Ethics

Two students comfort each other during a candlelight vigil held to honor the victims of Friday night's mass shooting on Saturday, May 24, 2014, in Isla Vista, Calif. Sheriff's officials say Elliot Rodger, 22, went on a rampage near the University of California, Santa Barbara, stabbing three people to death at his apartment before shooting and killing three more in a crime spree through a nearby neighborhood. (AP Photo/Jae C. Hong)

The right way to publish a killer’s deranged manifesto

There’s a democratic value to publishing and referencing Elliot Rodger’s manifesto. The 22-year-old mass murderer left us a 141-page window into his deranged thinking.

But don’t just publish it, add context. Perhaps the most valuable thing journalists can do would be to get psychiatrists and psychologists to annotate the document. (Though perhaps you wouldn’t want to annotate it like this.)

Art Caplan, head of the bioethics division at NYU’s Langone Medical Center, advocates the same approach when considering the publication of medical research produced by Nazi doctors. By explaining the flaws behind information, we contribute to an improving body of knowledge while neutralizing the potential of perpetuating harm.

“Make it clear this is the raving of a devious and delusional mind,” Caplan said of Rodger’s manifesto. “Help us understand what compels someone to be so hateful and mysogonistic.”

Also, help the audience see what hate and misogyny really look like. You can do that the way the New York Post did, by labeling the killer’s ravings as those of a lunatic. Or you can point out the many places misogynists turn to reinforce their hate, the way the Soraya Nadia McDonald did for The Washington Post in this piece.

Journalists who repeat the names of childhood acquaintances that Rodger faulted for his personal misery have a particular responsibility to counteract that blame in their reporting.

When we leave out the additional context that would condemn Rodger’s logic, we run the risk of legitimizing his rationale. It seems ludicrous, until you consider the fact that misogyny is the root of many crimes.

Journalists asked similar questions when The Washington Post and The New York Times, at the request of the FBI, published the Unabomber’s manifesto in 1995, hoping that someone might be able to identify him (which worked.) That 35,000-word screed against technology, equality, and progressive causes remains available today. Read more

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‘We spoke from the heart’: how a former journalist influenced coverage of his family members’ killings

Will Corporon left broadcast journalism nearly 20 years ago. Though he loved news, he felt compelled to make a career change. The 24/7 demands of TV kept him away from his family far too much, and he gravitated to insurance and financial services.

On April 13, when his father and nephew were killed outside the Jewish Community Center of Greater Kansas City, his news instincts kicked back in.

But not at first.

There was too much else to deal with: The what-the-hellish shock of a phone call from his brother-in-law Len Losen, as Will, wife Heather and five of their blended family’s children had arrived in Tulsa for daughter Alli’s cheerleading competition. The maddeningly incomplete early information — that the beloved man who his family called “Popeye” and his community knew as Dr. William Lewis Corporon — had been shot, but nothing further. The second call from Will’s mother Melinda, 20 minutes or so later, telling him his father was dead and no one at that moment knew the status of Will’s 14-year-old nephew Reat Underwood, who had also been shot and was rushed away by ambulance.

Will and Heather moved quickly, leaving their older children in Tulsa with Heather’s mom, grabbing toddler Olivia and heading out, first for their home in Northwest Arkansas to make arrangements for the children’s needs in the uncertain week ahead. En route, the next assault of sorrow: In a call that Will describes as “sad but sad times a thousand,” they learned that Reat, too, was gone.

A recent picture of Dr. William Lewis Corporon and his grandson Reat Griffin Underwood. Both were shot and killed April 13. (Will Corporon photo)

Heather Corporon’s training as a nurse led her to take charge in her own way, packing, organizing, comforting — and driving, often with one hand on the wheel and the other holding Will’s.

On that three-hour slog from their Arkansas home to what he describes as “a big pile of human suffering” in Kansas City, Will Corporon realized he had a job to do, and called on skills he’d honed in the 10 years he spent as a TV photographer, producer, assignment editor and news director. The killings of his kin had become a national, even international, story and he would make certain it was told right.

Will’s family told him the Overland Park Hospital’s public relations department was working on a news release and wanted him to review it. The draft contained no victim identifications and few details, an earnest effort by the hospital to give the family time to share the news with their closest circle first.

