Bob Steele

Bob Steele asks and answers lots of questions on a wide range of ethics, values, reporting and leadership issues. In his role as the Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values he has taught hundreds of workshops and thousands of journalists and media leaders at Poynter seminars since 1989. He�s also led sessions for over 100 news organizations across the country including television stations, newspapers and broadcast and newspaper groups. He�s frequently on the phone or online advising journalists and media leaders on real-time ethical dilemmas and challenges. He�s also been on the receiving end of thousands of interviews by reporters for stories about journalism ethics issues. Steele continues in the Poynter Values Scholar role as he joins his alma mater, DePauw University, as the Eugene S. Pulliam Visiting Distinguished Professor of Journalism. He teaches journalism ethics classes to DePauw students and also serves as a scholar-in-residence at DePauw�s Janet Prindle Institute for Ethics. Over the years, Steele has written online columns and essays, journal articles, book chapters, and case studies and handbooks for professional organizations. He co-authored Doing Ethics in Journalism, originally published by The Society for Professional Journalists. He spent ten years as a broadcast journalist (reporter, executive producer and news director) then earned a Ph.D. at the Univ. of Iowa writing his dissertation on journalism ethics. He received a B.A. in economics from DePauw University and an M.S. from Syracuse University. Steele and his wife, Carol, now live in Greencastle, Indiana, where Carol also works at DePauw as an Associate Dean of Academic Affairs. Their three daughters and sons-in-law live in Denver, Phoenix and Portland, Maine. Their grandson, Henry Ellis Nelson, is growing up in Denver but will surely become a Chicago Cubs fan and play tennis with his grandfather.

AP Made Right Call in Publishing Photo, Story of Fallen Marine

There is considerable controversy about the decision by the Associated Press to distribute a photograph of a Marine killed in combat in Afghanistan. I’ve written extensively about war coverage over the years, and I spoke with MSNBC on Friday about the news organization’s decision in this case.

Based on what I know, the Associated Press went through a purposeful, thoughtful process in deciding to distribute this photo, and I believe that the AP’s decision was journalistically sound and ethically justifiable.

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Importantly, the Associated Press photo is accompanied by a substantive, sensitive AP story that recounts the battle in which Lance Cpl. Joshua M. Bernard was wounded. That story also tells us a good deal about Bernard, including comments from his father and fellow Marines in his squad. Together, the story and the photograph paint a more complete picture of this fallen Marine.

The AP’s decision was undoubtedly made more difficult by an important step it took in determining if, how and when to distribute the photo. Read more

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Protect Roethslisberger Accuser’s Identity Despite Being Named Elsewhere

This is a challenging case with competing ethical principles. It’s particularly complex given the lack of a criminal complaint prior to the filing of the civil suit. Fairness is clearly a concern when you name the accused but withhold the name of the accuser.

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That said, this is NOT an anonymous civil suit. Roethlisberger knows who the accuser is, so he can defend himself against someone specific and against specific allegations.

If a news organization has a specific policy that calls for withholding the names of individuals who say they are victims of sexual assault, I believe it’s proper to honor that standard barring an overriding ethical obligation. I don’t see such an overriding principle at this point in this case.

I’m not aware of any factor in this case that would indicate the accuser is lying. It’s proper to assume that her complaint is legitimate at this point. It’s also proper to assume Roethlisberger’s counterclaims of innocence are legitimate. Read more


NPR Reports on Obama’s First 100 Days Through Citizens’ Stories

We often use benchmarks as measures of progress. How is our favorite baseball team doing at the All-Star break? How high is the corn on the Fourth of July? How many words does our one-year-old grandson say?

And, of course, there’s the time-honored measure of how well a new president is doing after 100 days in office. In case you hadn’t heard, that benchmark is today for President Barack Obama.

Journalists use the 100 days scorecard while also poking themselves in the eye for doing so. National Public Radio’s senior Washington editor Ron Elving says, “the news media obsession with Obama has to do with the fate of the nation in perilous times; but it is also about the survival of the news business itself in a season of mortal peril.”

One of the more interesting and insightful approaches to Obama’s first 100 days comes from NPR. It’s called “100 Days: On the Road in Troubled Times.”

Correspondent David Greene has been criss-crossing the country since Obama took office, talking with citizens about the economic crisis. Read more


SPJ Celebrates 100 Years

We often think of journalism in the context of big, metropolitan newspapers and far-reaching television networks. Significantly, a milestone in our country’s journalistic history took place at a college newspaper in small-town mid-America. It’s worth revisiting that moment –- and its meaning -– amdist the dramatic upheaval that is changing our country’s journalism and to a great extent its values and its value.

In April of 1909, 10 student journalists at DePauw University in Greencastle, Indiana founded Sigma Delta Chi. SDX was an honorary fraternity that we know today as the Society of Professional Journalists, or SPJ. The founders’ purpose was inspirational and aspirational –- to improve and protect journalism. The movement spread to other college campuses and to newsrooms. SPJ grew to thousands of members across the country over the decades. The focus was on training, ethical standards and First Amendment issues.

