February 6, 2019

We live in the age of the misinformation superhighway. The pile-ups that happen there no longer revolve around the inside baseball of running newsrooms, but around the fraying fabric of our civic life. Modern journalism is facing an unprecedented challenge to its ability to confront those who trade in lies and confusion in pursuit of power or profit. Here at Poynter, where ethics has been center stage for 40 years, we are launching an ambitious initiative to elevate the craft and conscience of journalism.

We’re getting more calls than ever for ethics advice  — like the one Al Tompkins took recently from a TV producer about whether to air footage of brutal fighting among a group of prisoners. The footage was both graphic and unverified. The producer had to balance the opportunity to expose wrongdoing with essential concerns around veracity.

More and more, those conversations are happening in our living rooms. Be it on Twitter or cable, in editorials or your email, you will find debates over the trustworthiness of sources, arguments about “objectivity,” and rants about whether newsrooms are trading truth for clicks. Questions about journalists seem to outnumber questions from journalists.

“When there is a fire hose flow of information, a percentage of it is going to be unreliable,” said Tompkins, Poynter’s senior faculty member. “So how much of it is unreliable and what do we do to combat it? That’s what we’re faced with now.”

To help meet that challenge, we are creating The Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at the Poynter Institute.

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Funded by a $5 million grant from Craig Newmark Philanthropies, the Center will expand  teaching, research and coverage of media ethics. It is the single largest contribution ever made to Poynter.

Newmark Philanthropies is also making a separate $10 million gift to Columbia Journalism School to endow the Craig Newmark Center for Journalism Ethics and Security and the Craig Newmark Professorship.

“With disinformation flowing through social platforms and the news, it’s critical to modernize journalism ethics so that the industry keeps pace with the ever-changing digital landscape,” said Craig Newmark, founder of craigslist and a major benefactor of programs that support growing trust in journalism. “Both Columbia Journalism School and Poynter are already helping journalists do just that, and with these gifts, I hope they’ll become the industry’s go-to resources for the challenges journalists face in a data-driven world.”

At Poynter, the Center will be led by Senior Vice President Kelly McBride, a nationally recognized journalism ethicist. McBride will also be the Newmark Ethics Chair, a position created with a Newmark grant two years ago.

In addition to training and consultation, the Newmark Center at Poynter will serve as a clearinghouse for best practices. McBride and others will write extensively about journalism ethics as a beat, delivered regularly on poynter.org and via an ethics newsletter. Poynter will also organize an annual trust and ethics summit.

With the grant, Poynter will establish an annual fellowship for a professional journalist to conduct research, write about and teach ethics, and share expertise with organizations nationally.

“We want to build up the next generation of leaders to guide newsrooms through the minefields,” McBride said. “This is about making journalism stronger.”  

In all, Poynter seeks to be something of an industry ombudsman, bringing together the many players who are waging battle against misinformation — be it created directly by nefarious sources, or indirectly through ineffective journalism.

At Columbia, the work will include expanding instruction in digital and physical security, algorithmic bias, image manipulation and source protection in a high-surveillance era.

Red light vs. green light

Poynter has been a prominent brand in media ethics since the early 1980s. The “Jimmy’s World” scandal in 1980 (a Pulitzer Prize-winning Washington Post narrative about an 8-year-old heroin addict was found to be a fiction and the Post had to return the prize) ignited the modern movement for greater transparency and training on ethical decision-making.

Poynter’s faculty taught ethics, specialized in case studies and became national consultants to media companies. Along the way, Roy Peter Clark, the longtime face of Poynter teaching, and fellow scholar Bob Steele, crafted a set of questions that journalists could consider — even on deadline — to understand the potential consequences of the work. The goal was to minimize overreach and be honest when criticism came. They called it “green light” ethics — finding the path to publish or broadcast, thereby fulfilling the journalistic mission to speak truth to power — rather than a “red light” code of prohibitions that might dilute or censor.

That approach remains relevant today.

“We don’t seek to be ethics police. There are plenty of scolds,” Tompkins said. “Our goal is to offer a process for the decision-making.”

Steele was the voice of ethics at Poynter for years. He mentored and was later succeeded in that role by McBride, who came to Poynter 17 years ago after a career as a local news reporter and award-winning religion writer. McBride joined the ethics faculty, writing about plagiarism and specializing in how to cover sexual assault, suicide and mental health issues. She is the co-editor, along with American Press Institute President Tom Rosenstiel, of “The New Ethics of Journalism: Principles for the 21st Century” (2013). She served as ESPN’s ombudsman in 2012 and 2013, and has consulted on ethics matters for The Washington Post, USA Today, CNN, NPR and the BBC, and many others.

Today, McBride, Tompkins and Poynter media business reporter and faculty member Rick Edmonds field ethics calls regularly in a journalism environment that has been transformed by technological advances and the evaporation of traditional revenue sources (in part because of the appeal of successful advertising sites such as craigslist).

The new ethics center will be part of a Poynter complex that includes three leading components in the battle to support credible, independent information. Poynter owns the Pulitzer Prize-winning website PolitiFact; in partnership with Google and Stanford University it has created MediaWise, a media literacy program aimed at teenagers; and it is home to the International Fact-Checking Network, which supports fact-checkers worldwide and is at the forefront in fighting misinformation spread on digital platforms.  

Plenty to talk about

There are many creative and energetic minds working on issues of trust, ethics and transparency and we look forward to continued collaboration. There’s no shortage of issues.

Last month, Poynter’s National Advisory Board suggested that the Center consider topics along these lines:

Follow the money: As news organizations find new revenue sources — sponsored content, philanthropy or newsmaker events, for example — what are the issues of transparency, editorial independence and journalistic coverage of the new benefactors?

Cultural divide: Generational, racial, gender, political and economic differences snag journalists and alienate audiences. Journalism continues to struggle in shedding its historic one-size-fits-all approach for vastly more relevant realities.

Social Media: It is ubiquitous, exciting and fraught. Can technology that encourages filter-free exchanges be improved in the name of quality information?

In the coming days and weeks, we will talk more about the Newmark initiative. We look forward to your own “ethics calls” on how Poynter and the Newmark Center can best serve.

If you have an ethical question, contact the Center at info@poynter.org or call (727) 821-9494. 

If you want to stay connected with the evolving work of the Center, sign up for email updates here.


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Neil Brown is the president of The Poynter Institute. He joined Poynter in September 2017, after serving as the editor and vice president of the…
Neil Brown

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