The Other Side: Rolling Stone’s Note

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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#Pointergate Revisited Revisited

The chairman and chief executive officer of Hubbard Broadcasting, Inc., which owns KSTP-TV in Minneapolis, responded to the #Pointergate statement made last month by the Society’s Minnesota Pro Chapter.

In the letter dated November 26, Stanley Hubbard stands behind the controversial report that aired last month on the ABC affiliate.

Much of what Hubbard writes is covered in previous posts to this blog (here and here). However, it’s important to point to Hubbard’s comment at the beginning of the letter’s third paragraph.

Putting aside the question of whether it is an appropriate role of the Chapter to decide whether any particular new story should or should not air, we acknowledge that our reporting resulted in a great deal of criticism.

The Society’s Code of Ethics says journalists should “expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organizations.” Journalists and news consumers should be active in raising concern over news coverage that does not adhere to the profession’s best practices. There is no question about that.

Here is Hubbard’s full response via the Society’s Minnisota Pro Chapter, which will co-host on Monday “a panel discussion on the recent Pointergate issue in our local community.” Click here for additional details.

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#Pointergate Revisited

(Updated on November 21, 2014 to include information from a statement made by the Society’s Minnesota Pro Chapter.)

On Tuesday night, I published a blog post about a report that aired last week on KSTP, the ABC affiliate in the Minneapolis-Saint Paul metropolitan area. The story became known as #pointergate on Twitter. On Thursday, the station aired a report defending the original story.

In the original report, Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges is posing in a picture with an unidentified man flashing “known” gang signs, according to KSTP.

The new story is reported by Stephen Tellier, who is not the reporter of the original story – Jay Kolls.

“5 EYEWITNESS NEWS admits, and reported, that the poses struck by Hodges and Gordon appear to be playful — simple pointing — and it’s hard to understand why such a seemingly innocuous photo could be potentially dangerous,” Tellier writes on KSTP’s website. “But police say the mere existence of it could put the public, and possibly police, in danger.”

As I asked in my original post, if KSTP believes its sources that the picture can cause violence toward police and the public, why would the station continue to broadcast it across the Twin Cities?

The new report is somewhat more specific on the source who brought the photo to their attention. Tellier writes that it’s a “local law enforcement source — outside the Minneapolis Police Department.”

The report says KSTP has “taken the picture to eight active police officers with multiple agencies.” Those officers – along with a retired officer – all “strongly agreed the picture was problematic,” Tellier writes. Yet, none of the active police officers are named or appear on camera.

Additionally, Tellier reiterates that KSTP concealed the identity of the man posing with the mayor and the name of the community organization that put on the event, where the photo was taken, because he “nor the group were the focus of the story — Hodges was.”

Tellier writes that other organizations made the man the focus of the report, and “5 EYEWITNESS NEWS feels it necessary to provide additional context on his recent history.”

The report then launches into a detailed description of the man’s arrest record and pictures lifted from his Instagram account.

While the man’s identity has been made public since KSTP’s original report, the question remains: Why is his arrest record, court documents and personal pictures relevant to the story? The station already established in its first report that its sources say the man is not in a gang.

The fact that a person has a criminal history does not give journalists license to publish or broadcast that information across the Internet – unless appropriate. “Balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort,” according to the Society’s Code. “Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”

KSTP may say the man was not the focus of the first story, but the beginning of the original report includes a detailed description of the man’s court records.

Last Sunday, I sent Jay Kolls, the reporter of the original story, a list of questions. On Monday evening I resent those questions to him and the station’s news director, who is currently out of the office. I did not receive a response.

I can’t say what response I hoped to see from KSTP after its original report, but I know it wasn’t what the community received on Thursday.

In all likelihood, the Twin Cities will move on and #pointergate will fade to the pages of case studies. Stories like this tend to leave a stain, however. KSTP will be wearing it for a long while.



The Society’s Minnesota Pro Chapter and other local journalism groups released a statement on November 19 “expressing their concern and calling for KSTP to disavow the story.”

In addition to issuing its statement, the Minnesota Pro Chapter and other local journalism organizations “will host a public forum on the ethical issues raised by this story at Cowles Auditorium on the West Bank campus of the University of Minnesota — on Dec. 8, 2014 at 7 p.m.”

