Space: The International Journal of Communication Ethics, Chris Roberts’s article, “Fit to post but not fit to print,” explains an inconsistency within the New York Times’ promise, “All the news fit to print.” In 2012, the Times published a photo online of a dying diplomat that it wouldn’t publish in the paper, which goes against the very grain of the promise to keep all news within the ethical margins applied to their print paper. They didn’t even offer a warning online about the graphic photo.

So, the rules generally point to holding the same ethical principles across the board; however, however most media outlets don’t seem to follow them.


Who wins, who loses?
By publishing different versions of the story on different mediums, readers are being impacted in different ways. For someone reading the print version, perhaps he or she is winning by not reading a few obscene words at the breakfast table. But then again, maybe he’s losing because the story’s point against the NFL team name, the Redskins, isn’t driven home as strongly without the obscene words. The newspaper, The Washington Post, loses because it lacks consistency across all of its media platforms. It seems to be generalizing its paper and web readers by saying what is and isn’t appropriate for them. It could be argued that it’s stereotyping readers on the web to want obscenity and something extreme and that those reading print are conservative and might have a panic attack about reading an offensive term in the paper.

The Washington Post wins a small battle by not offending readers with its print version of the article, but they lose a larger one by stereotyping their readers and fracturing their ethical standards along lines of different mediums.


What’s it worth?
The idea behind changing the article for print is to minimize harm, one of the major tenants of the SPJ codes. By keeping the print article rather tame, the Post is trying to uphold values of compassion and good taste. However, do those values of compassion change when the readership changes? Is that value worth the same online as it is in print?

For me, this is where I make my case. I think those values should be consistent across the board. Whatever we stand for, whether it’s compassion to the readers by avoiding derogatory terms, or if it’s truth and openness, regardless of the potential ability to offend, we must stand for it on every branch of our organization.

I believe The Washington Post should have the same article in print and online because ethics should be consistent, or else they verge on becoming simple moralizing.

Furthermore, I believe that the chosen version of the article shouldn’t be the safe one that the Post used for print. In fact, I would have gone with the racier version. I know it goes against normal ethical standards for what’s printed. The AP style guide specifically states to avoid using derogatory terms except for in quotes and when pertinent to the story.

The whole point of the editorial, though, is to demonstrate the offensive of the team’s name. When you read the edited version of the article, the author’s examples barely resonate. You practically skip past his line to “substitute some other common racial epithets for Hispanics, African Americans, Asians and Jews” without a second thought. The real article hits you smack in the face. You can’t help but stop and consider his point. In its sanitized version, there isn’t any power, and it defeats the purpose of the article.

So I’d publish it the way it was originally written. I’m sure I would certainly garner a lot of flak, but I believe the rules of ethical journalism are meant to sometimes be broken (higher Kohlberg level, perhaps?). In order for this writer to critique an offensive NFL team name, he had to show its name in the context of other offensive words. I believe people are mature enough to be able to handle it, whether they’re reading it online or in print.

But at the very least, I’ll add an offensive language warning at the top of the editorial. That way, the people can decide it for themselves if they want to read it.

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Sports Illustrated comes to Calhoun County, Alabama, with lessons in football, race and media ethics

Speedy Canon on SII was a second grader at Jacksonville Elementary School in October 1972, so nobody talked to us 7-year-olds about the helmet-to-helmet hit that killed Jacksonville High’s Anthony “Speedy” Cannon on a Friday night at Wellborn High School. A decade later, as a Jacksonville High senior and sports editor of the weekly Jacksonville News, I didn’t get much traction for my piddling piece of anniversary journalism. Nobody wanted to talk to a teen sportwriter, and I didn’t know enough to try harder.

For years, back in the days when P.E. was a required class, I passed the memorial to Speedy in the gym and wondered what happened. Some said it was racism, against a school whose band played “Dixie.” Others said it was just a hard hit on a guy already hit too many times.

Now, 40 years later, Sports Illustrated’s Thomas Lake has told the story with “The Ghost of Speedy Cannon,” a terrific piece of journalism that does everything right online. In addition to the long story, we can read The Anniston Star’s stories, see Speedy’s stats, and look at photos from musty Ad Annos yearbooks.

