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"

Does Charlie Hebdo’s Syrian satire go too far?

By Leila Beem Núñez

Charlie Hebdo is no stranger to controversy. In 2006, the French satirical magazine enraged many in the Muslim world when it republished cartoons of the Prophet Muhammad. In 2011, its offices were firebombed and damaged after publishing content of a similar nature. In January of this year, the consequences for its irreverence were fatal, when two Al-Qaeda affiliated gunmen stormed the office during a weekly editorial meeting and killed 12. Eight of the publication’s journalists were left dead. One of these was editor-in-chief Stéphane Charbonnier.

But Charlie Hebdo continues in its mission of free speech quite undeterred.

Two cartoons from Charlie Hebdo. On the left, the caption says Christians can walk on water but Muslim infants drown. On the right, the words “Welcome to migrants!” and “So near his goal…” are above Aylan’s body, with a McDonald’s-like sign offering two kids’ meals for the price of one. (We show these because it’s difficult to talk about the ethics of content without seeing it.)

Today it is under fire and scrutiny for its recent publication of cartoons satirizing Europe’s current handling of the migrant crisis. One of the cartoons in particular has drawn perhaps the most public ire, depicting the body of Aylan Kurdi, the 3-year-old Syrian refugee who drowned off the coast of the Greek island of Kos earlier this month. Stark photographs of the child’s lifeless body in the sand circulated through the world’s media outlets, raising questions as to the ethics of publishing such a graphic and disturbing image.

In Charlie Hebdo’s recent cartoon, a lifeless baby – presumably that of Kurdi – lies facedown in front of a McDonald’s-style billboard that promotes “two children for the price of one.” The caption of the cartoon read, “So close to his goal.” Outrage ensued, especially evident on social media. In one response, Peter Herbert, chair of the Society of Black Lawyers, tweeted that the publications constituted “an incitement to hate crime and persecution before the International Criminal Court,” as reported by Al Jazeera.

“Charlie Hebdo is a racist, xenophobic and ideologically bankrupt publication that represents the moral decay of France,” Herbert continued.

Anger stemmed from the depiction of the tragedy. Questions arose: Was Charlie Hebdo mocking the child and migrants with similar plights? How could the publication publish something so insensitive and distasteful? How could it possibly be considered ethical to use the drowning of this child in a cartoon?

But not all who have spoken out have done so against Charlie Hebdo and its recent actions. Corinne Rey, one of the illustrators of the cartoons who was spared in the January attack, responded to accusations that the intention of the drawings was to mock, according to a New York Times report.

“We are not mocking the child,” Rey said in a Tweet. “Instead we are criticizing the consumerist society that is being sold to them like a dream.”

Indeed, many have defended Charlie Hebdo’s actions as an ultimate display of free speech, and furthermore, as a scathing criticism of the handling of the current migrant crisis by European nations. With an unprecedented influx of migrants seeking asylum in these countries, governments are struggling with what to do. Some have been more lenient than others. While Germany is still welcoming migrants, Denmark has vowed to crack down on immigration and suspended rail links between it and Germany last week after hundreds of migrants were stopped at the border. Hungary closed its border with Serbia completely on Tuesday, leaving hundreds stranded. Is Charlie Hebdo justified, then, in shedding light on this crisis? Perhaps.

But even if it is true satire, does that alone make the cartoon ethical? And, once again, should images of Aylan Kurdi be published and circulated at all?

As is typical of such ethical dilemmas, the answers are not clear-cut or easily defined, but what we as producers of media must ultimate ask ourselves in order to reach the most reasonable conclusions possible is: What is this content worth? Do the graphic images serve a purpose? Do these visuals help to advance the story by giving readers a perspective – disturbing as it often may be – they otherwise may not have had?

Historian and documentary filmmaker Ken Burns weighed in on the issue, providing his insight as to why certain images, while often awful, have had and continue to have the power of inspiring action and reform.

“The power of the single image to convey complex information is still there,” Burns said when asked about the images of Aylan Kurdi. “It has that power to shock and arrest us. To make us stop for just a second and interrupt the flow.”

