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? How do they make their decisions as independently as possible? How do they minimize harm?

Ask more questions
One way to begin would be to ask more questions that might raise red flags. The questions, which apply as much to undercover police officers and local government whistleblowers as to CIA operatives, include:

  • Is the name critical to the story?

  • What specific position does the individual hold, and how specific and essential is the description of that position to the story?

  • What’s the most accurate word to describe the individual’s position? (Novak wrote that he regretted using the word “operative.” He indicated he has used the word in a different context and didn’t give his use of it much thought this time.)

  • What consequences could result to the individual, and others, if the person’s name, and/or position, becomes public?

  • Who else – besides the sources and subject – could help a reporter understand how sensitive or dangerous such a disclosure might be?

  • What conditions would argue for the disclosure of the name in spite of the potential harm to the individual?

  • What alternatives exist to identifying the individual?

Consider the source
When considering whether to promise confidentiality to a source, journalists need to think through the consequences of such an offer. The first place to start might be with the source’s motivation. Joann Byrd, a former ombudsman for The Washington Post and one of the outside journalists on the Siegal committee at The New York Times, proposes a careful evaluation and honest characterization of sources. She believes it’s important to know whether readers or viewers might doubt the value of the information if they knew the source providing it.

Poynter’s Al Tompkins and Bob Steele offer their own guidelines for evaluating sources. They recommend probing the source’s motivations, whether the journalist feels rushed to use the information, and how journalists can challenge their assumptions. They propose four criteria to consider before using confidential sources. One of the most important involves determining that the story “should be of overwhelming public concern.”

Geneva Overholser, the Journalism Junction columnist for Poynter Online and another former Washington Post ombudsman, argues for naming more sources, noting that many news organizations fail to follow their own rules on the subject.

Return to the source
In a recent column explaining his decision to name the CIA operative, Novak wrote that the CIA asked him not to use the person’s name but never suggested any danger to the individual, or anyone else, if he did.

It might have been helpful for Novak to verify that view with the source. He also could have sought more sources for their views of the potential harm he might inflict. Journalists who elicit sensitive information from sources need to review that information with them, making sure both the journalist and the source understand the consequences of divulging it.

By disclosing the identity of a CIA operative in his July 14 column, Novak provoked a Justice Department investigation of his sources and raised serious questions about his ethical conduct. Taking the time to answer a few ethical questions before publication can sometimes protect a reporter from having to answer more questions later.

>>For additional developments on this story, click here. 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. In practice, we also agreed that a journalist can’t be bought for a $5 lunch, a $30 book, or even a $100 fruit basket.

Still, I argued for a conservative approach that discourages freebies. I don’t fear that reporters will taint the content of their stories because a company sends them gifts. But I do worry about the mixed messages we send to younger reporters. Almost every newsroom has a policy that forbids accepting gifts. Yet it seems, in features departments, that policy is impossible to implement. The daily onslaught of books, compact discs, food, and even the occasional small appliance, is overwhelming. And the annual budget is stretched too thin to purchase everything necessary to provide the content readers want.

The result is a system in many newsrooms where the policy says one thing and the daily practice indicates something very different. Jeff Seglin, a professor at Emerson College, was a Poynter ethics fellow in 2001 and wrote a compelling article on the disastrous consequences that can result when newsrooms ignore or dismiss their stated policies. Seglin convincingly argues that a well-written policy is merely a start to sharing critical values throughout a newsroom. 

“But to make those codes work, organizations need to find ways to internalize these codes,” he writes. This includes training, regular conversations about ethics, and ensuring that leaders model the values.

Here are some the real-life scenarios features departments are trying to manage:

  • A pop music critic told me after the session that her boss had made it clear to her she should be constantly listening to different genres of music, hearing new releases, and exploring the cultural trends. That means listening to CDs all the time, constantly adding new ones to her collection. There is no budget for this and her boss was unapologetic. The critic is expected to use the free ones that come into the newsroom.

  • A wine critic would like to do an independent test of every Cabernet manufactured in his home state. Recognizing that the wineries might have an expectation of favorable coverage if they gave the wine to the paper, he asked a distributor to provide the wine for free instead. He hopes to do the same story for other types of wines, like Merlots and Chardonnays. Paying for the wine is out of the question. It would cost too much.

  • A reporter wanted to do a consumer story on teeth whiteners. Some products had been sent to the features department along with press releases. He went out and bought other products to supplement the ones that had been given to the newspaper. It didn’t make sense to not use the free ones, since they were brands he wanted to include in his test.

