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. 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. 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. 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. 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?
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? 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?
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. 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. 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. Read more