Hurricane coverage raises questions about finding the truth amid disaster

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The images from Hurricane Harvey last week were horrific. Scores of people were left stranded in rising water, homes were destroyed and others’ livelihoods were washed away in seconds. As with any natural disaster of that magnitude, the storm became a focal point for local, national and even global news coverage.

And the coverage was everywhere. It included everything from real-time updates that provided life-saving information to harrowing stories of rescues and reunions among the displaced. And this whole cycle is about to be repeated again this weekend as Hurricane Irma takes aim at Florida.

A natural disaster is always a painful experience. Capturing that pain, while an important documentary function of the news media, can be tough for survivors and victims who become unwitting subjects of the news. Last week, the Columbia Journalism Review highlighted several ethical dilemmas in the coverage. Both this article and CJR’s weekly podcast, The Kicker, devoted time to delving into those questions.

Discussing these matters can help students grapple with the real consequences of how the media present facts and depict the subjects featured in the news. Ultimately, they can better learn how to make decisions about coverage in their own publications.

lootfindWords matter: How the news media describe something can have a profound impact on how the audience understands and interprets what they see. Following Hurricane Katrina in 2005, these two images circulated online noting how the black man in the first photo was described as “looting” while the white couple in the second photo were described as “finding” the items they were carrying. As this story in the New York Times indicates, each photographer did offer justification about why he each felt those respective word choices were justified.

Use of the word “looting” arose again during coverage of Harvey when ABC reporter Tom Llamas tweeted that he alerted police to possible looting.

What’s the distinction between the two terms? Is one more appropriate than the other? Is the term “looting” ever justified following a disaster? What if people were taking luxury items like jewelry or TV sets that aren’t necessary for survival?

What proportion of disaster coverage should be focused on such questions? Does a preponderance of coverage about alleged criminal behavior following a disaster suggest that such activities are more prevalent than they really are? What effect can that have on the audience and their perceptions of reality?

Involvement in the story: Llamas’s actions (alerting the police) involved him in the story. His actions had some impact on how the events unfolded. This was even more true when a television crew from a Houston TV station rescued a driver caught in raging water.

Generally, reporters seek to remain out of the story by serving as bystanders and observers. Is there ever a point when that rule becomes ethically unacceptable? Some will make the distinction of whether it’s necessary to choose between being a human being and a journalist. Is that a false choice? Is it enough to argue that the circumstances of a natural disaster mandate a different set of guidelines to abide by?

Telling the truth vs. minimize harm: This video of a CNN reporter interviewing a clearly distraught woman fleeing the floodwaters drew criticism. As noted in the CJR podcast, a healthy tension exists between capturing emotions, experiences and reactions of those affected but also not appearing to exploit their pain, grief and exile for professional fame, monetary gain for the news organization or a spike in ratings. People in such situations are vulnerable and need to be treated with care and respect.

What should the reporter have done? Stopped the interview all together? Gained consent before going live on air? Taken time to establish a relationship? It’s ethically necessary to cover the story, but how you go about it can have a significant impact on those who are subjects of the news, especially the vulnerable.

Disaster reporting is wrought with numerous other dilemmas affecting both the subjects of the stories and the reporters themselves. I outlined some of those in a previous post.









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 sparks questions about truth in reporting

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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?


Workshop explores social justice journalism

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Recently, the 12th annual Poynter Kent State Media Ethics Workshop explored the topic of social justice in journalism and reporting. The previous workshops featured lively discussion and debate from journalists, experts, researchers and others connected to the respective topic under consideration. This year was no exception.

Panels included discussions about the Flint (Mich.) water crisis, the shootings both at Pulse nightclub in Orlando and of five police officers in Dallas, immigration, and safe spaces on college campuses. The workshop website includes several lesson plans geared toward high school teachers and scholastic media advisers.

I’ve also provided a few discussion questions that correspond to each video for advisers and teachers to use in class. Each session can be accessed in the archives link on the workshop’s website. The archives also include recordings of previous workshops.

Why this is Important?

What is social justice journalism? How do students define it? Why is it important?
How have economic/business interests affected journalistic decision-making for or against social justice reporting?

The Internet has enabled the average person to publish without gatekeepers. How has this affected the ability to bring More

Disaster coverage essential skill for student journalists

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The tornado outbreak in the Deep South last Monday had special resonance for me. As I sat in my living room on a rainy, cool evening in Northeast Ohio, I anxiously watched weather reports on TV and online that showed a line of powerful thunderstorms containing confirmed sightings of tornadoes headed straight for the home of some of my relatives who live near Madison, Miss., in the suburbs north of Jackson.

I was relieved when I got the “all-clear” signal from my family in the area, but the storm did, indeed, pass right over their neighborhood. Adjoining subdivisions did sustain some damage. Areas on the south side of Jackson sustained considerable damage, and other parts of the region lay in ruins.

Watching the coverage and seeing the aftermath reminded me of the importance of teaching students the best practices for covering disasters in their community.

As a source of local news, student journalists provide an important documentation function that describes events that affect both the school and wider community. If a large natural or man-made disaster strikes the community, it’s important for the student news outlet to cover it. Plus, with the integration of digital technologies today, student journalists can provide breaking news coverage through multiple platforms even if their print magazine or newspaper is only distributed once every few weeks.

Breaking news situations are chaotic by nature. Information is at a premium, and those in the know (law enforcement, medical personnel, government officials) might either be reluctant to share sensitive information or might not have all the facts themselves. It’s important to exercise good judgment about what information to pass on to consumers.

