Commentary, analysis, & advice from the director of Poynter’s ethics program

The short shelf life of today’s heroes, in sports and in journalism

Michael Wilbon was on ESPN radio discussing Lance Armstrong and Manti Te’o when he posed this rhetorical question: “What is the shelf life of a hero today?”

An excellent question: What is the shelf life of heroes in a world overflowing with instant communications, the need for instant gratification, and instant (and too often bitter, obscene and mean-spirited) rebuttals?

The talk show conversation and Wilbon’s question registered a stronger reaction than it may have on other days; it came at a time when I was thinking about one of my personal heroes, Gene Patterson, at a time when the news of his death was still raw.

There was a time when the answer seemed so simple, in the long ago years when we cheered for Johnny Lujack, the All America quarterback and the Fighting Irish on Saturday afternoon; when we listened on the radio to Joe Louis’ latest victory or President Roosevelt’s fireside chats, or in theaters watched Sugar Ray Robinson, who may have had some flaws outside the ring but was unflawed inside the ropes.

Or when we lived vicariously through Felix “Doc” Blanchard, Mr. Inside for Army, who graduated from high school with my oldest brother. Or certainly when we tuned into KMOX from St. Louis and visualized the quiet man Stan Musial crouched at the plate, a cobra in baseball knickers ready to strike. Or when we first saw a Brookhaven, Miss., high school kid named Lance Alworth and realized we had witnessed unmatched athletic talent of any generation, or a Louisiana youth named Billy Cannon.

And for someone who grew up working on my dad’s weekly newspaper, Hap Glaudi and Bill Keefe, New Orleans sports columnists, Turner Catledge, who also started his journey on a Mississippi weekly and rose to become executive editor of The New York Times, Hodding Carter, the courageous Mississippi Delta editor, and my dad provided enough day dreams about the future to keep me going.

But most of all, there were the heroes who went off to wars:

  • My Godmother, who served as a nurse in World War Two and came home an Army major.
  • Her brothers, one in the Navy and one in the Marines, who, one or the other, fought in and survived every Pacific battle, from Pearl Harbor to VJ Day.
  • My cousin Donald, who was more of a brother and who is buried in Normandy.
  • Five brothers who wore various uniforms and served during various wars
  • And so many more from that small town we shared.

Then as we aged and became more selective of those we admired, mentors and colleagues filled a number of the slots. My thank-you card is jammed with the names of the men and women who served as teachers, who enriched my career with their contributions, who gave unselfishly of their wisdom — mentors such as Gene Patterson, Pulitzer Prize winner, an officer under General Patton, an editor of courage, whose moral compass always pointed in the right direction.

He is gone, but the lessons he left to so many of us who admired him will live on. He seemed to always know what to do and what to say when you needed a guardian angel. You never had to ask. And he was an editor to the end, even in his hospice bed, cutting a half-million words from the Old Testament and publishing it through Amazon. “I always wanted to read it completely, but I never could get through it, “ he told me. “Now I can.”

Hearing him speak on subject after subject was pure joy. Perhaps another friend put it best when he said that after listening to Gene one night talking about journalism, the Constitution, ethics, Broadway, the Bible, and also filling the evening with laughter, he felt he had graduated to the big boys’ table. I felt that way every time we interacted.

Gene would reject the label of hero. But he was one to me, as were and are a number of others who have acted and often sacrificed to make a difference in people’s lives.

So maybe the answer to Wilbon’s question is simple after all: Be selective and sparing about whom you put on the shelf in the first place. Then you won’t have to ask how long they will remain there. Read more

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Thursday, Nov. 11, 2004

Decoding “Moral Values”

The “moral values” voter has become a popular way of identifying a segment of the population that played a key role in the re-election of President Bush. But who are these people? What “moral values” do they hold? How do their values play out in their lives?

The term usually gets pinned on people who oppose same-sex marriage, abortion, and stem cell research. Reporters use such terms as evangelical, religious, Christian, and conservative to describe them. And often, journalists use these terms interchangeably. But what do they know about the topic? And what do they need to know?

We need to look behind the “moral values” label to address such questions. When we do, we will come across a host of descriptions. They show a spectrum of differences that get overlooked when we lump them under just one term. 

Among the most common voices we hear associated with the Christian, religious, evangelical conservative view of moral values include James Dobson, the Rev. Rick Warren, and Charles Colson.

