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Feature articles Global

A ‘Right to Offend’ Should be Balanced by a ‘Duty to Mend’


In the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, I and other journalists in Western democracies deplored the violence and defended freedom of expression against terrorism.

A common defense of the satirical magazine’s barbed cartoons was “the right to offend.” Some commentators made the principle absolute, and then concluded the following: If news media did not republish offending material, their editors were moral cowards.

Legally, this response has its heart in the right place. But, ethically, it comes up short in three places:

First, the issue is inadequately framed as mainly a legal question of the right to offend, and the main complaint is that the cartoons offend a religious group.

For example, reports of a “Nous Sommes Tous Charlie” symposium at the Missouri School of Journalism focused on the legal aspect of free speech, and what constitutes hate speech.

Such discussions are important, but the Hebdo case is much more than that. It is a question of ethics, journalistic duties, tensions within plural societies and the role of media.

Second, the right to publish is not absolute. Such a view trivializes legitimate questions about using media to offend deeply held beliefs and to create hostile environments. We can defend offensive speech without absolutes or trivialization.

Photo by Valentina Calà, and reused here with Creative Commons.

Photo by Valentina Calà, and reused here with Creative Commons license.

We need to reframe the debate to avoid absolutes and to discuss the social duties of journalists — not just their rights. Overall, the Hebdo debate failed to discuss sufficiently the role of news media in amplifying or reducing the tensions between immigrants, Muslims and other groups in France and the rest of Europe.

We need to reframe the debate to avoid absolutes and to discuss the social duties of journalists — not just their rights. Overall, the Hebdo debate failed to discuss sufficiently the role of news media in amplifying or reducing the tensions between immigrants, Muslims and other groups in France and the rest of Europe.

These tensions, enhanced by global media, form the background for the issue of offensive journalism today. We should ask: What sorts of journalism are needed in such an era? Is the satire of Charlie Hebdo helpful or harmful?

Third, there is (or was) no duty to republish all or some of the cartoons. There was a range of ethically permissible options. Calling people cowards is just name calling.

My ethical position is summed up by two slogans:

  • Journalism is restrained not by causing offense, but by causing harm to interests.
  • Journalism is restrained not by causing offense, but by causing harm to interests.

A right to offend is balanced by a duty to mend.

Stout defenders of the right to offend get a couple of things right. First, there is (or should be) a legal right to publish — even if it offends — as long as the material respects reasonable restrictions on free speech, such as libel or inciting violence against a group. The stout defenders also are right to reject “being offended” as a fundamental, stand-alone reason to restrict journalism in a democracy.


Because “being offended” is too restrictive, too trivial or too “wide” a concept. It is too restrictive because it would make robust debate all but impossible. It is too trivial because people can be offended by relatively unimportant things. Does the smell of a person on a bus offend you? Does an overweight person disgust you? It is too wide because it applies to many areas that involve the rights of others, such as the public display of affection (e.g., kissing) among gays.

People can feel offended about almost anything.

Image by Brian Turner and used here with Creative Commons license

Image by Brian Turner and used here with Creative Commons license.

However, it could be objected that we are only considering the easy cases. What about

actions and publications that deeply (not trivially) offend? I hold a neo-Nazis march through a Jewish community. Or, perhaps I claim the following: Pornography reinforces harmful social attitudes towards women, publishing hate speech against gays in a red-neck town creates fear and supports discrimination, university students participating in a Facebook page that ridicules black students as inferior creates a harmful environment on campus.

Doesn’t “being offended” mean something in such cases?

The answer is that the main reason to object is not that they offend — which they do — but that they cause, or are likely to cause, serious harm to individuals or groups. And not just any old harm. Such actions create social environments that are hostile and harmful to individuals and groups. What such environments do, through speech and communication, is thwart, endanger or set back the interests of people.

Words can hurt since humans form beliefs and attitudes through language and communication.

Consider this example: I am director of a journalism school. In the corridors, I express to students my strong and intolerant views about women and black students. Have I the right to offend, absolutely, in this situation? Of course, not. But why not?

Because, apart from being offended, female and black students have a good reason to worry that my attitudes might affect their progress in the school, given my power as director. Further, I am creating a negative environment where certain members of the school do not feel safe and wonder whether they will be able to pursue school opportunities on an equal footing with other students.

Therefore, my offensive communications is wrong and can be restrained, mainly because they cause harm to interests.

For controversial media and speech, looking at possible harms to interests in social contexts is superior to a citizen complaining that they have been offended or a journalist claiming an absolute right to offend. This absolute approach easily becomes a tool of discrimination, by ignoring how speech must be evaluated in terms of social role, institutional setting, and power. If we appeal to an absolute freedom to publish we cannot even discuss such issues. Debate is brought to a halt.

My suggestion, applied to media, is that we evaluate any complaint about a report (or form of journalism) being offensive not in terms of hurt feelings but actual or potential harms to people’s interests, communication environments and the aim of a plural and just society. Of course, we need to evaluate each case on its merits and not presume in advance that a complaint means an actual, serious harm has been done. But what is important is to switch our criteria of evaluation from causing offense to causing harm.

Redefining the issue allows us to more coherently evaluate Charlie Hebdo, hate speech, and insulting material in terms of potential or actual harm to interests.


Photo by Josh Janssen via Flickr Creative Commons.

