Sampling of stories & clips that reveal the ethical decisions journalists face

Correspondent Lara Logan of "60 Minutes" is on a leave of absence following an internal review by CBS News of her story on the Benghazi embassy attack. (AP Photo/Robert Spencer)

CBS memos suggest Logan had bias, but don’t say why no one addressed it

The CBS memos from Jeff Fager, chairman of CBS News, and Al Ortiz, executive director of standards and practices, suggest that correspondent Lara Logan had a preconceived bias that prevented her from fully vetting her source before airing his story about the attack on the Benghazi embassy compound that killed U.S. Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans.

But the leaked memos don’t explain why Logan’s superiors allowed her to pursue the story in the first place and why others at CBS didn’t compensate for her potential blind spots.

CBS announced the unspecified leave of absence for Logan and her producer Max McClellan. The Huffington Post ran memos from both Fager and Ortiz. Ortiz offered a summary of CBS’ findings that included these points:

  • It was possible to know that Dylan Davies’ account to the FBI was inconsistent with what he told CBS.
  • Logan and McClellan did not try to tap into the wider resources at CBS to get at the FBI information.
  • That Logan had good sources for her claim that Al Qaeda was behind the attack but that she didn’t cite them in the story.
  • That Logan’s public assertion more than a year earlier that the U.S. government was misrepresenting the threat from Al Qaeda indicated that she had created a conflict that should have precluded her from further reporting on the story.

Ortiz doesn’t specifically say that Logan’s bias is to blame, but he strongly implies it. The summary also doesn’t say why Logan and McClellan didn’t do more to check out Davies’ story, how they explain that failure, or why the broader system within CBS didn’t kick in to rescue the reporting team from their blind spots.

Fager states in his memo, “I pride myself in catching almost everything, but this deception got through and it shouldn’t have.”

It’s a bit unsatisfying that CBS can’t answer these questions. A news organization can’t possibly remove the blind spots from every staff member. Instead, the key is to create a system that identifies biases and compensates for them. It’s not so bad that Logan had a preconceived notion of what went wrong. What’s bad is that she didn’t use her extensive reporting skills to confirm what she thought were facts. And what’s worse is that the newsroom systems of editing and fact-checking didn’t kick in to force her to do so.

Logan’s original “60 Minutes” report had two significant elements. The first part of the report reviewed previous assertions that Stevens and his staff had expressed concerns over the security situation in Benghazi. The second element was Davies’ unique (and questionable) account of the attack that night.

We now know that Davies’ dramatic account of the attack is at best suspicious. But we don’t know whether to dismiss his and others’ claims about what happened before the attack. Because Davies’ turns out to be such an unreliable source, and because the political rhetoric around the attack and the U.S. military’s response to it has been so explosive, it is virtually impossible for the average citizen to sort out what happened and who was or wasn’t doing their jobs.

CBS’ high-profile failure on this story further clouds an already murky conversation in the public marketplace of ideas.

This is the real consequence of reporting failures. In a politically charged debate, where opinion peddlers are constantly making assertions about what happened and who was responsible, the possibility of grasping the truth slips away for the average citizen.

Correction: A previous version of this story contained an incorrect spelling for Max McClellan’s name. 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.

It’s apparent that Kraushaar’s name was widely known by journalists, but not reported.

This lock-step withholding, then revealing, of information is evidence of a lack of leadership among the ranks of leading news organizations.

There isn’t a journalistic reason to conceal the names of these women. Journalists are not bound by non-disclosure agreements that often accompany legal settlements. These women are victims of sexual harassment, not sexual assault. There is no generally accepted school of thought that guides journalists to protect individual privacy in cases like this.

When it comes to rape, which is a felony, there is well-documented research that indicates victims would be even less likely to report attacks to police, if they knew their names would be published. That’s why most newsrooms have policies that discourage publishing the names of rape victims. Sexual harassment is not rape, though certainly it may be humiliating and embarrassing to be the victim of sexual harassment.

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. (Richard Drew/AP)

The newsrooms that originally broke the story, Politico and The New York Times, may have promised the women anonymity in exchange for their interviews. That makes sense.

But other newsrooms, particularly those with the capacity to discover the names of the women, acted in inexplicable unison until today. And they continue even now, reporting only the name that was originally revealed by The Daily, instead of divulging the names of all the women involved.

The Huffington Post’s Michael Calderone pointed out in his column last week that many news organizations have staked out the house of one woman who received a settlement. And one TV executive told Calderone, “There’s no journalistic reason not to name them … I think it comes down to a very simple equation: If you name them, the likelihood of your news organization interviewing them probably goes down to zero.”

Many newsrooms may share the hope that if they preserve the women’s anonymity, then maybe those women will grant a personal interview.

In other words, those newsrooms are gambling on the remote chance of getting an exclusive, and sacrificing their duty to give their audience all the relevant information.

The uniformity among news organizations on this particular decision is baffling, given the increasing competition to deliver news to the consumer.

Critics will likely presume a journalism cabal, making decisions together in some back room. It’s not that. Instead, it’s a lack of confidence and leadership in newsrooms. It’s an inability to employ a process that puts the needs of the audience before the needs of the newsroom. It’s the tendency to spend too much time comparing oneself to the competition, and not enough time asking if the work is serving the truth.