In each of these cases and in many more I suggested a conservative approach — pay for the CDs or adjust the expectations for the critic. Buy the wine or don’t do the stories. Go to the store and buy the tooth whitener. Some found such an approach almost puritanical. Impractical, they said. There’s no money to pay for this stuff.

Ultimately, my workshop failed. I’d promised to give them some useful strategies for managing all the stuff that comes into their department. But all I could do was offer some thoughts on the values that underpin the no-gifts policy and point out the inconsistencies in the practice. We had a great discussion and some of the editors said they would consider small changes. But clearly I’d underestimated the size of the dragon I’m trying to slay.

At the very least, I argued, consider transparency. Tell the readers. Run a disclosure box whenever necessary. This too met with resistance. Many editors thought such disclosure would further undermine credibility, not strengthen it. Others said the readers already know.

And still I’m worried. No one argued taking the free stuff is the right thing to do. Instead, we found ourselves looking for compromises and escape hatches, comparing the practices of the feature department to those on the city desk and sports.

The problem with the policies, one editor told me, is they are written with city-side reporters in mind. She wasn’t advocating a different standard in features. Instead she was hoping for a more thoughtful policy, one that allowed for freebies in certain, clearly articulated cases.

I’d prefer the monastic approach. But if I learned anything from my close encounter with the feature editors it was that simply imposing a stringent policy might not get us very far.  To do any good, a solid freebies policy must be workable and enforceable, too – an especially challenging combination in the day-to-day life of features sections.

So what do you think?  What would an ideal freebies policy look like? Should there be different standards for features, city desk and sports? Is there already a different standard, in practice, that we are afraid to acknowledge? 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. Louis Post-Dispatch, and The Plain Dealer.

All I did was search all the articles that mention “sex” in a one-month period. I picked sites with working search engines and typed in, “sex.” Then I tallied the context in which that three-letter word was used. Here’s what I found:

10. The tenth most popular occasion for mentioning the word sex is so columnists can describe someone as a “sex-kitten.” These stories are not about sex at all but about topics ranging from golf to local personalities.

9. Writing about the Internet and pornography. I was surprised this was so low on the list. I predicted Internet and pornography would be separate categories. But I had to combine them just to beat the sex kittens.

8. Abortion was the eighth most popular reason to write about sex. I’m pretty sure only a very small percentage of abortion stories mention sex. 

7. Health issues. Most of these stories mentioned sexually transmitted diseases, although some of them made only a tangential mention of the topic.

6. Teen sexuality & abstinence came in sixth. This category would have been just teen sexuality except for all the ink about Al Franken’s abstinence prank on Harvard letterhead

5. Gender issues came in fifth. This really isn’t about sex itself but more typically about sex discrimination and similar issues. I left it on my list because I like stories about gender issues.

4. Gay issues. This is like the abortion category. Only a few stories about gay life and gay issues include a mention of sex. Most of these stories touched on the debate over marriage.

3. Tied with gay issues was the category I dubbed adult relationships. This mostly included advice columns or stories about advice columnists.

I should point out the eight categories above accounted for less than 15 percent of all the stories in the search. The numbers are too small to lend much significance to the order of the ranking. 

Here are the big two reasons most of the stories mention the word sex:

2. Sex crimes. For my thoughts on this category, see this list

1. The context that provokes most mentions of sex involves coverage of the Entertainment world. This does not just mean television and movies. There were a lot of book reviews talking about sex. What was really interesting was that most of the stories in this category (about 60 percent) were about fictional characters, including the star of the movie “Thirteen.”

My big conclusion: The mainstream secular media is mostly concerned with the sex lives of criminals and made-up people!

Is this how sex should be represented by mainstream newsrooms? Are we missing something in our coverage?

Even though my survey falls short of anything scientific, its results reflect my impression of the state of sex coverage in America today: narrow and limited. I believe journalists are fearful of approaching this topic with depth and complexity because they lack the language and confidence to create meaningful stories.  

Is it possible that, because our categories are so limited and so skewed toward crime and entertainment, we are overlooking stories that would delve into the richness and nuance of human relationships?

In fact, sex is a great topic for journalists. We have police reporters and medical reporters. How come no sex reporters?

What are your thoughts? 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. I was impressed. Some days I run out of breath trying to convince journalists that the story of sexual assault deserves attention, despite the challenges created when a victim is granted anonymity. Here was an editor who had already decided to give this story a lot of ink. In fact, Vestal had already decided that even the criminal would be anonymous, because the victim was his own daughter. Although that created some obstacles when it came to crafting the story, Vestal was undeterred.