Photo by Josh Janssen via Flickr Creative Commons.

My second slogan, the duty to mend, is an extension of the first slogan.

If we restrain journalism by harms to interests, including the impact on social climates, then we imply that journalists have “positive” duties to do socially helpful reporting.

When we talk about environments and the interactions of groups, we expand our ethical vision to the social role of journalism. Journalism ethics becomes more than just a list of negative rules about what not to do in specific situations, such as do not distort the facts. It becomes a form of social action with a set of aims to promote and values to honor.
In my view, journalism’s social duties include promoting the values and goals of democratic society, as defined by the era in question.

Today, the positive duties revolve around constructing a society where people of different conceptions of life can feel safe and equally able to pursue their goods in supportive environments. Journalists should act as bridges of understanding and respectful communication among conflicting groups and traditions. This journalism of dialogue across traditions and borders is crucial for an ethics of global media.

In my view, this role of cultural “translation” is more important than satirical cartoons that deliberately ridicule religions and pay little attention to the need to mend differences.

The key questions in Hebdo-like cases, now and in the future, will be ethical questions of whether certain types of journalism contribute to healthy, peaceful, social environments. What forms of journalism create unhealthy climates of resentment, inequality, and alienation?

These are the issues that need attention.

I propose my “duty to mend” as a principle to balance the enthusiastic support that already exists among journalists for a free press and its right to offend.

It might help to frame the ethical discussion in a wider and more thoughtful manner.

Originally on  PBS MediaShift on February 25, 2015; reposted with permission.

Stephen J. A. Ward is an internationally recognized media ethicist, author and educator. He is Distinguished Lecturer of Ethics at the University of British Columbia, Courtesy Professor at the University of Oregon, and founding director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin.

[Featured image by Claude Truong-Ngoc / Wikimedia Commons]

Feature articles Virtual Reality

Virtual Journalism: Immersive Approaches Pose New Questions


t’s 1955. On CBS, a deep-voiced announcer backs a jittery reel of black-and-white stills.

“October 8, 1871,” he intones with high drama. “The Chicago Fire.”

And then the hook: “You. Are. There.”

Screenshot courtesy of Chicago Film Archives, captured January 17, 2015.

Screenshot courtesy of Chicago Film Archives, captured January 17, 2015.

The CBS News production then cuts to Walter Cronkite at the anchor desk, aside a microphone, script in hand. “Walter Cronkite reporting. October 8th, 1871. In this year and month, we are suffering in Chicago…”

“You Are There” was a CBS reenactment series through which anchor Cronkite would transport viewers to a historical event and treat it as though he were reporting it live. Breathless on-scene reporters, actors serving as famous sources and fake footage were all intended to put the audience in the scene of events like the Hindenburg disaster, the Revolutionary War or the Great Chicago Fire. Though easy to criticize today as staged and hokey docudrama, “You Are There” was nonetheless a novel effort during the heady experimental days of early television news.

We are in those heady days again, still seeking to carry our audiences to scenes to help them experience – and feel – the news of the day. But today, the experimentation comes in the form of a headset, a virtual reality approach that puts its wearer “in” the environment. And with that transport, come key ethical questions about representation, privacy, intellectual property and media effects.

The Technology

Virtual reality is not new. Beginning mainly in the 1960s with flight simulation, VR – also known as “augmented reality” or “immersive multimedia” – picked up speed with an MIT project mapping Aspen, Colorado, through video. The concept is simple: use a headset device to simulate a physical environment through sensory experiences, most commonly sight and sound.

Development in virtual reality today is driven largely by the gaming sector and consumers’ apparently insatiable appetite for those experiences. Industry leader Oculus, known primarily for its emerging Oculus Rift device, envisions a world of consumer-grade headsets that put a gamer into the experience of “Call of Duty” or “Grand Theft Auto.” That vision took a major step forward in 2014 with the arrival of the Samsung Gear VR, a virtual reality headset powered by smartphone, rather than the expensive desktop computers previously needed for processor-heavy simulations.

These headsets provide two kinds of virtual experience: animation or video. Both attempt to recreate reality and allow the user to walk virtually through scenes. With an Oculus Rift strapped on, a user can go into the animated environment of a Tuscan estate. The scene tracks with body movements, as users turn their heads or use keystrokes to ascend a staircase or peer over a stone wall. Through the Gear VR, they can go into a performance of Cirque du Soleil created through 360-degree video, watching various performers as if sitting on the stage itself.

But VR potential extends far beyond gaming and entertainment. In January, the United Nations debuted an emotional immersive experience following a Syrian refugee girl, “Clouds Over Sidra.” The piece is viewable on the Gear VR via its Milk VR delivery system, a.k.a., “the YouTube for Virtual Reality.” To appreciate the differences inherent in an immersive experience, watch a reporter explore a refugee camp through the Gear VR.

With that view, the potential for journalism is almost immediately apparent. Though its commercial prospects pale in comparison with gaming, immersive journalism is already in production. And in fact, one of the leaders in this space, documentary filmmaker Nonny de la Peña, has earned acclaim with Syria as her immersive focus, as well. Recently called “The Godmother of Virtual Reality,” she is working on all aspects of VR in journalism, including hardware development, reporting and virtual rendering.