Public radio’s “On the Media” program created a breaking news handbook for news consumers to aid the audience in deciphering credible content amid a swirl of often conflicting information. Craig Silverman, editor of the blog “Regret the Error” at the Poynter Institute, edited the “Verification Handbook: A Definitive Guide to Verifying Digital Content for Emergency Coverage.” The book, compiled by practicing journalists across the globe, provides considerations for verifying information in a hectic environment as well as vetting user-generated material. Both are excellent classroom resources.

Crowdsourcing can be a wonderful tool. After all, no news organization can be everywhere at all times, especially during a breaking news event. However, in an effort to get their time in the spotlight, some in the crowd resort to manipulation and fabrication—that tornado funnel that looks just a little too perfect or that heart-warming photo of a man pulling his dog through a flooded street might be real, but they might either be the work of a skilled “Photoshopper” or from another event entirely.

Disasters and other traumatic events can leave a lasting effect on both the journalists covering the situation as well as those affected by the events themselves. Ethical guidelines mandate that special care should be taken when covering disaster victims. These people may have just lost their homes or even loved ones. It’s important for journalists to balance their need for truthful, powerful reporting about a matter of public significance while maintaining their duty to minimize harm to those affected. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma at Columbia University provides excellent resources for journalists and educators in this regard.

Teaching about covering disasters also presents the perfect opportunity to further news literacy efforts in the classroom. After all, forcing students to confront the uncomfortable realities of news reporting (even if they never cover an actual disaster) allows them to expand their base of knowledge in determining credible from non-credible information and to appreciate the ethical dilemmas journalists face.

Book proposes “new ethics” for digital age

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As journalism educators, teaching ethics must be central to every class and production program. The decisions journalists make, including student journalists, do affect those they cover. However, how do ethical principles grow and change as the news industry evolves?

The core ethical values of the journalistic profession are often summed up by the tenets of the SPJ Code of Ethics: seek the truth and report it, act independently, minimize harm and be accountable. Those values served the profession well during a time when journalists and editors acted as gatekeepers to funnel information to the public. If news was a conversation, it was generally one-way, and journalists did most of the talking.

However, as technologies have enabled audiences to participate in the creation of news as well as define, shape and influence the news agenda, do those values change? Should they?

In a collection of essays by top media ethicists, scholars and practitioners in their book The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century, editors Kelly McBride of The Poynter Institute and Tom Rosenstiel of the American Press Institute have proposed adjusting the set of core principles described above to include the following: seek the truth and report it as fully as possible, be transparent, and engage the community as an end, rather than a means. The book’s purpose, from the editors’ words in the introduction, “is an attempt to look at what’s happening in journalism in the early part of the 21st century, to define and articulate new tensions that challenge journalism’s core principles, and to suggest practices that further truth and community in service of democracy.”

 The book’s premise rests on the technological changes that drive how journalism is created and delivered. As is well evident by now, the economic model that once supported news outlets (advertisers footing the lion’s share of the bill to create and deliver the news in a quest for eyeballs) has since passed. Digital technologies make information more accessible, and the audience plays a central role in creating and shaping the news. The digital platforms themselves serve as a primary means for disseminating information. How they are used and who controls access to them can profoundly affect what the audience knows.

However, the editors noted those core values from the SPJ Code mentioned above remain inscribed in this new list of guiding principles. Those original values have expanded to encompass new ethical questions of the digital age. Things have changed, indeed. As the essays in the book discuss, audience members can now submit content. Who’s responsible for vetting its authenticity? Organizations like PolitiFact seek to add more context and information to nation’s political dialogue. But do all the claims politicians and pundits make fall into a true/false, right/wrong dichotomy? If Internet service providers can give preferential treatment to some information services over others, how will that affect the flow of information and social learning? What are the best practices for issuing corrections for erroneous information posted online, given how far and how fast information spreads?

The essays, which represent a variety of viewpoints and approaches by a community of scholars, can be summed up as follows:

  • Seek and report the truth. Searching for the truth is still the highest aim of the profession. Adhering to that value separates journalists from those who seek to spin or pursue their own agenda. However, finding and deciphering the truth amid an endless stream of voices and noise can become more difficult. Truth can range on a spectrum from recounting facts—like the number of people killed in a car crash—to the more abstract of deciphering meaning—what does the verdict in a contentious trail say about equity in the criminal justice system? Journalists can help direct people through the myriad of voices and information available today.
  • Be transparent. Transparency becomes even more paramount now that almost anyone can produce content for the world to see. Journalism now comes from numerous sources beyond traditional news outlets guided by public service: think tanks, advocacy organizations and partisan pundits. These groups bring angles and agendas to their reporting. However, their work can be a legitimate source of information, as long as the public understands the methods used to create it and the sources used to fund it. The public can also more easily question, scrutinize and discuss the work of journalists through social media and other digital tools. The book’s editors argue that adhering to more transparent newsgathering practices actually increases the public service function of journalism by allowing the audience to understand better how the news was researched and produced.

  • Engage the community as an end in itself. The community adds voices to the mix and plays a central role throughout the news cycle. Journalists need to find ways to respect and nurture that community to foster more openness and sharing as a means of creating better content. As the editors put it, creating and fostering community is an end in itself, not an end to something else (such as getting more “likes” for the organization’s social media pages).

Application to journalism education. This book issues a call to journalism educators, both at the scholastic and collegiate level, to re-examine their teaching methods regarding ethics. I’m a firm believer ethical fitness is a skill students learn best through practice. Adhering to core principles enables the profession to establish credibility by maintaining high standards that respect how journalism and newsgathering affect those covered in the news.

But, as the process of researching and distributing the news changes, educators must address new realities about the nature of the news industry in order to enable students to perform journalism ethically. Seeking the truth and reporting it is still journalism’s cornerstone. Yet, adapting one’s ethical philosophy to encompass the consequences of the evolving interactions of journalists, the audience and technology will be paramount for creating thinking, effective communicators. 

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