Figures lie and liars figure: Journalists should be wary of bias behind numbers

By Serena Bailey

Sesame Street's The Count
Sesame Street’s The Count knows you can count numbers, but you can’t always count on them to deliver truth.

In the immediate wake of the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High in Parkland, Florida, Everytown for Gun Safety, an advocacy group that works to reduce gun violence, tweeted that the Parkland shooting had been the 18th school shooting of the year. This statistic was shared by Bernie Sanders and New York mayor Bill de Blasio and was included in articles by Time, MSNBC, ABC News, Huffington Post and the BBC.

The problem, as The Washington Post pointed out, is that the statistic was wrong.

In defining “school shooting,” Everytown had chosen to include every incident where a gun is discharged on a school campus, according to The Washington Post. This included incidents such as a suicide on the grounds of a school that had been closed for seven months or someone firing off rounds from a gun in the parking lot of a Michigan school during a basketball game. In the latter case, no one was hurt and it was 8 p.m., but that counted as a school shooting in the eyes of Everytown. According to The Washington Post, only five of Everytown’s 18 shootings “happened during school hours and resulted in any physical injury.”

Everytown didn’t include how it defined school shootings in its tweet about the Parkland shooting. Not including that information can be problematic according to Dr. Scott Parrott, an assistant professor with the Department of Journalism & Creative Media at The University of Alabama.

“Numbers can be very powerful especially if you use them in charts and graphs and things like that because they can communicate information,” Parrott said. “You have to make sure that what you’re communicating to the general public is accurate. But not only that, you have to think ahead and anticipate the way they will interpret the information. So yeah, 18 school shootings is technically correct, but that’s not the way people are going to interpret it. They’re going think 18 mass shootings.”

Parrott said he worked for years at newspapers across the southeast, using statistics to tell stories about topics like heath, but in ways that would interest the readership. Now he teaches his students how to interpret and evaluate data they want to use in their news stories.

The most important step in evaluating data, according to Parrott, is to ask where the data was coming from, how it was collected and what motive might the data collectors have.

“You can ask questions in a certain way to elicit a response that you want,” he said. “You can ask what we call double-barrel questions where it could be interpreted two different ways. You can ask loaded questions that lead the person to respond a certain way.”

The first three rules in The Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics call for journalists to “Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work,” “Verify information before releasing it” and “Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy. Provide context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify.” Oversimplification, said Parrott is one of the biggest mistakes that journalists make when using data in news stories.

He also said that it’s easier now than ever, for journalists to use new tools and technologies to visualize data for readers. His advice, he said is that when using data, journalists should approach it as they would a human source.

“I treat it largely the same way I would if I was covering an event as a news reporter,” he said. “If I was just interviewing sources I’d be critical of the sources I interviewed and questions I asked and how I asked the questions. So you’ve got to do the same thing with data.”

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Associated Press stylebook needs to step it up on language for covering the disabled community

By Zoe Norberg

The Associated Press Stylebook
The Associated Press Stylebook

In the past several years, the Associated Press has added chapters ranging from social media to religion, and most recently, data journalism to the categorized section in the back of the AP Stylebook. Nevertheless, an in-depth chapter about the proper usage of disability language is absent from the stylebook––instead, this topic is covered in an entry spanning less than half of a page.

It is astounding that such a wide-spanning category as disability––which affects nearly 20 percent of the United States population, according to the National Service Inclusion Project––would be absent from the industry standard publication for journalistic style.

Especially in recent years, the Associated Press has made efforts to represent people within minority groups such as different nationalities, races, sexual orientations and religions; however, the news agency has fallen short in its coverage of people with disabilities within the style guide.

To compensate for the gaps left by the AP Stylebook, the National Center on Disability and Journalism (NCDJ) has created their own Disability Language Style Guide to assist journalists with the coverage of people living with disabilities. This guide contains specific wordage to use when discussing a person with almost any type of disability, including physical disabilities, hearing and visual impairments, mental and cognitive disabilities and seizure disorders. Additionally, it shows how the NCDJ’s standard aligns with the AP Stylebook’s suggestions––if there are any.