As de la Peña explained to the BBC, immersive approaches advance journalism by putting the audience into a place and giving them a sensory connection with it.

“It creates a duality of presence. You know you’re ‘here,’ but you feel like you’re ‘there’ too. And the experience is much more visceral. It’s really a kind of a whole-body experience and is very unique – different than radio, than television, than any other kind of format for experiencing a story,” de la Peña says.

Dan Pacheco, professor and Horvitz Chair in Journalism Innovation at the S.I. Newhouse journalism school at Syracuse University, is experimenting with these technologies with students. He says that while the world is excited about what VR will do for gamers, he’s thrilled by the potential for transforming citizens’ knowledge of the world around them.

“We no longer have to be limited to telling stories. We can take you into an experience,” Pacheco says. “No matter how many times you tell a story, people don’t feel it. Once you start to show it, it’s a little better but still far, far away. Once you can move someone into an experience, that’s really the key.”

He has first-hand experience, having served as a consultant on Gannett’s first foray into virtual reality – a tour of an Iowa farm as part of its “Harvest of Change” series. The VR approach puts viewers into the farm environment, enabling them to navigate around barns and approach giant tractors. Visual cues open doors to more information on elements of the farm. The experience is best using the Oculus Rift headset, but others can get a sense of the experience using the Unity player on a web browser.

The place-based feeling of VR is particularly important for stories depending on a sense of space and perspective. The Reynolds Journalism Institute (RJI) at the University of Missouri experimented with an animated VR approach to cover eyewitness statements in the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson, Missouri. A walk through their output, helmed by graphic journalist and RJI fellow Dan Archer, shows some of the possibilities of VR for journalism.

Each witness’ perspective is virtually apparent as the user experiences his or her statements. This gives the reporting an angle that’s not quite possible with text. Video would capture the sense of space, but cannot give the user the same control over movement. The package is rudimentary, as the technology is nascent, but provides a window into what will be possible in the future.

“It comes down to a much-abused term that’s being bandied about these days: empathy,” Archer says. “I first got into graphic journalism as a way of placing the reader at the heart of a news story by using art to visualize the accounts of my interviewees from their first-person perspective. That was several years ago, and the technology … has at last almost caught up to speed.”

Explore the Ferguson virtual reality project (requires download of Unity player).

Explore the Ferguson virtual reality project (requires download of Unity player).

Implications for Journalism Ethics

As with all emerging media platforms, VR presents opportunities, but also demands serious ethical consideration. In some cases, traditional ethics contested over decades help inform our judgments. But in others, the very immersion itself prompts questions we have not yet tackled in journalism.

How real is the virtual?

Ethical questions begin with the basics. When constructing an animated virtual reality, what steps can be taken to make it as real as possible? What are the dimensions of surrounding buildings? What are the colors and shapes of people in the scene? What’s the relative perspective between the user and the trees around her?

In the case the Ferguson package, the VR rendering shows a blue sky with puffy white clouds. But video from the scene shows a more gray, dreary day. Does this matter for the story? Would it change the audience’s understanding? All of these questions must factor into animated recreations. But they’re also issues in 360-degree video. One would imagine it to be less fraught with potential for distortion, yet video that’s captured in 360 degrees still has to be edited in two dimensions. This can interfere with rendering reality as it was caught on the original video.

It’s important to recognize, however, that virtual reality does not introduce these concerns in significantly new ways. De la Peña faced criticism early in her work from those who claimed VR journalism was too subjective and thus could not be ethical. Yet when operating in text, still, video, audio or interactivity, we’re continually making judgment calls about what to cover, what to render and how to do it. VR certainly poses issues of subjectivity, but they are extensions of critical questions we need to be asking ourselves in all platforms.

Archer, in fact, notes that VR as a form holds promise for helping users recognize subjectivity because the choices are so apparent in a graphically rendered environment.

“All we can do is be open and honest with readers, and highlight what we chose to include and exclude.” Archer says. “My hope is that using this process we can lean more heavily on readers to explore what the notion of ‘truth’ is using this new virtual frame of reference.”

Whose reality is it?

Just as we must with any text, video, audio or interactive story, we must wrestle with the sourcing in virtual reality packages. The Ferguson piece lays this bare. Source perspective, motivations and biases all play roles in the creation of the virtual environment. Certainly the number of feet between a window and a road can be measured, scaled and recreated in VR. But where a person says she stood and what she says she saw are less certain. Yet when they are rendered in a virtual environment, they are necessarily made more real for the audience.

Who owns a reality?

The “Harvest of Change” series, the virtual tour of the Iowa farm, quickly raised questions of intellectual property and trademark. Does recreating an exact animation of a trademarked tractor design infringe on that design? Does it do so with iconic public buildings? With emerging technologies, we often find law lagging behind what’s possible. Ethics must fill the breach, as we weigh others’ rights to their creations and the implications of our own recreations.

How much does this cost?