But from the passenger seat of a Ford Expedition, with little Olivia watching Barney videos in back, Will took a different tack and began coordinating his family’s coverage — his way.  With their approval, he rewrote the release and filled it with details that mattered most to the family:

It is with deep sadness that we confirm the tragic loss of Dr. William Lewis Corporon and Reat Griffin Underwood (Losen) who died as a result of the injuries they sustained in today’s shooting at the Jewish Community Center.  Dr. Corporon was Reat’s Grandfather, whom he loved very much.

Dr. Corporon leaves behind his wife of 49 years and a loving and devoted family and extended family.  Dr. Corporon practiced family medicine in Marlow and Duncan,  Oklahoma from 1976 through 2003, when he and his wife moved to the Kansas City area to be closer to their grandchildren.  He was a well-loved physician in the Johnson County community,  cherished his family and more than anything had a passion for caring for others.

Reat was a 14 year-old Freshman at Blue Valley High School – a school he loved.   Reat participated in debate, theatre and had a beautiful voice.  Reat had a passion for life, and touched so many people in his young age.  Reat was an Eagle Scout and loved spending time camping and hunting with his Grandfather, Father, and brother.  Both Reat and Dr. Corporon were very proud supporters of the University of Oklahoma and it’s sports teams.

We would like to thank our friends, family and our church, the United Methodist Church of the Resurrection, and school community for the outpouring of love and support during this very difficult time.  We take comfort knowing they are together in Heaven.

We ask for privacy as we mourn the loss of our beloved Dr. Corporon and Reat.

Thank you very much,
Will Corporon, Son and Uncle

At the same time, he dispatched his mother, brother and sister to find the best possible photos of Popeye and Reat, preferably together, and email them to him. On his iPad, he began editing and distributing those photos to the many news outlets whose email requests had been forwarded to him by the hospital PR staff. According to Will, “Within minutes those beautiful photos of my dad and his beloved grandson were being shown on every channel in the country and around the world. It happened that fast.”

Will and his sister Mindy, Reat’s mother, took the same proactive approach to speaking to the media. When I saw coverage of him addressing reporters, I realized that this man was the same Will Corporon I’d met in a Poynter seminar in the early ’90s, when he was news director of KAIT-TV in Jonesboro, Arkansas.

Will Corporon, left, and his father, Dr. William Lewis Corporon (Will Corporon photo)

I watched news anchors comment about the family’s stoicism, grace and faith, and I wondered how Will got through it all. And as I thought about what an important story he had to share with journalists, he was thinking the same thing, and reached out to me.

We talked at length, he shared journal entries he’s writing that might become a book, and he responded to a list of questions I emailed him for this story.  He also granted me permission to edit his answers for clarity and brevity:

Jill: Would you share more about your decision to get in front of the story quickly – to provide details and distribute photos?

Will: I decided that if we were going to get something public it needed to immediately begin to tell their story — the victims’ story — and not the perp’s. At that point, I had little to no info about him and didn’t want any, frankly. So I added personal info to the release and at the same time asked my brother, sister, and mom to email me pictures of Dad and Reat asap. They had a few in their phones … .

Knowing the media has deadlines — knowing television needs pictures — knowing journalists need “human stories,” I knew we could not hide and try to be private. We had to provide information or the media would do whatever they had to in order to get their own pictures and stories. And that would not be good. Then our privacy could be compromised. The dignity of of my Father and Reat would be compromised.

Jill: You mentioned to me that several of the occasions in which you and your sister Mindy — Reat’s mother — spoke publicly, it was spontaneous, not something you planned. What led you to be as available and candid as you were?

Will: We wanted to portray our father and son/nephew/grandson in the best possible light. There is no way to do that given the circumstances without showing our grief. You can’t have one without the other. So there was no forethought to how we portrayed ourselves. We were just honest. We spoke from the heart.

As far as availability, I fielded calls from newspapers and local TV and networks. We were somewhat selective. I chose “CBS Evening News” on the Monday after the Sunday murders. I enjoyed the conversation with the producer, Ryan. I also liked that the story was going to be the lead and was going to focus on our family. Lastly, the correspondent was Dean Reynolds. I have respected his work since I started my journalism career back in the 1980s. My sister chose to be on the “Today” show because she liked Savannah Guthrie and felt she would do a good job asking her questions.

I guess that just goes to show that reputations built over years, or in just a few seconds, can make all the difference when a reporter or producer is working a source. As it turns out, the choices we made were good ones. We were very pleased with the way both news programs treated us and the memories of Dad and Reat.

Jill: The killing of William Lewis Corporon, Reat Underwood and Terri LaManno (the third victim, shot at a second location) was local, national and international news. How do you assess the performance of news organizations? Does any one organization or journalist stand out — for better or worse?

