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


Sports journalism faces moment of truth in week of Lance Armstrong, Manti Te’o hoax

Almost exactly a year ago, “This American Life” did what it did best: ran a story that tugged at the heartstrings and enraptured its audience. The piece, “Mr. Daisey and the Apple Factory,” so perfectly suited TAL’s storytelling style, none of the talented journalists on staff took enough time to wonder if it might in fact be a lie.

And of course it was a lie. Mike Daisey did not uncover underage or disfigured workers in China, a fact that should have become obvious under proper scrutiny. At the time, it seemed like too good a story to let fact-checking get in the way. “This American Life” would deeply regret that decision.

This week, the entire field of sports journalism is facing a similar moment of self-reflection after learning that several reputable journalists unwittingly helped spread the tragic — and completely false — story of Notre Dame football star Manti Te’o’s deceased girlfriend.… Read more


Sunday, Jan. 13, 2013


Gene Patterson’s final thoughts on journalism: ‘Get over the pain, new stuff happens’

In late November 2012, Eugene Patterson, who died Saturday, prepared his thoughts about journalism in advance of a visit from an old friend. His edited reflections are reproduced here, direct from Patterson’s IBM Wheelwriter typewriter.

Journalists get to originate, validate and illuminate the real news if they carry forward the character of their calling.

How they make the good stuff pay will follow the quality as it always has. Technology’s shift of news to new money models still leaves the key to the vault lying in the gold cache of character. That character leaves journalists to prospect for truth.

Journalists breaking out of the wreckage of old news delivery ways carry in their bones known elements of the character which, in handling news, needs to be.… Read more


Friday, Dec. 07, 2012

Tampa Bay Times looked for clues that source might commit suicide

When they learned of their source’s suicide, the Tampa Bay Times journalists who had recently published a story about Gretchen Molannen’s medical condition looked back over their communications for clues. But they found nothing, Tampa Bay Times Managing Editor Mike Wilson told me Thursday in an interview.

Molannen died some time between Thursday evening and Saturday evening. The story about her persistent state of sexual arousal was posted online Friday and was distributed in the printed edition of the paper on Sunday.

“We had concerns about Gretchen as a person because we knew she had attempted to take her life before,” Wilson said. The paper “sought to find out if she felt strong enough, well enough to talk about this issue with us.”

Molannen repeatedly reassured the Times journalists that she was committed to the story, Wilson said.… Read more


Monday, Nov. 12, 2012


Poynter concludes tenure as ESPN ombud with 6 lessons learned

With this column, the Poynter Review Project’s work comes to an end.

After nearly 40 columns reviewing ESPN content across all platforms, we’ll close with lessons learned over 18 months of observing the network’s various media outlets, examining their successes and failures, and investigating how ESPN works (and sometimes doesn’t).

We offer these observations not just as a starting point for the networks’ next ombudsman but also because it’s increasingly ESPN’s own viewers and readers who serve in that role, sharing their links, thoughts and criticism in real time. This is a relatively new phenomenon for ESPN and other media companies, and ESPNers are of two minds about the torrent of discussion, simultaneously appreciating being the center of so much conversation and worrying about a discourse they can’t control.… Read more


Tuesday, Oct. 23, 2012

Why ethics and diversity matter: The case of Trayvon Martin coverage

If anyone asks why ethnic, cultural and gender diversity is important in journalism, advocates have a ready answer: Greater diversity equals greater accuracy and fairness.

This belief is based, in part, on bitter experience. From turn-of-the-century lynchings in the American South to the women’s suffrage movement and the civil rights protests in the 1950s and ‘60s, U.S. history is filled with stories journalists got wrong because they excluded the perspectives of anyone who wasn’t a white male.

Coverage was so distorted during the civil rights era, newspapers such as the Tallahassee Democrat in Florida, the Lexington Herald-Leader in Kentucky and the Hattiesburg American in Mississippi all apologized for their misguided work decades after the initial mistakes were made.

