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.
After nine years in court, the National Post has been
ordered to hand
over its Shawinigate document in a Supreme Court ruling that offers mixed results
for the protection of sources. The
Canadian Press reported the decision means journalists have no constitutional
right to protect
their sources. The Canadian Association of Journalists initially called the case “a blow for source protection” while Canadian Journalists for Free Expression’s reaction was that the good outweighed the bad. This
National Post article states that the ruling explicitly recognizes
journalists’ right to protect their sources, although not in all cases. A Globe and Mail editorial agrees that, while the
National Post lost its case, the Supreme Court affirmed source protection and ‘The
Right to Tell Untold Stories.’
The National Post has posted a helpful
step-by-step guide to the
legal arguments. Later this week NP editor-in-chief Doug Kelly will discuss the ruling in
For further background, read the full
text of the judgement, and this detailed analysis in J-Source’s legal section.
A week after ProPublica accepts one of journalism’s top prizes for a story funded by foundations and universities, Cecil Rosner examines the growing trend of non-profit, non-partisan investigative journalism. Will it be the saviour the industry needs?
Continue Reading Alternative journalism: from slur to Pulitzer
Former board member Deborah Campbell, one of many supporters of the Canadian Association of Journalists who abandoned it in 2004-2005, explains why she left — and why she thinks the CAJ cannot move forward without addressing its past. “L’Affaire Cameron, or What’s Wrong With the CAJ,” is Campbell’s response to the “Open letter from the CAJ” posted recently on J-Source.
Continue Reading An open letter about the CAJ