And we can see the play that killed Speedy, where Wellborn’s No. 70 delivers the blow a few steps after Speedy was out of bounds.

It’s a masterful piece of reporting that raised multiple ethics questions for Lake, whose decisions are part of the story. Indeed, Lake:

1. Does not decide for us whether it’s murder or an accident, but he allows people on all sides of the question make their case. He provides his own conclusion, but does not try to force it on readers.

2. Did not name Wellborn’s No. 70, essentially saying that his life didn’t need to be burned by SI’s bright spotlight.

What strangers believed about Number 70 did not appear to be true. He showed no sign of being a racist. Nor did he seem consumed by guilt. He had played football for a while longer and then quit because he was tired of it and after a few false starts he had gotten a good job as a welder. He had a nice wife and a son and twin daughters and two grandchildren. He had cried over Cannon’s death and then moved on with his life. It was the only reasonable choice.

(The Star did not name the player, either, but noted that the play drew a 15-yard penalty.)

3. Did not name the Wellborn coach, now an 81-year-old man, saying that allegations that he told players to kill Speedy “him appear to be untrue.”

4. Spelled it “n—–” many times, even as he did not dodge the essence of the racism angle to the story.

As a Jacksonville High graduate born too late to understand what happened in 1972, I am grateful to Lake for telling what I didn’t know about my home.

As a journalism professor, I am grateful to Lake for doing such a terrific job.


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The case of the cursing anchor: AJ Clemente, virtue ethics, and consistency

AJ Clemente

AJ Clemente, seconds into his first and only newscast in Bismark, N.D., where his nervousness led to uttering two words you can’t say on TV.

It’s easy to feel bad for AJ Clemente, the West Virginia University graduate who uttered two words you’re not allowed to say on broadcast television just as his first anchoring shift began on Sunday, April 20, on KFYR-TV in Bismarck, North Dakota.

The NBC affiliate quickly fired him, but cited “personnel issues” in saying little else. While it might have been technically legal under Federal Communications Commission rules, it was still shocking enough to managers who decided it was not worth trusting a newcomer. And even in a place that is Nielsen’s 151st Designated Market Area, the station can easily find another newcomer willing to work the Sunday night shift Bismark in hopes of climbing the TV news ladder.

Clemente says he made the mistake because he was frustrated while working to pronounce some words, and he didn’t have an earpiece or heads-up that the show was live. He called the gaffe “inexcusable,” and he says he didn’t know he said it until deep in the newscast and has not animosity toward the station.

He’s turned it into celebrity, from conversations on The Today Show to becoming the subject of a David Letterman Top 10 list that included other examples of potty-mouthed TV anchors. It’s always possible he can land another job.

As a former young broadcaster, I appreciate his pain and the inevitable on-air jitters.

Malcolm Street, my radio boss, reminded me that cussing off air meant you’re less likely to cuss on air.

Even more, I appreciate Malcolm Street, who hired me when I was 14 for an on-air job at WHMA AM-FM in Anniston, Ala. (He liked me, my voice was preternaturally low, and 14-year-olds work cheap.)

Before my first real shift, he sat me in his office and reminded me of a few things, closing with a life lesson: “Something unexpected will happen one day when your mic is live. If you don’t curse off the air, then you won’t curse on the air.” He taught Sunday School for more than six decades at Parker Memorial Baptist Church, so he easily quoted a Bible verse (Luke 6:45) to prove his point: “For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”

And sure enough, my day to swear on the air came the Saturday morning when, with a live microphone ready to amplify my words over 100,000 watts from nearly between Atlanta and Birmingham, I touched a metal surface that sent a mighty shock through my finger. It really hurt, but a curseless yelp of pain was all the listeners heard. I was grateful then for Mr. Street’s advice, which I wish I still took today.

The ethics lesson here? Even if you’re not into New Testament scripture, it’s worth remembering that the best media practitioners live consistent lives whether they’re at work or not.