I talked about when and why to name accusers in a live chat with Reuters’ Jack Shafer. You can replay the chat here:
<a href=”” mce_href=”” >Why didn’t journalists name Cain accusers?</a> Read more


Thursday, Feb. 23, 2006

A New Ethics Column from Poynter

Hello Everybody,

We’d like to alert you to a new blog – Everyday Ethics — by Poynter’s Kelly McBride and colleagues. The column includes reports on ethical decision-making in newsrooms big and small, and will provide shorter, more frequently updated posts than we offered with Ethics Journal.

You’ll find the new column here:, and you can sign up to receive it as an e-mail newsletter (whenever new items are posted) here: Soon, we’ll also offer Everyday Ethics by RSS as well.

We’ll send Everyday Ethics updates to both lists for a while, so please forgive any duplication during the transition.

Thanks and best regards,

Bill Mitchell
editor/Poynter Online

  Read more


Wednesday, Nov. 09, 2005

Covering the End of Life: Tips & Resources

The living will is a nice idea that isn’t working, says a report by the Hastings Center expected to be released Thursday afternoon. This news comes after thousands of people created such documents in order to avoid the fate of Terri Schiavo, the woman whose family battled over her death, drawing in the Florida State legislature, the federal Congress and the Supreme Court.

The report suggests new alternatives and explores why making decisions about death has become so difficult, according to an article in The Philadelphia Inquirer by Michael Vitez.

This report comes at time when state legislators across the country are considering new laws that govern medical procedures, including feeding tubes and respirators. It comes at a time when governments are battling over who will pay for hospice care and who will make decisions for elderly people when the family can’t or won’t. It comes at time when investigators are looking into how hospital and nursing home employees cared for the terminally ill during and after Hurricane Katrina.

The Hastings Center report is one more piece of evidence that suggests every newsroom needs a journalist versed in the language of life and death and dying.

You may not have a medical reporter, a health page or a weekly feature on faith and religion. But it’s likely that you do have a lot of baby boomers in your audience. Many of them are dealing with a dying parent. Some of them are starting to think about their own deaths.

Even if you don’t have a contentious family battle end up in court, you might have to cover a change in state laws. And even if you aren’t doing a trend story about people purchasing defibrillators for their homes, you might have to write a story about the choices parents must make when babies are born prematurely.

So what do journalists need to know? I turned to two reporters and a widely-respected medical ethicist to ask them this question. Their answers fell into three categories: basic knowledge, reporting skills and finding stories. Here’s what they said.

Basic knowledge

  • The laws. They vary from state to state and they change from year to year, said Art Caplan, a professor of bioethics at University of PennsylvaniaMSNBC contributor and member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board.

  • Technology. This might be changing faster than the law, Caplan said. There are nuances to things as simple as feeding tubes, which can be surgically implanted and manually inserted and as complicated as defining what it means to be alive.

  • Special populations. Society and the medical community have different standards and expectations for different groups, Caplan said. There are protocols for babies, old people and disabled people. “We treat them all differently,” he said.

  • The questions raised by different diseases. Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s raise very different questions. As do cancer, AIDS and trauma. The stories and dilemmas are common, almost repetitive to insiders, families who’ve watched a loved one progress toward death. But those same stories are foreign to outsiders.

  • Research. Relevant studies are published every month. Good reporters know how to read them and translate the information into conversational language, said Diana Sugg, a medical reporter for The (Baltimore) Sun who won a Pulitzer for beat coverage. Much of her work was about dying. “Too much coverage of these issues is shallow and sometimes inaccurate,” she said.

Reporting skills

  • Screen and develop sources. It takes time to find the right patients, doctors and nurses, Sugg said. She spent months cultivating the sources that allowed her access to R.J. Voigt, a dying 12-year-old, in order to explore the complex nature of palliative care of children. (She and photographer Monica Lopossay describe their work here; Sugg is also a member of Poynter’s National Advisory Board.)

  • Compassion. You make yourself vulnerable when you enter such a private space, said Erin Hoover Barnett, a reporter for The (Portland) Oregonian. “When you cover someone’s dying days, you are becoming part of their story and you are influencing how their family remembers that person and his or her death.”

  • Tenacity. It is a common belief in newsrooms that viewers and readers don’t want to read depressing stories. Sugg said she battled doubts about whether there was interest in her story about R.J. the entire time she was reporting and writing it.

  • Translation. Doctors, clergy, even funeral directors talk in the language of a sub-culture. They all have important things to say and everyone interviewed for this article emphasized that reporters have to be able to accurately capture the meaning in ways that can be understood by people not privy to that particular subculture.

  • Watchdog. There’s a lot of misinformation out there. “We need to develop truth squad practices,” Barnett said. From the state of pain control to the quality of care given by nursing homes or home-health care workers to the efficacy of living wills, reporters can shed light on muddled, confusing issues.

Finding Stories

  • Places. Spend some time in a nursing home or hospice, Caplan advised. It will help the uninitiated reporter learn the language, see how some stories are quite common while others are exceptional, and realize that both are important to tell. Do this before you start reporting a specific story and you’ll have more insight when it counts.

  • People. The medical community and families in crisis are naturally wary. It will take some time to develop relationships of trust, Sugg said. If you keep looking and explaining your intentions to inform and educate, eventually you will find sources who share that mission.

If resources allowed, most newsrooms could justify devoting a full-time reporter to covering end-of-life issues. Instead, the health reporter, the religion reporter, the legislative reporter and the courts reporter are cobbling together the coverage. In some places, it’s working. In others the coverage is hit and miss.