All he wanted from me was a bit of history about news coverage of sexual assault. After I looked at the stories, I couldn’t resist asking: What’s your circulation?

The Craig Daily Press distributes 3,200 copies every day. It’s part of a chain of small papers owned by the family who owns the Lawrence (Kansas) Journal-World. Vestal has been the editor for less than two years. But he is a veteran of small-town journalism. He’s worked in Steamboat Springs, Colo., Ruidoso, N.M., Taos, N.M., and Las Cruces, N.M. The reporter on the project, Jeremy Browning, has been on the staff for a month. It’s his first job in journalism.

Vestal agreed to an e-mail Q&A session. He’s proud of the series, and he hopes it might inspire other journalists, no matter how limited their resources, to think big.

Kelly McBride: Most newsrooms shy away from incest stories. What made you take a different approach?

Terrance Vestal: Because we live in a small community, we thought that no matter how we handled the situation, it was going to reverberate through our community. So, we thought, “How could we make this useful to our readers?” I mean, ultimately, that is our job — not only should we report the news, but we should put it in context that our readers can use.

Rather than simply writing a play-by-play courtroom drama, we — publisher Samantha Johnston, reporter Jeremy Browning and myself — decided to fashion a series out of the ordeal. What does it take to prosecute a rape case in a small community? What about incest? What courage does it take to report such horrific abuse to police? What therapy does it take for a survivor not only to get on with his or her life but to get a foothold on some kind of normalcy? What happens to a community when such a heinous act occurs and what role can the media take to help heal those wounds?

McBride: How much time did the reporter spend on this series? What did that mean for the rest of the staff?

Vestal: We dedicated one reporter to the issue full time, which meant the other reporters had to pick up another story a day to complete the local news quantity that our readers expect. Each story of the series, however, was rather lengthy in and of itself so that took up a large amount of the news hole, anyway. But the key was not to let the rest of the news content slip. As much and as strongly as we believed in this series, it was a complicated and ugly issue and we had to realize that not all of our readers would want to go where we were going.

McBride: What were the biggest barriers to bringing readers the truth in this story?

Vestal: Getting into meaningful discussions about incest with those involved, instead of tertiary conversations that surround the issue, such as sexual assault. It was difficult to keep the focus on the complexities that must be explored. It was hard to keep sources narrowed down to incest because they wanted to talk about sexual assault in general or rape, which is why so much of our coverage ended up enveloping sexual assault rather than specifically incest, because that was the way sources approached the matter. If you think talking about sexual assault is difficult, try talking about something that is seen as more atrocious, more shameful, more diabolical. Try talking about incest. Let’s face it, more people would rather talk about cannibalism than incest.

McBride: What has the response been to the story?

Vestal: The series ended Friday as the Labor Day holiday began, so we haven’t gotten as much feedback as we think is out there. Before the series began, the police department and Social Services were hesitant about cooperating because they felt these stories may “re-victimize” the survivor. After the series ended, however, both of those departments congratulated the newspaper for its effort. Social Services has asked for copies of the series. We already have received e-mails in support of our efforts. Here is one e-mail that stands out:

Dear Jeremy (Browning),

I want to thank you for the outstanding job you have done in your coverage on the “Ultimate Betrayal.” It has been informative, emotional, and done with taste. 

I personally know the girls who were victims, and I appreciate the fact that you have shown them respect with a sensitive issue.

If you investigate further into the sexual activity, whether consensual, date rape, etc. in our community among our teens, you will find that there are several articles that could piggyback off of this one and bring a public awareness of a HUGE problem that needs to be addressed. Thank you for your time, have a great day.

McBride: Other than staffing issues, were there other negative consequences?

Vestal: I don’t know if you can clearly label them as negative consequences or not. But I would strongly encourage editors and reporters who are working on this kind of project — a project that deals with graphic, emotional, offensive material — to stay in touch. Conversations before the reporting, after the reporting, and during the writing are crucial. That reporter must know that he has support any time he needs it. Much of the time we get swept up into these deep, emotionally-wrenching projects and we tend to think of “the players” and how they must feel. But we must never forget “the people on the ground” – as it were — the reporters. They need as much support as you can give them. Even at a small newspaper like the Craig Daily Press. 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.

“It was a little weird, we knew, but we couldn’t say” how he died, Stabler said this week in a phone interview from the Oregonian newsroom.

Eventually the medical examiner filed a death certificate documenting the overdose. And Stabler convinced Jennings’ father, his girlfriend and his ex-wife to be interviewed for a more in-depth story. The mother, Polly Jennings, remained adamant. She did not want to participate in a story. Without her, Stabler knew his story would be incomplete. Polly Jennings had nurtured her son’s training throughout childhood and documented his professional career.