Aristotle (see pages 367-371 of Doing Ethics in Media: Theories and Practical Applications) and others who preach virtue ethics would remind us that trying to compartmentalize our lifestyle habits may be dangerous, particularly in  communication jobs where likeablity and personality play a role. It’s always been true for broadcasters, and it’s now truer than ever for journalists whose credibility less from their organization and more from their personal brand. In this case, Clemente did not show arête, so his Bismark career sunk before achieving eudiamonia.

AJ Clemente’s first (and only) anchor shift on KRYR

(apologies to Mr. Street)

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How responsible are journalists for catching liars Lance Armstrong, Manti Te’o and others?

Political cartoonist Chip Bok, a Pulitzer finalist, pulls together both recent strings of jock lies.

The world’s most famous cyclist, Lance Armstrong, lied and lied and lied, and even sued a news organization who called out his lies. (He may have even lied while backpedaling for Oprah.)

Notre Dame defensive player Manti Te’o, whether he meant to or not, lied about what turned to be an imaginary girlfriend.

The result is another round of hand-wringing about the “diminished role” of investigative journalism and media who, as National Public Radio wrote, “let its guard down.”

It should be “let their guard down,” because media are plural, dangit. But confusing media as a singular entity helps prove the point of this post, which reminds us that even as lots of journalists failed to catch the lies, eventually a journalist caught the lies.

It’s tough to be a journalist, because lots of people and organizations lie to you (and, by definition, to the public), stonewall with “no comment” or piecemeal answers, provide general “statements” on a topic instead of answering specific questions, or bend their answers so far in their own favor that the truth is broken by most ethical standards.

More than once I heard Randy Henderson, my late city editor at The Birmingham News, say to a caller complaining about a story: “We print lies every day, because people lie to us every day.” Journalists cannot look into the hearts of others. Journalists don’t have subpoena power but must be more exacting than prosecutors, because a prosecutor who loses a criminal case won’t face libel charges.

In the case of Te’o, I’m reminded of this scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, in which principal Ed Rooney is right when he doesn’t believe that Sloan Peterson’s grandmother is dead. He calls out Mr. Peterson (that is to say, Ferris) on the phone:

Oh, sure. I’d be happy to release Sloane. You produce a corpse and I’ll release Sloane. I want to see this dead grandmother firsthand. … That’s right. Just roll her old bones all over here and I’ll dig up your daughter. It’s school policy.

A journalist wouldn’t do it that way, of course, and even Principal Rooney was snookered by Bueller, a high-quality liar.

I believe it’s tougher than ever for journalists to move beyond the carefully constructed PR façade of athletics, much less catch liars, in this age when top college athletic departments censor their own athletes, restrict journalists’ access, seek to dictate what can be reported, pressure journalists who oppose the PR line, and bypass media gatekeeping with information delivered to a public that may not distinguish the difference or want to kill the messengers who deliver bad news about their favorite teams. (Feel free to replace the references to athletics with “politicians,” “radio morning-show hosts,” “businesses,” or other liars as you wish.)

This does not excuse bad journalism, of course, and there’s plenty of that to go around. Many journalists don’t ask the right questions, don’t want the truth to impede on a good story, are too busy feeding the never-sated digital beast, or want to believe that people are basically good, or lots of other reasons.

The (sort-of) good news: In the cases of Lance and Te’o and others, remember that journalism eventually did its job:

  • Even as Armstrong lied and lied and sued and lied and intimidated and lied, some journalists continued to pursue the truth.
  • It wasn’t until after the Deadspin story that Notre Dame, which knew about the hoax possibility for weeks, hastily called its press conference and (began to) explain the situation. Meanwhile, Te’o admits that he “tailored” accounts of his story, even after Notre Dame says it had begun its investigation.
  • We can go on, with examples of Olympian-turned-felon Marion Jones and plenty of presidents (Nixon, Clinton, etc.), presidential candidates and many more famous people who invested years lying to journalists.

The world’s ability to lie outstrips journalism’s ability to call out the liars. And in this world of more-and-better liars and fewer journalists, it’s not getting easier.

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