We’ve had more than our fair share of journalistic ethical lapses this year. As consumers increasingly distrust the news media, it is more important than ever for the profession to protect its brand by providing credible information. That’s why journalists have standards that guide how we do our work.
Yet questions about journalistic conduct are more plentiful now than ever. Some say the digital era has introduced lower quality controls that lead to ethical failures. They blame bloggers who practice amateurish journalism; the push to be fast and first over accuracy; having to do so much more with less; and the mounting pressure to grab eyeballs and page views as reasons for sidelining long-held journalistic values and why journalists are now only trusted slightly more so than lawyers. Truth is, there have always been questions about how we practice journalism. It’s just that current technology makes our work more accessible to a larger number of people; and our mistakes too.
Throughout out the year All Digitocracy has pointed out instances of ethical dilemmas in hopes of helping journalism organizations and journalists take corrective action to restore credibility and trust with readers and viewers. In some cases, our gentle reminders about the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics and the American Society of News Editors Statement of Principals worked; in other cases, not so much. We will continue to do this work, especially as it concerns coverage of diverse communities. Below we’ve highlighted the year’s worst transgressions.
1. Baltimore Fox News Affiliate WBFF
We’re ending the year on a sour note as the Fox News affiliate in Baltimore, WBFF, aired edited video to make it sound as if otherwise peaceful protesters chanted, “Kill A Cop.” Except, that’s not what the protesters said at all. The news station eventually aired an apology, saying the report reflected an honest misunderstanding of what the protesters were saying, That’s all well and good, but the SPJ Code of Ethics encourages journalists to take responsibility for the accuracy of their work, to verify information before releasing it, and to not misrepresent a story. If the station had reporters on the scene, those reporters would have clarified with protesters, or the protest leaders, what was being said. At the very least staff should have asked the protesters about the chant before airing such inflammatory video. That’s basic reporting. Had that been done, a public trust would not have been broken. It’s unclear whether the journalists on this story held preconceived ideas about those protesting police violence against black Americans; but if there were preconceived notions that led to stereotyping, SPJ’s code asks that journalists examine the ways their values and experiences may shape their reporting. Doing this may have also helped in reporting the truth instead of a lie.
2. Minneapolis ABC News Affiliate KSTP
If WBFF ended the year with a “misunderstanding,” then Minnesota’s ABC affiliate, KSTP, is this year’s poster child for misunderstanding on steroids. A misunderstanding that has yet to be corrected since the story aired November 6. That’s when the news station aired a hugely flawed story accusing the city’s mayor, Betsy Hodges, of tossing up gang signs with a young African American male, Navell Gordon. In actuality, Hodges and Gordon pointed at each other in an awkward pose for the camera as the two of them canvassed a neighborhood trying to get people to vote. Since the broadcast, not only has KSTP refused to apologize or correct its erroneous story, but reporter Jay Kolls immaturely took to Twitter calling Gordon a gang member, and continues to promise that he will soon come forth with evidence proving his point. So far, Kolls has not produced any evidence to support his claims about Gordon. KSTP also aired segments doubling and tripling down on its claims that only served to worsen the situation, and owner Stanley Hubbard wrote a scathing letter blasting SPJ and blaming social media for his company’s ethical breaches.
Again, SPJ’s code of ethics urges journalists to examine their own biases before reporting a story, to take responsibility for the accuracy of their work, and to provide context so as not to misrepresent the way a story is reported. KSTP did none of this. Further, the code underscores the fact that journalists should never distort facts or context (KSTP did both) and that we should be cautious in making promises, and should keep the promises we make. Not only is Kolls guilty of making promises he has yet to keep, but his insistence, and KSTP’s by extension, that Gordon is a gang member comes dangerously close to running afoul of laws regarding defamation of character and knowingly broadcasting false information (since the station has been told by parties present at the time the photo was taken that it was not a gang sign). Finally, a journalist’s most important job is to serve as a watchdog over public affairs and government, which includes law enforcement. This is why the journalism profession has federal protection under the U.S. Constitution. It is also our job to “be vigilant and courageous about holding those with power accountable, and to give voice to the voiceless.” By seemingly allowing its journalists to be used as mouthpieces for a local police union rather than as watchdogs, KSTP has apparently abdicated that responsibility and does not deserve the public trust.
Not only has KSTP broken trust with local viewers, its actions have hurt the profession as a whole to the point that SPJ and other journalism associations held a town hall meeting earlier this month that was live-streamed to the world in order to show the global public that what KSTP did is not how journalism is supposed to work.