Leila Beem Núñez is a student in Dr. Jen Hoewe’s JN 499 class at The University of Alabama.

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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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If you publish mugshots and other arrest news, then you should follow up

Turn to the right: Nicholas Cage from Raising Arizona.

Turn to the Right: Nicholas Cage from Raising Arizona, the 1987 Coen Brothers classic.

It was a Gannett-owned newspaper that received near-universal condemnation in December 2012 when it built an online map that made it easy to find the addresses of people who had gun permits. The complaints came from all sides — gun owners and others worried about privacy, lawmakers who closed loopholes in New York and elsewhere, to people who simply saw it as bad journalism.

So it’s good to see that another Gannett-owned newspaper has moved away from the “let’s-do-it-because-we-can” approach to content. The Springfield (Mo.) News-Leader dropped its online mug shot collection because, as newsroom leader Paul Berry said, the galleries had little news value and were “little more than a place for people to gawk at those who have been arrested.”

In terms from the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics, which he didn’t mention, it’s about not “pandering to lurid curiosity” and remembering that “legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.”

Gawking at mugs is a thing on the Internet, ranging from the silly and sillier at to the sillier still of, to history, and to the evil business of charging people to remove their mugshots from sites. The News-Leader site, like most other journalistic sites with mugs, didn’t go as far as poking fun of mugs.

But missing, Berry wrote, was the context of what led to an arrest, whether formal charges were filed, and the judicial outcome.

Or, more simply put, missing was the journalism.

Now to the next logical thought in not printing mugshots because they provide incomplete information: publishing names of people arrested without following up on the outcomes. Information about arrests is news, and it seem antithetical to American justice to limit public access to arrests and mugshots.

Journalists publish information about arrests because it’s news — and because it’s easy to collect. A trip to the courthouse or jail, or even to the courthouse or jail’s website, makes collection easy. (It was easier still for the News-Leader, which only stopped collecting information after its automated retrieval system failed.)

But it’s harder to publish information about outcomes of arrests because the results play out across time, in different judicial venues, and usually in plea deals or ways that do not make for automated or easy collection. As staffs shrink, publishing automated news is easier and far cheaper than chasing news.

So here’s a challenge to media who display mugshots: If you’re going to embarrass people by publishing their mugshot, then you should feel obligated to following this new section to the SPJ code: “Gather, update and correct information throughout the life of a news story.”

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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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Facebook news feed emotion experiment was a failure of journalism ethics, too

Facebook_News_FeedNews that Facebook manipulated content of nearly 700,000 users continues to make waves, and now a Democratic senator has asked the Federal Trade Commission to investigate whether the company and researchers properly notified and/or debriefed users that they were being used as experimental subjects.

The 2012 experiment tested whether users posted higher levels of positive or negative comments after Facebook removed content with positive or negative emotions. The bottom line, according to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences: Yep, fiddling with emotion in news feeds can cause a little emotional change in the reader.

It’s no Milgram or Stanford Prison experiment, to be sure, but it raises questions of ethics by experiments, the watchful eye of Institutional Review Boards that consider research ethics, and relationships between academic institutions and the corporate world. Cornell’s IRB didn’t weigh in because Facebook did the research, not the Cornell researchers who only access to results. Since its publication, the National Academy of Science has expressed concern has expressed concern about the experiment, and Facebook has apologized for another in a series of lapses.


Facebook uses journalistic terms such as “news feed” and “stories” to describe its content. Does that mean Facebook has an ethical obligation to journalism ethics?

This post isn’t about research ethics, however. It’s about journalism ethics.

Facebook doesn’t think of itself as journalism or its employees as journalists. But when your site’s main feature is called a “News Feed” and your site describes posts as “stories,” then you’ve moved into the world of journalism.

Essentially, Facebook’s genius is that it is among the world’s largest news organizations—but without reporters. As the star of the Web 2.0 world, it makes its billions by being the host of news produced by users for users.

The millions of people who use the site expect to see precisely what their “friends” have posted, in chronological order – or as “top stories,” another term dripping with journalistic implications as human-created algorithms decide what stories are most important for users to see.

So when Facebook starts editing what its readers see, it is in the journalism business.

