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

FILE - In this Aug. 6, 1999, file photo, Penn State head football coach Joe Paterno, right, poses with his defensive coordinator Jerry Sandusky during Penn State Media Day at State College, Pa. In a statement made Sunday, Jan. 22, 2012, retired Penn State assistant coach Sandusky, who faces child sex abuse charges in a case that led to the firing of Paterno, says Paterno's death is a sad day. (AP Photo/Paul Vathis, File)

How to cover the Freeh Report on Penn State, child sexual abuse

Louis Freeh’s powerful condemnation of Penn State officials is bound to set off a barrage of equally powerful reactions among those who live with the scars of childhood sex abuse.

And there are a lot of people who live with those scars. One in four girls and one in six boys are sexually assaulted by the time they reach age 18. Those numbers are astounding and in many cases adults do not believe this problem is that prevalent. But it is that prevalent. Childhood sexual assault is a common occurrence that transcends all socio-economic barriers. Rich children and poor children of every race are victims of abuse.

In your own newsroom, people who are working on this story are dealing with their own trauma.

In your audience, people who read or watch this story may need support.Read more


Thursday, June 28, 2012

The questions we wish CNN and FOX would answer

Having deconstructed many bad decisions with newsrooms across the country, I’ve been trying to analyze what we can learn from what went wrong Thursday at both Fox and CNN, which initially misinterpreted the Supreme Court decision on the Affordable Care Act.

This process always starts by asking the right questions.

The answers to these questions will be instructive to anyone who is interested in making journalism more accurate and increasing public trust in the news.

Here’s what we’d ask CNN and Fox. (We’ve sent questions along these lines to both networks and will update if we hear back.)

1. Walk us through your reporting on the decision, step by step.
2. Describe who was reading the decision for your newsroom, how many pages that individual read, and what he or she conveyed back to the newsroom based on that reading?… Read more


Tuesday, June 19, 2012


What’s wrong with Jonah Lehrer plagiarizing himself (at least 13 times)

Here’s why Jonah Lehrer was wrong to recycle his words and ideas in at least 13 instances uncovered by three different people (make that four) and then by The New Yorker, which is adding Editor’s Notes to stories with duplication, including the ones listed below:

Read more

Wednesday, Mar. 28, 2012

ESPN reporter Michael Smith was one of the staffers to post pictures of them wearing hoodies.

ESPN should find ways to cover the Trayvon Martin story rather than become part of it

ESPN.com‘s Jemele Hill did a very nice, tight column this week explaining how the lives of professional athletes are connected to the life and death of Trayvon Martin.

Contrast that to ESPN’s bouncing back and forth on whether its talent can post a photo of a “hoodie” via social media in solidarity with the family of the Florida teenager who was shot and killed Feb. 26 by a neighborhood watch captain. That incident occurred as Martin was walking back to his father’s house in Sanford, Fla., to watch the tipoff of the NBA All-Star Game after a run to a convenience store for ice tea and candy.

NFL reporter Michael Smith was one of the ESPN staffers to don a hoodie.

As a journalism organization, ESPN should do more work like Hill’s and less like the self-expression of several others — including ESPN anchors Trey Wingo and Mike Hill, NFL reporter Michael Smith and Grantland writer Jonathan Abrams — who donned hoodies in their Twitter avatars.… Read more


Tuesday, Feb. 21, 2012

How ESPN published “Chink in the Armor” Jeremy Lin headline & what’s happened since

The rise of Jeremy Lin, the New York Knicks’ Asian-American star, has been one of 2012’s feel-good sports stories. But it’s come with an unwelcome undercurrent: racial references by fans, columnists and TV personalities that have ranged from innocent-but-cringe-worthy to openly offensive.

Last week, ESPN went from the sidelines of this spectacle to center stage, issuing three apologies within 24 hours for “offensive and inappropriate comments” that led to one employee’s dismissal and another’s suspension for 30 days.

The first incident to garner widespread attention involved a headline on ESPN’s mobile website early Saturday morning. As ESPN dealt with the fallout from that mistake, its attention was drawn to another incident, on ESPNEWS on Wednesday night, then to a third on ESPN Radio on Friday night.… Read more


Monday, Jan. 30, 2012

Yale quarterback Patrick Witt speaks during a news conference in New York, Tuesday, Dec. 6, 2011. Witt is one of the 16 National Football Foundation scholar-athletes of 2011. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

Yale Daily News, New York Times both make wrong call on Patrick Witt sexual assault complaint coverage

As the story of Yale University quarterback Patrick Witt (and his Rhodes scholarship that wasn’t) got more convoluted last week, both The New York Times and the Yale Daily News came under significant criticism — The Times, for running with a story that had too many holes, the Yale paper for holding a story they should have reported.