Diversity is one of the most important elements of modern journalism––so why does the AP Stylebook put so little effort into assuring that people with disabilities are properly represented in the media?

Without proper support and representation by national organizations such as the Associated Press, the disability community loses their voice and their right to decide how the public as a whole refers to them in news media.

Kristina Hicks, an intern with the University of Alabama’s Men’s Wheelchair Basketball team, said that this disparity is one of the biggest frustrations within the disability community.

“You wouldn’t use incorrect language to describe race or to describe sexuality,” Hicks said. “Just as those things aren’t a choice, having a disability isn’t a choice.”

In the same way that a person’s skin color or sexual orientation is a part of their identity, so is a person’s disability. By failing to refer to a person with a disability in the way they want to be represented, journalists are failing to acknowledge the identities of people in the disability community. In order to follow a commitment to diversity, news organizations must consider all of the people in their community. This includes the 48 million Americans who live with a disability.

In the SPJ Code of Ethics, the principle “Minimize Harm” directly states, “Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.”

“[People living with disabilities] deserve just as much respect as any human beings, because they are,” Hicks said.

Seeing as this is the case, the AP Stylebook is clearly falling flat in its efforts to support and respect a large portion of the public that it serves, which is an ethical failure by most journalistic standards.

Additionally, the Associated Press is failing the public by neglecting to follow through with its own statement of ethical principles, which proclaims that “the news organization should guard against inaccuracies, carelessness, bias or distortion…”

It is careless that a national news organization would leave parts of the disability community out of its standardized language guide for the journalism industry. Representation is a key factor in promoting diversity and equality throughout the media, and facilitating this representation by including all of the proper terms in the AP Stylebook is the first step to a more diverse and inclusive industry.

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How some news organizations track you online

By Aaron Bonner

In 2017, information is available in a matter of milliseconds, from cake recipes to a politician’s tax forms, but the availability of certain information has created privacy concerns for both journalists and readers.

With more news organizations shifting to an online readership, readers have begun to question the information gathered by each site. Cookies enabled on each site store information and analytics about each reader but sometimes provide location-based information and customer data to third parties.

Elizabeth Elkin, editor-in-chief for The Crimson White, said the student-run organization uses social media as well as Google Analytics to view what stories that readers are spending the most time reading and which redirect brought them to their website. While she and other staff members view this information, The Crimson White does not collect the same information that a publication such as The New York Times does with its readership.

“What I look for is what stories are getting clicked on the most and how people are bouncing from social media and our website,” she said. “I can look at how long someone stays on an article, but I’m not looking at who is going where.”

On The New York Timesonline privacy page, the organization lists the data it pulls from online browsers and from data knowingly given by its users. From subscription and survey data provided by customers to “non-personal information about the computer, mobile device or other device” used to access their website, the organization stores information about each person that views the site.

Elkin said that while The Crimson White does not collect this information, the organization regularly posts tweets and student-created content within the paper in a section of the paper about student activity and opinions.

“We pull from Instagram all the time, but we reach out to people first and we say ‘is it OK if we use your photo,’” Elkin said. “Usually people are excited to see themselves in the paper, because all I’ve ever heard from people is excitement or ‘oh, isn’t that funny that they pulled me,’ but I haven’t ever had anybody complain about the usage.”

While comments on The Crimson White’s website almost never see deletion, she said that privacy of the reporter is a top concern within the organization. After an online commenter targeting one of the paper’s columnists posted personal information and invitations to attack the writer on social media, Elkin stepped in to remove the offending comments.

However, this incident is not an isolated one. With journalists releasing opinions online amidst a culture trying to shift narratives and call out fake news, several writers for publications such as Jezebel and The Pacific Standard became targets in attacks known as doxxing.