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Some Points on #Pointergate

KSTP, the ABC affiliate in Minnesota’s Minneapolis- Saint Paul metropolitan area, got skewered over the past week thanks to a story about a photo it says shows Minneapolis Mayor Betsy Hodges standing next to a convicted felon while they both flash a “known” gang sign.

The story and the controversy it caused became known as #Pointergate on Twitter. Twitter users – myself included – criticized KSTP for airing a story based on questionable evidence and ethical decisions.

The story is available here.

(video from

The mayor and the man, who is not in a gang according to KSTP’s police sources, posed for the photograph as they were knocking on doors for a get-out-vote even in Minneapolis. The gesture, KSTP anchor Bill Lunn said, concerned law enforcement officials, who “think the mayor has put the public and police at risk.”

In the video report, a retired police officer says gangs can take the photo and say “even the mayor is with us.” The president of the Minneapolis Police Federation also questions in the report whether the mayor will support “gangs in the city or cops.”

“The allegation was so ludicrous that two reporters at the Star Tribune ignored it after it was pitched to one of them by someone in law enforcement,” wrote Joe Tevlin, a metro columnist Star Tribune, in a column posted online about the story on Tuesday.

Since the initial backlash to the story, several websites reported the organization that put on the get-out-the-vote event also posted photos and a video on its blog that shows Minneapolis Police Chief Janeé Harteau, Mayor Hodges and the man at the event together.

The initial report raises several questions about the ethical decision made during the reporting and airing of the story.

Specifically, how is the hand gesture a “known” gang sign? If the hand gesture is a gang sign capable of inciting violence, why did KSTP broadcast it across the metropolitan area? Why is the criminal record of the person in the picture with Mayor Hodges relevant to the story? Who are the law enforcement officials that are outraged?

I emailed Lindsay Radford, KSTP’s news director, with my concerns and questions on Sunday. She is out of the office and forwarded my email to Jay Kolls, who reported the story.

“I am not the story,” Kolls replied to my email. “We did everything ethically. But, fine. Put them in writing and I will respond to each one.” He also responded to some of the concerns I mentioned in my first email.

As of press time (abuot 9:00 pm. EST on Tuesday) Kolls did not respond to my additional questions.

It’s safe to assume – based on the video posted by the organization behind the get-out-the-vote event – that the sign Mayor Hodges and the man are making in the photo is not a gang symbol. Instead, it’s more likely a spur-of-the-moment gesture.

Additionally, a simple Internet search does not show that hand gesture as the sign of any large gang.

An attempt at independent verification, which is included in one of leading principles within the Society’s Code of Ethics, should have at least made KSTP’s editorial leadership question whether or not that specific hand gesture is a “known” gang sign.

Additionally, if KSTP trusted its sources and believed the sign is capable of inciting violence against the police and public, it leads to the question: Why would they broadcast it across the Twin Cities?

The Code speaks broadly about “potential harm.” Violence against police and the general public would fall under that language.

“He posted the photo on Facebook,” Kolls wrote in his original reply to me. “It was already publicly available, so broadcasting it was not releasing it.”

The picture may have been publicly available on Facebook, but it’s safe to assume the number of people navigating to the man’s profile is less than KSTP’s viewership.

In the same vein of minimizing harm, one of the tenets of the Code, KSTP should have questioned whether the criminal record of the man in the picture with Mayor Hodges is relevant to the story.

Yes, criminal records are public documents, but the  Code is clear that the legal right to information does not justify the ethical decision to publish or broadcast that information. Also, “private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures.”

Kolls wrote to me in his original reply that they “went out of our way to not identify him or his organization to not make him the focus of the story. Others did that; not us.”

The video story flashes the man’s court records across the screen toward the beginning of the report – although they appear anonymized. The accompanying print story also details the man’s criminal records in its second paragraph. Clearly KSTP made this man is a prominent figure in the story.

Lastly, the fact that no named law enforcement official associated with the unit that discovered the picture came forward to air their concerns should raise red flags – as it apparently did at the Star Tribune.

Sources should be identified clearly, according to the Code. “The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.”