Will: I was really impressed with some of the local Kansas City blogs and some of the local KC news magazines (newspaper inserts with local columnists) … . We didn’t watch TV a lot. There was nothing that was negative. Those we dealt with were all very professional. I was very happy and pleasantly surprised. I hate to say that, but I figured at some point I would have someone who would overstep. But it didn’t happen. Everyone I dealt with was sympathetic. Professional and understanding.

Jill: As you faced national and local media, you spoke in detail about your faith. You told me you were pleasantly surprised that your spiritual message wasn’t tuned out or edited out but featured prominently in coverage. Why?

Will: I know from being in the media and from nearly 20 years watching from the outside that often people who express their faith are either ignored or perhaps lightly ridiculed. Perhaps with a  smirk. Usually I think the soundbites we hear of people talking about God or Jesus (in the case of Christians) may lend credence to people thinking “those people sound a little nuts.” Perhaps that’s my own bias speaking.

We’ve all seen the aftermath of storms where people are interviewed climbing out of rubble — usually a trailer — thanking their Creator, often without thinking about what they are saying or how it will be perceived. It is raw emotion. And that is what drives live television and live-to-tape reactions. It’s what makes TV news so good — but it’s also what drives so many viewers crazy. Especially those of us who want to elaborate a little more about our “religion” than just, “Thank you, Lord Jesus, for savin’ us from that twister.” I am not trying to be humorous. Trying to make a point … .

I think in our case we were able to be more thoughtful because it was not spot news. We had time before, during, and after each interview to think about what we said and how we might say it the next time. In fact, much of what we said we have been hearing all our lives from our pastors and leaders in church and way back in youth groups. I think when this horrible thing happened we were prepared, DIVINELY prepared, to not only deal personally and as a family with such tragedy, but also to show those who were watching that God’s grace was present in such an evil situation.

Jill: Do you have advice for citizens and journalists who become part of stories like yours?

Will: I think journalists have to work very hard to remain human. It is an easy thing to say, “Leave out your opinions and report facts.” But in a story like this, I think it cries for the human side. And in order to do that, I think the reporters (producers, anchors, editors, photographers, etc. …) who do the best are the ones who can see everything unfold through HUMAN eyes.

We didn’t get the “how do you feel” questions. We didn’t get the questions about the bad guy. We got the questions we wanted. We got the questions we were willing to answer — about our family. We did make it clear prior to interviews that we would not answer questions about the killer and, thankfully, we didn’t have anyone violate that.

I think that newsrooms should have regular meetings (perhaps annual) where they review these kinds of stories. Perhaps ones they covered or perhaps one that has been worked up in a teaching way from an organization like Poynter. I think one of the problems with the 24-hour news cycle is taking time to get adequate continuing education. I guess I really have no leg to stand on here since I am no longer a practicing journalist but I’ll bet I am right, at least in most newsrooms. The drive for more and more news — finish one newscast and move quickly to the next — does not provide much time for reflection, let alone stopping for full-scale evaluation and training.

I also think that shying away from anything faith-related is a mistake. A huge percentage of this country goes to church, or synagogue, or Mass, or whatever. Why shy away from it? Report on important issues. Talk about it. Take a leadership position. Even talk about a lack of faith as a faith. Cover it all. I think it would be really good and I think it is something that is sorely missing in journalism today.

Dr. William Corporon, known to his family as “Popeye,” holding his granddaughter, baby Olivia Corporon, who “loved to perch on her grandfather’s generous belly.” (Will Corporon photo)

A Postscript

Will and I exchanged many messages as I double-checked information and he sent me photos, including one of his dad and little Olivia, who Will says loved to perch on her grandfather’s generous belly.

A short postscript stays with me as a reminder of the power of those human details and the insights Will Corporon wants reporters to pay attention to:

PS: Dad never really smiled in a picture. Olivia doesn’t either. Cracks us up.  She looks a LOT like her Popeye.  And has same mannerisms too.  Breaks my heart. Read more

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Can journalists prevent suicide clusters?

Suicides sometimes happen in clusters. Epidemiologists and suicide prevention experts have often claimed that media coverage is partially to blame for this. Thus that old-fashioned and often ignored rule: Don’t cover suicides.

Of course that rule came with a couple of caveats. Celebrity suicides were fair game. So too were suicides that happened in public places. Because of those carve-outs and others (if it’s really interesting, or if people are talking about it) the rule never really worked. The news media have always covered suicides, sometimes badly.

