Thank You, WDBJ-7

Image accompanying WDBJ-7’s Twitter post.

Following the murders of Alison Parker and Adam Ward today in Virginia, journalists and news organizations around the country made a series of bad decisions. This blog often focuses on mistakes, but not today.

Instead, I’d like to commend the conduct of Parker and Ward’s colleagues in the WDBJ-7 newsroom following the shooting. Today, the people at that CBS affiliate were the pinnacle of good and ethical journalism.

Not only did the station’s journalists responsibly report through unimaginable circumstances, they guided and counseled their grieving community members, who were also searching for information about a developing story. Despite what many people think, good journalists are not unfeeling creatures. Passion and compassion are among the most important items in a journalist’s toolbox.

The journalists of WDBJ-7 honored Alison and Adam today by exemplifying what journalism should be.

For more information on today’s events, please visit WDBJ-7’s website here: http://www.wdbj7.com

A statement from Paul Fletcher, the president-elect of the Society of Professional Journalists, can be found here: http://www.spj.org/news.asp?REF=1375


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee. He’s a journalist in New York City.

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Journalists Can Responsibly Use Hacked Data

Ashley Madison HackStories are starting to trickle out of the massive hack of Ashley Madison, which is touted as a dating website for people who are already married.


The hack exposed the information of an estimated 30 million people.

Obviously, people are hesitant to report and read stories based on a hack, because the data are stolen and offer little value to the public. These are fair and rational arguments, but I disagree with both.

It’s a very dangerous precedent for journalists to ignore information on the basis of whether or not it’s stolen from the owner.  As long as journalists were not involved in the actual theft of the material, they should feel free to take a look at the information to see if it’s of interest to the public.

In this case, the data is from a website that facilitates the affairs of married people. One may argue that there is no public interest in the personal lives of anyone who pops up in the data. In general, this argument is valid, but should not be generalized to the entire data dump.

For example, there is no public interest in John Smith from down the street having an affair. The situations changes when John Smith is using his government email address and/or credit card to manage his website membership, however.

The bottom line is that journalists should feel free to mine the data from hacks for information that should be elevated to the public, but those stories must be responsibly reported.

In this case, journalists should verify information and allow people accused of having an account a chance to respond to allegations. Journalists must also explain why they believe people should know about the information. The explanation must be better than to simply pander to lurid curiosity.

Finally, journalists and news organization should aim to minimize harm. Minimizing harm does not mean journalists should simply avoid reporting on important stories. All journalism, in general, creates some level of harm – ranging from discomfort to mental distress. The good of the information being brought to light should outweigh the harms.

As in many cases, the question is not whether a story should be done. The question is how to responsibly report a story.


Andrew M. Seaman is the Society’s ethics chairman. He lives and works in New York City.

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It’s Alive: Code’s Supporting Documents Linked

Screenshot of the SPJ Code of Ethics on the organization's website.

Screenshot of the SPJ Code of Ethics on the organization’s website.

After a year of work by the Society’s Ethics Committee, I’m happy to announce that each principle in the Society’s Code of Ethics offers additional resources to guide journalists in making responsible decisions.


The new resources are not part of the Code or formally endorsed by the Society. Instead, they are meant to show journalists and other people interested in the profession’s practices potential avenues of action.

For example, a journalist considering granting a person anonymity can consult the “Seek Truth and Report It” tenet of the Code. There, they will find the principle warning journalists against granting anonymity. If they click on the principle in the online version of the Code, they will find additional explanations and suggested actions from the Society, Reuters and NPR.

The supporting documents behind the Code’s principles are never meant to be complete. Instead, each page accompanying the principles will change as resources are found or become obsolete.

For those with unanswered ethical questions after consulting the Code and its supporting documents, please contact the Society’s Ethics Hotline.


Andrew Seaman is the chairman of the Society’s ethics committee.

 

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Learning from Gawker’s Attempt to Erase the Past

Visit SPJ.org for information on its Code of Ethics.

Visit SPJ.org for information on its Code of Ethics.

Journalism is a high-risk profession. While the work is rewarding, one mistake may lead to a very public downfall.


Journalists and journalism organizations sometimes think one click helps erase the past.

Gawker.com’s Jordan Sargent published a story on Thursday night alleging an executive at a publishing company mailed money to an escort for a rendezvous in Chicago. In terms of journalism ethics, the story is garbage. By Friday night, Gawker Media’s Founder and CEO Nick Denton removed the story.

Denton acknowledges that removing the story won’t turn back the clock and erase the embarrassment the subject feels, but “this decision will establish a clear standard for future stories.”