Still, his narrative instincts told him the story was a compelling one. Classical music and heroin aren’t often mentioned in the same breath.  Jennings was legendary in Portland, one of the best violinists who had ever grown up in the city. As Stabler pursued the story, he learned more about heroin and junkies than most police reporters. He visited methadone clinics and drove the back alleys that Jennings had searching for drugs.

On a Sunday afternoon, two days before his story was scheduled to run, he called Polly Jennings at home, to “alert her to the story.” He told her he planned to present as full a portrait of Marty Jennings as he could.

“How can you make it full without me?” she asked.

“Can I come talk to you?” Stabler asked. “Today?”

She agreed and that afternoon the reporter and the grieving mother spent more than two hours poring over scrapbooks and photo albums.

“She was very forthcoming about Marty’s music, drug addiction, a lot of specifics. I guess she felt if it’s going to happen … “

Still, Stabler knew the mother was a reluctant participant. If she could have vetoed the story idea, she would have.

“I kept thinking, ‘What are her rights?’” he said. “It didn’t make (the interview and writing the story) feel easy. It was really tough.”

From the onset, Stabler said he was conscious of the sensational elements of the story and steered away from them. After writing the obit, Stabler said he thought the story would be about the toll that talent exacts from extremely gifted young people. But the deeper the reporting went, the less he was able to back up that claim.

“We tried really hard to be transparent about what we didn’t know,” he said. “We said things like, ‘We’ll never know what demons pursued Marty.’” In the end, the story was framed as the tale of a man who lived to extremes.

While Stabler and his editor, Jack Hart, were working on the story, another editor stopped by and announced the package was in consideration for the centerpiece slot on A1.

“I was ambivalent about A1. Music critics don’t often get out on the front page. On the other hand, I didn’t really want to sensationalize this story,” Stabler said. “I said ‘If it’s going to be the centerpiece, let’s underplay the headline.  We can’t glamorize this.’”

It was during that conversation that editors decided on the headline: “In Two Worlds.” (The story was published Aug. 5 and is no longer available free online.)

The story generated a lot of response. Addicts called and thanked Stabler for his sensitivity. Mothers called to talk about their own children who are struggling with drugs.

Polly Jennings was not pleased. She was shocked to see her son’s tragedy so big on the front page. Although she agreed it was accurate and well-written, she questioned the story’s value. Jennings’ girlfriend also reported that she was not pleased with the story. She thought it failed to capture the destruction that heroin inflicts and instead glorified drug use. Oregonian Public Editor Michael Arrietta-Walden later documented their complaints in a column.

Stabler describes himself as the kind of person who is never sure of his decisions. Reading the public editor’s column sent him to a new level of second-guessing. “It was very hard to read that Polly was horrified.”

Arrietta-Walden’s column explored the tension between an individual’s privacy and a journalist’s freedom to tell a story. Caught in the middle is the unwilling source, the column explained.

“I did think at the beginning that I might have some rights,” Polly Jennings told Arrietta-Walden. “And apparently the only right I had was not to talk.”

That might be true in the legal world. But sources, even unwilling ones, do have rights in the journalistic process. They have the right to courteous and polite conversation. They have the right to make their case to the journalist. They have the right to participate in a limited fashion, to determine on which topics they speak and on which ones they remain silent.

When working with private individuals, journalists are obligated to present unwilling sources with as many alternatives as possible. Sometimes journalists mistake the act of giving sources choices with giving up journalistic independence. The two don’t have to go hand-in-hand.

Stabler hardly seems the stereotypic bulldog reporter who runs over his sources in pursuit of a good yarn. He did his best to show care and concern for Polly Jennings.

He agrees now that in addition to telling Polly Jennings when the story was going to run, he should have warned her where and what it would look like. “The impact of an A1 story is going to be pretty overwhelming.”

The reporter and his editor could have given more consideration to running a sidebar or an information box with resources for addicts. Even the willing family members participated because they hoped that others would learn from their story. Hart, the story’s editor, argued that including that information would detract from the power of the narrative. Yet it’s disingenuous to promise sources a story will fulfill their need to educate others, then not provide readers with information about community resources because it detracts from the newsroom’s goal of creating a good narrative.

Being the subject of the public editor’s column gave Stabler a taste of Polly Jennings’ experience.

“I think I’m OK with it now.  But that’s a very uncomfortable feeling,” he said. “Because I wasn’t sure we did right thing in the first place. So to have someone go back and second-guess …

“I hope I never have to write another story like it.” 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.


