What Poynter’s going to do with $5 million for journalism ethics

February 20, 2019
Category: Ethics & Trust

Editor’s note: This week Kelly McBride is starting a series of meetings at newsrooms across the country, asking journalists about the ethical pressures they face and how Poynter can create best practices to address today’s challenges. Email your suggestions, ideas and questions to ethics@poynter.org.

In 1993 I covered the murder of 13-year-old Becca Hedman. She’d run away from a residential drug treatment facility and had been working as a prostitute in Spokane, Washington, where I was the cops reporter.

A photo of Becca Hedman at age 12, the year before she ran away and was murdered in 1993. (Courtesy of Hedman family.)

Her murder was particularly senseless, committed by a man who wanted his money back because he didn’t think the sex was good. He’d dumped her body near the river. At the time, the murder rate in Spokane was low, so the fact that a 13-year-old had been working as a prostitute long enough for the police to know her by her street name (Misty) was a bit of a kick in the stomach for the city.

I set out to figure out why a 13-year-old would choose street life over a residential treatment facility. During a visit to her hometown Tacoma, her dad told me that Becca was adopted, that she’d been sexually abused by her birth parents and then again by a foster brother, and that she repeatedly ran away from home.

I was reminded of this story I wrote 25 years ago because a stranger emailed the other day asking if I had a copy. It was both random and poignant, given that The Poynter Institute had just announced a $5 million gift to fund the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership.

Back then I was worried about accurately telling one story, about one girl. Now I’m concerned about counseling the entire journalism industry and all the people in it. Poynter’s dream for the Newmark Center is that we support and encourage the profession to ensure that local reporters can keep telling important stories, and more importantly, that those stories stand up to scrutiny, so the audience can believe them.

At the time, I felt I was in over my head with Becca’s story. Should I mention the abuse? Would that leave me vulnerable to a libel claim by the foster brother?

I called Poynter. To my amazement, the legendary Bob Steele called me back. I was not an important or an accomplished journalist. I was working at The Spokesman-Review, a medium-sized newspaper with a funny name. I didn’t know anyone at Poynter.

I walked away from that 30-minute conversation with a plan. I would call Becca by her real name, not her street name. I would treat her like a child, because that’s what she was. I would write about the sexual abuse and attribute the information to her father. I would not name the foster brother.

When I arrived at the Poynter Institute as an ethics faculty member a decade later, I found myself on the other end of the line, guiding other journalists with other dilemmas. Steele was my boss and mentor. He taught me to listen and ask questions. Ethics isn’t a set of rules, of right and wrong answers — it’s a process.

Teaching journalists, and entire newsrooms, to embrace a process that places the public’s interest in knowing the truth at the center of every decision is so much harder now than it was in 1993.

Journalism was never easy. But the pace of change from new technology and economic strain over the last decade make it even more complicated. The number of journalists has declined and the percentage of journalists devoted to turning up new and original information, as opposed to aggregating, editing, producing or distributing those stories, is also smaller. Social media is a powerful way to reach readers, yet it also means that more and more information is published online without filter or check. And as print advertising revenue disappears, newsrooms are increasingly asking journalists to participate in revenue-making, through events or sponsored ad content.

The questions that come to us at Poynter now are increasingly complex and difficult. Sometimes the queries are downright alarming.

Recently I spent several hours attempting to convince a publisher that his newsroom absolutely had to cover an investigation into the financial shenanigans of his own company (he didn’t get why). Additionally, I’ve advised numerous organizations that making problematic articles disappear, rather than correcting them, will cause your audience to doubt your credibility.

And the question of how to report on widespread but completely unverified and harmful rumors continues to plague newsrooms everywhere.

The volume of issues the media industry must confront goes well beyond the resources it devotes to them. The Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership is our attempt to add more muscle.

We plan to ramp up the amount of original research we do. We’ll build databases as resources. We’ll offer our formal training and consulting services on a sliding scale fee to newsrooms that can’t afford to pay for them. We’ll establish regular fellowships — bringing in seasoned journalists on sabbatical from the newsroom to tackle pernicious issues. We’ll continue to partner with the many other initiatives and individuals who are fighting for a healthy press. In doing so, we’ll create the next generation of leaders who want to embrace journalism’s future.

Craig Newmark is fond of saying, “The press is the immune system of democracy.” We wholeheartedly concur. And we want to develop and deliver the vaccines that will help democracy withstand assault.

The Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership strives to encourage the press to reach for the high standards the public deserves in exchange for protections afforded by the First Amendment.

All those years ago, Poynter helped me make a complex story better.

Now I get a shot at paying it forward.

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  • Kelly – Congratulations and America needs you. You don’t need me to tell you how important it is to get this right. Thank you for your enthusiasm and good luck moving forward. We all have opinions about the mess we’ve created and within some combination of all of those opinions lies the real truth I suppose. My heart lies in small markets where journalists used to be groomed in ethics, investigation and teamwork. Today, small market journalism is an awful job that focuses on presentation and pace. It’s dictated from large corporate entities driven by bottom line and desire to do more with less. It beats up young journalists to the point that they get out of the business as soon as they can – when PR and advocacy groups gobble them up for their writing skills and ability to produce on deadline. There, the talent spins circles around the ever rotating cycle of young reporters who have no tie to the community they land in for their first job. The few that stay in journalism can’t wait to move on to their next job in a bigger market. The potential journalists who stay in the community can’t wait for their next job in PR where they get paid more and work far less. I know it’s a soap box – but I’m so excited about the investment Poynter has put into this project I had to write you. Thanks again for your commitment to outstanding journalism. And please, during your important work remember where the foundation is set – in small markets across America.