What’s more, the Code is clear that journalists need to consider the source’s motive for requesting anonymity. The journalist also should explain why anonymity was granted.

While these concerns should – hopefully – cause editorial teams to reconsider publishing or broadcasting a story like this, KSTP aired an additional report and issued a statement following its initial story.

While the Society’s Code may not answer every question journalists may encounter, it can at least provide sufficient guidance in publishing or broadcasting reports that at least meet basic best practices: Seek Truth and Report It, Minimize Harm, Act Independently and Be Accountable and Transparent.

In this case, KSTP’s report fell short in many places.


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The Intersection of Communication History

The bust of Walter Cronkite greets visitors to the Walter Cronkite Memorial at Missouri Western University in St. Joseph, Missouri.

The bust of Walter Cronkite greets visitors to the Walter Cronkite Memorial at Missouri Western University in St. Joseph, Missouri.

The city of St. Joseph is about a 40-minute drive north of Kansas City in Missouri. The city hugs the banks of the Missouri River and is blanketed with stately buildings that give any visitor the sense that it’s an intersection of history.

I visited St. Joseph earlier this month to speak at a conference on media ethics and integrity held at Missouri Western State University. The conference was held in honor of the late Walter Cronkite, the famed broadcaster and St. Joseph native.

In addition to being the place of Cronkite’s birth, St. Joseph is also the location where riders began their journey for the Pony Express. Serendipitously, in my opinion, the city gave birth to two of history’s most storied communication figures.

A wall of Walter Cronkite's most famous broadcasts is displayed at the Walter Cronkite Memorial at Missouri Western University in St. Joseph, Missouri.

A wall of Walter Cronkite’s most famous broadcasts is displayed at the Walter Cronkite Memorial at Missouri Western University in St. Joseph, Missouri.

The Cronkite Memorial, which houses artifacts from the journalist’s life, housed the conference. Clips from his most famous broadcasts, caricatures and multimedia presentations are displayed on the walls.

A copy of the St. Joseph Daily Gazette issue carried by the first Pony Express riders hangs in the Pony Express National Museum in St. Joseph, Missouri.

A copy of the St. Joseph Daily Gazette issue carried by the first Pony Express riders hangs in the Pony Express National Museum in St. Joseph, Missouri. (Click to Enlarge)

Downtown in St. Joseph, the Pony Express National Museum chronicles the detailed history of the business that connected communications between Midwestern and Western U.S. states in record time.

As I walked through the Cronkite Memorial and the Pony Express National Museum, my mind resonated with what I often say about journalism ethics: technology may change but principles remain unchanged.

The first Pony Express riders carried a copy of the St. Joseph Daily Gazette to California in 10 days. On the other hand, Cronkite’s image and voice instantaneously beamed into the homes of millions of Americans. Yet, both aimed to responsibly deliver accurate information.

Please stay tuned for another blog post about the conference and (possible video) of the panel featuring ONA, RTDNA and SPJ representatives.

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Ebola in America

Ebola virus disease is a terrifying ailment. After transmission, symptoms start two to 21 days later. The often-deadly disease usually begins with a fever and progresses to more serious symptoms, such as internal and external bleeding. Even more terrifying, the disease is caused by a virus that’s invisible to the naked eye.

As a health writer, I watched since early this year as reports of the current Ebola virus disease outbreak trickle out of West Africa. Fear and anxiety spread among Americans as it became clear that the disease would eventually reach the U.S.

While the Code of Ethics is clear that ethical journalism ensures the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough, Americans were on the receiving end of journalism during the past couple months that often failed to meet those standards.

The truth is that a person can’t develop Ebola virus disease unless they come in direct contact with an infected person’s bodily fluids, such as blood, vomit or semen. Vox offers information on Ebola virus disease here:

While many people wave off irresponsible journalism as the result of the digital world hungry for constant content, reports that lead to more questions than answers may also lead to harm.

First, there are the people with Ebola virus disease. There is a gray area whenever journalists deal with people suffering from an illness – especially a contagious disease. By releasing those patients’ names, will it affect their livelihood? Will this information put them at risk in some way? How will their family be affected by the news coverage? Simply put: do the benefits of releasing this information outweigh the harm it may cause?