Dobson heads the Focus on the Family organization based in Colorado Springs, Colorado. Warren pastors Saddleback Church in California and is the author of “The Purpose Driven Life.” Colson founded the Prison Fellowship Ministries after he spent time in prison for his part in the Watergate scandal. They, and others, have been in the forefront of those appropriating the “moral values” label.

But there are other voices that see other moral values at stake as well. And they claim the evangelical description, too. In fact, Tony Campolo, an American Baptist minister, professor of sociology and an evangelical says in a recent interview on the BeliefNet website that he believes “evangelical Christianity had been hijacked.” That view prompted him to address the challenges faced by the evangelical movement in his new book, “Speaking My Mind.” In the preface of his book, he writes:

There is a common perception among those outside our community of faith that we evangelicals are clones, and that when they have spoken with one of us, they have spoken with us all. Too often they see us as people who have a single way of thinking and talking … To be credible, we must demonstrate that we are a body of individuals, each of whom can think for herself or himself.

Campolo, who considers poverty, war, and the environment among a number of moral issues evangelicals need to address, uses his book to explore and explain the controversial issues within the evangelical movement.

The search for a variety of voices is essential if journalists are to more accurately depict people who view morals as an important concern. The Associated Press included multiple views in a story that showed the political and religious tussle about the significant role moral values played.

Alan Cooperman at The Washington Post identifies other voices in a recent story that focused on “liberal Christian leaders,” and a new poll on moral values. In this poll, almost twice as many voters cited “greed and materialism” and “poverty and economic justice” more often than abortion or same-sex marriage. Among those Cooperman interviewed were Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourners, and the Rev. Welton Gaddy, head of the Interfaith Alliance. Cooperman writes:

In a conference call with reporters to discuss the election and the new poll, Wallis and three other Christian leaders argued that many religious Americans do not fall neatly into liberal or conservative camps … They contended that there is a vast religious middle, including “progressive evangelicals,” “resurgent mainline Protestants” and “socially conservative African Americans,” that could be attracted by biblically based “prophetic” appeals to make peace, fight poverty, and spread social justice.

The next step for journalists is to wade into the complexity of this “moral values” arena. Cover the full spectrum of people who see values as a critical component of their lives. Look beyond the labels. Visit their places of worship.

Look into the programs they say reflect their values. Offer fuller profiles showing how they live them out. And don’t forget that many people who profess no religious affiliation also see moral values as an important element in their lives.

Learn from websites that focus on religion and the press, such as The Revealer, produced by New York University, GetReligion, created by two religion journalists (Terry Mattingly and Doug Le Blanc), and ReligionLink, sponsored by the Religion Newswriters Association.

If journalists manage to capture the diversity of this topic, they may help the public understand that moral values involve a way of life — not just a label.

Aly Colón spent a day in 2002 as a consultant conducting writing sessions for Focus on the Family magazine and its online news staff. Read more


Monday, Oct. 25, 2004

Reporters Watch Candidates, Viewers Watch Reporters

As we enter the final week of election coverage, journalists might want to remember that while they watch the candidates, the public will be watching them. And what people see journalists saying, or doing, may affect how much credibility they attach to what journalists report.

Many journalists understand that their professional standards must remain above reproach. But what about what they do on their personal time? What impact might their personal activities have on their journalistic credibility?

That’s where the rub comes in.

Some journalists believe a great divide exists between the personal and professional. That what they do on their own time remains a private matter. That they should be able to exercise the same liberties any citizen would. After all, journalists, like the public, have subjective feelings and opinions. They exist in the world — not outside of it. And their personal orientation shouldn’t affect their professional reputation.

In fact, some might argue for more transparency. Let the public know what journalists believe, what political party they belong to, or what their political views are. That would allow the public to judge what they read, see, and hear in a fuller context. It also may not. Editors with different political leanings could be editing a reporter’s copy. So the report may then reflect multiple views.

Others worry that certain types of personal activity might send mixed messages to the public. Will the public consider off-duty involvements of some journalists as a guide to what their reporting biases may be? A number of journalists believe they may have to give up certain personal freedoms to ensure that their independence won’t be questioned.

But how much personal freedom must journalists surrender? That remains a controversial conversation in newsrooms. Evidence of those differences emerged recently when The St. Paul Pioneer Press suspended two of its reporters for attending a concertPioneer Press Editor Vicki Gowler addressed the controversy in a column Sunday.