A statement from Gawker Media’s staff, which recently unionized, revealed the decision to remove the story was made by the executive arm of the company. The staff said it was an example of the management breaching the divide between the company’s business and editorial units.

Putting aside the apparent conflict within Gawker, both Denton and Gawker Media’s staff ignore the question of whether removing the story from the website was the right decision.

Denton’s reasoning to remove the story is that it doesn’t align with the website’s values, which appear to evolve within his post. The Gawker Media staff appears more concerned about the business arm of the company making editorial decisions.

As a general rule, stories should not be removed once they are published – online or in physical archives. Removing or “unpublishing” stories undermines the public’s trust in journalism. Also, stories – especially those archived on the Internet – don’t completely disappear. Journalists should remain in control of the information they publish.

In Gawker’s case, the story became so widely circulated and cited that unpublishing likely had little impact on correcting the wrongs it caused. After all, the story is still available through Internet archive websites.

Instead of unpublishing stories, Mallary Tenore suggests some alternative actions on Poynter.org that may be more acceptable to readers and sources. For example, the news organization can add an addendum to the archived story. Or, write another story about the situation.

There are a few exceptions to the general rule, however. For example, stories may be removed or “unpublished” when there are legal concerns and the potential for significant harm.

All newsrooms should have a policy on when to remove stories from its archives, but less than half had such a policy as of 2009, according to a report by Kathy English, the public editor of The Toronto Star. English looked at the topic as part of the Online Journalism Credibility Projects of the Associated Press Managing Editors, which is now known as the Associated Press Media Editors.

Journalism organizations need a policy on unpublishing in place. Throughout Europe, people may bypass news organizations and request that search engines like Google remove links about them from search results. In fact, over a quarter million people in Europe asked Google to remove information about them from search results, according to FiveThirtyEight.com’s Mona Chalabi on NPR.

In the U.S., people need to go directly to the person or entity – like news organizations – who own the original content, however.

Based on her report, English offers some best practices for newsroom. Those include having a policy in place, explaining the newsroom’s unpublishing policy to readers and considering the implications of a story before publishing. She also suggests questions journalists in newsrooms should ask themselves about unpublishing.

When a news organization makes the decision to unpublish a story, it must also realize that action is not the final step in the process. Readers deserve to be informed about the reason and decision to unpublish a story.

Kelly McBride writes on Poynter.org how news organizations can maintain credibility when they unpublish stories. For example, a news organization can write a precisely worded explanation about why the story was removed. Or, redirect people to accurate information if the original story was inaccurate.

Gawker.com later added a note to the story’s original link, which explains that the story was removed from the website. The addendum also links to a Gawker.com story about the decision, Denton’s note and the statement from the editorial staff.

While mistakes can never be completely avoided, errors can be minimized when journalism organizations subscribe to the profession’s best practices and implement editorial policies that ensure only true, accurate and fair stories make it to publication. When that fails, the process to remove a story should be open and explained in detail to readers.

As always, good journalism is the best defense for journalists, sources, readers and democracy.


Andrew Seaman is the ethics chair for the Society of Professional Journalists.

 

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We Expect Better, Gawker

Illustration of Gawker homepage of July 17, 2015

Photo illustration of Gawker homepage of 07/17/2015

(UPDATED July 17, 2015 at 3:40 p.m. EDT)

Gawker published a post yesterday suggesting the website Reddit is ignorant to the harassment and abuse that occurs within its walls.


The news and gossip site then published a post that alleges a relatively unknown married man paid a male escort for sex.

Basically, the post says the married brother of Timothy Geithner, former secretary of the U.S. Department of Treasury, contacted an unnamed escort. The man arranged to meet the escort in Chicago, but the rendezvous ultimately never occurred.

The post prompted immediate backlash toward Gawker, its editorial leadership and the post’s author. I sent tweets to both Gawker and the post’s author Jordan Sargent.

I received a few tweets and messages from people who said they shared my outrage, but they also asked why I’d expect Gawker to follow basic journalism standards anyway.

If Gawker acts like a journalism organization, walks like a journalism organization, talks like a journalism organization, it better try and follow some of journalism’s basic standards.

Earlier in the day, the website published posts about the mass shooting on a military base in Tennessee, the Islamic State and the case of the mass shooting in a Colorado movie theater. Gawker is clearly acting as a source for news produced by professional writers.

Granted, Gawker is not a shining example of journalism integrity, but people go to it and similar websites to get information presented in quick, entertaining and often smart methods.

