Updates on ethical decision-making in newsrooms big and small, written by Poynter’s Kelly McBride, Bob Steele and colleagues.

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Bill Simmons’ ESPN suspension and the challenges of editing star talent

Whether you think Bill Simmons is the latest sacrificial lamb at ESPN, or that his suspension is really theater in the vein of professional wrestling, there are important issues behind the suspension that we could all pay some attention to.

  • Too much content, too little editing: From podcasts to blogs to social media posts, there is a fair amount of content that goes straight to the audience with very little editing. With small changes (see word choice, below) to his rant, Simmons could have stayed within the boundaries of ESPN’s acceptable journalistic standards. In broadcast, that’s the producer’s role. In writing it’s the editor’s role. There is editing and production that takes place. But do those people do their work with an ear toward editorial standards? It’s hard to say if that’s even possible with a marquee talent like Simmons (see Stars, below.) But they could and they should.
  • Word choice: Simmons was on solid ground when he called Goodell’s response “fucking bullshit.” Suggesting the football commissioner take a lie detector test was clever.
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Sunday, Sep. 14, 2014

Statues of Socrates and Apollo in Athens, Greece

Ray Rice video sparks ethics questions

After a series of famous journalism scandals in the early 1980s, I was asked to kick-start an ethics program at the Poynter Institute. I felt fully prepared to be a writing teacher, but not an ethics one. So what would I do?

I read what I could; studied professional codes; consulted ethics scholars; became pals with the influential bio-medical scholar Arthur Caplan; and took part in countless conversations and debates about duty, truth, privacy, plagiarism, conflict of interest, and much more.

Perhaps my one contribution to the field was in the distinction between Red Light and Green Light ethics. In journalism, and in other fields, I expressed a preference for the articulation of what we should do (Green Light) over what we should avoid (Red Light).

That, as they say in the age of transparency, is where I am “coming from.”

Where, then, am I headed? At a time of seismic convulsions on the media landscape, I find myself leaning toward an approach articulated by public scholar Peter Levine in his book Living without Philosophy. Read more

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Friday, Sep. 05, 2014

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SPJ Approves New Code of Ethics

The Society of Professional Journalists approved a new Code of Ethics at the Excellence in Journalism 2014 convention in Nashville Saturday afternoon.

SPJ’s code of ethics attempts to speak to all media, and all who consider themselves to be journalists:

Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that democracy, a just society and good government require an informed public. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity.

The Society declares these four principles as the foundation of ethical journalism and encourages their use in its practice by all people in all media.

The newly approved code attempts to address using anonymous sources in stories:

Identify sources clearly. The public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources.

Question sources’ motives before promising anonymity, reserving it for those who may face danger, retribution or other harm.

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Tuesday, Aug. 12, 2014

If you must unpublish, here’s how to maintain credibility

Gawker

Gawker notes that BuzzFeed has unpublished more than 4,000 articles recently, disappearing posts on the 8-year-old company’s website. Editors at news websites usually take articles down with great reluctance, because doing so undermines public confidence in your newsroom’s work. Why would anyone trust what you say today if you routinely take down pages that you can no longer stand behind?

RELATED: Fairness and credibility guidelines for unpublishing online content

Still, there are rare occasions when taking down a post is the best option. Here are some best practices:

  • Keep a blank page up, rather than making the entire URL disappear or redirecting to a homepage without note.
  • Leave the tags and searchable information, so folks can find what’s left behind and know for certain the information is no longer valid.
  • On that blank page, insert a precisely worded explanation from editors describing why the material had to be removed.
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Monday, June 30, 2014

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Time clarifies: Ruined images in D-Day video were photo illustration

After two stories questioning the authenticity of what looked like ruined images in a video for Time, “Robert Capa’s Iconic D-Day Photo of a Soldier in the Surf,” Time has added photo illustration credits, Daniel Kile, vice president of communications for Time Inc., told Poynter in an email.

“TIME’s video and story have been updated to include a photo illustration credit. The film now includes a prominent label on the negatives and on the end credits (see attached for screen grabs). Our story has been updated to include an editor’s note about the change.”