Gowler had informed the staff that attending the “Vote for Change” concert could be seen as a conflict of interest because the proceeds go to Democratic candidates. The reporters who went disagreed. Their union said it would seek arbitration regarding the suspension.

Some news organizations have explicit restrictions or ethics codes that prescribe what journalists may or may not do. Others leave such decisions to the journalist’s individual discretion. With regard to the “Vote for Change” concert, Editor & Publisher reported that The Washington Post wouldn’t allow any of its reporters to attend, while the Cleveland Plain Dealer didn’t say its staff couldn’t attend.

The concert serves as just one example of the many different personal/professional decisions that journalists may face during this political campaign and ones to follow. At Poynter, our principles seek to guide journalists in how they might think about such issues. Part of our independence principle encourages journalists to “remain free of associations and activities that may compromise your integrity or damage your credibility.”

What does that mean? I believe it means we need to try to imagine what people would think if they witnessed us saying, or doing, something that would raise questions about how fair, impartial, and complete we can be in reporting the truth as fully as possible.

It may be helpful for journalists to put themselves in the place of their readers, listeners, viewers, or users and consider what their reaction might be if they saw themselves the way the public might.

 Imagine, for example, what someone might think:

  • If your car sported a bumper sticker with a candidate, or party, name?

  • If your yard displayed a political party sign?

  • If your spouse, partner, or other immediate family members campaigned for a candidate?

  • If they saw you at a political rally you weren’t covering for your news organization but had attended out of curiosity?

  • If you began partaking of the food and beverages provided at campaign headquarters?

  • If you clapped or showed other affirmative, or negative, expressions while a candidate was speaking?

  • If you made a financial campaign contribution to a particular candidate or cause?

  • If you were covering the campaign and you made your political party registration public, and informed people whom you planned to vote for?

  • If you informed the public of your personal opinions of the candidate, or the political parties?

These are just some of the situations that journalists could find themselves addressing. I’m sure the answers to the questions may vary from one journalist to another. 

The public’s perception of us will vary as well. In part, it will depend on how well the public understands what journalists do and how they do it.

It also depends on how well journalists explain who they are and what they do. Seeing themselves through the public’s eyes may help journalists realize how personal acts affect perceptions of their professional work. Read more


Friday, Oct. 08, 2004

Private and Public: What Journalists Reveal About Themselves

Can a journalist be too truthful?

How much should the public know about what a journalist personally believes about what she or he reports on professionally?

What are the boundaries for a journalist when it comes to professional and personal communications?

These questions and more arose when Farnaz Fassihi, a Wall Street Journal reporter based in Baghdad, recently wrote the truth about Iraq as she saw it. It prompted some journalists to ask if doing so compromised her credibility. It caused others to wonder why Fassihi’s account, which they consider truthful, should adversely affect her credibility.

Her candid and compelling account appeared in a personal e-mail to her friends that became public without her permission. It included what she had observed, what facts she knew, what she didn’t know. 

She also added a few of her own personal opinions. That’s what raised questions for some journalists about how her reporting on Iraq might be viewed when it appeared from now on in the pages of the Wall Street Journal

A number them began asking if she had revealed too much about her own perspective. Others wondered why anyone would read her account as anything other than an accurate rendering of what has been going on in Iraq.

Two competing principles intersect here. One involves the mandate to report the truth as fully as possible. The other deals with journalistic independence, which includes avoiding anything that might damage your credibility. 

Fassihi definitely offered her unvarnished version of the truth when she told her friends about Iraq and the role the United States plays there. What some journalists are wondering is whether the opinions she included in her e-mail may make some readers question the fairness of her reporting about Iraq in the future.

I think it’s important to stipulate a few things. What Fassihi wrote was a personal note, not a news report. She sent it out to people who know her, not to those who don’t. And her opinions followed factual, and substantive information, drawn from thorough reporting, her extensive knowledge, and her firsthand experience.  Also, much of what she wrote has been documented by other journalists and observers.

This merits mentioning because it shows this was not a personal opinion piece masquerading as a news story. It also indicates that she was not trying to influence the news process with her views.

Yet, the question lingers for some: Now that her views have received such widespread exposure, will readers wonder about her impartiality?