Facebook has long manipulated content for better and worse. Its software removes illegal and offensive content for legal and ethical reasons. But it also messes with content for financial reasons. People who use Facebook to communicate with groups by using Facebook pages are realizing that Facebook doesn’t give you access to everybody in your group. Facebook’s “Boost Post” plan requires page owners to pay to reach everyone who has liked the page—more money for Facebook, but with the downside that a Page owner cannot freely reach everyone who has freely chosen to affiliate with a page. Many marketers are unhappy with Boost Post in principal, as well as its effectiveness. (Would anyone like to argue that if I choose to “like” a page, then I should expect to receive the content from that page? How do I know what I’m missing otherwise?)

This post isn’t about advertising ethics, however. (When something online is free, you’re not the customer; you’re the product.) It’s about journalism ethics.

The ethical malpractice of this experiment is when Facebook calls its posts “stories” and “news” – but then manipulates that “news.” Simply put, people who come to Facebook expect to see everything in their friends’ feeds. When Facebook secretly takes away what its readers expect, it is practicing unethical gatekeeping.

Imagine The New York Times conducting the same experiment, fiddling with whether readers’ news feeds are filled with stories about more death in Gaza or happy insurance customers. Facebook did that with its content.

If you’re going to use words such as “news” and “stories,” and if you’re going to decide what stories people see, then you’re in the journalism business. And that brings the ethical responsibility of transparency.

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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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Chrysler: If you can find a journalist for sale, buy him

LeeIacoccaYou might recall the 1980s Chrysler ads where then-chairman Lee Iacocca challenged buyers: “If you can find a better car, buy it!”

A post from Jalopnik site suggests Fiat-Chrysler has a new line: “If you can find a journalist for sale, buy him.”

Automotive News journalist Nick Bunkley noted that the company, at a media event unveiling its five-year plan, put documents on Samsung Galaxy tablets for journalists to take – or, if the journalists’ ethics would not allow, let them donate the tablet to Detroit city schools. As Bunkley tweeted: #ethicssmethics.

The ethics of automotive journalism can be tricky, given the jumble of issues related to access to vehicles for review, the power struggles between the industry and journalists, and the billions of ad dollars spent by the industry. It’s indeed a love-hate relationship.

Having said that, of course it’s unethical for people who cover a company to accept anything of real value from that company, and a $300 tablet is both something of real value and completely unrelated to the requirements to write about the company.

The concern here is with Chrysler for making the offer.

The company knows that many of journalists who cover it have corporate or personal (or, we hope, both corporate and personal) obligations to accept nothing of value. The reasons are obvious — real bias by weak-willed journalists swayed by swag, or the perception of bias by news consumers who believe that journalists are weak-willed and swayable.

Simply making the offer created a multifaceted ethical dilemma:

  • If you take the tablet and work for an online site, do you have a legal obligation under Federal Trade Commission guidelines to tell readers that you accepted the tablet?
  • Does Chrysler have an ethical or legal obligation to tell those blogging journalists who take the tablet that they may have entered into a commercial relationship with the company?
  • If you take the tablet, have you harmed a student who otherwise won’t have access to a tablet that Chrysler would have donated?
  • If you don’t take the tablet, is it really a “donation” in the first place? (My choice to follow my company’s ethics rules does not mean I’ve done anything noble by donating a tablet to charity.)
  • If you don’t take the tablet, do you have the obligation to tell readers that you turned down the offer — but others writing about it took the tablet. (The “accountability” section of the SPJ Code of Ethics, for example, tells journalists to “expose unethical practices of journalists and the news media.”)

My advice to Chrysler: Let journalists do their jobs without having to make decisions that have nothing to do with the task at hand. It creates a further divide among “journalists” and people using journalism for their (and your) ends, and confuses the public between that distinction. And uncouple the connection between a tablet giveaway to journalists and a charitable donation to schools, which makes it look like you’ll only donate when it doesn’t meet your other purpose of buying coverage.

Or to be even more cynical, Chrysler can change the words “the British journalist” to “the auto journalist” in Humbert Wolfe’s poetic ditty from a few decades ago.

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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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