“There are some websites that are getting into the market of publishing these details of people’s lives, like where they live and relatives’ names, and then the only way you can get that information removed is by contacting them,” said Scott Parrott, a professor at The University of Alabama’s Department of Journalism and Creative Media. “The way that you contact them is to go on their website, which generates advertising clicks for them, so it’s all a sham and a market, and there’s no real guarantee that the information will be removed.”

In his classes, Parrott goes hands-on with public records released online to show students how simple information gathering can be. For this reason, Parrott said that he has deactivated all social media to prevent some of his personal life from being readily available.

He said that in his time as a professor, he has observed the media habits of other teachers, noting that several avoid posting photos of children or their relationship status. While not a perfect solution, reviewing privacy settings on social media and posting less personal updates can often reduce the information readily available to those looking for it.

“If you use these things, just be thoughtful about how you use them,” he said. “We’re talking about the internet of things nowadays, where it’s not just a computer – it’s your television or even your coffee maker.”

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Going undercover-ish to report that athletes have sex while at the Olympics?

TDB_swipingApparently, The Daily Beast thinks it’s newsworthy enough to go undercover and find out whether athletes not only have sex with athletes while at the Games, and whether athletes will meet non-athletes, too.

A reporter used social media tools to see who might meet up with him. Most of the respondents are gay, which when reported can be a problem for athletes from nations where being gay is illegal or perceived to be immoral.

The Daily Beast’s editor has apologized and made some changes after the original posting, but many in the journalism world still say it’s unethical.

Slate calls out the work as “sleazy, dangerous, and wildly unethical.” Salon calls it “reporting gone wrong.”

The reporter says he didn’t lie–sort of:

For the record, I didn’t lie to anyone or pretend to be someone I wasn’t—unless you count being on Grindr in the first place—since I’m straight, with a wife and child. I used my own picture (just of my face…) and confessed to being a journalist as soon as anyone asked who I was.

And squirrels don’t look like squirrels, unless you count those fuzzy tails.

Sissela Bok’s classic Lying: Moral Choice in Public and Private Life comes in handy with its three-part model to justify lying:

1. Are there alternative actions to resolve the dilemma without lying?
If no, then move to Question 2:

2. What are the moral reasons for and against the lie?
If reasons for seem to outweigh reasons against, then move to Question 3:

3. As a test of the two steps, what would a public of reasonable people say about the lie.
If the test of publicity passes, then maybe it’s OK to lie.

Discuss.

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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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Aristotle and Persuasion: Are Gossip Magazines Doing This Right?

By Anna Van Der Like

According to AristotleMagazinethe New World Encyclopedia, “celebrity” journalism is less reputable than other types of journalism. Some would argue that these gossip columns are not journalistic at all. Yet they are incredibly successful and continue to sell even in a time when print media is slowly fading away.

Aristotle taught us that persuasion required ethos, pathos and logos. It would be hard to argue that celebrity journalism utilizes the logos aspect, but is there an argument that this type of journalism uses ethos and pathos? Gossip magazines have managed to not only capture an audience, but to hold onto them.

Ethos correlates with attractiveness. In a journalistic sense, it seems that the sources used by gossip columnists are not the most credible. Yet the topic of conversation within the articles usually is an incredibly attractive celebrity. They may not be using the ethos in the journalistic sense, but they are still taking Aristotle’s advice.

Us Weekly has an entire section of their website dedicated to beauty. Just by scrolling through the front page of the website, anyone can see the amount of attractive people that Us Weekly is using to bring in readers. Is this what Aristotle was talking about? It certainly seems to be persuading the readers.

Pathos is an emotional appeal. Journalists and psychologists alike have questioned whether or not positive or negative headlines bring in readers. A quick scroll down Radar Online will show which they think works best. Today’s titles consist of: ‘MOMAGER MELTDOWN’ ‘HOUSE FROM HELL’ and ‘BLOODY CRIME SCENE PHOTOS’.