One simple way to address that would be to take her off that beat. (As it happens, she will be on a planned vacation that will run past the election, which had nothing to do with the e-mail, according to The Journal).  By reassigning her, The Journal would keep the readers’ attention on the paper’s reporting, not on its reporter and her opinions.

But that’s not the only alternative.

The Journal could keep her on the beat, explaining to readers what happened, and why it believed Fassihi could continue her reporting from Iraq in the same professional and impartial manner she has been doing. (In fact, Paul Steiger, The Journal’s managing editor, did support Fassihi. He was quoted in the New York Post saying that Fassihi’s opinions didn’t adversely affect the fairness of her news reporting.)

Informing readers about how the newspaper works at protecting the integrity of its reporting may have helped address questions about Fassihi’s reporting. Sharing the journalistic process common to most newsrooms might help readers understand the steps news operations take to maintain their credibility.

The paper could explain that, unlike an e-mail sent directly from the writer to the reader, the reporting done by journalists such as Fassihi must make its way through a phalanx of editors. Those editors work with the reporter to ensure the coverage meets standards of fairness, completeness, and accuracy that reflect the professionalism they all bring to the news product.

Now let’s get back to the questions posed earlier.

Can a journalist be too truthful? Maybe the answer has to do not only with how much truth a journalist conveys, but how the journalist conveys it. Is it clear where the journalist is getting the information and how the reporting supports it? If there are questions regarding the credibility of the reporting, what disclosures or explanations are offered to address those questions?

How much should the public know about what a journalist personally believes about what she or he reports on professionally? What a reporter believes, or doesn’t believe, matters less than how the reporting is supported by relevant facts, observations, and the other voices included in the story. And the more the public understands about the process involved in gathering and reporting the story, the better position it will be in to evaluate how credible the reporting appears to them. And if a reporter’s personal views become known, the news organization needs to explain how, and what it does, to mitigate the appearance of bias and prejudice.

What are the boundaries that exist for a journalist when it comes to professional and personal communications? I don’t know. Tim Rutten raises that issue in a piece he did for the Los Angeles Times. Journalists need to remember that whatever they say privately may have public consequences. I don’t think that precludes journalists from having opinions. It just means they must remain alert to how those opinions may affect the way people view their reporting.  It benefits them to weigh the benefits, and disadvantages, of what they communicate personally.

Interestingly enough, some readers may have found Fassihi’s e-mail account even more credible than some mainstream reporting because it bears the marks of personal sincerity as opposed to a more formal and impersonal documentation found in many news reports.

Ultimately, the credibility we have as journalists may depend not on what we believe personally, but on how we act professionally. And how we act professionally needs to be explained in a way that helps the public understand how we bring them the best, and fairest, journalism we humanly can. Read more


Monday, Sep. 20, 2004

Charging Toward Controversy

Some controversial stories are like red capes, inciting journalists to charge toward them regardless of potential danger. I don’t know whether CBS News saw a flash of red in the documents about President George W. Bush’s National Guard service. But it now appears CBS charged ahead with confidence and conviction, but without the preparation that would have helped protect them from the attacks on journalistic integrity that have followed.

An ethical framework can slow the charge, helping reporters, editors, producers and news directors, better anticipate the weaknesses — as well as the value — in stories certain to draw press and public scrutiny.

Drawing upon Poynter’s Guiding Principles and 10 Questions developed by Bob Steele, here is a list of some steps journalists can take to help them pursue controversial stories in an ethical way.

Before you publish or air the story:

  • Define clearly the journalistic purpose of the story. How will it advance what is already known, and unknown?

  • Inform yourself as fully as possible about all the information that supports – and contradicts – the story’s premise.

  • Include as many people in the process as possible, bringing a variety of perspectives and ideas to the discussion.

  • Appoint someone to act as a “contrarian” in the process, a role Steele has recommended to address the strength of the coverage. Have that individual raise all the shortcomings, questions, and counter-arguments about the story that others might.

  • Consider all the stakeholders. What effect will the story have on them? On others? What motivations might be involved? Are they legitimate?

  • Understand the consequences of reporting the story on the news organization. Will it enhance the news organization’s credibility or diminish it?

  • Be as transparent as possible in sharing the story. Be prepared to show how the story was pursued and what steps were taken to ensure its value and veracity.

  • Think about different alternatives that can help make the story public but minimize the harm that might follow from it.