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A.D. Coleman wrote about the images on June 26 on his blog Photocritic International, with a guest post by Rob McElroy, entitled “The ‘Magnificent Nine’ Faked by TIME.”

As a professional photographer for the past 34 years, with a wealth of experience developing film, I could not explain why the “ruined” negatives shown in the video looked the way they did.

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Friday, June 20, 2014

Julia Dahl explores the tabloid world in her first novel

Julia Dahl’s first novel, “Invisible City,” is about a tabloid reporter in New York City covering the murder of a Hasidic woman. The novel, which came out in May, is fiction, but Dahl, a reporter for CBSNews.com, had some similar experiences of her own to tap. She spoke with Poynter about the book, writing for tabloids and covering closed communities.

Julia Dahl, photo by Chasi Annexy

So just to start with, tell me about your book and what inspired you to write a novel?

I’ve worked in journalism since graduating from college but I’ve always written fiction, as well. I wrote a novel in my 20s, but it was pretty bad and never got published. I started writing “Invisible City” right after getting a job as a freelance reporter at the New York Post in 2007. I wanted to explore how fraught tabloid reporting can be, especially for a young, relatively untrained journalist. Read more

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Thursday, June 19, 2014

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Egg donation, first conceived as personal essay, becomes investigative report

When Sarasota Herald Tribune business reporter Justine Griffin set out to donate her eggs, her editors asked her to consider doing a personal essay. What she discovered during the year-long journey is that fertility industry has some serious conflicts of interest and that nobody advocates for the health of egg donors. As her approach morphed from a personal essay to an investigative package, Griffin had to deal with her own conflict of interest. She was part of the story. Read more

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Monday, June 16, 2014

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Advice on publishing graphic photos from Iraq

It’s just a matter of time.

That’s what I told a Kalish Visual Editing workshop on the campus of Ball State University just last week. I told the group that it was a matter of time before they were forced to make a decision on a graphic photograph and they needed to be prepared to defend their decision. Read more

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

9 best practices for publishing provocative opinions in a polarized world

Clashes between professional provocateurs and the masses, like the recent criticism that rained down on Washington Post columnist George F. Will over  #survivorprivilege, are on the rise.

See #checkyourprivilege. Remember the reaction to the equally appalling Richard Cohen column that suggested a gag reflex is a normal reaction to learning the white mayor of New York is married to a black woman and they have biracial children.

As more voices crowd the opinion space, some writers might become more shrill and provocative to garner attention. Certainly Will deserved the outrage he received for his recent column where he argues that the increase reported sexual assaults on college campuses is a ploy by women seeking to gain a status of privilege.

The ire over Will’s opinions on rape likely intensified the howling over PostEverything’s guest column two days later suggesting with an incredibly flip headline that marriage is the best way to protect women from violence. Read more

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Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Two students comfort each other during a candlelight vigil held to honor the victims of Friday night's mass shooting on Saturday, May 24, 2014, in Isla Vista, Calif. Sheriff's officials say Elliot Rodger, 22, went on a rampage near the University of California, Santa Barbara, stabbing three people to death at his apartment before shooting and killing three more in a crime spree through a nearby neighborhood. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

The right way to publish a killer’s deranged manifesto

There’s a democratic value to publishing and referencing Elliot Rodger’s manifesto. The 22-year-old mass murderer left us a 141-page window into his deranged thinking.

But don’t just publish it, add context. Perhaps the most valuable thing journalists can do would be to get psychiatrists and psychologists to annotate the document. (Though perhaps you wouldn’t want to annotate it like this.)

Art Caplan, head of the bioethics division at NYU’s Langone Medical Center, advocates the same approach when considering the publication of medical research produced by Nazi doctors. By explaining the flaws behind information, we contribute to an improving body of knowledge while neutralizing the potential of perpetuating harm.

“Make it clear this is the raving of a devious and delusional mind,” Caplan said of Rodger’s manifesto. “Help us understand what compels someone to be so hateful and mysogonistic.”

Also, help the audience see what hate and misogyny really look like. Read more

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