My biggest problem with the post – other than it being in poor taste, is that it appears no thought was spared to consider the potential damage this post would bring upon the married man, his wife and children. Also, other than having a prominent brother and – what I’m assuming is – a well-paying job, the married man has little relevancy outside of his family and profession.

Under the tenet of minimize harm, the Code of Ethics of the Society of Professional Journalists says journalists should “realize that private people have a greater right to control information about themselves than public figures and others who seek power, influence or attention.”

What’s more, the Code says journalists should, “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort. Pursuit of the news is not a license for arrogance or undue intrusiveness.”

Why did anyone need to read a post based on the word of an unnamed person that a private individual allegedly tried to arrange a meeting? None. What’s more, it likely caused significant harm and turmoil in several people’s lives.

As for the escort remaining anonymous, the Code says journalists should identify sources clearly, because the “public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.”

The Code goes on to say that journalists should “consider sources’ motives before promising anonymity.” They should also, “reserve anonymity for sources who may face danger, retribution or other harm, and have information that cannot be obtained elsewhere. Explain why anonymity was granted.”

In this case, the post says the male escort “does not want to reveal his identity for professional reasons.” My question to the post’s author is why did Gawker agree to protect the identity of someone who admitted to blackmailing a person, and then turn around and publish a hit piece with no regard for the subject’s life or the lives of his family?

When the initial backlash began, a Twitter account allegedly belonging to Max Read, Gawker’s editor-in-chief, showed no remorse for the post.

Several people responded to his tweet with what I consider to be an appropriate response: Why?

While the damage is likely already done, I hope Gawker’s leadership and the author of the post will apologize.

Until then, shame on you, Gawker.


 UPDATE – July 17 at 3:40 p.m. EDT

In a post published this afternoon, Gawker founder Nick Denton said the original story has been pulled from the website. While Denton acknowledges the post likely led to embarrassment for the subject, he did not apologize for the website causing that harm.

This action will not turn back the clock. David Geithner’s embarrassment will not be eased. But this decision will establish a clear standard for future stories. It is not enough for them simply to be true. They have to reveal something meaningful. They have to be true and interesting. These texts were interesting, but not enough, in my view.

 

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Some big news about the Society’s Code of Ethics

When the committee revising the Society’s Code of Ethics met on Ohio State University’s campus last summer, an idea without a name was born.


Screenshot of the SPJ Code of Ethics on the organization's website.

Screenshot of the SPJ Code of Ethics on the organization’s website.

The idea was to create a library of resources for people seeking additional guidance in the ethical practice of journalism.

After months of work, people now accessing the Society’s Code of Ethics on SPJ.org see small boxes and arrows next to specific principles. Those small boxes link to pages with resources that provide additional guidance related to that principle.

For example, a new page pops up when people click on the principle that says ethical journalists should “never plagiarize” and “always attribute.” The links on that new page include a position paper from the Society’s Ethics Committee about plagiarism and attribution, and a blog post from Steve Buttry about the importance of linking.

By the end of next week, each principle within the Society’s Code of Ethics will have supporting documents to aid people looking for guidance. The library of documents will never be complete. Instead, these lists will change as more resources are found, or as resources become obsolete.

Also, it’s important to note that these documents are not part of the Society’s Code of Ethics, which is found here.

SPJ's Code of Ethics in Arabic

SPJ’s Code of Ethics in Arabic

What’s more, people around the world will be able to begin using the Code thanks to months of work by the members of the Society’s International Journalism Community. The community’s members graciously volunteered their time to translate the Code into several languages.

Currently, the new version of the Code is available in Arabic, English, Chinese, French, German and Spanish. Soon, more languages will be added, including Russian.

As always, people with recommendations and thoughts on the supporting documents or translations should contact the Ethics Hotline at ethics@spj.org.

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#SPJ4ALL

Andrew M. Seaman standing in Times Square.

Seaman standing in Times Square.

After days of deliberation, I sent off a $350 check to the small private college that I thought would be my home for the four years following high school.


A large envelope from the college arrived a few weeks later in the mail. Inside were the usual forms about financial aid and housing, but there was also a form I didn’t expect – a “covenant.”

The school required students to sign a document that forbid several activities, including “homosexual behavior.” The joy I felt as a soon-to-be undergraduate quickly evaporated. My “behavior” wasn’t welcome there. The folder was tucked away, and I sent a check to another school.

While I wasn’t open about being gay at the time, attending a school where lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and queer (LGBTQ) people are accepted was important to me. Fortunately, I found that place. The school – and myself – are better, because of that accepting environment.

