Firing of WSJ reporter reminder of need for more ethics training in student journalism

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Last week, the Wall Street Journal fired a reporter who violated the company’s policies by engaging in a business deal with a source he was assigned to cover. The reporter’s action constituted a conflict on interest, whereby he engaged in conduct that might compromise (or give the perception thereof) his ability to act as an independent source of information for his audience.

His greatest allegiance might not have been to the truth, but rather to making the subject of the story look good to enhance the business deal he allegedly entered into.

As a profession, we’ve chosen to adhere to certain standards and values to ensure our primary obligation is to seeking the truth in all instances, not to our own personal gain or biases. And sometimes, that’s tougher to do than it would seem. Journalists are human themselves. They have opinions, perspectives and beliefs that shape their view of the world, just like everyone else.

Yet, the ethical demands of the profession to independently seek the truth mandate they find ways to insulate themselves from allowing those biases to affect their job. This includes maintaining some distance from the sources they cover. Journalists–and the organizations that employ them–must grapple with tough questions like whether journalists should be involved in political activity or openly advocate for one side in a public conflict or controversy.

And how does this play out in scholastic journalism? In a school environment–a seeming microcosm of society–everyone is much closer, and roles tend to blend together. Students, for their own development, need to be involved in school life, clubs and sports. But how do we put up sufficient barriers to ensure stories are receiving proper coverage? Is it enough to insist that a member of a given club or sport not be assigned to cover those activities? Or are there additional considerations to make?

Ensuring that students understand conflicts of interest and how to avoid them is a paramount lesson for student journalists so they better understand the value of the truth. Any publication serious about developing its ethical fitness should understand what circumstances constitute conflicts of interest and invest the time in learning to avoid them.

As with all ethics training, it starts with a healthy dose of discussion to help students understand the gravity of this issue. Talk about case studies and stories that appear in the news. Use that dialogue to develop and refine a staff ethics policy so reporters know how to handle specific situations in which these issues might arise and also to drive discussion between editors and reporters.

Below are some resources to help drive the discussion:
Ethics code from NPR
Ethics code from RTDNA
Ethics code from SPJ
Case studies from the Center for Journalism Ethics (University of Wisconsin-Madison)
Potential problem areas for conflicts of interest from NYU School of Journalism

 

 

Altered yearbook photo bespeak need for better ethics training

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Earlier this month, a New Jersey high school was in the headlines because several students reported that “pro-Donald Trump” logos on the shirts they wore when sitting for their school pictures were mysteriously absent from the photos printed in the yearbook.

The act raised quite a stir, and the yearbook faculty adviser was disciplined. According to news reports, students were not involved in editing the photos. The school will also issue re-printed books with the original photos. This story has highlighted a series of deep legal and ethical questions.

First, if the decision to alter the photos was made by school faculty, this is an overreach of authority and can constitute censorship. Faculty advisers (in this case, state actors) cannot arbitrarily stifle speech simply because they disagree with it, especially when students are engaging in speech that is deserving of the highest First Amendment protection (in this case, showing support for a candidate in an election). It should be noted that little to no reasoning has emerged publicly as to why the editing took place.

If it were made by students (though it doesn’t appear to be), then their decision-making power could be insulated from censorship concerns surrounding an abridgment of the students’ First Amendment rights. Students, as non-state actors, have wider latitude over editorial content.

But looking at this issue more broadly, it doesn’t matter who edited the photos or who made the decision to do so. This story raises ethical concerns that far outweigh the legal issues. First, no matter who made the decision, the most important question here is “What was their journalistic purpose?” Why would they choose to airbrush material from a photo?

Altering photos (i.e. altering the truth) is always of paramount concern. Changing the photos’ content changes the reality of the situation. The bottom line is that changing even small details like these in a photo creates a work of non-fiction, a paramount sin in the journalism world. Viewers trust that what they are seeing is the truth as it happened, not an interpretation that fits the photographer’s worldview.

Altered photos warp the sense of trust viewers place in what they are seeing. Yearbooks are a form of journalism. As such, they must operate under the principles of ethical decision making akin to all forms of journalism. Editing photos simply because one disagrees with a political statement is no more appropriate than removing cords or light fixtures to enhance the photo’s aesthetic appeal.

Award-winning photo provides valuable ethics lesson

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The image below received the Photo of the Year award in the World Press Photo contest. The photo was captured by Associated Press photographer Burhan Ozbilici, and it showed an off-duty police officer seconds after he shot and killed the Russian ambassador to Turkey at an art gallery in December 2016.

ap_16355526985677_custom-67075110a0eb047700a08affd6231f90f3ea4647-s800-c85 The jurors who selected the award were torn. On one hand, they wanted to reward the fine work and bravery of the photographer who risked his own life to capture a dramatic, newsworthy moment that the world needed to see. On the other, some on the jury didn’t want to reward this criminal act with publicity and notoriety.

This post from the New York Times Lens blog provides some additional insight.

Did the jury make the right call? What are the ethical issues in play here?