To a person, reporters who have covered the journey toward death report overwhelming public response. There is an appetite for information, and, even more importantly, individuals facing their own death or that of a loved one, crave connections with the rest of their community.

“Every time I wrote a story about end-of-life care issues, I had callers who thanked me,” Barnett said. “People are thirsting for information and help in navigating a difficult time in life that can be made so much better if someone just explains things to them.”

Smart editors are developing plans. Smart reporters are getting smarter. The Terri Schiavo story was foreshadowing, not a fluke.

What happens in the days and weeks and months before death has been complicated by technology, health insurance and family dynamics. It resonates across class and culture. It is a universal story.

How are you covering it?

Read more

Monday, Aug. 01, 2005

DeFede and Beyond: Second Chance Ethics

Sometimes I feel journalists work in a
reform-minded, ethical environment that seems as efficient at dealing
with ethical lapses as the French state was with political lapses
during its 18th century revolution. In both cases,
transgressors faced immediate consequences. For today’s journalist, it
may mean abiding by the new rules or face the employment guillotine.

An increasing number of news organizations today waste little time
with journalists who fail to follow their ethical codes or rules. An
infraction often brings termination. And there seems to be few
second chances. The Miami Herald last week fired
Jim DeFede, a popular columnist. It did so the same day he
admitted taping a phone call from a distraught Miami politician, Arthur
E. Teele Jr., who committed suicide that day. Herald Executive Editor Tom Fiedler acknowledged in a Sunday column
that the decision to fire DeFede was “perplexing” to many readers and
colleagues. But he insisted that any lesser punishment would send
a message that the paper tolerates breaches of its trust with readers.

(Taping someone on the phone requires the consent of the other party
in Florida. DeFede didn’t obtain Teele’s permission, a violation
of what Fiedler described as the Herald’s obligation to “act without
hidden motives or practices.” Fiedler said exceptions might be
made, depending on the circumstances, but indicated that the
DeFede-Teele conversation was not considered one of those
“extraordinary cases”.)

A few months ago USA Today pressured its Pentagon reporter, Tom Squiteri, to resign. The paper did so because it found that Squitieri used quotes first published in another paper without attribution.

…news organizations ignore ethical transgressions at their peril.

In both situations, a number of journalists, and some among the
public, wondered why the reaction was so swift and so severe. In both
instances, the news managers pointed to their ethics requirements and
the need to maintain their newspaper’s credibility with their readers.

Their reasoning seems sound.

With an unrelenting parade of journalistic ethical embarrassments, highlighted two years ago by Jayson Blair at The New York Times and later by Jack Kelley at USA Today,
news organizations ignore ethical transgressions at their peril. And
with the public trust of today’s news media plummeting, it makes sense
for news managers to establish ethical standards and abide by them.

I care about ethical behavior. I see the need for more ethical
training. I teach journalists how to use the ethical-decision making
process. Yet, I feel troubled. I wonder about the impact and
implementation of ethical requirements under such strictness. I have
questions about the outcome that may follow.

Could zero tolerance to ethical lapses result in an increase in
righteousness, but not an increase in credibility? Could swift,
immediate dismissals get rid of the transgressor, but not the problem?
Could rules tell journalists what they shouldn’t do, but not what they
can do, or why they do it, and how they can do it ethically?

Are there no second chances?

In some cases there are. After Detroit Free Press
sports columnist Mitch Albom included an event that didn’t occur in his
column, the newspaper did a thorough review of his work. The Free Press
decided Albom’s long-standing stellar career, and the lack of any other
similar transgressions, merited keeping him on the newspaper’s staff.
And I’m sure there have been others as well.

But what happens when management decides against a second chance?

Will we lose good journalists who might have learned an ethical
lesson? And will our newsrooms be filled with journalists so afraid of
committing an ethical miscue that they fail to engage in aggressive and ethical journalism?

These questions are not new. I’ve written about the problem
of just dealing with the cycle of repeated ethical lapses
before. Punishing the transgressor is one thing. But usually, it’s
just one thing. No more. As I noted in that earlier column, we need to
move from a fear of doing something wrong to a faith in our ability to
do what our profession calls us to do.

Could zero tolerance of ethical lapses result in an increase in righteousness, but not an increase in credibility?What
I want to emphasize here goes beyond ethics codes. I believe such codes
serve a good purpose. They provide a valuable foundation for any news

But I want us to go beyond the codes, beyond the words. The words
should simply be the external representation of an internal ethical
spirit. So when we think about how we address ethical lapses, we should
do so from a holistic view—one that seeks to make individuals and the
profession whole.

The public knows journalists aren’t perfect. Much of their distrust
stems from years of journalistic arrogance that rarely acknowledged
mistakes. And too much of the public still remains ignorant about how
journalism operates.

The question of what to do with those journalists who violate the
ethics we cherish remains difficult to answer. What news organizations
can do when they learn about a transgression is to consider both the
individual and the organization in their decision-making process. Here
are some questions to ask:

· How informed was the individual who violated an ethical principle of the news organization’s ethics guidelines or code?

· How well did that individual understand the ethical implications of his or her actions?

· How willing is that individual to accept responsibility and training in ethical decision-making?

· How well does the staff as a whole know what the ethics guidelines are?

· How well has the staff internalized the ethics principles so they
become a natural part of the reporting, writing, editing and visual

· How often does each staff member have the opportunity to practice
ethical-decision making skills so they can be ready when faced with
ethical challenges?

