It’s all in the details—Recent blunder reinforces need to teach accuracy & verification

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The journalism profession operates on one key foundation: trust with the audience. If the audience doesn’t believe the words journalists write, the photos they publish or the facts they gather, all their effort is for naught. Finding and reporting the truth is what separates journalism from the hucksters, liars and rumormongers.

And the details do matter. After all, if the audience can’t trust you with the small stuff, how can they trust you to get the bigger things right? Accuracy with names, dates, places and spellings is an essential part of forming that solid foundation upon which that crucial trust and credibility are built. Learning the value of accuracy and cultivating practices to ensure its fruition in every story should be paramount in every publication lab. Yet these ideals sometimes remain unmet even in the professional world.

Take the story last week about ABC News investigative correspondent Brian Ross. Ross reported that Michael Flynn, President Trump’s former national security adviser, was prepared to testify—as part of his plea deal with the FBI—that then-candidate Trump instructed him to make contact with the Russians in 2016.

Ross included that claim based on his conversation with one confidential source close to Flynn. After the story aired, Ross was forced to correct that statement to note that only after elected did Trump instruct Flynn to contact the Russians for the purpose of repairing relations in order to better combat ISIS. Ross was suspended for four weeks and has been barred from covering stories about the president.

That seemingly simple misreport had real consequences. At a time when those who see any coverage that opposes their own viewpoints or worldview as “fake news,” this type of error could add more unnecessary fuel to such claims. Some could even use it to attempt to discredit truthful reporting in the future. To others, it’s just further evidence that journalists either fabricate stories outright or at least rush to judgment if the story fits one of their supposed preconceived agendas (in this case, to discredit the president).

Ross’s reporting hinged on a confidential source. This is the perfect opportunity to remind students about policies and guidelines about confidential sources. Denying readers the transparency provided by naming sources should only be done in the most extreme circumstances. The story must be of utmost public interest to garner confidentiality. It’s essential to have a procedure in place for who makes the decision to grant confidentiality and under what circumstances such requests should approved.

This is also the time to double down on teaching the basics of accuracy checklists at all phases of the reporting process. This means attending to the small details—like getting a person’s job title correct—but it also means ensuring you’ve consulted enough sources with sufficient knowledge and expertise to paint an accurate picture with words, photos or video. After all, five clueless sources with no firsthand knowledge really can’t lead the audience to a deeper understanding of the nuances of any given topic.

Students can learn a great deal from the missteps of their professional counterparts. This situation can be a reminder of the importance of getting it right and giving readers a truthful rendering of events.


Workshop delves into causes, solutions of ‘fake news’ & advocates for better media literacy

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We hear the term “fake news” a lot these days—everything from the president claiming that any negative news coverage of his administration is  “fake” to fanciful tales of sharks swimming through the flooded streets of Houston following Hurricane Harvey to a fictitious account of thousands of fraudulent ballots discovered in a warehouse in the run-up to last year’s election.

The term “fake news” seems to have lost some of its effect because it has taken on so many meanings. And yet the concept of “fake news” can have a lasting impact both on the audience that (sometimes unwittingly) shares and consumes it and on the democratic process itself.

The 13th annual Poynter/Kent State Media Ethics Workshop (held in September) delved into the topic of fake news. The daylong series of panels attempted to provide definition and refinement to the term “fake news” while seeking both to identify the problems it causes and to offer solutions that create a more information-critical journalistic community and citizenry. Panelists ranged from working journalists and editors to public relations practitioners, attorneys and educators.

The entire day is archived, and the workshop website even includes a lesson plan geared toward a high school audience. Each session is about 60 to 90 minutes long (except for the introductory and concluding remarks, which are much shorter). The video archive can be used either during class or for an out-of-class assignment. Below are a series of key takeaways and questions to drive students’ discussion.

Introductory Remarks (Kelly McBride, The Poynter Institute)

What is the difference between misinformation and disinformation? What are some examples of each (either those mentioned during the presentation or others students can think of or find)? Why is the distinction between those two terms so important?

McBride identifies seven forms of fake news. Define each type and provide examples.

How is fake news like a virus? Using that analogy, what are its causes, and what are some potential treatments and solutions?

Fake News and Media Credibility: Can Trust be Restored? (Mandy Jenkins, Storyful & Mizell Stewart, USA Today)

How does a lack of trust in the news media influence whether people decide to share fake news?

