Cartoonist fired for biting the hand that feeds his publication

This cartoon led to Rick Friday losing his freelance job after publishing more than 1,000 cartoons for a farming publication.

A herd of media are writing about Rick Friday, who was fired from Farm News, a weekly publication of The Fort Dodge (Iowa) Messenger, after it published this cartoon pointing out that the CEOs of three men who run major farming-focused corporations earned a combined $53 million in 2015, as much as 2,129 Iowa farmers.

Reports say a major advertiser was upset by the cartoon and pulled its advertising. The paper is owned by Ogden Newspapers Inc., a privately held West Virginia chain.

A few of the issues raised include:
* Editorial independence. If a big advertiser can push you around, then who else can?
* Editorial judgment. If this sort of cartoon was going to be a problem, then why not bring it up before it’s published?* Loyalties. Savvy readers now know who will win when there’s a threat.
* Traditional threats to niche publications and magazines, who more likely face a narrow set of potential advertisers.

This last point addresses the key issue of money, which is drying up in the news business. It seems harder to be ethical when losing a major advertiser becomes even more of an existential threat.

There’s a famous quote from a 20th-century newspaper chain owner that goes something like this: “It’s OK to lose your top advertiser. Just don’t lose your second.”

In this new millennium, losing a top advertiser may be enough to kill you. But it’s becoming clear that the threat of losing a top advertiser is enough to put a kink in your ethics.

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Amazon vs. The Times vs. Journalistic Ethics

By Emily Williams

“Nearly every person I worked with, I saw cry at their desk.”

That was the quote shared round the Internet in August 2015, when the New York Times published a scathing story taking down retail giant Amazon for its hyper-competitive corporate culture and unfair treatment of its employees. The story garnered massive reaction at the time of publication, but has since been under scrutiny for what some have called sensationalism and biased reporting.

A recent response from the company published on blog publisher Medium brought the story back into public debate regarding the ethics of The Times’ reporting.

The article used sensational language as a method of framing. The authors evoked a negative image of the company culture through phrases like, “the guidelines conjure an empire of elite workers,” and “they must come armed with paper trails to defend the wrongfully accused and incriminate members of competing groups.” These phrases demonstrate the authors clearly had a point of view they were trying to further, accurate or not, and their use of such descriptions subtly communicates a biased opinion to readers.

One of the main ethical problems with this article was the fact that a majority of the evidence comes from anecdotes from unidentified sources. The most powerful section features testimonials from people who said they left the company for having children, dealing with family illness, and not checking emails on vacation; however, none of these sources is identified and no fact-based proof is provided.

Whether or not these stories are accurate, the most ethical way to present a story as controversial as this one is to ground you assertions in facts and data. The use of too many anonymous sources can make the reader doubt the story.

Another weak point in The Times’ reporting was that they failed to provide context. They describe the demanding and competitive work environment at Amazon, but don’t provide counterpoints by describing the work environment at other similar tech companies. Perhaps Amazon is the most intense of all its competitors, but the reader isn’t given the opportunity to make that comparison because only Amazon is discussed. Of course Amazon’s environment seems extreme when it is presented alone, but many other companies could be doing similar things.

In a post on Linkedin, current Amazon Head of Infrastructure Development Nick Ciubotariu wrote a point-by-point rebuttal to the article, saying the evidence and interviews they presented did not reflect the current state of the company.

“The NYT article is so blatantly incorrect, and additionally, purposefully designed to make past data reflect current reality at a company that has done quite a bit to change its ways and continues to work hard to do so,” he wrote.

On Monday October 20, 2015, Jay Carney, Senior Vice President for Global Corporate Affairs at Amazon, wrote a response on Medium blasting The Times for not fact checking their employee interviews with the company. Carney stated that ex-employee Bo Olsen, who told the reporters he witnessed his fellow employees crying at work, resigned from the company after he admitted to defrauding vendors and falsifying business records.

“We were in regular communication with (co-author Jodi) Kantor from February through the publication date in mid-August,” Carney wrote. “And yet somehow she never found the time, or inclination, to ask us about the credibility of a named source whose vivid quote would serve as a lynchpin for the entire piece.”