There have been times, and there will be times in the future, when,
after all those questions, the dismissal of a journalist for an ethical
lapse may be necessary.

But there may be other times when the journalist may learn from the
mistake and have the opportunity to implement what he or she has
learned in future work. And the news organization itself may learn
something from addressing the individual, as well as the process.

Code Enforcement can help guide us ethically and send the right
message to the audience. But it takes a newsroom committed to actively
discussing ethical issues to keep the public’s trust.

CORRECTION: The original version of this article reported an incorrect time frame for the French revolution. Read more


Wednesday, Mar. 23, 2005

Schiavo Case a Chance for Journalists to Lead

The national debate over the fate of Terri Schiavo lays bare the ways we in America talk about our most important values. It is a cautionary tale for journalists faced with the challenge of framing issues fueled by fiercely held beliefs, complex science and hotly contested claims that defy simple resolution.

This is a story that journalists can better serve with questions than answers. If there were ever an opportunity for journalists to transform their work from lecture to conversation, as many journalism reformers are proposing these days, this is it.

Unlike any story in recent memory, this one highlights the intimate connection between the personal and the political, the private and the universal. It’s a story that is rearranging the liberal/conservative landscape on such issues as states rights and the role of a spouse.

“It touches a lot of nerves,” Fox News producer John Finley told the Orlando Sentinel.  “Many stories that get this kind of coverage boil down to people’s personal connections to it.”

It’s also the kind of story that invites us to change the way we talk with one another, to declare our beliefs at the same time we wrestle openly with our doubts.

Along the way, we are discovering the power of words to convey truths, untruths and some things that are simply unknowable.Along the way, we are discovering the power of words to convey truths, untruths and some things that are simply unknowable.

The best journalists and politicians have taken great pains to use such terms as persistent vegetative state, brain damage and minimally conscious with care and precision. The concepts are not interchangeable.

At times, words like brain damage can be overly vague. Yes, Terri Schiavo has a damaged brain. But not in the same way that my older brother Tim, who lives with our parents, has a damaged brain. Tim has an IQ somewhere around 50 and bags groceries at the Piggly Wiggly.

Some days, Tim won’t eat unless someone sets the food out for him. It’s never occurred to me to withhold such nourishment. But I have often asked myself at what point brain damage could render a life so meaningless that prolonging it would seem inappropriate.

At times, the more precise phrase of persistent vegetative state can be too clinical. In its technical precision, it can lose its ability to convey meaning. It must be translated and interpreted to give it meaning. And along with translation and interpretation come subjectivity and dispute.

In conversations about the Schiavo story, we find that the words we use to characterize another lead us back to ourselves. I think about my brother’s life. You might think about your grandfather’s death. It may be unprecedented in the history of our country that so much legal and political energy has been spent to influence the outcome of one person’s life. In the struggle to do what’s right for Terri Schiavo, we are really trying to do what’s right for all of us.

Earlier this week, the pastor of my church, Rev. Robert Gibbons of St. Paul Catholic Parish in Pinellas County, Fla., was at the hospital visiting a dying woman. He said she can no longer swallow and that her children told him she has refused a feeding tube. 

Father Gibbons said others have asked him: Is it a sin to refuse treatment in circumstances like that? He said such a choice involves no sin. It’s hard to imagine anyone who would answer otherwise.

But the Schiavo case is more complicated than that. Unlike the woman Father Gibbons visited, Terri Schiavo is unable to make clear her wishes. So the case turns, in part, on what she might say if she could speak. More precisely, it raises the question of who should speak for her since she cannot.  

The case raises these questions as well: When is death inevitable? And what constitutes extraordinary means? When should the inevitability of death outweigh our capacity to prolong life? Is there a tipping point in the journey to death? If Schiavo were 70 years old, or 50, would we be having this conversation?

The fight to keep Schiavo alive has led thousands and thousands of Americans to create living wills that would prevent this very battle should their own medical care come into question. The process of making those decisions is forcing people to come to grips with the nature of death as well as life. 

The nature of marriage

The battle over Terri Schiavo’s life also raises questions about the nature of marriage. It’s one of the areas where traditional positions of liberals and conservatives are shifting ground in this case.

The primacy of the marriage bonds is not, at first blush, the argument you’d expect from what’s cast as the liberal side of this debate. More often it’s conservatives who are associated with the position that a marriage, even one that is flawed, should take priority over other familial relationships.

As Congress has promoted marriage among the poor and single parents, members have argued that legally bonded relationships are emotionally, economically and socially superior to others.

The Schiavo case is also shifting the traditional positions of some liberals and conservatives about the relationship between state and federal governments and courts.

As The New York Times pointed out in interviews published Wednesday, not all conservatives share the view that justice would be served by federal appeals courts overturning state court decisions on the issue of the feeding tube.

This is a story with many dimensions. The best journalism explores them all.This is a story with many dimensions. The best journalism explores them all. It delivers stories and interviews that force me to uncover the doubt that is hidden by my certainty.

If we can create a successful conversation about words and marriage and life and death, we can accomplish a lot – maybe we can even find hope in a divided society. If journalists can help people give voice to our reservations in the same breath that we declare our convictions, we can make progress. If we can learn to ask questions of one another on a story like this – and then listen to the answers – perhaps we’d discover an open and civil society within our grasp. Read more


Friday, Mar. 04, 2005

On the Dangers of Holding Back

The arrest of a suspect in the BTK serial murder case in Wichita, Kan., is shining a light on a common police beat practice – holding back.