3. The Wall Street Journal and New York Post on the shooting death of Akai Gurley
November must have been a banner month for ethical breaches. Shortly after the KSTP debacle broke, both The Wall Street Journal and The New York Post initially reported skewed stories about another killing of an unarmed black man at the hands of New York police. Police Commissioner William Bratton described the unarmed man, Akai Gurley, as “a total innocent,” adding that he “was not engaged in any criminal activity of any type.” Yet, that did not stop either The Wall Street Journal or The New York Post from bringing up Gurley’s criminal history (the Journal initially reported that he had 24 prior arrests, and the Post initially ran a mugshot of Gurley). Ethical journalism treats sources, subjects, colleagues and members of the public as human beings deserving of respect, according to SPJ, therefore journalists should balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort, including the harm that might arise from yet another police shooting at a time when tensions involving police and the killing of unarmed black men are at an all-time high. We should also show compassion for those who may be affected by news coverage (like Gurley’s family and citizens angry over presumed police misconduct). And we should recognize that legal access to information differs from an ethical justification to publish or broadcast it and should balance a suspect’s right to a fair trial with the public’s right to know; just because Gurley has multiple arrests does not mean he was convicted.
Each newspaper corrected course after All Digitocracy wrote about it. As for the next time, there’s hope that these standards are taken into consideration before publication, and before damage has already been done.
4. Cleveland.com and Tamir Rice
Perhaps in a rush to explain the shooting death of 12-year-old Tamir Rice by Cleveland Police Officer Timothy Loehmann, Cleveland.com — the digital presence of The Cleveland Plain Dealer — did readers a disservice. Rather than digging into the facts of surrounding Tamir’s death, reporting on the officer who killed him or on Tamir himself, cleveland.com initially focused instead on the criminal pasts of both Tamir’s parents, neither of whom was present when Tamir was shot. Not only was the decision to run that story questionable to begin with, but the attempt by the company that owns cleveland.com – the Northeast Ohio Group – to amend the article in order to explain why it published it in the first place became a story within itself. Rather than apologize, cleveland.com’s news executives, including its ombudsman, defended the coverage. But that didn’t quell protests from both inside and outside the newsroom over its coverage, nor did it help a citizenry understand how a 12-year-old with a toy gun was killed by police. In terms of journalistic ethics, cleveland.com initially failed to provide the appropriate context, to avoid stereotyping and to recognize its obligation to serve as a check on public officials, the city’s police department.
To its credit, cleveland.com did eventually publish an extensive report on Loehmann, in which readers learned he was forced to resign from his previous law enforcement job due to poor performance issues. They also learned that Loehmann may have violated standard police procedures in shooting Tamir. And more than a week after his death, readers also learned a little bit about Tamir. All of this should have happened before, not after, damage had already been done with cleveland.com‘s original news reports and defenses.
5. Rolling Stone’s UVA Rape Story
There has been plenty written questioning how Rolling Stone could have published a story about an alleged gang rape at the University of Virginia without getting both sides of the story. So much damage lay in wake of the report, that the Columbia Journalism School announced this week that it would conduct an independent investigation of the editorial process that led to the story. Rolling Stone apologized earlier this month after several publications revealed problems with the story written by contributing editor Sabrina Rubin Erdely. Since the apology, editors at the magazine and Erdely have declined comment, reports Michael Calderone of the HuffingtonPost.com. Not only are there questions about whether Erdely interviewed, or attempted to interview any of the alleged attackers, but Calderone writes that “three friends of Jackie, the alleged victim,disputed how they were portrayed in the article and said Erdely never contacted them before publication.”
Until the independent review about the story is complete, no one can be sure about the specific journalistic failings in this case. What is clear is that discussions concerning the journalistic practices behind the story have served as a distraction to the nearly 300,000 sexual assaults that occur in this country each year. “This picking apart of Jackie’s story is partly why student activist groups like Know Your IX and End Rape On Campus, which have worked to shine a light on institutional failures handling sexual assault, often advise survivors to try to steer journalists away from intimate details of their attack, and focus more on how their colleges responded. Some have called out reporters for prying beyond what a survivor is comfortable sharing. And indeed, according to The Washington Post, Jackie said she tried to back out of the story altogether at one point,” writes Laura Bassett and Tyler Kingkade for the HuffingtonPost.com. The writers found that Erdely and the magazine’s alleged missteps will set rape dialogue back for years. “[Rolling Stone] published the most graphic details of a traumatic experience, even when Jackie didn’t want them to publish,” said Alyssa Peterson, an activist with Know Your IX, told HuffPost. “They threw her under the bus at the first sign that her recall of a brutal rape wasn’t perfect, even though trauma has a strong effect on a story’s consistency.”
6. Ebola Coverage
When it came to reporting responsibly about the Ebola virus epidemic that is tearing apart portions of West Africa and a few cases of patients diagnosed with the disease in America, the U.S. news media failed miserably. Not only did U.S. news media spread paranoia with sensational reports and misinformation, but journalists failed to put into context both the threat of the Ebola virus stateside, as well as the extent of destruction that it waged (and continues to wage) in just three countries in West Africa: Liberia, Guinea and Sierra Leone. All Digitocracy offered suggestions on how to provide improved coverage, which caught the attention of scientists and physicians who praised the much needed context. Now that U.S. citizens appear to be safe, talk about Ebola has disappeared from U.S. headlines, even though the disease is still very much a problem in the three African nations mentioned above. In addition, when a U.S. news outlet did travel to Liberia to report on the story, only American sources were interviewed. CBS News correspondent Lara Logan was roundly, and rightly, criticized for her failure to talk with African sources. In fact, the only African who got to speak in the news report was Logan herself, who is from South Africa. David Uberti of the Columbia Journalism Review listed it as an example of the worst journalism of 2014. SPJ’s code of ethics states that journalists should “boldly tell the story of the diversity and magnitude of the human experience” and seek out sources whose voices we seldom hear. It is clear from Logan’s report that she and CBS News did neither.