 

Panel discussions explore news media’s role in the wake of 2016 election

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For journalism educators looking for resources to help their students better understand the news and media environment leading up to and following the 2016 presidential election, check out these two panel discussions. Each is about 90 minutes and can be used to garner ideas for class discussions, debate or other assignments.

The first, “The Future of News: Journalism in a Post-Truth Era,” took place at Harvard University this week and featured speakers from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Huffington Post, CNN and others.

The second, “Journalism’s Way Forward,” was sponsored by the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at Kent State and took place last week. Area media professionals and several of the School’s faculty comprised the panel.

Both groups touched on a range of relevant issues to explore: the public’s trust in the news media, representations of groups and audience members in news stories, and the proper way both to cover antagonistic government officials and to correct falsehoods and other inaccurate information promulgated both by officials and misinformed media consumers.

 

 

 

Journalism lessons from Inauguration Day

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Inauguration Day has arrived. As is the case every four years, for some, it’s a time of celebration and victory, and for others, it’s a day of somberness and disappointment. This day itself and recent events all point to important lessons journalism teachers can share with their students.

Gathering, celebrating and protesting

The First Amendment is clear on this one: Citizens have a right to assemble, both to express satisfaction and dissatisfaction with government action (or inaction, as the case may be). Every Inauguration Day is filled with demonstrations, marches, protests and counter protests representing a variety of ideas and viewpoints. While the rhetoric might get heated, this act of assembling is one of the hallmarks of American democracy.

Now is the perfect time to remind students of the importance of the right to peaceably assemble, and to discuss why a free exchange of ideas (no matter how distressing to some) is essential for democracy to function.

The key word here is peaceful protest. Remind students of the difference between demonstrations that seek to empower the public versus those that devolve into violence and vandalism. Every person’s rights are relative to those of others. While someone has the right to make their voice heard, he or she doesn’t have the right damage another’s property or cause another physical harm.

#PressthePrez

Leading up the election and in the weeks following, much concern has circulated about the new president’s understanding of and attitudes toward the First Amendment. I’ve discussed that topic in a previous post.

Earlier this week, the Society of Professional Journalists sent an open letter to then President-elect Trump and Vice President-elect Mike Pence requesting a meeting to discuss journalists’ access to information. Almost 70 journalism and First Amendment organizations have signed on to the letter. The hashtag #PressthePrez has directed the conversation through social media.

Remind students of the importance of open records, public meetings and journalists’ (and the public’s) right to access information. And it’s more than just information from the federal government. Your own public school district generates a wealth of information that could form the basis of excellent stories and investigations.

Is dumping unverified information online really journalism? 

Last week, the online publisher BuzzFeed released a 35-page dossier with unverified claims about President Trump and his potential ties to Russia. The revelation caused quite a stir just a week ahead of the Inauguration. It also sparked debate among journalists and journalism advocacy groups about the appropriateness of publishing unverified information. While some argued the publication was unwarranted, others said BuzzFeed should have been more transparent about what parts of the document were unverified and what steps reporters were taking to verify the information.

BuzzFeed stood by its decision, ultimately arguing that the importance of the potential truth of the information about such a high-ranking public official made the decision justifiable.

Students should be reminded of the ethical dilemma of simultaneously trying to tell the full truth and to provide the public with information to evaluate their elected officials while also minimizing the harm that stems from misinformation. It’s also essential to remember that one’s own personal views about the new president should have no bearing on the decision whether to publish. Publishing something simply because you “want” it to be true falls far short of highest ideals of the profession.

 

 

Incident at Ohio State holds valuable lessons about storytelling, breaking news

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Reaching your audience is all about telling an engaging story. As technology has evolved, the tools available to tell stories have expanded exponentially. Journalists and other communicators now have the ability use tools that enhance parts of their messages (visual, auditory or text) in ways that didn’t exist even a few years ago. These changes necessitate the need for urgency to publish information, especially when stories are changing minute by minute.

As students at Ohio State were returning from Thanksgiving break, a student drove his car onto a crowded sidewalk, got out and began stabbing passers-by. Within minutes, campus police responded and shot the suspect. A university-wide text alert said an active shooter was on campus and students were asked to shelter in place.

This story, which quickly gained national attention, provides an excellent lesson in storytelling and breaking news coverage. This article, told through the perspectives of student editors at The Lantern (Ohio State’s student newspaper) details how the publication’s staff reacted to the news and spent the next few hours and days providing coverage. It’s also illustrative in the lessons it teaches about storytelling.

As a student publication, it’s essential to “own” the coverage of your school. That doesn’t just apply to major breaking news events. It includes the mundane parts of everyday life. But whenever your school is involved in a major news event, your publication needs to be on top of it. Students and others should be able to look to your publication as a primary source of information and updates.

It can be tough to balance the demands of breaking news coverage with the realities of school life, but it’s an essential skill to learn. Create procedures and plans that rely on a chain of command to assign responsibilities when news breaks. You may never have to deal with a school shooting, but other stories demand immediate coverage. Even the students at Ohio State prepared for this very scenario in a class exercise just a few weeks before. Little did they know how soon they’d have to use what they’ve learned.