  • Search out other voices with expertise in the subject who are not involved in the controversy. Use them as sounding boards.

  • Make sure all your ethical concerns are discussed and addressed before publishing or airing the story.

After the story is public:

  • If questions are being raised about your coverage, explain how the story was reported and produced.

  • Be as transparent about the work that went into it, how the story was verified and checked, and what steps were taken.

  • Describe the stakeholders in the story and their connections to what was reported and why it was reported the way it was.

  • Identify sources and explain why some sources are not being identified. Tell the public as much as possible about their backgrounds and why you used them.

  • Respond as quickly as possible to news media inquiries about the questions raised by the coverage.

  • Focus on the questions, not on who is raising them.

  • Be honest, be open, and be prepared to explain the story’s journalistic value and your pursuit of it. Be ready to reveal as quickly as possible how things unfolded.
Read more

Thursday, Sep. 09, 2004

1,000 Dead: Journalism By the Numbers

Although many journalists profess a hatred for math, they love using numbers as a hook.

The military death totals in Iraq became the latest example of that attraction. On September 7, news organizations reported that the number had reached 1,000. It has climbed since then. That number prompted a number of stories.

The Washington Post labeled it a “milestone.” A story in The New York Times referred to it as a  “sober milestone.”  The Los Angeles Times painted it as a “grim milestone.” Reuters reported the total as a “politically sensitive benchmark.”  I heard a Fox News television report calling the U.S. casualties “a terrible milestone.”

A milestone is defined as “an important event…in the history of a nation,… a turning point.”  A benchmark represents “a standard by which something can be measured or judged.”

But how do we determine the importance of such an event? What number constitutes a turning point? What’s the standard?

An email from Michael Stanton to Romenesko prior to the death toll reaching 1,000 presaged such questions and sought advice about how best to approach them. Stanton asked: “Do people believe that this is the kind of “milestone” that is significant to the readership in terms of helping them come to terms with the scope of the nation’s involvement in Iraq, or should the 1,000th death not be treated any differently than those that came before?”

He noted some of the political implications as well. Stanton wondered: “…will the coverage be influenced by how the campaigns choose to respond? Should it be? It’s a tricky landscape, but an important issue that seems worthy of some advance planning.”

I agree that focusing on that number, or any number, can be challenging. Stanton posed good questions to ask before the “event” happened. They still serve as valuable questions that journalist can consider as casualties mount and other “milestones” emerge.

Numbers do tell us something. But what?

As I read various news websites’ notation of how the 1,000 deaths constituted a milestone, I began looking for clues as to why this number was significant enough to attract the attention of news people and to dedicate prominent space to it. I tried to figure out why the number 1,000 stood out.

A number of the stories I read didn’t make that clear. Some simply reported the number. Others noted the political sensitivity to that number, noting that Senator John Kerry had referred to the number and the divisiveness it might provoke.

But why was the number 1,000 more important than any other number, say 700, or 825, or 910?

For example, a political furor erupted briefly last April when ABC’s “Nightline,” anchored by Ted Koppel, aired a special report that planned to name the 500 troops who had died in combat in the Iraq War. Then Nightline decided to add another 200 who died in non-combat situations. The controversy prompted Poynter’s Al Tompkins to interview Koppel for more understanding about “Nightline’s” coverage.

Obviously, there’s something attractive about large, round numbers, especially if they include many zeroes. Yet, how do news consumers sort out the value of such numbers? And this includes how journalists report other numbers as well: Unemployment rates, job growth figures, inflation rates, sales and profit numbers, etc. We need to offer the number and the story beneath it.

With regard to the U.S. military deaths in Iraq, I asked Poynter librarian David Shedden to help me with an historical comparison of U.S. military deaths in other conflicts. He found an Associated Press report that noted the following:

  • Afghan War: 135 deaths from Oct. 7, 2001 through Sept. 3, 2004

  • Persian Gulf War: 382 deaths, 1990-91

  • Vietnam War: 58, 209 deaths, 1955-1975

  • Korean War: 36,574 deaths, 1950-53

  • World War II: 405,399 deaths, 1941-1946

  • World War I: 116,516 deaths, 1917-1918

  • Spanish American War: 2,446 deaths, 1898

  • Civil War: 364,511 Union deaths, and approximately 133, 821 Confederate deaths, 1861-1865

  • Mexican War: 13,283 deaths, 1846-1848

  • War of 1812: 2,260, 1812-1815

  • Revolutionary War: 4,435 deaths, 1775-1783

Now those numbers alone don’t tell the whole story either. They also don’t tell us the number of military deaths suffered by the other countries involved in the conflict. But at least they offer one standard of comparison. The duration of time in which the deaths take place offers another context. A number of other stories made efforts to flesh out the numbers.

