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

Take Three Steps to Avoid Future Novaks

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story misspelled the name of the Siegal committee.

There’s an old adage that claims journalists are only as good as the sources that feed them. Here’s a new one: Journalists are only as credible as the ethics that guide them.

Robert Novak’s now controversial column raises important journalistic questions about sources, disclosure, and anonymity.

His handling of those questions shows how the credibility of journalists – and the lives of subjects and sources – can turn on the use of a word, the disclosure of a name, and the use of anonymous sources.

Novak’s assistant declined a request that he discuss the column, but his previous comments suggest he might have benefited from a more rigorous decision-making process.

The situation underlines the importance of taking three critical steps before clicking the PUBLISH key:

  • Examine your principles.

  • Ask more questions.

  • Consider the source.

Examine your principles
The ethical issues emerging from Novak’s actions place all three of Poynter’s guiding principles into tension with one another. What could Novak — or other journalists — do to report the truth as fully as possible? Read more


Thursday, Sep. 25, 2003

Help Needed in Freebie Nation

I could feel my cheeks burning with frustration.

I was standing in the grand ballroom at the Don César Hotel on St. Pete Beach, delivering a workshop on freebies to a couple dozen members of the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors. I was losing the battle. They were ready to string me up by the chandeliers, toss me into the Gulf of Mexico. They thought I was nuts.

I came up through the city desk.  My experience in the features department is limited to the occasional stories I wrote that ran on their pages and my frequent trips to chat with my pals. As I’d mapped out the workshop on managing freebies, I anticipated a little frustration at the overwhelming and insidious nature of the problem. I hadn’t planned on insurrection.

We started out discussing the values of independence and credibility. We agreed that freebies were an assault on these two core values, at least in theory. Read more


Thursday, Sep. 11, 2003

Journalists Need More Sex

When do journalists write about sex? When should we?

I tried to figure this out for a workshop this week at the National Lesbian and Gay Journalists Association convention. (Why? Because I heard the NLGJA throws a fabulous convention and I really, really wanted to go. I offered to do a workshop on rape. Too narrow, they said. So here I am on my way to Hollywood to talk about writing about sex. But instead of staying for the whole convention, which includes some incredible party at a way cool Hollywood club, I’m flying home early to go to a teddy-bear picnic with my three-year-old daughter, Maggie. All this is to say I may be the least likely person to be writing about sex.)

As part of my preparation for this workshop I did a completely unscientific study of the archives of seven daily newspapers: the St. Petersburg Times, The New York Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, the St. Read more


Thursday, Sep. 04, 2003

Covering Sexual Assault

The Craig Daily Press is a tiny newspaper located in the northwestern corner of Colorado. When the editor, Terrance Vestal, called me last week to discuss coverage of sexual assault, I thought he wanted to talk about Kobe Bryant. Instead, Vestal and one of his four reporters were neck deep in a week-long story about a recent incest conviction.

It began with this lede:

A Moffat County jury convicted a Craig man Friday of sexually assaulting his daughter. Because child sex offenders are refused bond, the convict was promptly arrested by a Moffat County Sheriff’s deputy and led out of the courtroom in handcuffs. In the final, shocking moments of an already emotional trial, the man reproached his daughter as he walked past her on his way to jail.

“My blood is on your hands now,” he said.

His daughter collapsed. Between sobs, she asked those around her, “Did you hear what he said to me?”

What followed were five days of stories about the case, the impact on the community, and the tough road ahead for the victim. Read more


Thursday, Aug. 21, 2003

An Overdose Has Killed Your Famous Son.Do You Talk to the Reporter?

CORRECTION: A previous version of this column incorrectly referred to the Oregon Symphony Orchestra as the Portland Symphony. It also incorrectly characterized the position and and standing of the late violinist, Marty Jennings. He played in the first section, but was not first chair. The article should have described him as one of the most talented violinists to grow up in Portland, not the most talented. 

David Stabler knew he wasn’t being completely truthful with his readers. As he typed in the words, “the medical examiner has not released the cause of death,” Stabler was both relieved and anxious.

