When the Toronto Star‘s new social media policy leaked, many journalists were tempted to brand it with a fail stamp. Not so fast, says Star public editor Kathy English. In her April 8th column English asks, “What’s fair on Facebook?”
Continue Reading When it comes to journos, what’s fair on Facebook?
Sometimes I wonder why I still subscribe to
academic journals in print, but tonight is not such a time. True, sooner or
later, every journal’s content will be available in library databases or in
some cases even on the Web. And some do reach my shelves after months of neglect and a hurried ToC glance. But there is something tangibly satisfying about ripping open an envelope, removing an unassuming little book, and kicking back on a sofa after
work to have unanticipated thoughts provoked.
Today’s arrival was the Journal of Mass Media
Ethics, a.k.a JMME, volume 26, number 1, a “special issue on media accountability.” (Actually,
this is part 2 of a twin of special issues on the topic, the first having appeared late last year, leading with a paper on “How The Daily
Show with Jon Stewart Holds Traditional Broadcast News Accountable”.) You
may be able to see full contents through library access to its publisher’s
Informaworld service; otherwise, only abstracts are online for free.
In print, though, my
bedtime reading surprise included a description and assessment of “social
audits” conducted by The Guardian since 2003 to see
if the paper is living up to its founding ideals. And an ethical examination of anonymous comments posted to online news stories (one suggestion: tailor the terms of invitations
to comment to individual stories, rather than adopting a one-size-fits-all policy). And a proposal of a new model of community-based “ethics examiners” working
for independently funded media councils, instead of the endangered species of “insider”
ombuds paid by news organizations themselves.
And then came the “Cases and Commentaries” section, a regular feature
of the journal, this one providing a case study of the challenges facing reporters
assigned to cover the brilliant, irascible and probably artificially enhanced home-run
record-breaker Barry Bonds. The study was followed by reflections by three Bay Area sports reporters who had to figure out how to deal with Bonds fairly.
In a time of my life that sadly involves far more
rushing than reading, my hour on the sofa with JMME was a welcome respite tonight.
(J-Source insider note: the issue includes a stunningly laudatory review by senior-statesperson U.S. media ethicist Clifford
Christians of J-Source columnist Stephen J.A. Ward’s 2010 book, Global
Journalism Ethics, in which the reviewer places the book “in the same
class as Walter Lippman’s (1922) Public Opinion” and other formative
works of the past century. JMME insider note: Ward is an associate editor of JMME and Christians is
a member of its editorial advisory board. Canadian insider note: for a rather
more reserved judgment of Ward’s work, see Paul Knox’s review in the Literary
Review of Canada.)
Readers of the Toronto Star, inspired by the example of reporter Catherine Porter in sponsoring the education of three-year-old Lovely Avelus and of her cousin and friend, pitched in to send other Haitian students to school.
The story is one of several told in “Lovely’s Haiti,” a Star series and multimedia project launched October 17.
As Porter acknowledges, she was treading in new territory when she put aside her detachment to help kids go to school after January’s earthquake:
…Lovely had survived hell to live in misery, I thought, as she grabbed my pen and drew squiggles on my notepad. “Comme ca,” she said. “Like that.” Right then, I decided to help.
In the end, my husband and I agreed to a sponsor not just Lovely, but Sofone and her 4-year-old next-door playmate, Angelica. That way we would prevent resentment. We didn’t want to create more problems than we fixed.
We would cover their school costs for two years, long enough to get them back on their feet, we thought. And we would give Lovely’s mother $100 a month for six months to restart her business.
In total, we would spend around $1,650 to help them. For us, that was a little more than one month’s mortgage payment. For them, it was more than their annual income.
I understood the arrangement was unorthodox. As a journalist, I am supposed to remain detached. My role is to be an impartial observer and documenter.
But having witnessed a mountain of tragedies, I couldn’t stand by numbly any more. Here was one small problem I could easily fix. Where my profession ruled I couldn’t, my humanity demanded I must. I am a human being first, a journalist second. I had my conscience to live with. Plus, after documenting all that destruction, I needed some hope as much as they did.
So, on April 27, Rosemene dressed Lovely in her newly tailored red tartan dress — the uniform for a private primary school I enrolled her in nearby — and took her to school for the first time. It was her third birthday.
The story might have ended there. Except, once back in Toronto I wrote a column about my decision. And the floodgates opened.
Minutes after the story went up on the Star’s website, emails started filling my inbox. More than 100 that first day. Readers wanted to send me money for Lovely’s education. They requested I enroll other children in school for them.
What had I gotten myself into? It was one thing for me to directly help a Haitian family; quite another to broker the assistance for dozens of families. I am still a journalist, not a charity worker. On the other hand, how could I refuse to help, knowing how many other Lovelys there were in Haiti?
I directed readers to charities I had seen working on the ground in Port-au-Prince. I couldn’t give them a tax receipt, I warned.
They would not be dissuaded….
Continue Reading Reporter sponsored Haiti kids because “I am a human being first.”
The Toronto Star’s public editor, Kathy English, has rapped her paper’s decision to omit a reference to the last baby born at an iconic hospital. The baby died shortly after birth, and the writer of a Page 1 feature about the baby’s closed obstetrics unit chose to gloss over that fact in order to spare the parents pain.
As it turned out, the decision drew objections from the dead baby’s parents.
The reporter was, as English says, only trying to minimize harm. Utilitarian thinking of this kind is common for journalists, and, many say, necessary. But the effort to minimize harm can itself do more harm than good.