Storytelling happens now. Audience engagement is at its highest when news first breaks because people are looking for information so they can understand what’s happening. As time passes, they look for more context to enable them to make sense of what’s happened. No matter what type of publication you have, your online presence enables you to keep your audience informed as the story evolves.

First you plan, and then you amend. The Lantern publishes in print several times per week. Tuesday was one of its print days. The staff tore up their plans for the next day’s paper and reworked the layouts to adapt to the breaking story. Their coverage included multi-faceted approaches that spanned a range of digital and print coverage over the following days that not only provided a summary of events but explored reactions and fallout.

Breaking news demands quick thinking. One of the editors dropped what he was doing to get to the scene. Another made the decision to work remotely because commuting back to campus would have proved prohibitive (roads were shut down around campus) and the travel time would have wasted valuable opportunities to cultivate sources and plan coverage with other reporters on the ground.

Any breaking news environment is prone to rumor and confusion. Part of your job as reporters is to dispel rumors and to provide clear, accurate information. Never overstate and be open about what you don’t know. It’s tough sometimes for the truth to win out amid so many conflicting ideas, but it’s a necessary fight. The Lantern staff worked to dispel rumors—that an active shooter was on campus (compounded by the campus text alert), that the shooter had an accomplice, that several students had died, and that someone purposefully pulled a fire alarm to get students outside prior to the attack.

For more guidance, consult On the Media’s guide for breaking news. Planning today will make your job easier when the time arrives to put it to use.

Teach the First Amendment, now more than ever

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Then candidate and now president-elect Donald Trump’s rhetoric about the press and the First Amendment has raised more than a few eyebrows among defenders of free speech during the past year. Everything from threatening to sue publications that printed unfavorable coverage of his behavior or candidacy to insisting he would change libel laws to enable him and others to more easily win lawsuits against the press have all been fair game.

The news business has long been a target of those in governing authority because the press wields the power to question and hold accountable all those individuals and institutions that everyday citizens place faith in to structure and shape their lives. However, it’s precisely that power to question authority that must be staunchly defended.

But his misgivings about the First Amendment don’t stop with the press. Earlier this month in a tweet, he hinted it was unfair for people to protest the outcome of the election. He reversed course on that statement several hours later with another tweet (as noted in the link above). And just this week, he announced in a tweet that flag burning should be illegal and punishable with jail time or possibly the loss of one’s citizenship. The Supreme Court ruled more than 25 years ago that the practice is protected speech.

The freedom to write, speak, worship, assemble and petition can’t be taken lightly because those freedoms—etched in the hallmarks and identity of American democracy—can be eroded and quashed without vigilant defense. A government official’s own feelings, preferences or even ignorance can never supplant the law.

Perhaps some of these claims from the president-elect are more rhetoric than anything else. But it’s troubling when a powerful government official demonstrates such lacking knowledge of the laws and legal principles that protect the opinions of all Americans, especially those expressing dissent.

Press freedom advocates are calling on journalists to exercise more tenacity covering the new administration, and their calls deserve merit. It’s only through concerted, deliberate effort we can defend these liberties. But it can’t end with journalists. All citizens must make the effort to call out baseless claims that represent affronts to basic freedoms. And to do that, they need to understand the law, perhaps not enough to become legal scholars, but they need a working knowledge that enables them to call out falsehoods and overreaches of power.

To all scholastic publication advisers, now is the time to double-down on teaching students about a free press and other free-speech issues. Young people now, more than ever, need to understand the First Amendment’s protections, principles and limitations. That way they can wade through the clog of information and claims that circulate through the news cycle, blogs and social media and can help teach others about the importance of understanding and defending their freedoms.

Teaching about the First Amendment in class is the foundation. Ensure that students learn about court cases like Near v. Minnesota, Brandenburg v. Ohio, Texas v. Johnson, New York Times v. U.S.New York Times v. Sullivan & Snyder v. Phelps. In few other places will students ever be exposed to this material. These seminal cases and others will provide a firm foundation to guide their continued learning and exploration. Help them apply the holdings in those cases to contemporary issues and stories in the news.

Guide students to stay abreast of what’s happening and to understand how the First Amendment and its protections are discussed and interpreted in the news and among conversations online.

And, of course, the best way to teach about freedom is through practice. No better “real-life” simulation of a free press in action exists than a student publication, whether print, broadcast or online. Teach students to do good journalism by asking questions of those in power and seeking accountability. That mindset will serve them well into their adult lives.

Below is a list of links to recent news items and columns that will enable better discussion.

A Call to Action for Journalists Covering President Trump by Margaret Sullivan, media columnist, The Washington Post

Our First Amendment Test Is Here. We Can’t Afford to Flunk It, by Margaret Sullivan, media columnist, The Washington Post

Donald Trump’s Threat to Press Freedom: Why It Matters, by Mirren Gidda & Zach Schonfeld, Newsweek

War Between Trump, Media Seen Escalating With Presidency’s Power, by Gerry Smith, Bloomberg News

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