The emotions that these magazines are looking for are shock, anger, disbelief and intrigue. These overdramatic headlines certainly achieve their goal: they grab people’s attention. It is not certain whether or not this area of journalism is crossing an ethical line.

Gossip news has always brought forward ethical questions: what is the reasonable expectation for a celebrity’s privacy, are the ‘facts’ are actually checked, are these headlines appropriate for journalism, etc. The issue at this point is that everyone has come to expect this from gossip journalists.

Nobody cares as much when gossip magazines get their facts wrong because they are expected to be wrong. We expect paparazzi to be hated by all, but they are technically photojournalists. Cliché headlines are expected from gossip magazines, but in other areas of media they are unprofessional.

So how and why does “celebrity” journalism still exist? My theory is that their use of Aristotle’s advice about persuasion has worked in their advantage. Now it is too late, the public is hooked on this information and they do not care about ethics, professionalism or even the truth. They just want more of it.

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Charleston Post and Courier vs. Battery: Reporter does the right thing and a soccer team owner overreacts

UPDATE: That didn’t take long. The United Soccer League stepped in a few hours after this happened (on April 8, 2016), and the Post & Courier has its credentials again. League president Jake Edwards’ statement spanked the club owner:  “We will be taking the appropriate steps to prevent instances like this from happening again.”

************************************************************

A Charleston Post & Courier reporter this week did exactly what quality journalists do: He sought comment from a party in a lawsuit before publication.

The subject is Eric Bowman, the multimillionaire owner of the Charleston Battery, a minor-league soccer team. His response was even more minor league: He removed the press credentials of the P&C’s sports staff.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning paper responded by announcing that it will not cover the the team, with editor Mitch Pugh saying “our news coverage cannot and will not be swayed by the withholding of media credentials.”

Some quick thoughts on why banning journalists for doing their job is foolish:

* If the paper had published the story without seeking comment, Bowman would rightfully howl. It’s right there in the SPJ code of ethics, under the “Seek Truth and Report it” section that says journalists should “diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.

Trying to punish someone for doing right is a rarely good strategy in business, PR or life.

* It’s a legitimate news story, because the team owner was part of a major Charleston business. And in civil lawsuits – where a plaintiff can pretty much claim anything against a defendant – it’s particularly important to seek a defendant’s response to allegations.

* The sports section has nothing to do with the business section. (If you’re mad at a spouse, do you kick the dog?) Grownups who deal with media know that business, sports, news and opinion are separate parts of a news organization, and the advertising side is separate from the news operation.

* It doesn’t help the United Soccer League, of which the Battery is a member. SB Nation explained a few reasons why, but it missed one: Often, news organizations make deals with each other to swap stories so they don’t have to travel to away games, particularly for smaller-time sports such as soccer.

* It doesn’t work. Florida International University learned this the hard way in 2014, when it tried to ban a Miami Herald reporter who was writing tough stories about the hapless program. It led to lots of stories nationwide about FIU’s shenanigans, and FIU quickly backed down.

* The business story doesn’t go away.

* Major league sports don’t do this. While reporter access (at least to those working outside of the networks that pay billions of dollars for rights) is tightening, major leaguers know that scrutiny and criticism is part of the definition of being a major leaguer.

* If other media in Charleston do the right thing, they will ask the same question about the lawsuit so they can be banned, too. Or they may simply choose not to cover the team out of solidarity. While news organizations revel in their independence, a fact that PR practitioners use to their advantage, media occasionally join together when one is slighted. This seems like a good time for that.

 

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A Call to Arms: Using ethics in digital media

By Judah Martin

I would hesitate to call myself a practicing journalist. In fact, I think such a claim would be patently wrong.

In the years that I have worked as a student writer for The University of Alabama’s engineering college, I have written news releases, research articles, award announcements and “In Memorium” obituaries for engineering alumni who were generous enough to donate to the college. On more than one occasion, I have flipped open one of our now tabloid-sized editions of the Crimson White to see one of my news releases copied nearly word-for-word by an up-and-coming reporter. In the world of public relations, this is precisely the coverage we want. It means that whatever entity we are representing is depicted to the public exactly as we had intended.