Second, there is the general U.S. public, who – for the most part – only know of Ebola virus disease through the stories and images they received in years past from Africa. Journalists have the responsibility to act and provide accurate answers through thorough reporting. It’s not the job of journalists to drum up unwarranted fear or concern.

Unlike many countries in Africa, the U.S. is in a much better position to control any cases of the Ebola virus disease. While there are challenges and errors, the journalists reporting on Ebola should not consider the situations comparable.

The most recent poll from the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press found about a third of adults in the U.S. are at least “somewhat worried” that someone in their family will be exposed to the Ebola virus.

In addition to the wear and tear of general anxiety, the potential harm of unchecked rumors and fear among the general public can be seen in U.S. history books. Fear and uncertainty over the transmission of HIV in 1987 led to a ban on people infected with the virus, which causes AIDS, from entering the U.S. The ban stayed on the books until 2009, a year after then-President George W. Bush began the repeal process.

Fortunately, health officials, health experts, journalists and the general U.S. population are in a better position than they were during the beginning of the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Ebola virus disease is not new. The first outbreak occurred in 1976, according to the World Health Organization. People know how the virus spreads and how to give people infected with it the best chance at survival.

As with any topic, journalists with questions about Ebola virus disease or possible cases in communities should do what they always do – ask questions and provide accurate information.

For more information, I encourage reporters to always refer to the Code of Ethics. Additionally, the statement of principles from the Association of Health Care Journalists provides guidance to people covering health care.

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Caring About Sharing

While the new version of the Society’s Code of Ethics doesn’t specifically address digital journalism, the changes address concerns shared by all journalists practicing in a digital and social world.

The Code encourages journalists to share as much relevant information as possible and appropriate. It also says that there are limits to sharing certain information. The Code says, an ethical journalist should “recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.”

There is a line that may be easily crossed when it comes to sharing information.

A good example comes from a Twitter post that Jim Romenesko wrote about last week.

Essentially, a reporter posted a picture of a police citation to Twitter and Facebook. The citation included the home address and telephone numbers of a person accused of filing a false police report. The person is accused of filing a false report about an assault by a popular sports figure.

Twitter and Facebook users were justifiably concerned that sharing the accused’s address and telephone numbers crossed the line. Yes, the information is available to the public, but should it be broadcast across social media? Why do people on Twitter and Facebook need to know where this person lives and what their phone numbers are? Is there any possible harm that may come from sharing that information on social media? These are all questions that should be asked when considering whether to share these types of information.

I emailed the reporter who shared the police citation on social media, and asked for an interview. The reporter referred the email to the station’s news director.

He emailed me this response, which he also posted to Twitter: Yesterday, the Bellevue Police Department released a police report from the night Seahawk Marshawn Lynch was accused of assault by a woman. The police are now accusing the woman of making a false report. A KIRO 7 reporter tweeted out the police report. Several people tweeted to KIRO 7 wondering why we would release a document that has the woman’s home address.  The address, phone number, and name of the suspect are in the police report, a document which is now a matter of public record. But, we have taken the address down from Twitter. We understand the concerns it raised and appreciate the feedback.

We live in a society that likes to share, but it must be done responsibly. Sometimes that responsibility requires a second thought before clicking a button and sometimes – as Monica Guzman, the co-vice chair of the ethic committee, so accurately writes – verification.

As children learn, sharing is caring, but we should care about what we share.

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The Road Ahead

Member of the SPJ Ethics Committee are pictured after the revised Code of Ethics was approved on September 6, 2014.

Members of the SPJ Ethics Committee are pictured in Nashville after the revised Code of Ethics was approved on September 6, 2014. (Credit: Robyn Davis Sekula)

The delegates of the Society of Professional Journalists had not approved a revision to the organization’s Code of Ethics since 1996, when I was preparing for third grade.

Recognizing the need for an update, the Society’s delegates at Excellence in Journalism 2014 in Nashville overwhelmingly approved a revision that resulted from countless hours of work, thought and deliberation.

As I begin my service as chair of the Society’s Ethics Committee, I want to explain the next steps in the process of adopting the revised Code.