In the 1970s, Cathy Henkel was a staff writer at the Wichita Sun, a weekly. She got a copy of a two-page letter BTK sent to police. She said there was no way the newspaper could run the whole letter. It was too graphic, she said, and police were of no help. As soon as the Wichita police chief learned she had a copy of the letter, she said he kicked her out of his office and refused to talk to her ever again.

Henkel, who now works at the Seattle Times (she wrote a column about the BTK case published in the Times Feb. 27), said she remembers discussing with her editor what to report about the letter. They talked about the graphic content and bad grammar. Her editor, she said, was also concerned about interfering with the police investigation.

“Nobody wanted to do anything to jeopardize the case,” she said in an telephone interview Friday.

Even though she doesn’t remember discussing it with her editor, Henkel said she doesn’t think there was information in that letter that,  if revealed to the public, would have caught the killer.

However, in the letter, BTK discusses four different knots he used to strangle his victims, she says. After police arrested Dennis Rader last week, The Wichita Eagle ran a story with the headline: Scouters recall Rader as good father, knot expert.

“This was Kansas,” Henkel said. “ Half the state was in Boy Scouts.”

Last year, reporters at The Wichita Eagle and ABC affiliate KAKE knew exactly what the killer had left in a box of clues. They even had copies of a word/number puzzle that identifies the suspect’s name and street number. They could describe a doll, with its hands tied behind its back with pantyhose and make-up on its face.

Again they kept the information from the public because the police asked. KAKE news director Glen Horn told the Eagle that police had asked the station to keep the doll secret because they were afraid airing it on television might “incite him (BTK) to further violence.”

He added: “Police were saying that seeing images of the doll could be so intense for him, it might lead him to commit more murders.”

This form of bargaining is a daily game for cops and courts reporters. I did that work for more than six years covering police departments as small as the Coeur d’Alene (Idaho) PD and as large as the Cleveland Police Department. It happens on stories as small as serial car burglaries and as big as serial killers. And I get calls for advice from reporters, producers and editors trying to navigate these same demands.

At the national and international level, government officials often appeal to national security as the reason to hold back information. Sometimes it backfires, as President Kennedy later acknowledged after he persuaded The New York Times to hold back information it had reported about an imminent invasion of the Bay of Pigs in Cuba in 1961.

At the local level, Cops and lawyers and investigators are always asking reporters to keep things out of the paper, off the air. Sometimes they have a good reason, such as protecting a witness who might be harmed if his or her identity was revealed. Sometimes they have a bad reason, such as buying more time to do certain interviews because a case is not adequately staffed. And sometimes they have no reasons, as least none that they’ll articulate.

Reporters have their own motives for cutting such deals. Mostly reporters are afraid they’ll be shut out of the information loop if they don’t comply with police requests. Sometimes, reporters worry they’ll lose a particular source they’ve worked hard to cultivate. Often reporters hope to endear themselves over time in order to gain special access. If I hold this out today, maybe you’ll give me an exclusive tomorrow. But that rarely works. The detective might call you first, but two hours later the competition has the story anyway.

To keep this short (since crime reporters never have any time anyway) I’m going to cut straight to the chase:
Cutting deals to withhold information is dangerous. It should be done with great caution, much forethought and only in rare circumstances.

Here’s a process:

  • First figure out where the information came from. Anything that can be found in a public record, anything that is voluntarily revealed by witnesses or is observed first-hand by a journalist should be considered fair game.

  • Coach your sources on the terms “off the record,” “for background” and “not for attribution.” Make sure they are using them correctly and don’t let lawyers and police officers, people who deal with the media all the time and should know better, make a habit of retroactively declaring something off the record. Instead, manage the relationship so they understand the boundaries before the big case comes up.

  • Information that comes from anonymous sources should be treated as such. Tell the cops what your standards are. For instance, you might withhold information because publishing it would violate your newsroom’s policy on such sourcing (or lack thereof). Don’t let your law enforcement sources think you’re doing law enforcement a favor. It muddies the relationship.

  • When a cop or a lawyer or an officer of the court asks you to hold back information, ask why. If he or she can’t give you a good reason, publish the information.

  • In the cases where investigators have a plausible request, don’t agree to anything without first talking it over with your editor or producer. And don’t agree to withhold information indefinitely. Ask: At what point will it be OK to publish this? Initially agree to only a short period of time, say 24 to 48 hours or maybe a week. Then review your decision.

  • Let your service to the public be your guide. Don’t withhold information that misleads or creates a false impression with the audience. Don’t cut deals because you believe it will help you beat the competition. Instead, agree to hold back if you think doing so serves the public good. But recognize that most of the time, revealing information serves that public good as much as concealing it.

Journalists who have covered BTK are haunted by how relevant the details they kept secret turned out to be. They are wondering if people who knew Rader as a neighbor, a scout master or a co-worker would have been able to identify him as the serial killer, if they’d had more clues to work with. It’s a good case study for crime reporters everywhere. In most cases we too readily agree with police and keep information from the public.

We better serve our watchdog role, the audience and in many cases the public’s safety, by doing what we do best – telling the story.