The ethics of economics matter in an age of news media disruption. The “Harvest of Change” package – while fascinating and exciting – came at time when Gannett laid off dozens of employees at its flagship paper. Although Pacheco says the cost of the VR package was not exorbitant (he’s barred from disclosing exact figures), expenditures on experimentation always come at the expense of other elements of news gathering. This context, however, demonstrates that funding experimental platforms and approaches may be one of the most justifiable expenditures of strained resources – within reason, of course. Virtual reality is expected to capture an audience through gaming that has been particularly elusive for news media: teens and young adults. These virtual platforms may be an ideal way to stimulate their interaction with news, serving them as citizens. But this requires a focused, thoughtful strategy, rather than merely chasing the latest toy. It also requires that we consider for whom we are developing these technology uses and whether we are leaving important audience segments out. Early speculation was that the cost of an Oculus Rift would make it a rich kid’s toy, at best. Yet the Gear VR is surprisingly affordable and because it runs off a mobile phone, its potential is open to a more diverse set of users who would otherwise lack consistent access to a desktop machine.

Whose expectations matter?

Privacy is clearly one of the largest ethical considerations for journalists with immersives, especially 360-degree video. As with drones capable of low-cost capture of video, still images and sound from the air above both public and private property, use of video and even animations for virtual reality poses the risk of invading privacy. Law is sorely behind technological development in this arena, so ethics are more crucial than ever.

“We’re not that far from drones flying all over the place and capturing everything,” Pacheco says. “Pandora’s Box opened back in the ‘70s and we’re not going to be able to close that. It’s going to be interesting to see how people use that for good and how they use it in morally and ethically questionable ways.”

Privacy, especially in law, is largely premised on the protection of personal space, and we punish intrusions into that space. We ask where a person has a “reasonable expectation of privacy” and generally conclude that such expectations are far stronger in personal spaces than in public ones. A woman has a reasonable expectation of privacy in her kitchen, but not in, say, a Starbucks in downtown Chicago.

But privacy is not merely a question of law. As media ethicist Cliff Christians notes, privacy is also a fundamental moral good. While privacy is essential for individual flourishing, protecting such human development is ultimately a common good.

“A private domain gives people their own identity and unique self-consciousness within the human species … Privacy as a moral good is nonnegotiable because controlling our life’s core is essential to our personhood,” Christians writes.

In an age when technology enables a transformation from simple observation to sophisticated surveillance, journalism must wrestle with the implications of this possibility. Virtual reality that relies on video capture, for instance, poses the problem of incidental capture. Imagine an immersive experience designed to transport users to a Liberian hospital treating patients with Ebola. Although currently limited in scope, technology will quickly be able to transmit live 360-degree video from such a hospital. Even if the clinicians or patients in focus consent to their story being used, the camera will pick up the full scope of the scene and enable users to move themselves in for closer looks. We must consider the privacy of the people within that scene.

And while VR would commonly be assumed to be more easily justified in a public setting – say, a street – the sophistication of the capture will also include spaces normally deemed private – say, a person’s living room windows. As we have struggled to conceptualize and deal with the privacy implications of emerging technologies like Google Street View, we will have to contend with the invasiveness of virtual reality. But the stakes increase with its use in journalism, specifically because news is so often about capturing people’s most difficult moments.

When is the virtual too real?

While some evidence is emerging that virtual reality may be useful as a treatment for post-traumatic stress disorder, Pacheco and others worry about the effects of putting people in stressful situations through VR. The concern is that renderings that are sufficiently real may trigger memory as though the user actually experienced a place or event. No one could mistake Walter Cronkite’s staged Chicago Fire coverage as real. But consider a virtual reality headset with video images of fire, plus the sound of crackling and gusting, plus the thick smell of smoke, plus the sense of growing warmth. These sensations have far more potential to induce trauma.

VR coverage of war, torture, rape and other violence will prompt searing questions about lasting consequences of consuming journalism that eclipse our current research on media effects. All of these considerations must factor into uses of virtual reality for journalism, keeping subjects and audiences more firmly in mind than the mere possibilities the technology affords, Pacheco says.

“The most important thing that we need to keep in mind with immersive and experiential media is that because people feel like they’re somewhere else, you always need to keep the experience of the user as the most important ethical consideration.”

Kathleen Bartzen Culver is an assistant professor in the University of Wisconsin-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication and associate director of the Center for Journalism Ethics. This essay was originally posted on February 4, 2015 at digital, the website of the Center for Digital Ethics at Loyola University Chicago.

Feature articles Ward’s Words Column

2014: The Year of Personalized Journalism Ethics


2014 brought us the year of My Journalism Ethics. It was the year that “personalizing” journalism ethics went mainstream. Big time.

Major journalism associations, from the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) to the Online News Association (ONA) grappled with the problem of writing ethical guidelines for an increasingly personalized, opinionated, and politically biased media sphere.

Some journalists embraced personalization – the idea that it is up to each journalist or each outlet to create and “customize” their own guidelines. Others rejected it. In either case, personalized ethics – “Do-It-Yourself (DIY) Ethics” – was topical and contested.

More importantly, it has set the course for journalism ethics in 2015 and beyond.

For this review, I could have focused on other developments, from the beheadings of foreign reporters and free press struggles in China and Egypt to a proposed Bill of Rights to control news media in Britain. I could have focused on bad behavior by journalists.

Instead, I focus on the personalized ethics movement because it speaks to the very future of journalism ethics in a digital age: What, if any, journalism ethics is possible?

What is personalized journalism ethics?

Start with a few general principles – a minimum of “content” – and then give journalists the tools (e.g., forms of reasoning) to construct rules adapted to their practice and audiences.

