But King didn’t give readers an accurate picture—he gave them a partial and exaggerated one. He has the thickest Rolodex in the business, but he talked to only four people, and his colleagues talked to eight. In a league as large and diverse as the NFL, 12 is not a definitive sample. The SI stories offered no counterbalancing opinion or analysis, so the message was clear: This is the NFL party line. No one will talk on the record. And if anyone does, don’t trust him.
Stephen Fatsis, How Sports Illustrated Botched the Michael Sam Story, Slate.
Background: Sports Illustrated published a piece by Pete Thamel and Thayer Evans on how the news that NFL prospect Michael Sam is gay will affect his draft stock. The “eight NFL executives and coaches” they spoke with predicted Sam’s fall to bigotry in the league. None of these sources were identified. Slate breaks it down.
Issue 1: Not a reasonable reflection of reality.
…the issue here isn’t the ungrounded and outdated opinions of a few off-the-record soothsayers. It’s about whether they deserved a platform in the first place, and whether the conclusions drawn from their words were a reasonable reflection of a broader reality.
Then Peter King posted a column in which he too gave his sources cover on the assumption that they wouldn’t talk otherwise.
Issue 2: Not okay to grant anonymity based on assumption.
King assumed they wouldn’t comment on the record so he granted anonymity up front? Maybe my journalistic principles are stuck in the ’50s, but that’s a newsroom no-no. You grant anonymity to get information or to understand background and context. You don’t let a source trash someone anonymously. King wrote that anonymity “would give the best information possible.” But he didn’t give information, only blind, unchallenged opinion. If his sources had spoken on the record and said something mealy-mouthed or had outright lied, King would have performed a journalistic service far greater than letting them shiv Michael Sam in his pursuit of “the truth.”
FJP: The ethics of using anonymous sources is pretty clear. Once you agree to providing anonymity, you stick to it or you’ll find yourself in a lawsuit. But the wisdom of knowing when to grant a source anonymity is far more difficult to come by. Here’s an interesting take on it from the Times, whose readers’ number 1 complaint is anonymous sources.
The story, even if it is a good story, is not the most important thing.
Maria Headley in Sinatra’s Cold is Contagious.
Headley writes in reaction to Caleb Hannan’s Grantland story, Dr. V’s Magical Putter, which has become something of a case study in journalism ethics since it was published on January 15.
On the Media recaps here:
Last week, ESPN’s Grantland ran a remarkable story titled “Dr. V’s Magical Putter,” a journalistic odyssey that began with curiosity about a supposedly revolutionary golf club, and ended by focusing on the chaotic life of its inventor, a woman named Essay Anne Vanderbilt. The reporter, Caleb Hannan, discovered that Vanderbilt was transgender, and he revealed his knowledge of this fact to Vanderbilt. Shortly after, Vanderbilt committed suicide.
The piece subsequently made its rounds on the web, sparking outrage and raising a discussion on transgender rights in media, and the ethics of outing.
Vice takes us through Hannan’s reporting process and what he ultimately decided to publish:
He tells us “everything he knows,” which is definitely not the same thing as “everything that’s relevant.” He refers to Dr V as “he” and publishes her old name. He discusses her life before she transitioned to female. He tells us she was married. And that she’d tried to kill herself once before, a few years previously. Never mind that she was clearly vulnerable, it was all just another fantastic twist in the plot for Caleb. “What began as a story about a brilliant woman with a new invention had turned into the tale of a troubled man who had invented a new life for himself.” And never mind that faking her scientific credentials had nothing to do with being transgender. Caleb, who has been found guilty of sloppy journalism before, was simply recycling a media narrative that casts trans people as liars and fakes.
Grantland’s Editor-in-Chief Bill Simmons has since publicly apologized for the story, taking the blame for his writer’s mistakes and lamenting that he failed Hannan as an editor. Simmons admitted that the Grantland staff was not sensitive enough with the story and uninformed on transgender people’s rights, high suicide rates among trans* people, and even correct pronoun usage.
FJP: As Headley points out, there are a few things that should come before the all-important story for a journalist. Right after “Seek the truth and report it” on SPJ’s Code of Ethics comes “Minimize harm — Ethical journalists treat sources, subjects and colleagues as human beings deserving of respect.”
The pro‐life perspective is that if you show a woman that she has an 11‐week‐old fetus and she sees the movement, and that convinces her to keep the fetus, then isn’t that a good thing? Whereas a pro‐choice person would say she didn’t come in and know she was going to get a sonogram; there is no medical reason for it. So why are you offering a sonogram except to convince a woman not to have an abortion, which is what she really wanted to do?
Documentary filmmaker Raney Aronson as quoted in a fascinating case study in journalism ethics (by the Knight Case Studies Initiative at Columbia) called Frontline’s “The Last Abortion Clinic”: What’s Fair in a Video World?
This case takes students behind the scenes into the making of a news documentary for Frontline, produced at the PBS affiliate in Boston (WGBH). The case tells the story of the making of “The Last Abortion Clinic,” a 2005 documentary by producer Raney Aronson and her team. The documentary combined a legal story (developments in the abortion debate since Roe v. Wade) with personal stories—interviews with women in clinics who had confronted the abortion question in their own lives. It focused on the state of Mississippi, which had only one abortion clinic remaining. The case chronicles the evolution of a documentary from idea to finished form. Along the way, it highlights numerous editorial, logistical and ethical decisions Aronson faced in her quest to tell fairly a complex and value-laden story.