In The New York Times story noted earlier, reporter Monica Davey put the death toll in some perspective. Davey used the number of deaths to provide information about those affected in a variety of categories: Age, geography, race, ethnicity, branch of service, cause of death, rank, and gender. She also found people who helped humanize the numbers. 

Associated Press reporters Sharon Cohen and Pauline Arrillaga wrote a piece that tried to answer the question posed in the subhead: “What does it mean that 1,000 Americans have died?” They compared the death toll to other wars, noted where those who died came from, including those born in foreign countries. In addition to other breakdowns, they showed the impact the deaths had on certain communities.

As journalists, we report numbers only as one dimension of the journalistic process. More work must follow. Our journalism improves when we:

  • Tell why we’re using the number;

  • Address the meaning of the number; 

  • Explain its relationship to other numbers;

  • Indicate how the number illuminates our understanding;

  • Provide historical comparisons;

  • Offer insight into its impact on the public psyche;

  • Show its significance in the public’s decision-making process.

When we do journalism by the numbers, we need to offer not just the count, but the context. Read more


Friday, Aug. 27, 2004

The Swift Boat Genre: A 9-Point Checklist

The Swift boat coverage reflects the heat-seeking political journalism that is so prevalent today. 

It contains all the elements we find in such stories:

  • Prominent political figure;

  •  Explosive allegations against the political figure’s integrity and credentials;

  •  Initially ignored, but fueled by politically-oriented websites and radio talk shows;

  •  Fed upon by journalists hungry for something to replace the temporary lull in attention-grabbing news from other places;

  •  Long on he said/he said claims and counter-claims;

  •  Short on context, and independent, journalistic investigation and verification.

With the Republican National Convention beginning next week, maybe we can learn from the Swift boat controversy that exploded following the Democratic National Convention.

Instead of addressing such controversies by simply seeking commentary from competing camps, journalists might consider asking questions that illuminate, rather than just ignite, an issue.

When the political accusations/allegations begin flying, here are some of questions journalists might use to increase the public’s understanding of what they mean:

  • Who’s making the accusation/allegation?

  • What’s their background?

  •  Why now?

  • To whom are they connected?

  •  Where does the accuser’s funding come from?

  • What bearing does the accusation, allegation have on the individual and that person’s ability to lead?

  • What can be verified by facts, documentation, and public records?

  •  What kind of information connects the dots, and frames the issue, so the public can make informed decision about what’s going on?

  •  And our classic ethical decision-making question: what do we know and what do we need to know?

I recognize that the increasing number of news outlets vying for public attention make competition a more constant pressure that’s hard to avoid. For some journalists, this seems to mean we should let everything slip in. We just collect, count and cast it out there for all to see.

Such an approach promises to devalue what we do and how we do it. If we want to ensure our credibility in the midst of the controversy, here are some things to remember:

  •  We still need standards, guiding principles and questions we can ask before we fling open our gate.

  • We must focus not only the specifics of what we learn, but what it means to our audiences.

  • We benefit when we differentiate stories that involve information the public needs immediately, such as news of an approaching hurricane, from stories that can be more usefully presented after more reporting.

  • We benefit from taking more time to study, evaluate and scrutinize the nuances and complexities common to other stories that are not as immediate, such as the Swift boat saga.

  • We work best when we offer not only facts but also frames that enhance the ability of readers and viewers to understand the information.

To play with a popular line, the race is not always to the swift but to those secure and sure of what they have to offer. Read more


Monday, Aug. 16, 2004

Dissecting Disasters

I stared at the line that appeared on one news channel after another, tracing the predicted path of Hurricane Charley. The red, curving line — filled with spinning circles — led right up to Tampa Bay, Fla., where I live. The news I watched, heard, and read prior to Hurricane Charley’s arrival mattered; it factored into decisions I would make with my family that might spell deliverance or disaster.