Continue Reading Truth hurts? Tough. Report it, says Toronto Star’s public editor
A wave of American bigotry toward Muslims has reached new heights, according to New York Times columnist Nicholas D. Kristof, with the publication of a front-page apology in Maine’s Portland Press Herald. The newspaper apologized for “not offering balance” to a front-page article on September 11, 2010, about local Muslims praying to mark the end of Ramadan.
This Tea-pot storm highlights the enduring use of – and increasing uselessness of – the idea of “balance” as an ethical principle in journalism.
As Kristof writes, in the Times on Sunday September 19:
“… So the newspaper published a groveling front-page apology
for being too respectful of Muslims. ‘We sincerely apologize,’ wrote
the editor and publisher, Richard Connor, and he added: ‘we erred by at
least not offering balance to the story and its prominent position on
the front page.’ As a blog by James Poniewozik of Time paraphrased it: ‘Sorry for Portraying Muslims as Human.’
“I called Mr. Connor, and he seems like a nice guy. Surely his front page
isn’t reserved for stories about Bad Muslims, with articles about Good
Muslims going inside. Must coverage of law-abiding Muslims be ‘balanced’
by a discussion of Muslim terrorists?
“Ah, balance — who can be against that? But should reporting of Pope
Benedict’s trip to Britain be ‘balanced’ by a discussion of Catholic terrorists in Ireland? And what about journalism itself?
“I interrupt this discussion of peaceful journalism in Maine to
provide some ‘balance.’ Journalists can also be terrorists, murderers
and rapists. For example, radio journalists in Rwanda promoted genocide….”
The New York Times‘s various mechanisms for accountability to readers and subjects, include, according to its executive editor, not just the public editor but a managing editor and associate editor designated to watch over standards. They and a deputy managing editor “all spend at least a portion of their time
dealing with issues of balance, fairness, accuracy and taste raised by
the public,” says Bill Keller, quoted August 28th in the debut column of the paper’s fourth public editor, Arthur S. Brisbane. “Some cases get passed up to me or Jill [Abramson, managing editor], or to our legal counsel. We publish corrections and editor’s notes, and try hard not to be overly defensive when our work is challenged.
“We make editors and reporters available for online questioning by readers, a feature called ‘Talk to the Newsroom.’
We publish reader letters in several places, and post comments on many
of our online stories. We also try to be reasonably accessible to
reporters who cover the media for various outlets. I can’t think of many
other businesses that are as transparent and forthcoming about owning
up to mistakes.”
Nor can I. Certainly not a major Canadian news organization (though at least the CBC, Radio-Canada, and The Toronto Star must get credit for employing reader representatives) or, for sure, if they count as businesses, any level of government in this country.
Continue Reading NY Times boss outlines accountability measures
Many journalism organizations offer ethics guidelines, including the Canadian Association of Journalists, which has both a general statement of principles for ethical journalism and an expanded ethics guidelines.
Some other journalist' codes of conduct include:
Society of Professional Journalists (USA)
National Union of Journalists (UK)
Journalism Code of Ethics (New Zealand)
RTNDA Canada's Code of Ethics for electronic journalists
Guide de déontologie des journalistes du Québec (FPJQ)
– English version: Professional Code of Ethics for Quebec Journalists
Communications Workers of America, Canada (includes several newspaper and media guilds)
Communications, Energy and Paperworkers Union of Canada (CEP Media/Canadian Freelance Union)
National Society of Newspaper Columnists Code of Conduct (North America)
Association of Opinion Journalists Basic Statement of Principles
Many major news organizations provide guidelines for editorial staff, though not all these documents are available to the public. Of special interest may be the ethics guidelines of The Canadian Press and The New York Times Company.
None of these codes is intended as, or useful as, a rule book for every occasion. Lists of guidelines may help in clarifying some widely accepted norms of practice, but journalists' work calls for frequent decisions of individual and collective conscience which often involve balancing conflicting values and analyzing complex situations. Still, as Stephen J.A. Ward has suggested, codes can, if incorporated into newsroom discussions, inform moral reasoning and promote public accountability.
Not-a-lot-of-skill-testing question: which “local newspaper” does the Toronto Star mean when it reports:
“Two and a half hours earlier, Ford was hosting a news conference to
explain why it appeared he had not told the truth to a local newspaper
about being charged with drug possession.”
Very Big Clue: why, it’s the same unnameable organ that the Globe and Mail refers to when it reports:
“Mr. Ford’s bad Thursday began when he called a 9 a.m. news conference to
explain a story in a local newspaper that said the candidate had
forgotten until reminded of it that he beat a charge of possessing a
The answer, for those who don’t want to read every newpaper every day, comes from the National Post, which gives credit where credit’s due, and steers true to the mission of plain old-fashioned clarity about plain facts:
“At a hastily called news conference, Mr. Ford addressed his past after
the Toronto Sun confronted him
with evidence he was charged with marijuana possession in Florida in
1999; that charge was later dropped.” (Complete with the hyperlink, mind.)
Now the real question: what justifies the traditional coyness that news organizations so often have with naming other news organizations? To the ordinary reader, especially in the Age of Google, it surely looks rather infantile.
Continue Reading Guess which Toronto newspaper….
In which Ivor Shapiro, an old-dog reporter who just happens to be J-Source's Ethics editor, explains how he learned, first-hand, that the new tricks of real-time reporting can be perilous. As a penance for the journalist's first sin of not verifying before publishing, he assigned himself the task of writing out what happened — in Tweet style.