7. CNN’s Don Lemon
This year CNN’s news anchor/pundit/provocateur gave us so many examples of ethically challenged journalism, it’s hard to know where to start. Here are some of Lemon’s greatest hits according to CJR’s Uberti (Lemon appears on the list with Logan as providing the worst kind of journalism of the year). Uberti writes: “On March 20, (Lemon) asked guests whether Malaysia Airlines Flight 370 could have been swallowed by a black hole: “I know it’s preposterous, but is it preposterous?” He later compared spanking children to training dogs and probed similarities between the release of US Army POW Bowe Bergdahl and the Showtime series Homeland. When an alleged Bill Cosby rape victim appeared on his show on Nov. 18, he lectured, “You know, there are ways not to perform oral sex if you didn’t want to do it…Meaning the use of teeth, right?” Less than a week later, as protests turned violent in Ferguson, MO, he described the scene: “Obviously, there’s a smell of marijuana in the air.” Lemon’s job isn’t easy. But he’s earned a DART for going there. Obviously.” I have also questioned how acceptable it is for Lemon to have dual roles as a pundit for Black America Web and The Tom Joyner Morning Show and as a news anchor for CNN (he also slips into pundit mode while anchoring news segments). A CNN spokeswoman stated that the network “has no problem with Lemon’s opinions, so long as he’s not predictably partisan.” The basic principle of any ethical consideration of journalism is that a clear distinction must be drawn between news and opinions, making it impossible to confuse them. Traditionally, news is information about facts and data, while opinions convey thoughts, ideas, beliefs or value judgments. But the line between the two continues to get blurred, especially in the land of television news. We first saw it on Fox News, then MSNBC and now CNN, a network whose reputation was built on delivering the former, not the latter. Don Lemon appears to be leading the change.
8. Plagiarism and Fareed Zakaria
For most of the year Fareed Zakaria has successfully faced down mounting allegations of plagiarism. It’s confounded some in the journalism profession as to how he still has a job after acknowledging instances of plagiarism in 2012, and revelations that it may have happened again more recently. In September, watchdog media blog Our Bad Media reported that they had documented two dozen incidents of plagiarism on Zakaria’s CNN show alone. Politico’s Dylan Byers reported in November that Newsweek had put a plagiarism warning on all of Zakaria’s stories. In another blog post, Our Bad Media said the magazine found and corrected seven columns that “fail to meet editorial standards” and “borrow extensively” from other works without proper attribution. It also pointed out in the same post six instances of plagiarism committed by Zakaria in the Washington Post. Once the revelations from Our Bad Media began to circulate, Slate put a warning on a Zakaria column written in 1998 about martinis and The Washington Post, which had defended him in the past, said it would put warnings on columns written before 2012. And CNN? They are still supporting him despite the transgressions pointed out by Our Bad Media and others. The Poynter Institute’s Kelly McBride looked at the allegations and found that Zakaria had been “overly reliant on his source material,” calling it “low-level plagiarism.” Media watchdog Steve Buttry went much further, writing on his blog: “(Zakaria) presented others’ work as his own; it was most certainly deliberate, though he was also careless; he hid the sources of his information from his audience; he betrayed the public’s trust; he violated the creators of original material; he diminished himself, the craft of journalism and the news organizations that amazingly have stood behind him; he didn’t attribute and he failed to credit nearly everything on the list of stuff you should credit.”
9. Charlo Greene’s On-Air Exit
Many had a good laugh in September over the way Charlo Greene, a former reporter for Alaska’s KTVA quit her job, on air with flair. Not only did Greene use inappropriate language on the public airwaves, her more egregious breach is the fact that she had been reporting on stories about a fight to legalize marijuana use in the state at the same time she’d founded an organization that lobbied on behalf of legalization. It is a serious violation for a journalist to report on stories for which she, in this case, has a vested financial interest. On top of that, Greene did not reveal her personal professional interest in reporting this story until the day she quit. Greene violated her responsibility as a news reporter to be accountable and transparent. KTVA representatives wrote an open letter apologizing for the breach of trust with its viewers, but not before the video had gone viral. While Greene laughed over the way she exited a job she apparently did not want, she likely did not take into consideration neither the impact of her actions on other journalists (and aspiring journalists) nor how her actions impacted the trusting relationship journalists are supposed to have with communities they serve.
Greene isn’t alone, but her actions, along with others listed here, as well as those that are not listed, make it harder to serve the public trust.
To that end, here’s to a better, more ethical 2015.