First, I would like to acknowledge the hard work and dedication of Kevin Smith, who sat on this committee for 24 years and served as its chair during the past two revisions. The revision and adoption of the newest Code would not have happened without his leadership. His work on the Code of Ethics – coupled with his decades of service as a member, committee chair, board member and president – made him the obvious choice to receive the Wells Memorial Key, the Society’s highest honor.

Moving forward, I hope to keep Kevin’s momentum alive during my tenure as chair of this committee, which includes Lauren Bartlett, Elizabeth Donald, Mike Farrell, Carole Feldman, Paul Fletcher, Irwin Gratz, Hagit Limor, Chris Roberts and Lynn Walsh. Monica Guzman and Fred Brown will serve the committee as co-vice chairs.

We will move swiftly to broadcast the Code to journalists around the world and the Society’s members. The text is already online and available in PDF format. Soon, printed materials for newsrooms and classrooms will also be available.

The Society’s chapters and members can also expect to receive emails soliciting feedback on which parts of the Code should provide additional guidance. We hope to create a rich repository of position papers, perspectives and case studies to support the Code and guide journalists in their work.

While the committee plans to include many of its own position papers and case studies, it hopes the Society’s members and journalists will add to this evolving library of documents and opinions.

Additionally, the committee will continue to serve the journalism community with the Ethics Hotline and several other programs, including an ongoing discussion on this blog and Twitter using the hashtag #SPJethics.

With the help of the Society’s members and the journalism community at large, this committee will continue to be the watchdogs of the profession’s best practices. Guarding these standards will ensure that the future journalists preparing to start third grade will have a trusted and respected profession waiting for them in 18 years.

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Ethics Code Revision: Final Draft

Note: The Society’s delegates, the supreme legislative body of SPJ, will vote on the following draft Saturday, Sept. 6, during the closing business meeting of the Excellence in Journalism conference in Nashville, Tennessee. The revised draft that follows is subject to change, as delegates may alter the language during that meeting.

Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that democracy, a just society and good government require an informed public. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity.

The Society declares these four principles as the foundation of ethical journalism and encourages their use in its practice by all people in all media.

Seek Truth and Report It

Ethical journalism should be accurate and fair. Journalists should be honest and courageous in gathering, reporting and interpreting information.

Journalists should:

Take responsibility for the accuracy of their work. Verify information before its release. Use original sources whenever possible.

Remember that neither speed nor format excuses inaccuracy.

Put information into context. Take special care not to misrepresent or oversimplify in promoting, previewing or summarizing a story.

Gather, update and correct information throughout the life of a news story.

Be cautious when making promises, but keep the promises they make.

Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.

Question sources’ motives before promising anonymity, reserving it for those who may face danger, retribution or other harm. Do not grant anonymity merely as license to criticize. Pursue alternative sources before granting anonymity. Explain why anonymity was granted.

Diligently seek subjects of news coverage to allow them to respond to criticism or allegations of wrongdoing.

Avoid undercover or other surreptitious reporting methodsunlesstraditional, open methods will not yield information vital to the public.

Be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable. Give voice to the voiceless.

Recognize a special obligation to serve as watchdogs over government.

Provide access to source material when it is relevant and appropriate.

Boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience. Seek sources whose voices we seldom hear.

Avoid stereotyping. Journalists should examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing them on others.

Label advocacy and commentary.

Never deliberately distort factsor context, including visual news content. Clearly label illustrations and re-enactments.

Never plagiarize. Always attribute.

Minimize Harm

Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.

Journalists should:

Balance the public’s need for information against any harm or discomfort it may cause. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance, irreverence or undue intrusiveness.

Use heightened sensitivity when dealing with children and inexperienced sources or subjects. Consider cultural differences in approach and treatment.

Recognize that legal access to information differs from ethical justification to publish.

Realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention. Weigh the consequences of publishing personal information, including that from social media.

Avoid pandering to lurid curiosity or following the lead of those who do.

Consider the implications of identifying juvenile suspects, victims of sex crimes, and criminal suspects before they face legalcharges. Balance a suspect’s right to a fair trial with the public’s right to know.

Be cautious about reporting suicides that do not involve a public person or a public place.

Consider the long-term implications of the extended reach and permanence of publication, especially online. Provide updated and more complete information as appropriate.