The Portland Oregonian‘s classical music critic was writing the obituary of Marty Jennings, 32, first section violinist in the Oregon Symphony Orchestra. Neither of Jennings’ parents wanted the newspaper to list the suspected cause of death: heroin overdose. Since officials had yet to rule on the case, the line offered Stabler an escape hatch. Read more


Thursday, Aug. 14, 2003

The Art of the Jailhouse Interview

As a cub reporter covering the police beat in the Idaho panhandle, I covered a manhunt for the Pratt brothers, two fugitives who had terrorized a rural family during a botched robbery. They escaped into the snow-covered mountains where federal and local officers pursued them through the night and into the next day. Twenty-four hours into the ordeal, a U.S. Forest Service officer tracked the pair down. A gun battle followed, and authorities added murder to list of crimes for which they were wanted. Later that night the Pratts decided to face the courts rather than freeze to death in the woods. They surrendered.


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After their arrest, we reported that the brothers had a history. They drove the get-away cars during a series of bank robberies for Christopher Boyce, a convicted spy who had escaped from prison. In exchange for immunity, the Pratts testified against Boyce. Read more


Friday, Aug. 08, 2003

How Do You Say He’s Gay?

A journalist on the phone was looking for guidance. I offered to help.

“When is it OK to identify a person’s sexual orientation in the news?” he asked.

I didn’t have an answer. Not a good one anyway.

It’s a question that’s bound to become more pressing in newsrooms over the next months and years, as issues of gay acceptance become more contentious. The answer, and more importantly the process by which you find the answer in your newsroom, will set the tone for your coverage of social issues.

These issues have been prominent in the news this summer. At this week’s annual convention of the Episcopal Church of America, the church debated, then confirmed the Rev. V. Gene Robinson as Bishop of New Hampshire.

The coverage was extensive. Religious denominations normally get little ink out of their annual conventions. An exception occurs when a church is grappling with scandal, such as the Roman Catholic clergy crisis. Read more


Friday, July 25, 2003

Covering the Kobe Story

The coverage of the Kobe Bryant criminal case underscores the worst in American journalism. Some newsrooms are taking a publish-everything-and-anything approach. Even looking past the tabloid newspapers, obscure websites and racy television entertainment programs, many respectable journalists are acting without thinking.

Among the most questionable practices:

· Reporting the private details of the accuser’s life, including her failed romances, her mental health and her social preferences, without explaining why these details are relevant.  There is an unstated premise behind these stories: She is more likely to be fabricating this story if she is recovering from a broken heart, is depressed, or likes to party. Nobody ever says this out loud. Instead, reporters dig up personal information and then absolve themselves of the uneducated conclusions their readers and viewers might reach. If you think her mental health is part of this story, tell me why. If you think her quest to be a singer says something about the kind of person she is, tell me what that might be. Read more


Friday, June 27, 2003

Ethics Goes to Camp

We take summer seriously here at Poynter. Dozens of freshly-graduated reporters, photographers, and graphic artists are buzzing around the building, getting a total immersion experience in an ideal journalism world, before they launch their own spectacular careers.

We have created our version of the ideal newsroom. It is a place where photographers and graphic artists are just as responsible for reporting as writers, where nut graphs are not always necessary, and where everyone is expected to treat one other with respect and courtesy.

Sure, it’s a little Utopian. But what if it sticks? We might have invented the vaccine against cynicism.

As a participant in this ideal world of journalism, I’m struck by the persistent questions. Questions for which there are no clear answers, even in Utopia. Questions that cause me to wonder how we foster discussion, instill the importance of ethical decision-making, yet fight the urge to see the world in black and white. Read more


Friday, June 13, 2003

Stolen Words: How One Paper Responded

About a month ago, I answered my phone and on the other end was a newspaper editor wondering what to do about a misguided, yet talented journalist who had been caught plagiarizing.

No it wasn’t Howell Raines calling about Jayson Blair. It was Oliver Wiest, editor of the Sedalia (Mo.) Democrat. He was calling about Michael Kinney, 29, one of his favorite reporters, a man he’d hired into the sports department 18 months earlier and nurtured along.

Watching Wiest travel the path toward a decision provided a glimpse of a newsroom leader wrestling with conflicting instincts and values. A compassionate boss who believes in second chances, Wiest  knows he must settle for nothing less than honesty from his staff. He recognized a man’s career was at stake, never a responsibility to be taken lightly.  The more Wiest learned about what Kinney had done, however, the more comfortable the editor became with the difficult step he had hoped to avoid. 

On the surface, Oliver Wiest and Howell Raines seem quite different. Read more