Sign up to receive Ethics Journal by e-mail:

* Click here (sent Fridays)

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. (Boyce’s story is detailed in the book and movie, “The Falcon and the Snowman.” The story of his life on the lam is told in the book, “The Flight of the Falcon.”)

For more than a week we wrote daily stories in The Spokesman-Review about the Pratts. And when we ran out of ideas we decided to try for a jailhouse interview.

Saturday happened to be the only day visitors were allowed in the Bonner County Jail where the two men were being held. I happened to be the Saturday reporter. My editor told me to drive there from our office in Coeur d’Alene and ask the Pratt brothers if they wanted to talk.

They did. Joe Pratt was brief and reserved. Jim Pratt prattled on until the one-hour time limit expired. The entire time, I was in over my head. I was so convinced the interviews wouldn’t materialize, I didn’t even have a set of questions.

So we talked. We talked about jailhouse food, the Boyce connection, and the shootout. Jim Pratt was slightly older than me and he seemed scared and bored at the same time. Faced with the prospect of another afternoon in a small-town jail cell, talking to a reporter may have seemed like a good idea. At the very least, he probably thought he didn’t have anything to lose.

It’s not unusual to send young and inexperienced reporters to the jail to do interviews. In a way it’s a rite of passage. Visiting hours are often in the evening or on weekends, when younger reporters work. And most criminals are young. It makes sense to send a reporter who will make them feel comfortable.

Recently critics have been rumbling about an intern’s jailhouse interview with Carlton Dotson, the former Baylor University basketball player charged with killing his teammate, Patrick Dennehy. In the story by Shani George of the Dallas Morning News, Dotson admits shooting Dennehy and claims it was self-defense.

Dotson’s lawyers said George, an intern in the newspaper’s Washington bureau, misrepresented herself and that she misquoted Dotson. Morning News editors are standing behind George, who said she conducted the interview without taking notes because of the jail’s policy.

Certainly the interview will have consequences for Dotson’s defense in court. And George may even find herself subpoenaed to testify about the interview. That’s what happened to me after Jim Pratt told me he was the one who pulled the trigger.

Click here for 
Kelly’s story.
My story ran under a special copyright. The paper endured a moderate amount of criticism, most of it questioning why we would devote an entire story to an interview with two men who had killed a cop.

As I read the criticism of the Dallas Morning News and think back to my own experiences, it seems to me the weak link in the process is the connection between the young reporter and her immediate editor. It’s unrealistic to expect a relatively inexperienced reporter to orchestrate the kind of conversation that needs to happen. That’s the editor’s job.  

When guiding young journalists through high-profile stories, editors should discuss the mechanics of the reporting process at every step. These discussions could be as detailed as how notes should be recorded, how interviews should be structured and what deals, if any, should be negotiated with people being interviewed and others with a stake in the story.

When a reporter emerges from a big interview, her editor usually wants to know what she turned up but rarely how the interview was conducted. The destination is a good story. Who cares how you got there?

By talking about the mechanics of reporting and writing, editors could coach reporters on technique and skill, highlighting ethical concerns and creating a safety net checking for faulty reporting.

I wish I’d had the presence of mind to ask my editor, who was a former police reporter, to do this for me before I’d interviewed the Pratt brothers.

If I’d known better, I would have asked him for several things:

  • A short primer on jailhouse interviews. I know now after doing dozens of them that even though the facilities are often different, the rules are similar. Recording devices are useless when talking by phone and separated by a glass partition. Sometimes notebooks are not allowed. Sometimes pencils are OK, but pens are forbidden. Occasionally the sergeant or lieutenant in charge of the jail on a given day will make an exception for a reporter and allow a face-to-face interview, with a notebook or a tape recorder. But you have to ask.

  • Preparation for the interview itself. We never discussed how I should identify myself, what I should do if the subject suggests something be off the record or what obligations I had to minimize the harm to the suspects or the other stakeholders in the story.

  • Tools for letting the readers know how and why we conducted the interview. Maybe this would be a sentence in the story; maybe it would be an editor’s note.

Maybe we should put together a tip sheet for jailhouse interviews. What would you include? 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. Churches can also provoke coverage with such deliberate controversy as the Southern Baptists’ decision to hold their annual gathering in Salt Lake City, home turf of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

But the coverage this week of the Episcopalian gathering in Minneapolis was even more unlikely. After all, there are 2.3 million Episcopalians in the United States, compared to 62 million Roman Catholics and 16 million Southern Baptists. (Note: the numbers game is a dicey one in religion reporting because churches have different standards for membership, but you get the idea).