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this article included a quote, attributed to Cathy Henkel by the Los Angeles Times, indicating that she and her newspaper had collaborated with police about what information would be published concerning the BTK case in the 1970s. Henkel says she and her newspaper, the Wichita Sun, had no discussions with the police about what they would publish. The Times has since corrected its article. The Times article and correction can be found here.   Read more


Thursday, Jan. 20, 2005

The Reporting Process Unveiled (Warning, It’s Not Pretty)


The CBS report released almost two weeks ago pulls apart the reporting process and reveals the many faults of the “60 Minutes Wednesday” investigation. It provides a rare and detailed look at the path this particular investigation took as it went from idea to story.

It’s easy to sit back and shake our heads at the mistakes the CBS crew made along the way. But the report provides a great case study for reporters looking to scrutinize their own practices.

If an investigative team took a magnifying glass to your last big story, what would they find? What if someone attempted to surmise your state of mind at every stage of the reporting process? What if they recreated all your casual conversations, as well as your formal interviews?

Other than the instructions to “get it right,” there really is no step-by-step formula for reporting a complicated story. Most reporters develop their own methods and practices, occasionally sharing some tips along the way. It’s a messy process, often compared to sausage making. Here are a few tips that can be gleaned from the CBS report that might help you improve your own reporting process. 

Check out your source. How do you know your source is who he claims to be? Every newsroom has a legendary story of a naïve young reporter who was duped by some guy on the corner into attributing a quote to a silly name or to a person who is well-known locally. Standards vary from newsroom to newsroom, but most reporters are left to their own devices to verify a source’s personal story. Should you ask for identification? Check with his workplace to make sure he does the job he says he does? Lt. Col. Bill Burkett refused to be interviewed by the CBS panel. But the report details the thin efforts by producer Mary Mapes and her team to vet Burkett and his story. The panelists, Dick Thornburgh and Louis Boccardi, suggest throughout the report that had Mapes brought a stronger measure of skepticism to Burkett and his story, red flags would have been raised along the way.

Dismiss unreasonable demands immediately. Burkett made some unusual requests, according to the report. In addition to asking Mapes to put him in contact with the Democrats, he wanted money, a security detail, and the promise that his family would be relocated if they were threatened. Sources often make ridiculous demands that are beyond the scope of what most newsrooms provide. When journalists humor the possibility of meeting those demands, it poisons the reporting process. Demands for money and other favors should be politely turned down. “We don’t do that.” “We can’t do that.” A source who believes he can directly gain money or other favors from journalists may be more likely to taint information to make it appear more valuable.

Vet requests for anonymity. Lt. Col. Bill Burkett would not have met the criteria most newsrooms impose before granting a source anonymity. He had been quoted by name in several stories, including one on CBS’s “Evening News” that accused officials in the Bush camp of “scrubbing” the president’s military record of unfavorable information. Those accounts are available to anyone with access to the Internet. His request to remain anonymous didn’t make any sense after he had already been quoted extensively. It’s not unusual for a source who has been previously quoted to request anonymity on a later story, but the reason should be obvious and explained. Sometimes a source is releasing information he’s not authorized to release. Sometimes he’s been ordered by a superior to keep quiet. If granted, reasons for the anonymity should be explained, as much as possible, to the viewer or reader. If there’s no clear need for anonymity, newsrooms should be especially reluctant to grant it to people who have already been quoted in previous stories. 

Follow the chain of possession. Every crime reporter has been in court gazing out the window while a lawyer has frittered away what seems like hours establishing the “chain of possession” for every single piece of evidence entered into the record. It’s boring stuff for the most part. But it’s important to the justice system to ensure that evidence in criminal trials, whether it’s the murder weapon or the DNA sample, is properly handled so that no one can tamper with it or substitute other material.

It’s a good lesson for reporters. Any time you have a document or a photograph, you should know where it’s been and how it landed on your desk. You might even want to tell the audience. Is it a copy or is it an original? Who else has seen it? Where did it come from? The CBS report places great emphasis on the failure to get the Killian memo authenticated by experts. It spends less effort on this simple technique of interviewing the people involved along the way. When this isn’t possible because the chain of possession is unknown, that should be a red flag as well.

Beware of the “holy grail.” The CBS report says that on Aug. 23, when Mapes “seemingly out of the blue” learned of the Killian memo, she speculated that it was the “holy grail” for which CBS had been searching. Life is rarely this neat and tidy. Reporters who’ve waited for months for FOIAs to come through or court records to be made public know that documents rarely support the concrete conclusions that you hope they will. Memos and reports are often couched in bureaucratic language and jargon. They don’t make much sense, let alone point to malfeasance or incompetence, absent any context. More often, a document becomes a building block in an investigative report, not the lynchpin.

In fact, the CBS crew thought they were pursuing a classified disciplinary report that indicated Bush was unfit to fly planes with nuclear weapons, not a personal memo.

Be candid about your progress. It’s hard to tell your boss that you’re running in circles. But most complicated stories involve slow progress, if any. The CBS report says Mapes repeatedly told her superiors that she was getting close, that other media outlets were hot on the trail as well and that she would have a story in September. But the report says she rarely said exactly what she was doing or planning to do. Keeping your work too close to your vest deprives you of the opportunity to get fresh ideas and opinions. It is a breeding ground for “myopic zeal.”