In the wake of Indiana’s “Religious Freedom Restoration Act” and several similar bills pending in U.S. state legislatures, the Society is making it known today that it is also a welcoming place for all.

As the Society’s Membership Committee Chair Robyn Davis Sekula writes on her committee’s blog, “SPJ is open for everyone, no matter the person’s race, gender, sexual orientation or any other factor. If you’re a journalist, you’re welcome here, and always will be.”

To show the Society’s acceptance of all journalists, it’s asking members to post selfies on social media with the hashtag #SPJ4ALL.

As someone who is gay and involved in a fair amount of the Society’s activities, I can attest that Robyn’s words are very true. I also support the #SPJ4ALL campaign, but it brings me back to a personal struggle I endured when I first entered journalism. Specifically, is it OK to be openly gay in a newsroom?

The question may sound silly at a time when the majority of states allow same-sex marriage and public support for legal recognition of those unions are at an all-time high, but it’s one that I – and I assume many other people – struggled or struggle with from time to time.

I’d sometimes avoid writing about LGBTQ issues out of fear that people would claim those stories were biased or driven by an agenda. The words of the Society’s Code of Ethics echoed through my head: “Journalists should avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.”

After a couple years, I realized that I was doing a disservice to myself, peers and readers. Also, to focus on that specific principle within the Society’s Code misrepresents the entire document.

Openly LGBTQ journalists enrich stories with unique perspectives. For example, LGBTQ journalists may pay special attention to issues often unconsciously ignored or overlooked by others. They are also resources to their colleagues, who may not understand certain concerns, topics or terminology.

As for the Society’s Code, focusing on the principle regarding conflicts of interest results in people losing the proverbial forest for the trees. “The code should be read as a whole,” it says. “Individual principles should not be taken out of context.”

When someone takes a broader look at the Code, it says that ethical journalism treats “sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect.” What’s more, it says that journalists should “consider cultural differences in approach and treatment.”

The Society and its Code don’t tell people to hide who they are in newsrooms or while reporting. More than anything, the spirit and words of the Code tell journalists to be themselves while understanding and accounting for their personal beliefs and biases.

While it may not always be easy – or safe in some places, being open about being LGBTQ will add to newsroom diversity and ultimately benefit everyone.

#SPJ4ALL


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee.

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Transparency, Civility and Respect in Ethical Debates

Photo courtesy Flickr Creative Commons (http://bit.ly/1GRn5wn)

Photo courtesy Flickr Creative Commons (http://bit.ly/1GRn5wn)

Journalists who joined the Society’s conversations about ethics last week noticed some interesting posts popping up on Twitter.


Many of the posts were links to articles about gaming, some were links to graphics and some posts were links to other Twitter posts.

The posts were from an online community known as GamerGate, which generally claims to be people interested in game culture concerned about ethics in journalism that covers the gaming industry. Others often point to the movement’s history and notoriety as a roving gang that engages in sexist, homophobic and threatening online attacks.

I – along with some other people in the Society’s leadership – decided to abandon the Twitter hashtag #SPJEthicsWeek, which we planned to use throughout the week, to minimize noise for people who wanted to engage in a broader conversation about journalism ethics.

I also urged people not to address the chorus of posts for the protection of the Society, its leaders and its members who would engage with each other over the Internet throughout the week. After all, the week’s theme was “minimize harm.” I did not want to take the risk of exposing anyone within the organization to harassment or threats. All other Ethics Week activities and engagements went on as planned.

This post is not meant to legitimize or endorse GamerGate, but I’d like to address the people who posted to the Twitter hashtag with engaging and lucid thoughts. I don’t want those people to think their contributions to our conversations about journalism ethics went unnoticed.

In fact,  some of those people were the most active and contributive during the Society’s two Twitter chats last week.

Abandoning the Twitter hashtag was simply the best course of action once the posts became sexist, homophobic, threatening, pornographic and – frankly – disgusting. I received some concerning messages, which were mostly deleted within a few hours. One person told me on Twitter, “man have you seen the giant mudslide of reckage[sic] we know as your (expletive) wake?”

As the chair of the Society’s ethics committee, I hate shutting out any people who want to have a discussion about journalism ethics. The point of the committee I lead is to teach people about the Society’s Code of Ethics.

Over the past year, I received several emails about the GamerGate movement. In fact, I’m quoted in a Nieman Reports story sparked by the movement about handling so-called “Twitter storms.”