The intense interest in the Episcopal gathering is a symptom of the deeper tension in heterosexual society over just how much acceptance should be extended to gay people. This friction is playing out in our newspapers and newscasts with increasing frequency.

Earlier this summer, the Supreme Court ruled that gay sex should not be a crime. Shortly after that, President Bush said he would oppose efforts to recognize gay relationships as civil unions, similar to marriage. In June, Canada began recognizing such unions. Now many couples are traveling north for a ceremony, then returning home and submitting announcements of their unions to their local newspaper. (Every month more newspapers follow the lead of The New York Times by running such announcements. This is a separate, but related, column. For now, realize that this decision can’t be divorced from the policies that inform news reporting.)

As journalists, we should be discussing policies and practices that influence the coverage of these issues. The first question is this: When should a newsroom identify someone as gay?  Before I was asked to articulate my thoughts on this issue, I was pretty confident I knew what I was doing. But as I struggled to say what I thought, I realized I hadn’t put much thought at all into the topic.

Here are a couple of rough thoughts:

  • Identifying someone as gay against his or her will, i.e., “outing” someone in the news, should be avoided. Exceptions to this policy should be rare, and the bar should be set almost impossibly high. A section editor should be required to approve the decision, and the individual should be notified that his or her sexual orientation is about to be disclosed.

  • Be aware of code words that indicate a person is gay. Describing someone as a “domestic partner” or two people as a “couple” is acceptable when both parties agree to it.

  • When discussing sexual orientation with a source, precise language is important to avoid errors and to obtain informed consent. “What would you think if I described you as gay?”  “How should I describe your partner?” “Do you describe yourself as transgendered? What does that mean?”

  • Journalists should not use public forums like school board meetings and court hearings to “out” an individual. If a person’s sexual orientation or habits become a news issue (say parents ask a local school board to fire a gay teacher), great care should be taken to ensure sexual orientation is germane to the story. If it is, the individual in question should be contacted and allowed to clarify or correct the public record. Journalists should make a sincere effort to listen to the people most likely to be harmed by such stories and search for alternatives when possible.

  • How should journalists decide if sexual orientation is relevant to a news story? In most cases the source in question has the answer. When a person tells you her sexual orientation is not part of a story, respect is in order most of the time. Conversely, when a source indicates her sexual orientation is important to a news story, don’t dismiss the notion.

  • Identifying a gay teenager in the news should be done with great care and in consultation with a parent or other caregiver. It’s hard to know which teens might be mature enough to understand the consequences of agreeing to a news report. It’s better to take a cautious approach to informed consent.

This is just a start. This list is imperfect and incomplete. But the issues are going to surface frequently. What other factors should be considered? 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. Or better yet, find somebody qualified to render those opinions. At least then, as a journalist, you have reported  your assumptions rather than putting them unchecked into the story. 

· Examining how horrible the coverage is as an excuse for reporting all the sensational details of the case. This type of story is a predictable cliché in the modern mega story. A pack of untamed journalists is quite a sight and often makes for a good story. Write that story and you are simply predictable. If you use this as a chance to pass along all the sordid and distasteful claims that would never pass the standards of attribution in your newsroom, you are just as guilty of sloppy work as the next reporter.

· Concealing the victim’s identity in the name of sensitivity, then reporting every other identifying element of her life is hypocritical.  Either you do or you don’t believe she deserves anonymity. If you do, then grant it. If you don’t, then be bold enough to say so. It’s confusing to claim you are protecting her identity, then reveal enough information to make her identifiable to anyone in the state of Colorado.

This is not to say there is no story here. This is a big story with many angles yet to explore. In addition to documenting the criminal case, the best journalists are finding a way to tell the untold stories. If you would like to join them, here are a few suggestions.

Be a watchdog. Whenever a powerful person is charged with a crime, there is a public interest in ensuring justice is applied fairly. Another watchdog role is to examine the ability of law enforcement to investigate sex crimes. Victims’ advocates will tell you the cops have come a long way. But that doesn’t mean they’ve arrived. The Philadelphia Inquirer has for years documented the city police department’s mishandling of rape cases.  Last month a follow-up story tracked the improvement.

Be a historian. For much of the last century, the only sexual assaults that garnered much public attention were those where a black man was charged with attacking a white woman. Researchers have documented that in most cases, the assailant and the victim are the same race and ethnicity. Race brings a historical charge to this modern-day case.