Anyone facing the possibility of a life-threatening event, such as a hurricane, a tornado, or even an act of terrorism, depends on the news media for information. We, like others in similar situations, face serious questions: What should we do? Where should we go? How soon should we act? How the news media responds to such questions may help or hinder us.

So what are our ethical responsibilities when providing such coverage? I’d like to use the coverage I saw of Hurricane Charley to think out loud about that.

I watched the local news media throw itself completely into the coverage of a local hurricane threat unlike any other in years. Local news directors and editors dispatched crews everywhere they thought would yield information people might need. 

I felt grateful for every fact that clarified what was happening. I shuddered each time I heard pronouncements that made possibilities seem like indisputable facts. I felt overwhelmed when the information flowed indiscriminately, without any other purpose than to pass it on.

More coverage is good. More thoughtful coverage is better. A return to fundamental reporting, which includes ethics as a critical component, becomes imperative.

I valued the substantive reports that told me what knowledgeable sources, government officials, and hurricane experts had to say. I wondered when some news people spoke with authority about what would happen and what people should do. How did they know this? What were they basing it on?

For example, I heard a number of reports that the hurricane was definitely headed our way. We needed to evacuate. While I valued the information, I felt more confident about it when the reporter attributed it to a source. Some did. Some did not. I imagine that to save time some reporters simply relayed the information directly without wasting time on attribution. But that attribution helps the news consumer evaluate how reliable the information is.

I sensed sameness in the coverage. Reports seemed to agree with each other. This made the information, and the latest technological tools used to track the storm, seem even more solid. Reporters did not always remind us that nothing was certain. The tone seemed authoritative. But I wondered if there were different, or contrary, views?

The uncertainty,unpredictability of the event sometimes seemed de-emphasized. The Washington Post, for example, published a piece after the hurricane hit that explained tracking paths is more accurate than it used to be, but not perfect. Had we been aware of the limitations, we might have made different decisions, as indeed some of those south of us may wish they had.

Our reporting has implications for the public, whether the news involves a hurricane, tornado, flood, severe storm, or terror alert. To handle that reality responsibly, consider using ethical guidelines and questions as part of the reporting process. Think about:

  • Gathering information that includes different, or contrary, views and perspectives
  • Attributing the information so people can verify it and know how reliable it is
  • Providing perspective on similar events in the past that might help gauge the different scenarios that might emerge
  • Explaining who is making the predictions, why they’re making them, where they’re coming from, what expertise they have, and their track record on this matter
  • Refraining from sounding like the authority on the subject and instead seek out authoritative sources

If you have other suggestions, please share them. The coverage of such events taxes journalists, as well as the public. We need the confidence to share what we know, what we don’t know, and what we need to know. Then we can report that so the public feels alerted, not just alarmed.

The hurricane hit south of us, ravaging the coastal and inland communities in its path. While we were spared, others suffered. The coverage of the disaster continues. For those who thought the hurricane would hit their communities, and for those who experienced it, the hunger for information has not abated. Read more


Friday, July 30, 2004

The Ethics of Silence

With the Democratic National Convention behind us, the Republican National Convention ahead of us, and the coverage of political races all around us, I hear a journalistic variation of Simon & Garfunkel’s “Sounds of Silence playing in my head.

Sing along to my version:

Hello politics, my old friend
I’ve come to cover you again
Because a coverage loudly screaming
Left its stories while I was watching
And the journalism that was planted in my brain
Still remains
Outside the sound of silence
And in the naked camera eye I saw
Ten thousand journalists, maybe more
Journalists talking without ceasing
Journalists pontificating without reporting
Journalists presenting stories that they want to share
And all of them dared to disturb the sound of silence

My reworking of the lyrics may seem an odd way to examine ethics and political coverage. Even the idea of silent journalists sounds like an oxymoron. After all, regardless of the platform, we see ourselves as part of a mass medium. We channel voices into community — and countrywide –conversations.

How can silence serve that mission?

I wondered that myself. And I continued pondering it because Sheila Colón, my wife, decided to use me as a proxy for the news media and vent her displeasure about the coverage she witnessed.

She kept asking me why the network news operations offered so little coverage of the convention. And, in a more frustrated tone, why the cable news networks that did provide coverage told too much and showed too little.