Regardless of whether or not Olsen’s story was true, the circumstances of his termination are an important part of the fact checking process. Quotes from disgruntled ex-employees are going to be biased by nature and will not necessarily reflect the overall culture of a company. Not disclosing this information in the article could lead the reader to believe that this is representative, rather than an extreme situation.

Shortly after Carney’s post, New York Times Executive Editor Dean Banquet posted his own rebuttal on Medium, arguing that their reporting was backed up by hundreds of interviews with current and former employees, some of whom were reluctant to give their names because their current companies do business with Amazon. Banquet provided explanations for the research that went into several of the employee stories. While Banquet’s response does rebuke many of the claims Carney was concerned about, it does not account for the lack of hard data evidence, or the lack or context within the tech community.

Was Amazon unfairly targeted by The New York Times in a clearly slanted story that ignored the facts and provided unfounded anecdotal evidence? Is Amazon truly the hellish, inhumane work environment The Times describes? The answer most likely lies somewhere in the middle; however, The Times’ biased reporting and anecdotal evidence is cause for ethical concern and does not represent the best journalistic practices.

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76ers, Redskins and Wells Fargo: On the ethics of not calling things by names that others use

2015-06-13_DeadspinFrom Philadelphia comes news that the 76ers basketball team refuses to say “Wells Fargo” when referring to the arena where it plays.

Wells Fargo, which bought the bank that bought the bank that made the original deal in 1996, owns naming rights until the 29-year, $40 million deal ends in 2025.

But that money went to the arena owner, not the team. The bank is not a 76ers corporate sponsor, so the 76ers call it “The Wells Fargo Center” when referring to home.

A couple of media ethics thoughts:
1. What obligation do journalists have to help others peddle products — and, by extension, ideas?

Deadspin, known for going against the flow of traditional media ethics, takes the 76ers’ thinking to the logical conclusion:

If you’re not getting paid to do a brand’s work for it—say, by calling an arena by some dumb name—you shouldn’t do that work. We don’t really do official policies around here, and we’ll surely mess this up, but we’re probably going to try and follow the 76ers’ lead. So the next time you read us writing about something occurring at Tropicana Field, feel free to (politely) drop into the comments and remind us that we aren’t getting free juice boxes, and that it’s actually the Florida Suncoast Dome.

Sports teams and leagues race to the bank on the backs of free media, by selling ad space and naming rights, with much of the value derived by the fact that news organizations usually call places and things by the advertised name.

This happens with obvious things, such as naming rights to games, races and stadiums. But it also happens with stealth, such as at the 2015 Master’s when some media reported Tiger Woods “jamming on the driving range” while wearing headphones, not noting that Woods is a pitchman for the company.

This isn’t to say that news organizations should be in business with those who sell sell naming rights to the events and places that journalists cover. As Brent Musberger taught us, it’s tacky to name-check the sponsor when covering the action – especially just before the biggest play of the game.

So if the 76ers can decide not to name where it plays for something as simple as not getting paid, then journalist should have the right, too.

This notion should be moved out of the sandbox of sports journalism, too. Smart journalists should be aware of the power of words — and willing to dismiss the PR and ad words flung that them. Propagandists are most powerful when they decide the terms used to define their friends and enemies.

An example is the reminder that something isn’t necessarily “reform” simply because someone calls it that. See: tort reform, health care reform, etc. The better phrase may be “changes to civil law” or “changes to current health care,” which doesn’t roll off the keyboard as smoothly but also also doesn’t have journalists seeming to take sides. See also: Politicians who say “the American people want (or believe).” The next question from a reporter should be: “May we see the public opinion poll that tells you this?”

2. The 76ers are giving journalists another ethical justification for refusing to using team names that many people find offensive and degrading.

Media ethics research more than two decades old discusses the considerations of media organizations that refuse to call teams by nicknames that some readers find offensive or degrading to others. The debate has only heightened since then, after the NCAA forced some schools to change names and the NFL’s Washington franchise feels pressure to find a new name.

So if a sports team won’t call its home by its high-priced name for reasons of filthy lucre, then journalists have at least as much right to decide what they will call teams in the news space they control.

Thanks, 76ers, for making it easier for journalists to do what they already should be doing.


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Opelika-Auburn News: ‘Finding a way’ to anger nearly everybody

Not for the squeamish? This photo and headline has led to wailing and gnashing of teeth from football fans and others.
Not for the squeamish? This photo/headline combo has led to wailing and gnashing of teeth from football fans and others.