As we mark the centennial of SPJ, there is merit in recognizing the important role this organization has played and the significance of its mission in the current era of profound change in the profession. Read more


LA Times Pitched NBC on ‘Southland’ Front Page Ad Concept

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In its own explanation of a front-page ad that simulated a news story, Los Angeles Times publisher Eddy Hartenstein said “he decided to run the NBC ad despite newsroom objections because he was trying to ensure that The Times could continue to operate.”

A number of journalists at the Los Angeles Times are mighty mad, and well they should be. Dozens of Times’ staffers reportedly signed a petition Thursday expressing their dismay about the advertisement for “Southland” that ran on the front page that day.

The staffers say the ad –- which is a fake news story about the new cop drama –- is a bad, “quick cash” idea. “Our willingness to sell our most precious real estate to an advertiser is embarrassing and demoralizing,” the petition reads.

They’re right. Even though this ad is labeled as an “Advertisement,” and even though the ad has a different typeface than the Times‘ front-page news content, it’s a bad idea with serious ethical implications. Read more


New Photos from Dover Increase Awareness of War’s Cost

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Amidst the economic tumult that is sweeping our country, it’s possible to forget our country is still fighting wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s possible to push from our consciousness the reality that Americans are still dying on those battlefields.

That’s why it’s important to be reminded of the commitment and the courage of those who wear  uniforms, and to be cognizant of the war’s cost. Our awareness is heightened now that photographers are allowed to record the moment when the fallen return.

I wrote about this issue six weeks ago, supporting the decision by the Pentagon to lift the ban on photographs of the flag-draped coffins.

Now, like millions of Americans, I view the photos as the remains of Air Force Staff Sgt. Phillip Myers are returned to his family. Symbolically, this moment tells the stories of over 4,000 of Myers’ military comrades who have died in battle. Read more


When Obama Appears on Leno, It’ll be Interesting but Not Journalism

I don’t have a problem with Jay Leno interviewing President Obama. In fact, I’m fine with it. But let’s not call it journalism.

The Leno-Obama moment
is a conversation between a television talk show host and a government leader. It’s worth watching. It’s worth hearing what the President has to say in this type of setting. It’s one more way to get to know what’s inside Obama’s head and his heart.

I hope, though, that President Obama does not diminish the importance of being regularly accessible to journalists. Jay Leno can ask some fascinating –- even probing -– questions of Obama. We saw that happen when David Letterman interviewed former Illinois governor Rod Blagojevich. Journalists bring different obligations and different knowledge to their reporting. They will ask different questions. Journalists serve a “watchdog” function in our democratic society.

I hope in these turbulent times citizens recognize the unique and essential role that journalism plays in this country. Read more


Dr. Sanjay Gupta Covers Obama’s Health Care Policies with Competing Loyalties

Dr. Sanjay Gupta wears many hats, or in his case, multiple white coats. He’s a practicing neurosurgeon, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, a TIME magazine columnist and more.

His multifaceted roles present ethical problems. The pressure points are on the principle of journalistic independence.

For the last couple of months it appeared that Sanjay Gupta was likely to become this country’s surgeon general. He met with Barack Obama about that job and discussed it extensively with administration officials.

On March 5 he withdrew his name from consideration, saying he wants to spend more time with his family and on his medical practice. He also will continue as a journalist for CNN.

My first reaction to the news of Gupta opting out focused on a tepid effort by his CNN colleagues to genuinely report the story of his withdrawal. My heightened concern focuses on the erosion of Gupta’s journalistic independence given his two-plus months of discussions with the Obama administration about becoming surgeon general. Read more


As Ban Lifts, Photos of Soldiers’ Coffins Increase Understanding Through Visual Storytelling

War is about heroism and about horror. War reflects battles won and lives lost. As citizens who send our military men and women into combat, we must comprehend the commitment, the courage and the cost. We must grasp what it means when our fighters fall. We must try to understand the pain that people endure when losing loved ones who wore uniforms — our uniforms — in warfare.

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We will be better able to comprehend all of this now that the Pentagon has lifted its ban on photographs of the flag-draped coffins of war victims arriving at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware.

We will have a more authentic visual representation of one more piece of the complex puzzle of our involvement in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. We will have one more important vantage point from which we can mourn the passing of brave men and women. We will have one more set of visual images to process the human toll of war. Read more


The Perils of Monetizing Even When Times are Tough

Spacer SpacerI accept that the word monetize is now carved into the floors and walls of American newsrooms, woven into the journalism culture, and implanted in the psyche of every editor. That doesn’t mean I have to like it.

I know that those who run news organizations are in a fight for survival. Let’s hope they win. Let’s also hope that they don’t abandon core journalism values in the process.

Monetizing is not, in itself, an evil concept. The problem is with certain tactics that can erode ethical standards and corrode the credibility of news content.

Case in point: the growth of in-text advertising. Certain words in a story are sold to an advertiser. When readers mouse over those designated words they trigger a pop-up ad that links to a product or service. The meaning of the word in the story may or may not be directly related to the product or service advertised. Read more


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