Journalism ethics is nothing more than a measure of the scurrilousness your brand will bear. That’s it. Ethics has nothing to do with the truth of things, only with the proper etiquette for obtaining it, so as to piss off the fewest number of people possible.
We in the newsroom should have no illusions. Our entire purpose is to fill the “news hole,” which is the space left over after the advertisements have been placed on the page.
Theodore Daws in The Fall of Journalism, American Thinker.
Dawes, a long-time journalist, criticizes idealism and naivete in young journalists (in other words: those who think the industry is something other than a business that needs to make money), as well as j-school and false understandings of journalism ethics:
Of course, everyone overvalues the academic training they’ve received. It makes the debt, hassle, and spent time seem worthwhile, or at least less futile.
And imagine the thrill of using “lede,” which is the new spelling of lead, as in the opening sentence of a story. Its use provides the pleasing sensation of possessing specialized knowledge, knowledge well beyond the ken of the average Joe.
That is particularly pleasant to those who know so very little about everything else.
For example, I always ask job candidates a second question: “What is the difference between regulation and legislation?
Only one j-school graduate has ever known the answer. That was because, he sheepishly provided, he had worked as a legislative assistant the summer prior.
Tell me, please. How do you prepare a student for a career as a “government watchdog” and fail to provide the most fundamental instruction in how government works?
As befits their lofty status and lofty purpose, journalists work under a lofty ethical construct. Unfortunately, it is as flawed and juvenile as their journalistic purpose.
On occasion the ethical imperatives are simply incompatible, for example: 1) saving the world and 2) journalistic objectivity.
This illustrates perfectly an important fact: journalistic ethics weren’t arrived at philosophically or accidentally.
As is the case with many codes of ethics, the ethics of those in the journalism industry have as one of their primary purposes the maintenance of the status quo, particularly the economic status quo.
FJP: Would love to see a rebuttal to this.
We received a question some time ago from theinsightfulmouse which went like this:
I am planning an undergraduate thesis on the effects of technology on journalism ethics and looking to narrow my topic. Do you all have any ideas or suggestions of interesting, complex issues to research relating to journalism, ethics and technology?
Well, insightful mouse, there is a universe of interesting questions in the realm of journalism ethics, especially regarding online journalism. We’ll offer you some starting points for research rather than fleshed out ideas, because those will very much depend on your personal interests and investments.
You might like to search our Tumblr archive for ethics posts. We’ve written, for example, about the ethics of news vs. reviews, privacy on social media, linking, curation, and Instagram, all of which are debates that have since developed and could use more digging. Also see our transparency tag, which is something that you can deep dive into for a number of questions. Other great places to explore for ideas are the Public Editor’s Journal over at the NY Times, and Poynter’s Everyday Ethics.
Very useful (and fun, if you geek out over this stuff like me) is reading the ethics guidelines of various news organizations (here is a great list), many of which address online journalism. NPR has a great ethics handbook in which the visual journalism section deals with issues of digital attribution and manipulation (not necessarily the most compelling research topic, but useful to bookmark if you’re a journalist). Finally, and arguably the mecca of these questions, can be found in this discussion that Poynter hosted on journalism ethics in the digital age, on which a book is also in the works—I wrote a reaction here. The people involved are also key people you might want to reach out to help focus your ideas.
You did ask this question some time ago, so if you’ve already narrowed down a topic, do share it with us! —Jihii
Have a question for us? Ask.
It’s a really hard time for newspapers of all kinds. This is the Voice‘s business model and I hate to undermine it. But for anybody who loves journalism: How can you fund that journalism with sex trafficking?
Nicholas Kristof, NY Times op-ed columnist.
Kristof recently published two columns (January 25 and March 17) criticizing online classifieds, especially Backpage.com, for their adult services section as a vehicle for pimps trying to sell girls. Backpage.com is owned by Village Voice Media, and in line with past criticism against sex ads on Backpage.com, Village Voice responded with criticism of Kristof’s fact-checking. In reality, can they afford to eliminate these Backpage.com ads?
Backpage.com rakes in $22 M. annually from prostitution advertising, according to media analysts at AIM. Backpage.com reportedly accounts for one-seventh of VVM’s revenue overall.
(full story via The New York Observer)
The paradox in this story is what Village Voice actually stands for. Kristof writes:
Village Voice began as an alternative newspaper to speak truth to power. It publishes some superb journalism. So it’s sad to see it accept business from pimps in the greediest and most depraved kind of exploitation.
His columns are a call to action:
True, many prostitution ads on Backpage are placed by adult women acting on their own without coercion; they’re not my concern. Other ads are placed by pimps: the Brooklyn district attorney’s office says that the great majority of the sex trafficking cases it prosecutes involve girls marketed on Backpage.
There are no simple solutions to end sex trafficking, but it would help to have public pressure on Village Voice Media to stop carrying prostitution advertising. The Film Forum has already announced that it will stop buying ads in The Village Voice. About 100 advertisers have dropped Rush Limbaugh’s radio show because of his demeaning remarks about women. Isn’t it infinitely more insulting to provide a forum for the sale of women and girls?