Most of the emails I received dealt with getting permission to use the Society’s Code of Ethics to “score” gaming journalists on their ethics. In each case, I responded that it’s not possible to score a person’s ethics.

Some emails – and Twitter posts – called for gaming journalists to be fired. The Society is a professional organization that supports journalists and journalism. It does not have the power to fire journalists. Also, I do not comment on whether people should be fired.

Many of the emails – and Twitter posts – were also from anonymous accounts. In general, calls for transparency in journalism are not effective when they come from people who are anonymous.

This is not limited to GamerGate. I receive emails every now and then from people who – according to Google searches – do not exist. Sometimes I also receive emails from people who appear to misrepresent themselves. I’m very cautious and hesitant about responding to those emails.

People – journalists and non-journalists – who want to interact with others about the topic of journalism ethics should be transparent, courteous and civilized. One person should never harass, threaten or demean another.

Also, people in the U.S. are not forced to read, view or listen to stories from news organizations. If a person believes the information from a certain organization is inaccurate, they’re free to find other sources. People can support and encourage good and ethical journalism with subscriptions, views and listens – not harassment or threats.

The Society and its ethics committee will continue to work toward educating journalists about the Code of Ethics. We will also encourage its use. As is the tradition in U.S. journalism, I hope readers, viewers and listeners hold journalists to those standards, but through a transparent and civil dialogue.


Andrew M. Seaman is the chair of the Society’s ethics committee.

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Ethics Week 2015: Like a surgeon

Photo Credit/Salim Fadhley

Photo Credit/Salim Fadhley

Like doctors, journalists often inflict some level of harm to serve the greater good.


A surgeon may slice through flesh to remove a diseased organ. A primary care doctor may prescribe medicine that causes side effects to control an even worse condition. Likewise, journalists may cause disruption in families, communities or countries to achieve their mission.

Throughout the past week, the Society of Professional Journalists asked its members and the public to think about the harm journalism may create. The focus of minimizing harm is not meant to convince journalists to shy away from important stories. Instead, it should serve as a reminder about the responsibility journalists hold.

When I first started presenting sessions or talks on the Society’s Code of Ethics, a question that was often asked is: How much harm is acceptable?

It’s a difficult question to answer, because acceptable levels of harm are relative and subjective.

In medicine, screenings or tests for diseases or conditions are not recommended until their benefits outweigh the risks. While it does not explicitly say it, the Society’s Code suggests a similar balancing act.

In the Code’s preamble, the Society states that its members “believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy.” Journalists support that by ensuring “the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough.”

Elsewhere in the Code, journalists are told that even reporting practices that some people would never consider – undercover and surreptitious information gathering methods – may be acceptable if the result is “information vital to the public.” Even then, those methods should be a last resort, the Code says.

Basically, is the harm created by a reporting practice or story outweighed by the usefulness of the information it yields or presents? It’s not a perfect answer, but it’s the best advice that can be offered for such a subjective question.

The balancing act between usefulness of information and harm is supported elsewhere in the Code, too.

For example, the Code says to “recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast.” Also, “avoid pandering to lurid curiosity, even if others do.”

I often tell people that the words legal and ethical are not synonyms. Just because a journalist is legally allowed to do something doesn’t mean it’s the right thing to do.

Of course, even properly evaluating the benefits and harms of a reporting practice or story may leave some – and in some cases a significant – amount of harm. Journalists must live with the consequences of their work. Being a responsible and ethical journalist should provide some  comfort.

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Ethics Week 2015: #ACESchat with David Cohn

SPJ_ETHICS_WEEKThe first Twitter chat of the Society’s Ethics Week happened Wednesday afternoon with Ethics Committee Member David Cohn, who is an executive producer at AJ+.

The American Society of Copy Editors hosted the discussion as part of its #ACESchat on Twitter.

Check out a Storify of the discussion, which focused on minimizing harm in digital editing, below:

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Newest Posts

Memorial Funds for WDBJ’s Alison Parker and Adam Ward August 28, 2015, 7:50 pm
Thank You, WDBJ-7 August 26, 2015, 10:58 pm
Lessons China Needs To Learn From Hong Kong August 25, 2015, 12:00 pm
Journalists Can Responsibly Use Hacked Data August 21, 2015, 8:45 pm
Summary of how Chinese authorities hinder Tianjin reporting August 21, 2015, 10:28 am
Making the Best Use of Your Time at EIJ (Which Isn’t Easy to Do!) August 19, 2015, 2:00 pm
Congratulations to Bob Roberts, SPJ volunteer of the month August 18, 2015, 8:22 pm

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