In the low-stakes world of UA inter-university communications, little consequence arises from a reporter copying and pasting a description of this or that professor’s research interests. However, this tendency hints at what I think is a larger issue among professional journalists. Various politicians, celebrities and corporations can pedal their agendas across media platforms and I worry that, aside from in an occasional Atlantic or Jezebel think-piece, many reporters seldom challenge the narratives that are fed to them.

I would wager that the chief catalyst driving this disturbing trend is the advent of online journalism and social media. Such powerhouses demand content, sometimes daily, sometimes nearly constantly. The unfortunate reality is that journalists come to rely more and more on public relations professionals to satisfy that need for content and, arguably, the quality of their journalism is suffering.

There is no evidence that journalism’s enabling relationship with the world of public relations will be ending any time soon. According to data from the Pew Research Center, the public relations job market is growing at a substantially higher rate than the market for journalists. The United States Bureau of Labor Statistics predicts a 22.5 percent growth in PR jobs, as traditional journalism jobs continue shrinking. More and more, journalists are relying on PR professionals for story ideas.

In these precarious times, journalists should cling more closely to their codes of ethics than ever. Take, for example, the TARES test, which calls for:

Truthfulness of the claims made by the persuader.

Authenticity of the persuader- integrity, virtue, sincerity, loyalty, independence.

Respect for the ‘persuadee’s’ dignity/rights/interests/autonomy.

Equity of the persuasive appeal- fairness/justice/parity of the persuasion ‘playing field.’

Social responsibility for the wider public interest or public good rather than self-interest.

Ironically, this is a model popular among advertisers and PR professionals, but the values represented in the model can also be useful for the journalists who are relying on them for stories. Specifically, journalists should be always striving to uphold the dignity of the reader in their reporting process, because the quotes and the information that they include in their stories will ultimately determine their credibility. When reporters rely on news releases and official quotes to shape their stories they risk insulting the intelligence of their readers and, ultimately, they allow journalism to take a backseat to the expanding PR field.

Sources:

Alderman, Eric, “How P.R. is Killing Journalism” http://www.takepart.com/feature/2015/02/13/pr-jobs-journalism-jobs

Baker, S., & Martinson, D. L. (2001). The TARES test: Five principles for ethical persuasion. Journal of Mass Media Ethics, 16(2-3), 148-175.

Black, J., & Roberts, C. (2011). Doing Ethics In Media: Theories and Practical Applications. New York: Routledge.

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What Cam Newton could learn about public relations from Satchel Paige

There are some things you cannot control, as Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton learned during Super Bowl 50 on February 7, 2016.

The ’50’ in Super Bowl 50 may stand for the number of words a frustrated Cam Newton spoke to reporters before walking away from a press conference on Feb. 7, 2016.

The only thing you can control is how you respond. And Newton showed little control in one of the few things he could control – how he dealt with journalists after the 24-10 loss to the Broncos.

Newton was roundly criticized for his post-game behavior, including jabs from former pros.

It’s OK to not talk to reporters, or to be consistently terse.1 But it’s not OK to clam up only when things go bad. When hubris is followed by nemesis, critics pile on when you duck during difficult times the very thing you embrace when times are good.

Reporters deal with Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde-when-times-are-bad sources all the time. Nearly all reporters can tell you of people, politicians and organizations that purr and make life easy when they want something, but consistently erect roadblocks and/or refuse comment when it’s a topic they don’t want to talk about.

Ethical journalists don’t sulk when dealing with two-faced organizations, but they do their best to be transparent when explaining to the public that the organization erected roadblocks. (A thought for journalists: Find a consistent phrase for “refused to comment” to make Google searches easier.)