While suicide prevention advocates cite the potential for contagion in their effort to get newsrooms to change their standards, journalists, including me, have responded with skepticism. That’s because there has never been a conclusive study in a peer-reviewed journal that specifically tied contagion to media coverage.

Until now. This month a study published in the Lancet Psychiatry Journal confirms that certain types of media coverage do indeed make suicide contagion more likely to happen, particularly among teenagers and young adults.

The author, Dr. Madeline Gould, professor of epidemiology in psychiatry at Columbia University Medical Center, conducted the statistical analysis as part of a larger autopsy study, then compared suicides associated with a cluster, to suicides that were not part of a cluster, and media reporting.

Her conclusions: Stories about an individual with the word suicide in the headline, stories on the front page of a newspaper, photos of the dead person, detailed descriptions of the act of suicide and portrayals of the suicide victim as noble, angelic or heroic, are associated with more suicides in the same community. It’s not a causal relationship, but rather they are related. Brandy Zadrozny’s Daily Beast article does a good job translating the study into layman’s English.

But here’s the problem for journalists. Those are the devices of good story-telling and effective headline writing. Suicides are tragic events. And when you decide a story is interesting enough to tell, you want to pack it full of emotional punch. But those details can be a factor that contributes to a suicide cluster.

Why? There are both biological and sociological reasons, she said.

Biologically, the frontal cortex doesn’t fully mature in humans until the early 20s. An immature cortex is associated with impulsive behavior. Teens and 20-year-olds are also at the age when serious psychiatric problems can emerge.

Sociologically, during the teen years, family becomes less important and social peers become more important. That reverses for most people in their 20s. Young people also have not had the experience of watching difficult problems come and go. So when they experience serious depression or anxiety, it seems like life will always be that way, Gould said.

“I’m not saying that this will occur in a vacuum with healthy people,” Gould said. Instead, she is suggesting that media attention to individual suicide victims can be harmful to people already at risk for suicide.

But there’s a catch with this study: All the data was gathered between 1988 and 1996. And the media examples most likely to lead to contagion all came from newspapers.

It’s hard to believe that newspapers could have the same influence with the modern under-25 set, who are more likely to consume information through social media and mobile devices. Instead we have to extrapolate her findings into an environment that’s harder to measure and control.

Along those lines, just today, celebrity shrink Dr. Drew Pinsky lead the announcement of Social Media Guidelines for Mental Health Promotion and Suicide Prevention, a more general set of best practices which seem to address the general public, suicide prevention advocates, and  journalists.

The guidelines acknowledge something that suicide researchers have been talking about for some time, that all stories about suicide and attempted suicides are not equally harmful. In a social media setting, it is impossible to prevent people from discussing suicide. The guidelines suggest best practices about language choices, audience engagement, privacy concerns and how to address suicidal content.

Several organizations including Facebook, RTDNA and the Entertainment Industries Council endorsed the guidelines.

Journalists may find more practical advice from the Reporting on Suicide guidelines, which were developed in collaboration with a number of journalists and journalism education institutions.

Will any of this matter? While suicide rates are declining among teen and young adults, they are rising among baby boomers and veterans. Because true statistical analysis takes so long, it’s hard to say what really contributes to pattern changes.

“Suicide behavior is complex, contagion is one piece of the puzzle,” Gould said. “But it’s worth addressing every piece of the puzzle.”

In addition to avoiding the behaviors that might lead to contagion, journalists can find stories of hope and recovery among people who have contemplated or attempted suicide. Those stories were taboo among suicide prevention advocates for a long time, for fear of contributing to contagion. But that community has opened up, and as a result it’s possible that journalists will find new ways to tell compelling stories about suicide and mental health.

And even if they don’t, Gould suspects the public will do its own storytelling, using social media. Once the underlying stigma of seeking treatment for mental health issues diminishes, there may be real progress in reducing rates of suicide. Read more

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Craig Newmark, founder of Craigslist and Poynter donor, writes on the Poynter ethics site about a New Republic article that asserts, using anecdotes, that ageism is rampant in Silicon Valley.

Newmark says he was taken aback, and that as far as he could tell, discrimination against older people is no different in SV than elsewhere in business.

But he also says: “If somebody asserts something factual, I want them to back it up with more than anecdotes, so that readers can trust it.”