What responsibility do the news media have to debunk fake news after it’s shared or published? Can debunking efforts indadvertedly draw more attention to fictitious claims?

As the panelists noted, people do tend to trust their local reporters more than national media. Yet today there are fewer and fewer local reporters because of financial cutbacks. How can fake news gain a stronghold in an environment where some important issues go uncovered and critical questions go unasked?

Those who spread fake news know how the news ecosystem works, and they figure out how to manipulate it. Where does fake news often originate? How does it end up affecting coverage on major news networks or being shared on communication platforms like Facebook and Twitter?

The panelists urged journalists to get away from their desks, leave the newsroom and talk to real people when reporting. How can more interaction with the public help journalists stop the spread of fake news?

Fake News and the 2016 Election (Ryan Claassen, Kent State; Michael Shearer, GateHouse Media; Gregory Korte, USA Today; Indira Lakshmanan, The Poynter Institute)

From a legal standpoint, publishers—such as news organizations—are responsible for the information they disseminate. Are social media platforms “publishers” or merely “carriers” of the content others post? Either way, what ethical responsibility do they bear for the information they transmit, even though it’s being posted and shared by users?

How do both the business model and structural background of social media platforms “reward” those who share fake news?

Despite their best effort, journalists will make mistakes from time to time. Do mistakes, while regrettable, count as “fake news”? In an environment where so many identify anything they disagree with as “fake,” why is accuracy in reporting more important than ever?

How have social media changed the way politicians can relate to and interact with the public? What effects have social media had on journalists’ gatekeeping function (both in terms of what the public knows and how it shares information)?

Define and discuss the debate over whether the news media should cover the president’s tweets.

Keynote: The Real Deal about Fake News (David Folkenflik, NPR)

When politicians and pundits use false information, how is the public affected?

What does Folkenflik say the role of journalists is? How does fake news complicate that mission?

How does fake news force news organizations to discuss and defend their own legitimacy both in the eyes of the public and the government?

What did Folkenflik mean by saying it’s important for news organizations to “do their homework in public”? How can this be done?

Detecting B.S.: How to Tell What’s True in Today’s Contested Reality (Demaso Reyes, News Literacy Project; Kendra Albright, Kent State; Alicia Calzada, attorney)

How do purveyors of false information play on emotion to get readers to react without thinking?

Why is it so important to consider the source behind material one finds online?

What responsibility do individuals have to verify what they see before sharing it? Is it wise to share something with a comment like, “I don’t know whether this is true, but I’ll sure be angry if it is”?

We focus significant effort on helping young people develop media literacy, but adults definitely need some training as well. How can we help adults develop media literacy habits, especially those with such entrenched beliefs that they’re willing to trust and share anything that confirms what they already believe?

Why is context for photos so important? What effect does an app like Instagram have for appreciating and understanding a photo’s context?

The Internet has certainly made sharing photos and videos much easier. As a journalist seeking to republish such content as part of a newsworthy event, what are some considerations to make when looking for photos online or accepting photos from users?

When should students begin learning media literacy? How should it fit into the curriculum? Should this be a discrete subject, or should it be integrated into other classes?

Fake News and PR: What to Do When Your Client is the Target (Michele Ewing, Kent State & Chas Withers, Dix & Eaton)

What’s the fundamental difference between public relations and journalism? To whom do each profession’s ultimate loyalties lie? What are some similarities between the two?

Public relations practitioners advocate on behalf of a business or client, such as a non-profit organization. If someone peddles fake news about one of those clients—like falsely claiming he or she became sick from eating a product the client sells—what effect can such a falsehood have on that company or organization’s image?

Even though public relations professionals advocate on behalf of a client, why are credibility and truth-telling in all of their communications so important?

Wrap-up: Where Do We Go From Here? (McBride & Lakshmanan, Poynter)

Lakshmanan talked of how the journalism profession needs its own public relations campaign so the public better understands the work journalists do and the methods they use to keep the public informed. What are some key points that need to be addressed in such a campaign?

This post is the first in series coinciding with the third annual U.S. Media Literacy Week hosted by the National Association for Media Literacy Education. Check back throughout the week for more posts exploring important, timely media & news literacy issues and questions. 