Be a sociologist. Rape and sexual assault are common in the United States. Rape can be measured by counting the victims or the assailants, by calculating the financial impact or the emotional devastation. This might be the occasion to document exactly how common rape is and to explore the toll the phenomenon is exacting. A column in today’s Seattle Post-Intelligencer is a good start.

Be a teacher. Explain how your newsroom covers sexual assault. If you are making exceptions to your standard guidelines, say why. List resources for rape victims. Fewer than 20 percent of rapes are ever reported to police. Victims’ advocates worry that women and men will think twice about telling law enforcement when they consider this particular woman’s experience.

Be a connoisseur. Of well-reported journalism. As you pick the wire stories, write the headlines or assign the local angles, be smart. This story needs savvy and intelligent journalists who can elevate the discussion to a level where meaning can survive.

As websites, shock radio and tabloid publications proliferate, journalism will distinguish itself as a meaningful craft if its practitioners can articulate the values and standards that set it apart. If you don’t claim your journalistic stake in the story at the beginning of each day, by the time you’ve done your job you may find you have slipped from the solid footing of journalism into mere voyeurism.


  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.

Let me tell you two short stories.

On a recent evening, I got a call from one of our photojournalists in the summer program. She was flustered and conflicted. On her way to a story, she found herself in the middle of police chase. The car thief crashed into her car and drove on. She could have kept after him, as another journalist in the car urged. The damage was minor. She was not hurt.

“Should I have followed them?” she asked. “Did I miss an opportunity?”

She pulled over, called 911, and waited for an officer. When that was over, she drove a few blocks to the scene where the chase ended with the stolen car crashed into a tree. By then, almost everybody was gone.

She took some photos, but she questioned her instincts as a journalist.

She had no way of knowing what she was getting into, police dogs could have been on the prowl or there could have been a gun fight. In this journalism Utopia, there is no city desk to call for backup,  no police scanner to tune into – so it seemed to me like she’d made the right choice. But when she pressed me, I found it difficult to articulate the difference between discomfort and danger. Yet I’ve never read a checklist that delineates one from the other.

“Inform yourself and trust your instincts,” I told her. “Don’t let anyone pressure you into going somewhere you don’t feel safe.”

Sage, huh?


“What do you think of this quote?” a reporter asked me in the hallway. It was an hour before our first deadline. She was working on a story about a neighborhood transformed by a new public swimming pool.

“Everybody be up here,” said a child in her story.

“Fix it,” I said.

“Really?” she asked. “I can do that?”

We fix grammar all the time, I explained. Often, we do it as we write the quotes down in our notebook. A week later, one of my colleagues told her the exact opposite. Never change anything inside the quotation marks, he said.

If a quote contains poor grammar, the bar for using it is surpassed when the substance of the statement contains an important fact, reveals something about the character, and is relevant to the story, he said. Otherwise using the quote will embarrass the speaker and a paraphrase is in order.

That’s not fair, I argued. As a reporter, I only notice grammatical errors when the speaker is different from me. Talk to me in a Southern drawl or a Black English and I will hear the word “ain’t” and the subject-verb disagreements. Speak to me in the Midwestern cadence of my childhood and I will hear “going to” not “gonna,” and never once notice double negatives.

Abiding by my colleague’s rule makes it harder to hear the voices of those who are different from me. Abiding by mine undermines the sacred ground inside the quotation marks. 

Here’s my struggle: If I can’t answer their every question, do I teach these young journalists to embrace the ethics of relativism? If I’m wrong, the result could be the same. If I give them the litany of my personal wisdom but shield them from a reality where there is little consensus, do I lull them into an existence where they stop thinking for themselves?

How do we find them middle ground, where our decisions are made with confidence, yet we allow for the possibility that we could be wrong?

Please take a look at the work of our summer students on

And if you have some advice for those of us in charge of this summer Utopia, please deposit it here. 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. This is not surprising. Sedalia and New York City are pretty different places. Raines is described as a forceful, hard-charging editor who ran the New York Times  (circulation 1.1 million) with an iron fist. Wiest seems like a deliberate, thoughtful editor who runs the Democrat (circulation 12,000) with a patience that is a survival skill for a newsman in Sedalia. Whatever their differences, Wiest and Raines faced some similar challenges.

Kinney, the Sedalia sports writer, arrived at the paper with some experience as a stringer and a lot of confidence. His reporting was solid and creative. He seemed to have a pretty good work ethic too, Wiest said. Last fall, the reporter took on the responsibility of a weekly movie review, which complemented his passion for cinema.