Act Independently

The highest and primary obligation of ethical journalism is to serve the public.

Journalists should:

Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived. Disclose unavoidable conflicts.

Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment and avoid political and other outside activities that may conflict with an impartial approach to information-gathering, compromise integrity or damage credibility.

Be wary of sources offering information for favors or money; do not pay for access to news. Identify content provided by outside sources, whether paid or not.

Deny favoredtreatment to advertisers,donorsor any other special interests, and resist pressure to influence coverage, even if it comes from inside the media organization.

Distinguish news from advertising and shun hybrids that blur the lines between the two. Clearly label sponsored content.

Be Accountable and Transparent

Ethical journalists should take responsibility for their work and explain their decisions to the public.

Journalists should:

Explain ethical choices and processes to audiences. Encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices and news content.

Respond quickly to questions about accuracy, clarity and fairness.

Acknowledge mistakes and correct them promptly and prominently. Explain corrections and clarifications carefully and thoroughly.

Expose unethical conduct in journalism, including within their organizations.

Abide by the same high standards they expect of public persons.

Adhere to the values in this code in all interaction with the public.

The SPJ Code of Ethics is a living document, a statement of principles supported by additional explanations and position papers (at that address changing journalistic practices. It is not a set of rules, rather a guide that encourages all who engage in journalism to take responsibility for the information they provide, regardless of medium. The code should be read as a whole; individual principles should not be taken out of context. It is not, nor can it be under the First Amendment, legally enforceable.

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Ethics of covering suicides

As the world comes to terms with the suicide of comedian and actor Robin Williams eyes will, and should be, fixed firmly on the manner in which the media handles coverage of his death.

Coincidently, at the July meeting of SPJ’s Ethics Committee, during which time we put the final touches on the third and final draft of the ethics code revisions, we added language about covering suicides. Near the bottom of the section on Minimize Harm you will find these words: “Be cautious about reporting suicides that do not involve a public person or a public place.”

This represents the first time the Code has referenced suicide coverage. The discussion around the table was brisk and thoughtful when longtime committee member Fred Brown suggested language. But, even Brown acknowledged that many news outlets have an “understanding of how to handle such reporting” and maybe it wasn’t completely necessary to offer it here. It was decided there should be a “gentle reminder” that caution is needed.

But, the cautionary language gets its backbone more from legal thinking than moral reasoning. Nearly every journalist, even the ones who slept through media law in college, knows that public figures and officials are held to different standards of privacy. Legally, their information, especially that contained in official documents like police and autopsy reports, are open to the public. When you become a celebrity you forfeit much of your rights to privacy, even in death.

So, what this means and what SPJ’s new code revision is trying to say is this: If it’s John Smith who lives down the street and works on your car at the mall, then coverage of his suicide may not warrant any reporting by the local media. In the event it does, please exercise caution, though we don’t really qualify what that means.

I think it means you should have a thoughtful conversation in the newsroom about whether a private person hanging himself in his bedroom is elevated to importance for reporting. Weigh the harm in reporting over the need or the right to report it. In the case of Williams, not being a legally defined private person, his suicide is deserving of media attention. But how much?

Does it then mean everything is fair game with Williams and others who have less privacy? This isn’t a legal argument any more. We’ve established the legal standing on privacy. The question becomes a moral one. Ethically speaking, where do we draw the line on what should be reported? What about poor taste, pandering to morbid curiosity, reporting because we can instead of if we should?

If it helps you to better understand this, I suggest you take out the legal guidelines and think about Williams being a person first and a celebrity second.

I suspect the media will push those limits in the case of Williams. For instance, is it necessary to report the contents of any notes he left behind? If they were written exclusively for his family, does the public deserve to know what they said? Why? When does useful knowledge break down into petty details for sensationalism?

I have no doubt there are media outlets right now prepared to venture beyond the boundaries of good taste, all the while citing their legal rights, void and ignorant to the equally important and often more valued moral duties.

It also makes me wonder if SPJ’s insertion about suicides has gone far enough. Since we added the line and started the conversation, might it be in our interest to be a little more forceful in reminding journalists that ethical journalism is as much about deciding what not to report as it is reporting all the truth and that caution in reporting suicides is deserved by all people?

I think so.







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