Constitution Day resources

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ConstitutionHappy Constitution Day! On Sept. 17, 1787, the original framers of the Constitution met
and added their signatures to the document they spent that summer writing, arguing and hashing out. Of course, just a few years later (1791), the document would include 10 amendments, the first of which is certainly near and dear to every scholastic journalism adviser and reporter. Since that time, the document has been amended 17 more times.

This day–celebrated on Sept. 18 this year because the original day fell on a weekend–provides an excellent opportunity to teach students about the importance of a document that provides the basic structure for how our government operates today and one that has inspired people all over the world to work toward democracy.

Below are a list of resources that can help:

The Constitution Center

The Journalism Education Association Scholastic Press Rights Committee

The Bill of Rights Institute

The PBS NewsHour

The National Education Association

And all of this is not a minute too soon. A report released last week by the Annenberg Public Policy Center of the University of Pennsylvania showed a somewhat bleak picture of the country’s understanding of basic constitutional principles. This included 37 percent of Americans failing to name any of the rights protected by the First Amendment.

On a brighter note, this is the perfect reminder of the important work of teaching journalism and its role as a hands-on training course for better citizenship. And that’s a great Monday morning “pick-me-up.”

As the new school year begins, get back to the basics of good journalism

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The new school year is underway, and it’s the perfect time for getting back to the basics of good journalism. Two articles I found recently offer students an excellent set of resources to refresh those “basic” skill sets and tenets of good reporting.

In the first piece, Craig Silverman of Buzzfeed spells out his “eight simple rules for doing accurate journalism.” As educators, we preach accuracy and truth-telling, but sometimes students–especially beginners–don’t understand how to achieve that somewhat elusive goal. But, in reality, it comes back to a few simple rules and guidelines that can make all the difference.

Below, I’ve outlined each of Sliverman’s rules with some pointers for scholastic journalism. The original article, linked above, provides more insights about each of these points.

The initial, mistaken information will be retweeted more than any subsequent correction–Bottom line here: Think before you publish. While you can and should offer corrections whenever possible, remember that people will most likely remember the false information more than they will the correction, especially if the false information confirms some bias they already have.

A journalist is only as good as her sources–We can’t stress this enough to students. Stories are made or broken by the quality of the sources they have (or don’t have). Always look for more voices, perspectives and ideas. This also means looking beyond the walls of the school building. Students shouldn’t be the primary voices in stories about mental health issues, drug abuse, dating violence, etc. Their voices are important, but they shouldn’t be the only foundation of the story. Pick up the phone. After all, sometimes that simple act can pay off in dividends.

Verification before dissemination–Do the extra leg work. Don’t trust what people tell you. Don’t assume something is true just because your best friend told you so or because you saw it online. Figure out whether it’s true before publishing.

People will forget who got it first, but they remember who got it wrong–Perhaps there is less competition among student journalists for scoops, but it’s always cool when students break a story before the pros do. However, getting it first isn’t really that important, especially if you get it wrong. (Think of all the famous plagiarism and fabrication cases). Develop your skills so you’re able to get it right when the opportunity arrives. Big stories will happen—administrators will resign, buildings might catch fire, car crashes happen. Be ready for when they do.

Failure sucks but instructs–No matter how careful you are, you will screw up. It happens to everyone, even the professionals. But take heart. You can learn from your mistakes. The best lessons originate from failure.

If your mother tells you she loves you, check it out–I’ll say it again: verify, verify, verify. Make that extra call. Check that online database. Don’t assume anything is true. Ask sources for examples and specific numbers of incidents. Double check small details like dates, times, locations, and even the name of the source’s dog.

If something seems too good to be true, it probably is–These days, there is a never-ending supply of information that ranges from being stretched a bit to being downright made up. Just because it’s out there doesn’t mean it’s true.

It’s not the crime, it’s the coverup–Admit your mistakes. Come clean. Be honest. Make a commitment to running corrections early, often and in a consistent place both in print and online. Establish policies about corrections. While no one likes to admit to screwing up, owning your mistakes can help maintain your credibility as a trusted source of news and information.

And there is no better teacher than those who have “lived in the trenches,” so to speak. Veterans journalists have learned a lot both through their experience but also through the advice they’ve received from their mentors in the profession. This piece is a compilation of reporters offering others the best advice they’ve ever received and how acting upon it has positively affected their reporting and writing.

It includes everything from advice on how to find story ideas, how to conduct interviews and how to capture better detail in your stories. It’s a terrific learning tool for student journalists and budding reporters.





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.

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