So he turned to friends in the journalism world, including Dan Gilmor and Liz Spayd, for their take on the subject and asked: “When is anecdotal reporting enough to support broad conclusions without concrete data? This recent article on ageism in Silicon Valley seemed to paint an entire group of people based [on] a handful of examples. Is that fair?”

Read their answers.

 

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Reuters uses activists as photographers in Syria

The New York Times

Reuters employs rebel activists and “in one case a spokesman” as photographers in Syria, James Estrin and Karam Shoumali write. In interviews with photographers there, they say there are more issues with the wire service’s practices:

Three [photographers] also said that the freelancers had provided Reuters with images that were staged or improperly credited, sometimes under pseudonyms. And while Reuters has given the local stringers protective vests and helmets, most said that the stringers lacked training in personal safety and first aid.

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BuzzFeed reporter’s use of tweets stirs controversy

BuzzFeed’s Jessica Testa noticed a unique thread on her Twitter timeline Wednesday. Twitter user @steenfox asked her followers who were rape survivors to share what they were wearing when they were attacked. The results were rather spectacular. Some were in college when they were assaulted. Others were children. The precise details of their memories – pink pajamas, or peep-toe flats – provided a window into the insidious nature of rape.

Seeing an opportunity to tell an interesting story, Testa asked some of those same Twitter users for their permission to aggregate the tweets, then organized them by themes, drawing out the trends, adding her observations and sprinkling in some statistics about sexual assault. The result was this BuzzFeed news item that went up Wednesday evening.

It was an effective device to counter many of the myths about rape. Read more

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CNN sheds light on family’s harrowing experience, Alaska’s highest rape rate

CNN Photo by Brandon Ancil

Convicted sex offenders are American pariahs, kept at bay by law and stigma. In the Alaskan wilderness, however, an experiment is underway to keep these criminals close to their communities.

“The Rapist Next Door,” by CNN.com columnist John D. Sutter, describes the approach through the harrowing prism of one family: a wife, daughter and the husband who raped the child. This remarkably detailed story blends a family’s tragedy and startling response with a policy-driven look at the state with the country’s highest rape rate, accompanied by absorbing videos. In an email interview for the Poynter Excellence Project, Sutter reveals how he reported, structured and wrote the story, grappled with ethical dilemmas, why he employs first-person storytelling and describes CNN’s unusual approach to choosing such stories. Read more

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**FILE** An Amtrak train arrives in Portland, Maine, in this Dec. 14, 2007 file photo. Amtrak must spend tens of millions of dollars to replace defective ties on the heavily traveled Northeast Corridor or risk delays and loss of business, the railroad warns. The concrete ties were purchased beginning in the 1990s and have already begun to crack, Amtrak spokesman Cliff Black said Wednesday, Feb. 27, 2008. Concrete ties normally last about 50 years. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, FILE)

Journalists should pass on free Amtrak tickets

Freelance writer Jessica Gross just has a thing for writing and trains. So when Amtrak offered her a free $400 roundtrip train ride from New York to Chicago, she hopped on board. Now, hundreds of writers, musicians and journalists are on Twitter asking Amtrak to consider them for a free ride, too.

She writes for a wide range of clients. “I write for the New York Times Magazine,  I interview writers about literary things,” she explained. “I am not really a travel writer.”

The notion of an Amtrak “writer-in-residence” started in a Twitter exchange, one of those “I wish..” musings. Novelist Alexander Chee was asked in a December interview the location of his favorite place to write. He responded, “I still like a train best for this kind of thing. I wish Amtrak had residencies for writers. And after trains, libraries at night, especially empty ones.” Read more

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Five questions answered about reporting on your local confession site

Confessions sites are popping up in teen communities all over the country. There is a Twitter feed called yococonfessions, targeting the community of York County, Pa. A post about a weapon on the Facebook page, Amherst Regional High School Confessions, closed the high school for a day.

Sometimes confessions sites disrupt schools, making it likely that local reporters will pay attention. Here are five questions to consider when writing about confession sites: Read more

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Lessons learned from Grantland’s tragic story on Dr. V

By editor-in-chief Bill Simmons’ own admission, ignorance was the biggest mistake Grantland made in reporting and publishing the story of Dr. V and her innovative golf putter. Ignorance about one of the most vulnerable minority groups — transgender people.

Plenty of writers have dissected Grantland’s mistakes in reporting a story about the entrepreneur with a checkered past who happened to be transgender.

But this case need not only be a tragic example of what can go wrong. This can also be a moment for news organizations to learn how to get smarter, make stronger ethical decisions and compensate for weaknesses that can lead to harm. Read more

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