Question your timing. Mapes first researched President Bush’s service record in 1999. The report does not say why she dropped the investigation until the summer of 2004. But it’s easy to imagine similar circumstances. It’s not usual for long-standing rumors of philandering, gambling, and illegal behavior to swirl around a few figures on any city council, county commission, or state legislature. When pursued, sometimes these rumors develop into well-known investigative stories, like the Brock Adams sexual harassment story reported by the Seattle Times, which was a finalist for the 1993 Pulitzer Prize in public service.
But more often these stories lie untouched, or barely touched. The urgency to report them rises and falls with the central character’s popularity or penchant for controversy. It’s unrealistic to suggest that every rumor be investigated the moment someone in the newsroom hears it.

Journalists should discuss the threshold for investigating and reporting such a piece in the future. At what point in the future would the urgency of a story rise to a level that reporters ought to investigate it? Asking such questions makes it more likely a newsroom will start working sooner, rather than later, on investigative matters.

The CBS report is worth a read by reporters everywhere. It describes critical moments in the reporting process where red flags were ignored, bad choices were made and individuals allowed their assumptions to go untested. All of that happens every day in newsrooms across the country, but most often the mistakes are caught before they get published. The reporting process is fraught with potential for failure. Reading about the breakdowns in some other newsroom can help you find the weaknesses in your own. Read more


Friday, Jan. 07, 2005

Covering Trauma & Tragedy: What it Takes

Dr. Frank Ochberg remembers the first time he cut into a live human being. He was doing his surgical rotation as a medical student decades ago. He held the scalpel as his teacher placed a hand on top of his. Together they pressed into the skin.

Cutting a person open is difficult. Surgeons have to learn to overcome the natural human instinct not to hurt someone. In the same way journalists who cover suffering, violence, and disaster must overcome some natural human instincts if they are to do their jobs well, Ochberg says.

He went into psychiatry, not surgery. He specialized in trauma. He founded the Dart Center for Journalism & Trauma. And from 2000-2003, Ochberg served as the center’s chairman. 

Journalists covering the tsunami and its aftermath are consistently reporting that the devastation and suffering are among the worst they have ever witnessed. Several journalists have reported that the magnitude of death and sorrow surpass what they have witnessed in the war, the Sept. 11 attacks, and even in other natural disasters.

Those who are well-trained or have a lot of experience act instinctively in order to get the job done, Ochberg said. “When you are in your role, you are operating fairly automatically,” he said. It’s the same for an emergency worker doing triage or a soldier in battle. They don’t ask too many questions or get very philosophical while they are working. If they did they would be paralyzed.

Instead, what happens before and after the crisis is what prepares people in such roles to perform well amid chaos.

Talking with Ochberg and reading just a small amount of the research on trauma, it’s pretty clear that good journalism during a disaster such as the tsunami requires more than just getting a good reporter or photographer to the scene.

In newsrooms, we could be preparing journalists better. We may not see another disaster of this magnitude in our lifetimes, but all journalists cover tragedy and suffering.

Here are some places we could start:

  •  A little bit of knowledge goes a long way. People who have just survived a traumatic event are incredibly inarticulate, Ochberg says. It is part of the physiological response. They have a hard time saying what their experience means. As a journalist, if you know this, you’ll stick with straight-forward questions. A good story-teller can rely on observation and description to convey meaning, rather than asking sources who are struggling to string sentences together to do so.
  • A solid foundation in the values of journalism. We cover disasters to tell the story, to take readers and viewers to a place they can’t go on their own and to inspire people to help. But human suffering evokes a human response. How should journalists react when faced with hungry children and despondent parents? What obligation do reporters have to share food, water, and other resources with the people they encounter? These are complicated questions with no easy answers. Journalists who have discussed the issues with their editors are going to be better able to reason through the dilemmas.
  • A dose of humility. Ochberg designed the Dart Award for Excellence in Reporting on Victims and Violence. After years of talking to the winners, he says the best stories are those in which the reporter sees herself as a conduit, the means by which a source can tell his story, he says. Whether it’s a doctor discussing a horrific day of amputations or a mother describing the loss of her children, when the reporter lets the source tell the story, the story gets stronger.
  • Some emotional preparation. It’s embarrassing to talk to a person who has suffered through a horrific event, Ochberg says. Some journalists feel guilty for not being able to do more. Seeing children suffer might make some journalists fearful for their own family’s well-being. Just as counselors, doctors, and nurses are trained to handle such interviews, journalists could be trained, Ochberg said. It could be as simple as having senior reporters discuss their experiences with junior reporters or as formal as bringing in an expert.
  • An opportunity to debrief. Witnessing trauma and its aftermath causes emotional trauma itself. The most important element in processing those emotions is the opportunity to talk about it afterward. Ochberg emphasized that this is as important for journalists as it is for relief workers.

American newsrooms generally cover tragedy well. They give voice to the suffering and show the audience something most people couldn’t comprehend without stories and images. Before and after the tragedy it’s a different story. Many individual journalists make efforts to do the work described here. Is this work being done newsroom-wide? Should it be? Read more


Friday, Dec. 17, 2004

Journalists: More Ethical than People Realize?

The American public thinks journalists are ethically challenged, according to a Gallup Poll. Yet another study shows journalists have highly developed abilities when it comes to moral reasoning. What gives?

First the studies. The American public doesn’t trust reporters. This according to Gallup’s most recent poll rating of perceived honesty among certain professions. Less than 25 percent of the people who responded the survey rated reporters’ ethical standards as high or very high.