I initially attempted to offer a variety of possible explanations. First of all, ABC, CBS, and NBC no longer exist solely as news companies. Instead, they are subsidiaries within larger, commercial enterprises with interests beyond journalism. Or maybe they felt that the need for more complete coverage seemed less imperative since there was no news as to who the nominees would be.

Besides, I tried arguing, viewers could turn to the cable news channels, which offered more coverage. Finally, for those who simply wanted to watch and listen to a news version of cinema vérité, they can turn to C-SPAN.

And, as it turned out, C-SPAN became the place we turned to get a sense of things as they unfolded. Sheila valued C-SPAN because it provided unfiltered, uninterrupted access to the speeches and to those attending the convention.

And she’s not alone in that desire. Other people we know said the same thing to her and to me. The day after Sheila expressed her views, I turned to Poynter Online’s STUMP, where published comments by multimedia editor Larry Larsen and Institute president Karen Dunlap bemoaned what I refer to as “journalistic interruptus.” Even politicians and media critics voiced their frustration in a recent USA Today piece.

So what can we learn from this?

That silence works. Not the silence that stills the public’s voice. But the silence that strategically, and wisely, occurs when we, as journalists, get out of the way of the story.

While I’ve been focusing on the television coverage, I believe the public also wants journalists to mute their own voices more often when it comes to relaying the news on radio, in newspapers, and online. And then amplify and expand the voices of those participating in the political process from voters to campaign workers to candidates.

Don’t misunderstand me. I value the analysis, interpretation, and opinion that journalists can offer on political events. I just think it may help to make it clearer to the public when, and where, coverage rather than commentary is taking place. And to focus more on the former and maybe slightly less on the latter.

While news consumers have many more choices to turn to for coverage, including political weblogs, they also yearn for opportunities to see (literally and through their reading) what’s going on as completely as possible.

Some important questions to consider when it comes to the journalist’s role in such political coverage: When does it make sense to get out of the way? And do viewers understand when we’ve shifted from news to commentary?

We need to think about how we’re answering those questions so we can offer the public more transparency about what we’re doing and why.

For those of us eager to tell others what to think (and I include myself in that category), we need to remind ourselves that people also want to come to their own conclusions. They need us to be their eyes and ears, not just another mouthpiece. Read more


Wednesday, July 07, 2004

The Moviegoer’s Guide to Ethics

Summer prompts writers to create reading lists.

My colleague, Chip Scanlan, offers a number of fascinating books we can enjoy in a recent column, which I’ve printed and plan to use.

I thought about making a similar reading list for books about ethics. Then I thought again. (Please stifle your sigh of shock and relief. Contrary to the stereotype, even those of us who care about ethics like to have fun.)

After all, summer speaks to me of sun, fun, and puns. I’ll spare you the puns. But in the fun category, movies offer escape from the heat, and an entertaining way to watch journalistic ethical issues unfold.

Dr. Ink turned to Poynter librarian David Shedden for a list of movies back in 2001 when he answered a question about his favorite movie about journalism. His answer? “The Year of Living Dangerously,” 1982. I consider it a fascinating picture as well, fraught with ethical subtexts. I drew upon that list, too. And I want to thank David Shedden for his help once again.

So what are some movies that go well with buttered popcorn and salty ethics?

Absence of Malice,” which came out in 1982, still stands out as a popular movie that shows the ethical shortcomings the media faces when it comes to relationships with sources and investigative reporting. Written by a former executive editor of the Detroit Free Press, the screenplay brings a feeling of authenticity to the time and the journalism portrayed.

The Front Page,”

a classic that graced the silver screen in 1931 (Ran as a TV series in 1945, 19481949, 1970, then was remade as a film in 1974), captured another age and angst. See The Paper,” 1994, for a more modern take on the challenges journalists face. Don’t miss the pressroom scene for the physical force that ethics can require.

Another classic, “Citizen Kane,” which premiered in 1941, offers a full range of ethical, and unethical, entanglements that seem as pertinent today as when it first came out.

On the broadcast front, the battle between business and journalism values takes fascinating twists and turns in such favorites as Network(from 1976), Broadcast News,” (from 1987), and The Insider (1999).

Below, I provide an incomplete list of movie titles, along with short comments from me, that you can consider checking out of your local video store for your entertainment and ethical enjoyment.

Feel free to post your favorite titles of movies about journalism that raise ethical quandaries. And enjoy the summer. Read more