You’re working in The Opelika-Auburn News sports department late on a deadline Saturday night. You should be celebrating in your seat, even if you don’t care who won the big game your paper will blow out in Sunday’s paper.

The Auburn Tigers, the team your paper cares about, has held on to beat another Top 5 opponent with one of college football’s biggest plays of the year—with 90 second left in the game, Ole Miss receiver Laquon Treadwell fumbles the ball inches away from the winning touchdown.

Your photographer is in the perfect position to capture the photo that other photographers don’t. The team’s coach supplies the quote you need – “It’s about players, they truly believe that if it’s close, they’re going to find a way to win” – making it easy to quickly write the wood headline to sell the package.

But there’s a one problem – the photo shows the receiver’s leg breaking as he loses the ball. And there’s no way to crop the photo to eliminate the crooked leg without losing the information that it’s happening at the goal line.

Do you find another photo that doesn’t tell the story of the game, worried that your photo might not pass the Cheerio’s test? Or do you figure it’s OK, given that nearly every reader saw that replay multiple times during ESPN’s live coverage, or in ESPN’s highlight blog that shows the place twice after the game, or available in other online places (including “traditional” media sites.)

We’re having this discussion now because The Opelika-Auburn News published that photo and the “FINDING A WAY” hed on its sports front for November 2, 2014.

Running the photo with its headline led to an even greater problem – the combination creates a package that becomes more than the sum of its parts, and more than a few readers and bloggers might think you mean that “finding a way” includes breaking a person’s leg.

So the results are predictable—media write about the page and people nationwide criticize the paper for its decision, and not just the football-conspiracy few who believe that this was a deliberate attempt to embarrass Auburn because someone working the desk went to a different school.

A few questions and thoughts for people thinking about media ethics:

* Does it matter that we can see the video and pictures online and not be so upset, but when in print it somehow crosses an ethical line? As we start the third decade of the Internet age, does print really add an imprimatur that doesn’t exist online?

(I think this is a function of web pull vs. newspaper push: We don’t seem to mind as much that the Web has gruesome pictures and video, because we can choose for ourselves whether to see it. We do seem to mind when it’s pushed on us by the newspaper, who makes the decision for us.)

* How much of this is third-person effect, the theory that says we tend to overestimate the effect that media will have on other people?

* Are we hypocritical – we love our football, but we’re not willing to look at harsh images from a harsh sport? (The web is full of those who write about the evils of football on society.)

* Should there be an apology? The paper apologized, but not for running the photo, which it called “gut-wrenching” but “also tells the story.” (An early version of editorial wished the photo had been smaller; that later was edited out of the editorial.)

The paper said it would have found a new headline, saying it was “not meant to celebrate Treadwell’s injury or offend any reader. To any person hurt by our editorial decision, we apologize.”

Later, the paper wrote:

Our staff has already spent several hours discussing Sunday’s decisions, and we’ll continue to do that in the next few days. If we could redesign Sunday’s 1B again, we would. One thing we would do is use a different headline. We chose “FINDING A WAY” because after the game, numerous players and coaches discussed how the team keeps fighting and finding a way to win difficult games.

The apology pleased few readers, based on the loads of comments below the paper’s editorial calling for everyone’s head.

* Based on the loads of comments below the paper’s editorial, is it fair to think that many readers believe the newspaper represents Auburn?

* Do people really think that the paper planned for its photo and headline to add up to what it is perceived to mean?

This one is easy, after scores of weekend nights on deadline: I promise that no one in that newsroom had time, much less inclination, to think the photo and headline added up to what some want to think it means. I’m sure the designer thought: “We have the photo that explains the game. We have the overhed from Malzahn’s quote. We’re done.”

* Argue with this sentence: What can be attributed to malice is usually just stupidity or deadline.

Finally, a sentence from the paper’s explanation struck us: “Our staff has already spent several hours discussing Sunday’s decisions, and we’ll continue to do that in the next few days.” As we say in Doing Ethics in Media, deadline is too late to be making decisions from the gut. At that point, either rules (“we never publish pictures of breaking legs or dead bodies”) or front-loaded moral philosophy should kick in.

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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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