This is micro ethics: the ethics of specific platforms. It is not the traditional macro approach of journalism ethics which provides general norms for all journalists.

Personalization asks us not to think of a code as a content-based document with many principles. Instead, think of a code as a process for those who wish to write their own codes. The code is a tool kit. It adopts only a few common principles, such as truth-telling and accuracy. Then the code provides advice, such as questions to consider for writing guidelines.

Rather than a rich body of common principles for all journalists, there is a common process for code writing for types of journalists.


Photo by Jessica Spengler on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

Photo by Jessica Spengler on Flickr and used here with Creative Commons license.

DIY ethics did not emerge fully grown in 2014. The trend is the third and latest response to the current crisis in journalism ethics: the collapse of a craft-wide consensus on its ethics – on its aims, principles, and best practices.

Everything is up for grabs.

The first response occurred roughly between the late 1900s and 2006, from the rise of online journalism and the birth of Twitter. An ethics “civil war” erupted between professional journalists and citizen journalists as to who were the real journalists and whether principles of gate-keeping journalism, e.g., objectivity and pre-publication verification – were still valid. Some new media journalists said fuddy-duddy ethics did not apply to the free online world.

The second response occurred between 2006 and 2011. The trend was mainstream accommodation. News outlets, from the BBC to the AP, wrote up guidelines on how their journalists should use social media and opine on their personal blogs. Perhaps the mainstream could civilize the online horde and re-establish order in the media universe.

The third phase, from 2011 to today, is the growing popularity of personalization as a way to re-establish journalism ethics across many forms of journalism, not just legacy media.

Personalization signaled that many journalists were skeptical of the possibility of a new consensus on ethics. In the end, journalism ethics may turn out to be a plurality of codes suited to particular practices, without overarching common principles. Pluralism, fragmentation and micro ethics was king; universal, macro ethics was not.



The Online News Association is helping journalists create their own ethics codes.

The best example of personalized ethics in 2014 is the ONA’s current attempt to develop guidelines for members. The ONA site encourages its members to “build your own ethics” using the tools provided by the code. The ONA is “curating a toolkit to help news outlets, as well as individual bloggers/journalists, create guidelines that respond to their own concepts of journalism.”

The toolkit starts with a small set of common principles such as tell the truth, don’t plagiarize and correct your errors. Journalists make a choice between traditional objective journalism, where your personal opinion is kept under wraps, and transparency journalism, meaning you can write from a political or social point of view as long as you’re upfront about it.

Then, the toolkit provides guidance on constructing guidelines for about 40 areas of practice where journalists might disagree, such as removing items from online archives, use of anonymous sources and verification of social media sources.

In a previous column, I contrasted this approach with the SPJ’s revision of its famous code of ethics, approved by members earlier this year. I said the SPJ used a de-personal approach because the revisions maintained the code’s commitment to speak for all professional journalists. It did not name specific forms of journalism. Also, unlike the personalized approach, the SPJ code remained rich in content, articulating many common principles and norms.

For some, the DIY approach is a positive, inclusive and democratic approach, suited to a plural media world. The end of the dream of macro journalism ethics. For others, it is an abandonment of journalism ethics, an ill-timed concession to ethical subjectivism.

It is customary for year-end reviews to fearlessly predict the future. I will not shrink from this tradition, even if it may be foolhardy.

I predict the continuing co-existence of, and tension between, the depersonalized and personalized approaches. Mainstream associations won’t abandon their depersonalize codes, and online associations won’t abandon their personalized guidelines. Nor should they. We need both forms of thinking. We need a healthy and experimental approach to code writing.

However, I believe this third stage should give way to a fourth response, an integration of both approaches. This journalism ethics combines macro and micro, common principles and personalized applications.

Getting the balance right will be difficult.

Nonetheless, journalism ethics will have little future, and certainly little public credibility, unless it has the following features:

New unifying principles: We construct a consensus around aims and principles for all responsible journalists. We focus on common values. The key is to develop principles that express the mission of a diverse news media serving an open democracy and a global world. The content will include new aims and principles, such as advocating for global humanity, and the re-interpretation of principles such as impartiality and independence.
Personalized value systems for new practices: We construct specific best practices for entrepreneurial journalism, non-profit journalism, social media journalism, and other new and innovative forms of journalism.
Public basis for all of journalism ethics: We place a crucial restraint on the types of personalized values and practices that can be proposed. Whatever these practices are, they must be consistent with the unifying principles of democratic journalism. We recognize that the basis of journalism ethics is public, not subjective. We should be able to justify any personalization of ethics by reference to the public good, not the personal interests of individual journalists. The ultimate moral authority of any journalism ethics is not the fact that the values are “mine,” but because they promote a flourishing society, however we define it.

Fourth-response journalism ethics will be a more complicated, sophisticated enterprise than in the past. There is no avoiding the complexities.

Suppose that journalists ignore this advice and create a simpler personalized ethics that is subjective or idiosyncratic. It announces what they, as individuals, believe, and what ethical restraints they accept. Full stop. There is no serious attempt to link these values to the practice of journalism at large, or to provide more objective reasons for affirming their values. Then they ask the public to accept their values, and to trust that they will follow their self-created, and self-announced, ethical values.

Given the level of public cynicism about journalists, they will be laughed derisively out of the court of public opinion. The public simply will not buy the idea of journalism ethics and self-regulation as anything less than a practice-wide accountability based on public principles.