There was a never a question about the reporter’s credibility until a reader called one Sunday night. Chas Geary, a copy editor, answered the phone. The reader said his son noticed similarities between a staff-written movie review in the Democrat and the work of Chicago Sun-Times film critic Roger Ebert. The paper checked it out. Sure enough, there were word-for-word duplications. When Wiest checked out the previous month’s movie reviews, he discovered other similarities.

By e-mail, Wiest described his reaction:

“My first impulse when I read the memo from the copy editor was to cry, but being a big strong man I did not. My initial impulse was to accept Mike’s explanation that he had cribbed material from Ebert’s column when he was up against deadline. However, I already had evidence that he had lifted material in the three movie reviews published before the one that prompted the reader complaint. I still wanted to believe him after I asked him to explain the other instances of plagiarism. I trusted Mike and believed he was honest and truthful.

“I did not want to believe that he was actively attempting to deceive me about the extent of his plagiarism.”

By the time Wiest called me, he was inclined to punish the reporter severely, put him through some sort of remedial ethics training and keep him on staff. “I think he’s redeemable,” Wiest told me in our first conversation. We talked about what it takes to teach a new reporter with little experience the foundations of journalism ethics. Wiest was blaming himself and his newsroom. There’s hardly any money for training. Probably no one had ever discussed journalism values with the reporter. Wasn’t that the newsroom’s failure?

I suggested he put Kinney on notice and do a more thorough investigation. Make sure he knows how serious this is, I told Wiest. Impress upon Kinney the importance of full disclosure at this point if he wants to save his job. I was worried about the message Wiest would send to the rest of his staff if he weren’t appropriately forceful. I was also suspicious. From Wiest’s description, it seemed likely this reporter had more transgressions in his past.

Wiest: “My first thought was that reviewing all his work was unnecessary and that I was on the receiving end of lofty advice delivered from the ivory tower of Poynter. With evidence to the contrary staring me in the face, I was still inclined to view Michael’s explanation in the best possible light. After speaking with you, I analyzed what (he) had told me in light of the facts I had. His explanation did not explain much. I knew that he was withholding information.”

Weighing heavily on Wiest was the fact that Kinney was the first black journalist ever to work at the Sedalia Democrat. When Wiest hired Kinney, he was pleased to be setting a good example for Sedalia, a town he describes as having “a long history of de facto and institutional racism, where white-collar blacks are a rarity.”

Wiest:  “I hired Michael because he was the best applicant I had; that he is black was a bonus. I mentioned race in my first conversation with you because I know the emphasis placed on diversity in the news business and thought that race was something that you would want to factor in. At a paper this size, in this community, I can’t recruit for diversity. It’s strictly the luck of the draw, as in Mike’s case.  I anticipated the possibility that the newspaper and I would be criticized for hiring a black sports guy then firing him for an infraction which our critics would say would not have led to the dismissal of a white person. (Not true, at all.) I guess it was a pragmatic consideration, rather than one rooted in some moral value. Fact is I was willing to give Mike the benefit of the doubt and a second chance for any number of reasons, most of which I mentioned previously, but race was not one of them.”

I told Wiest it was possible he was hurting his newsroom and his community by keeping a questionable reporter on the staff. It could also sabotage and undermine the value of diversity, if other staff members thought the reporter received special treatment. Wiest told me how well Kinney had done on the sports beat, how eager and energetic the young reporter was, and how much the community appreciated Kinney’s work. We ended the conversation on a cautionary note. We talked about the pot that was about to boil over at the New York Times. We agreed that whatever Wiest decided, he needed to be sure he had all the facts.

Wiest: “I took a week off shortly after (this) business came up. I brooded about it quite a bit at first and realized I had been avoiding the job of investigating his work. I took the clips home with me but decided I was not going to delve into them on my time off. Shortly after I returned, I closed the door to my office and spent about five hours matching suspect phrases with stuff published on the Web. When I finished I knew I was going to fire him.”

In several of Kinney’s trend stories for the sports desk, the work that made Wiest most proud, there were more instances of plagiarism.

I left a message on Kinney’s voicemail at home, but had not heard back by Friday afternoon.

It takes a lot to challenge your gut reaction. Wiest did so not when he fired the writer, but when he worked through his initial instincts and completed his investigation. He asked questions he didn’t really want to answer. Taking a skeptical approach to a well-liked employee was uncomfortable and even painful. As journalists, it’s our job to be skeptical about the news but it’s often difficult to turn that skepticism toward our staffs. There is a balance to strike. Too much doubt would paralyze us, and make it impossible to do our jobs. Too little doubt, particularly when it comes to our own abilities, results in an arrogance that will topple the mightiest journalist in the business. Read more