The critics are right. Both papers missed the journalistic mark on this one. The Times chose the wrong frame to tell the story. The Daily News let protocol prevent its journalists from acting as watchdogs. Because of these journalistic failures, the larger systemic issues faded into the background of our national conversation.

Yale quarterback Patrick Witt spoke at a December news conference in New York. (Seth Wenig/AP)

In case you missed it, here’s a quick recap: Last fall, the Rhodes Scholarship Selection Committee chose Witt as a finalist, leaving him with a tough choice: attend the day-long interview or play in the legendary Yale-Harvard game.… Read more


Tuesday, Nov. 08, 2011

Sharon Bialek, a Chicago-area woman, addresses a news conference at the Friars Club, Monday, Nov. 7, 2011, in New York. Bialek accused Republican presidential contender Herman Cain of making an unwanted sexual advance against her in 1997. She says she wants to provide "a face and a voice" to support other accusers who have so far remained anonymous. (AP Photo/Richard Drew)

Why did journalists act as a pack in withholding names of Herman Cain’s accusers?

Until today, media covering allegations of sexual harassment leveled against Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain have universally withheld the identities of the women, who did not voluntarily come forward.

Then today, The Daily, Rupert Murdoch’s iPad publication, revealed the identity of one woman, in a flattering article that gives credibility to her claims.

That prompted Business Insider and the Daily Caller to follow suit. Shortly after that, NPR confirmed with Karen Kraushaar that she is “woman A,” but she initially declined to say anything more.

Kraushaar spoke with The New York Times Tuesday evening.

She said she did not know whether or how she might tell more of her story but said that she had been warming “to the idea of a joint press conference where all of the women would be together with our attorneys and all of this evidence would consider together.”

Since then, attorneys for the women have been in touch and plans for a joint appearance are progressing.… Read more


Monday, July 18, 2011


Feldman’s ESPN non-suspension follows bad decision-making

The recent flap over Bruce Feldman’s non-suspension for writing a book on behalf of a guy now suing ESPN for libel has been characterized as (a) a Twitter revolution, (b) an ESPN house of cards, (c) Twitterati gone wild.

In fact, it’s all of the above and more. To date, this is the most complicated ESPN issue we’ve tackled at the Poynter Review Project.

Here are some of our findings, based on a weekend of reporting:

  • ESPN did not suspend Feldman. Instead, managers asked him Thursday to not publish anything online, or go on the air, for what turned out to be roughly 24 hours, while they figured things out.
  • The sports gossip blog Sports by Brooks erroneously reported that Feldman had been suspended indefinitely, igniting a Twitter wildfire that has yet to be contained.
Read more

Thursday, June 30, 2011


Peter Perl: ‘I haven’t been fired or suspended or fined’ for keeping Vargas secret

The Washington Post will reassign some of Peter Perl’s duties, but won’t demote or suspend the assistant managing editor, who knew that Jose Vargas was an undocumented immigrant, but kept it a secret for seven years.

I talked with Perl this week about how he reasoned through his decision to keep Vargas’ revelation quiet, how he weighed his obligation to the reporter against his obligation to his employer, and what has happened since Vargas’ revelations were published in The New York Times Magazine.

Perl was new to upper management when then 24-year-old Vargas revealed his secret. Perl said he interviewed Vargas like he would a source for a story. Then, in his mind, Perl played out the possible outcomes. “I became satisfied that he was really screwed,” he told me by phone.… Read more


Monday, June 20, 2011

Roundup of plagiarism & fabrication cases

When it comes to deciding how to handle a plagiarism or fabrication case, there are a variety of factors that news organizations might consider.

We don’t have enough data to identify trends in sanctions, but a look at some plagiarism/fabrication cases from throughout the years shows the range of actions news organizations have taken and some of the factors they’ve considered when making these decisions.

For more on this topic, you can read our related story here.

Recent examples of plagiarism & fabrication, how they were handled

Sun-Times’ Paige Wiser (June)

  • Fired after implying she was at a concert for its entirety when she wasn’t. Was trying to take care of sick kid at the concert and ended up leaving early.
  • Worked at the paper for 17 years.
Read more