The public will not buy an individualized My Journalism Ethics.

Is a new integrated ethics possible? It does not exist. Will it ever exist?

That is the trouble with predicting the future. One can always think of many obstacles. The world does not always satisfy our wishes, especially in ethics.

However, the rise of personalized ethics in 2014, especially in the form that it has taken in the ONA, advances our evolving response to ethical problems. Personalization forces out into the open the key questions of journalism ethics today.

Gradually, we get glimpses of how to redefine responsible journalism for a digital world.

This article was originally posted on EducationShift, part of the PBS MediaShift site, and is reposted here by permission of the author.

Stephen J. A. Ward is an internationally recognized media ethicist, author and educator. He is ethics adviser/lecturer at the University of British Columbia, Courtesy Professor at the University of Oregon, and founding director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin.

Fact Checking Unintended consequences

Retracted Rolling Stone sexual assault story fallout is about more than just poor fact checking

uva ap ryan kelly

The journalistic failures of Rolling Stone, both ethically and practically, in their reporting of a horrific sexual assault on the campus of the University of Virginia offers a stark example of how wrong things can go when an artfully worded and compelling narrative appears to have bypassed the fact-checking desk entirely on its way to publication.

While there story’s intent may have been to call attention to the issue of sexual assaults on college campuses, the retraction of “A Rape on Campus: A Brutal Assault and Struggle for Justice at UVA” also inadvertently served to lessen the overall credibility of all rape victims.

One thing the editors of Rolling Stone and reporter Sabrina Rubin Erdely found out was that other reporters, bloggers and students were wiling to do some fact-checking of their own, but not before the story brought an uproar on the U-Va campus and around the country.  Within a matter of days, U-Va opened an investigation and suspended the entire Greek system.  At the same time, the story began to unravel.  (The Washington Post offers a timeline of events here.)

Writing for the Voices section of USA Today, copy desk chief and U-Va graduate Susan Miller explains that she found the story disturbing for reasons beyond the account of the alleged crime.

When I could finally swallow my anger and angst, I re-read the Rolling Stone piece a few days later. This time, however, I was able to detach from the scintillating prose — and I found the story unsettling for other reasons:

• Embedded throughout the narrative were verses from a 70-year-old school song the reporter deemed “naughty,” implying a culture of abusing women for decades. How could one make that leap?

• The word “alleged” never appeared in the 9,000-word article.

• There were changed names and quotes from unidentified people. On a guided tour of fraternity row, the reporter quotes a nameless student: “I know a girl who got assaulted there.” Chimes in a second nameless student: “I do, too! That makes two! Yay!”

• There was missing or unclear attribution. The story says “studies have shown that fraternity men are three times as likely to commit rape.” Which studies?

• And the most gaping hole of all: There was no mention of any attempt to contact the alleged perpetrators or to verify the events.

Miller concludes her piece by pointing out the larger problem with the Rolling Stone story, noting, “The resulting firestorm is drowning out the voices that still deserve to be heard: the Jackies who may have suffered sexual assaults at Virginia and college campuses across the land.”

This unfortunate aspect of the fallout as well as the ethical failings of Rolling Stone’s reporter and editors was also noted by Katy Culver, associate director for the University of Wisconsin Center for Journalism Ethics, when she spoke with Tanya Rivero of the Wall Street Journal’s video program, Lunch Box.

[Image by Ryan M. Kelly, via USA Today]


More reporting needed on subject of local journalists dying in Iraq and Syria


The rise of the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) has been a major focus of US news outlets’ foreign correspondence over the past several months. Starting with the involvement of ISIL’s forays into Syria, and reaching a fever pitch after western journalists like James Foley and Stephen Sotloff were beheaded on video, the militant organization has driven much of the media’s discussion about geopolitical conflict at the present moment. ISIL’s antics have certainly inspired news organizations’ renewed interest in the Syrian civil war. They have also illuminated the unfortunate fact that after a brief reprieve from fighting in Iraq, US forces are once again embroiled in the region. ONE_2014_military_intervention_against_ISIS_collageAnd though war correspondents have never been entirely absent from Iraq or from Syria over the past few years, they’re back at work in much greater numbers, reporting from some of the world’s most perilous locations.

War correspondence is a profession that deserves further attention from journalism ethicists, especially since digital media technologies and practices have lent more transnational visibility to war coverage than ever before. Communications scholar Stephen J. A. Ward has argued that the news media are now global in reach, because they have the capability of gathering and distributing information with unprecedented speed. According to Ward, this global reach “entails global responsibilities,” necessitating that foreign correspondents think outside the confines of their own nation-states. Rather than gearing their reports toward a national audience, Ward encourages journalists to think about the increasingly vast and diverse nature of the readers and viewers connected through digital technologies.

Communications scholar Herman Wasserman has also shown an interest in the growing interconnections—and yet, the continued disconnections—that define social and political life in the 21st century. He says: “Journalism in this era should constantly confront us with other views, other perspectives, other ways of making sense of the complex and changing world we live in.” Wasserman suggests that journalists should infuse “the recognition of difference” into their professional practice. Rather than attempting to dilute or ignore the cultural disparities that continue to exist in our tightly interconnected world, journalists should try to understand these differences. They should also help their audiences to understand.