This is really nothing new. Frank Newport, the editor-in-chief of The Gallup Poll, points out that journalists have been rated low since his organization began asking this question in 1974.

The numbers have bounced around, all the way down to 16 percent in 2000 and as high as 33 percent in 1976.

But for the most part, according to Newport, the conclusion has been the same: “Americans are suspicious of the news media.”

Other Gallup studies suggest this distrust is greater among people who are politically moderate and conservative, he said.

The Gallup poll stands in contrast to another study that suggests that journalists have higher than average abilities when it comes to moral reasoning.

Journalism professors Renita Coleman of Louisiana State University and Lee Wilkins of the University of Missouri set out to test the moral development of a large group of journalists.

They gathered a sample of 249 reporters from print and broadcast newsrooms across the country, and discovered that journalists look pretty good on Kohlberg’s moral development scale. As a whole, journalists rank fourth among the ranked groups, behind seminarians, physicians, and medical students.

Published in the Autumn, 2004 issue of Journalism and Mass Communications Quarterly, the journal of the AEJMC, the study is not yet available online.

Coleman and Wilkins also found:

  • No significant differences between men and women, broadcast and print or managers and non-managers.

  • The more autonomy a journalist reported, the higher his or her score.

  • The more highly journalists rated the importance of laws and rules, the lower their scores. (Some researchers suggest a strong deference to the law indicates rule obedience, rather than critical thinking.)

  • Journalists who do investigative work tend to display higher levels of moral reasoning. 

  • Journalists who said civic journalism was part of their work also had higher scores.

  • Journalists were particularly adept at thinking through the ethical dimensions of journalism problems. (Which discounts the theory that journalists can apply moral thinking to others but not to themselves.) 

Wilkins and Coleman point out that this study does not predict what journalists will do when confronted with a real-life ethical decision. In fact, other researchers have documented a disconnect between beliefs and practice in a number of fields and settings.

Newport, the Gallup editor, points out another gap: the one between perception and reality. “Perception is as important as reality,” he says. “Regardless of reality, if readers and viewers are suspicious of journalists they are going to treat what they write with skepticism.”

And it’s not as if we haven’t handed the public some reasons to distrust us. Journalism’s recent shame includes circulation scandals at the Dallas Morning News, Newsday and Hoy; plagiarism and fabrications scandals at The New York Times and USA Today; and such shoddy reporting on big issues as the CBS pursuit of President Bush’s National Guard records.

If you look at the two studies and all the recent scandals as sections of a puzzle that somehow fit together, the trick is to find the missing pieces.

Here are a couple possibilities:

The assembly line nature of putting out a newspaper or producing television news is a process built on production, not the values of journalism. It encourages speed and volume, rather than reflection. Often, when we want to think about the values that underpin our work, we have to deliberately stop the process and step back. Many journalists are good at doing this, but they do so in spite of the nature of the work. Some newsroom leaders have been successful at infusing values into the routine, making sure new hires get a decent orientation, building time for questions into the daily or weekly schedule and deliberately connecting decisions to values. But they are the exceptions.

Newsroom culture can contribute to sound and unsound ethical reasoning. In some newsrooms employees are encouraged to challenge authority, collaborate on decisions and seek contrarian voices. On the other hand, in the wake of the ethical failures at The New York Times and USA Today, investigative reports described a climate of fear in both newsrooms. Newsroom staffers expressed fear of questioning their bosses and peers about ethically suspect practices and behavior. 
Economic pressures can interfere with journalists’ efforts to live up to their professional ideals. Staff cutbacks and the pressure to reach new audiences have combined as a sort-of one-two punch. 

Coleman and Wilkins point out that the current collision of values in the newsroom could represent an opportunity for journalists to rethink how they do their jobs. As technology provides new opportunities for delivering different kinds of news, the systems of gathering information will also change, possibly for the better.

Kohlberg argued that wrestling with especially vexing problems presents individuals with a chance to develop more sophisticated coping skills and move to a higher stage of moral behavior.

Kohlberg theorized that, from infancy, most people climb a ladder of moral development with six stages. At the bottom is the childlike obedience stage, where morality is viewed as an external force. (You do what you’re told, as you’re being told).

At the second stage, called individualism, morality is relative. (What’s right for me might be wrong for you.)

The third stage is characterized by good personal relationships (live up to others’ expectations) and the fourth stage of social order (do what’s right for the group) is characteristic of teenagers and young adults.

In the fifth stage, called social contract/individual rights, a person strives to improve upon the social order, rather than just maintain it. In the sixth stage, universal principles, an individual seeks just solutions based on accepted values.

Journalism frequently operates at stage four and sometimes at stage five. In most decisions, we base our values on the current community standards. (We usually don’t show images of dead Americans because our audience considers it disrespectful.) But on some stories journalists have managed to move up to stage five, as many newsrooms did in the course of covering Civil Rights and the Vietnam War.
It could be that ongoing changes in newsrooms will eventually force us to see the work we do in a different light, elevating our core values above the pressures of profit and competition.

Functioning as a good journalist takes more than the ability to focus a camera or turn a phrase. The profession requires sophisticated moral reflection. The Wilkins-Coleman study shows that individually, journalists have the ability.

What do you think stops journalists from infusing more of their ethics into their work?

CORRECTION: This updated version of the article corrects findings about the moral reasoning of investigative reporters and clarifies some elements of Kohlberg’s moral development scale. (Dec. 17, 2004) Read more