Meanwhile, solid PR practitioners know that the two-way symmetrical model of ethical PR means being consistently available when times are difficult.

The great Satchel Paige had the best advice for Newton and others who play this sort of PR game: “You win a few, you lose a few. Some get rained out. But you got to dress for all of them.”

***

1The lone exception might be public organizations and politicians that use taxpayer dollars, who usually have an obligation to explain themselves.)

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Journalism has a duty to provide in-depth information

By Laura D. Testino

The news never stops. Twitter never stops. And Joe Weisenthal never stops.

Weisenthal, known online as @TheStalwart, left his position as executive editor of Business Insider a year ago today for a television position with Bloomberg Media. While with Business Insider, New York Magazine published an article about Weisenthal’s media consumption and production habits, reporting that they began after a good night’s sleep of 5-6 hours at the early morning hour of 4a.m. Weisenthal would wake up, send a tweet to his followers asking what he missed while asleep, then spend an additional two hours before work sleuthing the internet and emails of financial reports.

“He is like the host of a daylong radio show, except no one speaks out loud,” Binyamin Appelbaum reported for New York Magazine. “He rarely makes phone calls. His phone almost never rings.”

But this intense dedication to financial news produced a 150-tweet, 15-story, 16-hour day. The content produced ranged from short and snarky to several hundred words, New York Magazine reported. And @TheStalwart often was first to report new data, without getting an early media advance.

While Stalwart-like swiftness in reporting has become increasingly popular online, the media needs to continue to provide in-depth coverage of events, assessing the consequences rather than just reporting a single event. Weisenthal has been able to do both, but often, news outlets stop at quick bursts and updates, and don’t write a later analysis of a news story. These in-depth stories should be more noticeable and just a viral on digital media.

“There’s nothing stopping a news site from publishing a longer-form story online,” Kira Goldenberg reported in her Columbia Journalism Review article, “Journalism Ethics in a Digital Age.” “But [Monica] Guzman is right that, when it comes to the digital space, slow journalism is usually an afterthought. Rather, we continue trying to break news as fast as possible. Too often, online coverage becomes an absurd dash for clicks on incremental scoops.”

Goldenberg is referring to an anecdote Guzman told at a Poynter Conference on the topic – after continually reporting online about an escaped bear in the area, Guzman’s media outlet never ran a print piece. A competing newspaper ran an entire narrative of the bear.

“For the first time in a long time I thought, ‘Oh man, there’s a reason the print product’s kind of nice,’” Guzman said.

The trend toward posting more short and to-the-point digital news stories could be linked to ethical practices in the media, focusing either on consequences or duties. Teleological practices focus on the outcome, where deontological practices focus on the process. For this reason, the digital sector of media generally follows teleological ethics – desiring clicks or being the first to break a story, for example.

Focusing on this outcome leads to a concentration on items in the media that are trending or viral. While these in-depth stories are sometimes written, they are not often presented as urgently as breaking news when published online.

“And journalists must recognize, to paraphrase researcher Danah Boyd, that we are only using tiny portions of social networks and that relevant sources exist beyond them,” Goldberg said. “We journalists may lose relevance unless we learn to work within rules we don’t always get to make.”

Understanding how digital platforms work, and striving for vast dissemination of all media types (while still finding time for sleep) is where journalists can learn from Weisenthal’s mixed-use of digital media.

This can be directly applied to current media situations, particularly with video coverage. Often, the video becomes the news rather than the narrative surrounding the video. Specifically, one could compare the number of shares on the recent video of a police officer using a Taser on University of Alabama student with the number of shares and popularity of more in-depth coverage. Although the video article contains updates, separate stories could be more beneficial and are not being added to the constancy of the news cycle.

A teleological ethical perspective can be beneficial, but should be paired with some focus on duty, or deontology. Rather than only focusing on clicks and initial coverage for a news issue, journalists, like Weisenthal, should remember the duties they have to their audiences to provide more than just a stream of quick facts.

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