This is especially the case with war journalism. Since war is essentially the ground zero of socio-political disconnection—the worst possible outcome of cultural disagreement, competition, or misrecognition—it is vital that conflict reporters treat social and cultural difference with the utmost care. Despite the difficulties in maintaining objectivity in the conflict zone, war journalists should still strive to put nationalism aside, instead seeking to understand all of the diverse elements that have engendered the conflict they are covering. The failure to do so could perpetuate the conflict itself, as well as laying the groundwork for future conflicts born of radical misunderstandings and misrepresentations of different cultures. This danger becomes all the more potent in the context of digitization, where such misrepresentations gain traction far more quickly than they once did.

TWO_War_reporterUS news outlets’ coverage of the rise of ISIL points to a number of relevant examples of the dangers involved in eschewing the ethical “recognition of difference” in war correspondence. One such example can be found in the news organizations’ tendency to focus on the plight of war journalists themselves. The strategy of turning the war journalist into the story is one that has been the subject of much debate in news industry circles. When Wall Street Journal reporter Daniel Pearl was kidnapped in 2002, for example, US news organizations flooded the mediascape with images of him in captivity, perpetually defending this choice by claiming that news audiences deserved to know what journalists and troops were up against in Afghanistan and neighboring Pakistan. Yet, this focus on Pearl’s situation did not ultimately save him, leading the New York Times to instate a media blackout when its correspondent David Rohde was kidnapped in 2008. Rohde later escaped.

In August and September of 2014, war journalists again became the story after news organizations reported that ISIL had beheaded US freelance reporters James Foley and Stephen Sotloff. The announcement of this tragic news resulted in an explosion of discourse about the safety of American journalists in Syria and the cruelty of militant groups in Syria and Iraq. This intense discussion was not entirely surprising; Foley and Sotloff had both ventured into one of the most dangerous warzones in the world, risking their lives in order to better inform news audiences about what was happening in Syria. They deserved better treatment than what they received, and they certainly deserved to be eulogized.

The problem arises, not in the discourse on Sotloff and Foley, but in the lack of similarly detailed attention to the plight of other journalists in Iraq and Syria, most especially those working for news organizations in the Middle East. This is a problem that has particularity plagued US television coverage since 9/11. TV news networks have often fixated upon the suffering of American correspondents while only very rarely mentioning the fact that local journalists suffer the most in war zones. The website for the Committee to Protect Journalists shows that of the 10 journalists killed in Syria so far this year alone, 7 were from the Arab world, working for news organizations based in the Middle East. The CPJ website on journalist deaths in Iraq shows that five journalists have been killed there in 2014—one from Turkey and the rest working for Iraqi news outlets. In past years, the list is even longer.

640px-Bombed_out_vehicles_AleppoSome might argue that it’s only natural for US organizations to focus on US journalists in the warzone, since American news audiences are bound to be more interested in the challenges faced by their own reporters. But that attitude situates journalism firmly within the purview of the nation-state, while also raising questions about objectivity and balance in war coverage. We live at a time when the beleaguered body of the war correspondent is routinely offered up as evidence of the world’s various war crimes. At times, news organizations will even go so far as to present their correspondents’ harrowing incidents as events that should inspire certain political stances. This especially occurs when organizations give most or all of their attention to the experiences of their own journalists, without further investigating the experiences that others face.

Yes, American journalists are being targeted in the field. Yes, the US has lost a number of amazing reporters since 9/11. And yes, it does make sense that those journalists’ experiences should be shared with news audiences, with the viewers and readers who need to know how difficult it is to give them the information they require. But so many other journalists have died since 9/11. If US news organizations are indeed dedicated to giving their increasingly transnational news audiences the entire story, then don’t these other deaths matter just as much?

In an era where journalists inevitably become a part of the story—targeted, kidnapped and killed by the groups on whom they are reporting—it is essential that news organizations strive to tell that story in its entirety. This involves a conscious engagement in the ethical “recognition of difference” and a dedication to providing audiences with “other views, other perspectives, other ways of making sense of the complex and changing world we live in,” to use Wasserman’s words. Yes, tell the story of Stephen Sotloff’s murder in Syria; but also tell the story of Mohammed al-Qasim, a correspondent for Syria’s Rozana Radio. He was killed only days after Sotloff, and his death raises a unique set of questions about Syria’s ongoing conflict. What stake do Syrian journalists have in covering the war, for example, and why are they being targeted? What stories can they tell about this struggle, and what perspectives can they add to those with which US readers and viewers are already familiar?

These are important questions, and not just for the people living in Iraq or Syria. US news audiences are now linked to other readers and viewers around the world, and the conflicts in distant places are not so very distant anymore. Because of this, it is crucial that journalists strive to achieve the “ethical recognition of difference”—even in the stories they tell about themselves.

Lindsay Palmer is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, and is a faculty associate of the Center for Journalism Ethics.

[photos used via Wikimedia Creative Commons license]
Shadid Award

Nominations for the 2015 Anthony Shadid Award for Journalism Ethics are now open

Anthony Shadid talks with journalism students in 2010. (Photo by Bryce Richter)

The Anthony Shadid Award for Journalism Ethics recognizes outstanding application of ethical standards by an individual journalist or group of journalists.