Beyond hurt feelings or appearances, a diverse newsroom better reflects the population, which enables fairer, more accurate or incisive reporting.… Read more


Wednesday, Oct. 17, 2012


Shirky: ‘We are indeed less willing to agree on what constitutes truth’

Here’s what the “post-fact” literature has right: the Internet allows us to see what other people actually think. This has turned out to be a huge disappointment. When anyone can say anything they like, we can’t even pretend most of us agree on the truth of most assertions any more.

The post-fact literature is built in part on nostalgia for the world before people like Bigfoot showed up in the public sphere, for the days when Newsweek reflected moderately liberal consensus without also providing a platform for orthographically-challenged wingnuts to rant about the President. People who want those days back tell themselves (and anyone else who will listen) that they don’t want to impose their views on anybody. They just want agreement on the facts.

But what would that look like, an America where there was broad agreement on the facts?… Read more


Friday, Sep. 28, 2012

Journalism has an originality problem, not a plagiarism problem

Professional journalism isn’t facing a plagiarism problem. It’s facing an originality failure.

And you can’t blame the Internet. Our originality breakdown results from many pressures — the overwhelming volume of writing incessantly pushed out into the digital space, the pressure on writers to feed a content beast that’s never satiated, the diminishing economic forces that support professional writing.

The Internet preceded all of these changes, but it isn’t itself the cause.

The methods we use to groom writers to become original thinkers in the modern media environment are suspect. In fact, they’re largely absent.

This week, Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente’s work was scrutinized for relying too heavily on the work of others. She’s not alone.

We have no way of knowing whether, proportionally, there’s more plagiarism in journalism today than there was 20 years ago.… Read more


Thursday, Sep. 20, 2012

Dirty Politics: View live stream of Poynter Kent State ethics workshop

Poynter’s eighth annual ethics workshop with Kent State University begins at 9:15 a.m. This year’s theme is “dirty politics.” Speakers include:

  • 9:15: Poynter’s Kelly McBride and Ellyn Angelotti
  • 10: PolitiFact’s Bill Adair is part of a panel on “The role of a responsible press”
  • 11:10: “Why Can’t We All Get Along?” Civility & Social Media in Politics
  • 12:15: Best practices
  • 12:45: Lunchtime keynote with columnist Connie Schultz
  • 1:45: Gender and politics
  • 3:15: Political advertising & campaign communication
  • 4:30: Closing session

Watch the live stream below (actual times may vary).… Read more


Tuesday, Sep. 18, 2012


‘Patchwriting’ is more common than plagiarism, just as dishonest

The Columbia Spectator writer fired for plagiarizing from The New York Times earlier this month was actually employing a dishonest writing technique that is common on college campuses and among journalists.

It’s called “patchwriting.” And it’s not quite plagiarism, but it’s not original writing either.

A 2008 study directed by Rebecca Moore Howard, professor of writing and rhetoric at Syracuse University, suggests that much of the writing by college students is intellectually dishonest, but falls short of actual plagiarism. She is preparing to publish her findings in a book.

What is patchwriting & how common is it?

Patchwriting is often a failed attempt at paraphrasing, Howard said. Rather than copying a statement word for word, the writer is rearranging phrases and changing tenses, but is relying too heavily on the vocabulary and syntax of the source material.… Read more


Friday, Aug. 24, 2012

Questions to consider before publishing autopsy reports

Ever since Dale Earnhardt crashed and died on the final lap of the Daytona 500 in 2001, autopsy results have been tricky material for journalists. Florida journalists sued the state to release photos from Earnhardt’s autopsy, so that independent experts could determine whether a head restraint would have saved Earnhardt’s life. (It would have, most agreed and most auto racing authorities require their use.)

Students at the University of Oklahoma are grappling this week with an autopsy report. There, the staff of the Oklahoma Daily linked to the autopsy results of a student who died in a fall from a building. Autopsy results are part of the public record in Oklahoma, as they are in Florida.

However, whenever journalists clumsily manage such records, they give state lawmakers the ammunition to erode the public record and make bad public policy.… Read more