The award is named after Anthony Shadid, a University of Wisconsin-Madison alumnus and foreign reporter for the Washington Post and The New York Times. Mr. Shadid won two Pulitzer Prizes for his courageous and informed journalism. In February 2012, he died from health complications while crossing the Syrian border.

A graduate of the UW-Madison journalism school, Mr. Shadid sat on the Center for Journalism Ethics advisory board and was a strong supporter of the center’s aim to promote public interest journalism and to stimulate discussion about journalism ethics.

The Anthony Shadid Ethics Award includes a $1,000 prize and expenses to accept the award at the Center for Journalism Ethics annual conference in Madison, Wisconsin, April 10, 2015.

We seek nominations for ethical decisions in reporting stories in any journalistic medium, including, print, broadcast and digital, by those working for established news organizations or publishing individually. The award focuses on current journalism and does not include books, documentaries and other long-term projects.

While some regard ethics as a set of rules to follow, the Center for Journalism Ethics sees them as balancing conflicting values. For example:

Ethical journalists diligently seek truth. At the same time they seek to minimize harm to innocent individuals, the community or society at large. This can present a conflict.

Ethical journalists value transparency but respect privacy. Their search for truth may sometimes require anonymity for sources or violation of privacy. These also present conflicts.

Entries will be judged solely on the thoughtfulness and responsibility of the journalists in resolving such conflicting values.


Letters of nomination must include:

1. The name and contact information of the nominator and their relationship to the story, and the identity of the reporter or reporting team that produced the report.

2. A brief description of the story and a link to it online.

3. The conflicting values encountered in reporting a story.

4. The options considered to resolve the conflict.

5. The final decision and the rationale for making it.

Nomination Letters of three pages or less should be saved in pdf format and attached to an e-mail sent to

An Entry Fee check for $50 payable to Center for Journalism Ethics should be sent to

Shadid Award, 5115 Vilas Hall, 821 University Avenue, Madison WI 53706

Anyone for whom the entry fee would constitute a hardship may request a waiver and should include that request with the letter of nomination.

Deadline for submissions is January 19, 2015.


By entering this competition, you grant the Center for Journalism Ethics permission to use your entry as a positive example of ethical decision-making if your entry is judged a finalist for the award.

Conflicts of Interest In the news

Presenting sponsorships in online verticals highlight need for more transparency

Online news sources see opportunity in developing subscription-based verticals, or separate sites that focus on specific areas such as energy, healthcare or e-commerce.  Theses sites can rationalize pay wall protection because they require specialized reporting resources but have a limited audience appeal.  Politico Pro offers 14 verticals, the newest being one addressing labor and employment.

Writing for the Huffington Post, Michael Calerdone notes that Politico sees opportunity in this area as major newspapers and other traditional news outlets scale back resources covering labor.  According to an interview with Marty Kady, editor of Politico Pro, the site’s marketing research shows that there remains a real interest in the details of labor policy among stakeholders in areas including lobbying, government and Fortune 500 companies.

Subscriptions for Pro verticals cost in the thousands of dollars, and the latest offering is one that may appeal to unions, law firms and companies wanting the latest workplace policy news. And Pro coverage, like that appearing on the main Politico site, is expected to be nonpartisan.

But in staffing the labor and employment vertical, Politico has turned to experienced journalists known for expressing points of view with their reporting. Timothy Noah, a liberal writer who spent years at The New Republic, Slate and MSNBC, will edit the four-person staff, which also includes Mike Elk, a labor reporter who recently worked for the left-leaning magazine, In These Times.

It seems quite reasonable to include reporters known for offering individual points of view, especially when reporting on policy decisions that are subject to debate, partisan or otherwise.  Some may see the risk of inherent bias in this kind of staffing; others recognize that with solid editorial over site, stories can be presented responsibly.

It may not be as easy to maintain an air of objectivity when a vertical supported with hefty subscription fees also come with presenting sponsors.

Writing for In These Times, Arun Gupta point out that one of the very first sponsor of Political Pro’s labor and employment seems to be more than just your average advertiser.

However, the Politico labor vertical made a curious decision in its first week. Its newsletter, “Morning Shift,” debuted October 7 with the tagline, “Your daily speed read on labor and employment policy” and a sponsorship from the International Franchise Association—a trade group representing franchised businesses like McDonald’s and Domino’s Pizza, as well as their franchise owners . Two days later, Morning Shift covered a labor issue of enormous importance to the IFA— whether McDonald’s has a legal responsibility for working conditions in franchises—but never mentioned the sponsor’s stake in the story, and editorialized in a way that could give the appearance of favoring the IFA’s position.

Gupta wonders how a news platform that presents itself as non-partisan (according to Calderone’s HuffPo piece) squares with the presentation of a labor report by a trade association that represents a sector “where unions and workplace rights are virtually nonexistent and wage theft and poverty is rampant.” (Gupta provides links to support those charges.)

Still, a sponsor with a vested interest in how information is reported can create serious conflicts of interest. Politico could be more transparent about the possibility of such a conflict if it noted IFA’s involvement in the McDonald’s story—which it never does. Further, at times, the Morning Shift appears to slant its reporting toward IFA in the October 9 Morning Shift report.

Sponsorships as well as advertising are key to the financial success of news sites.  Reporting resources take money, often much more than subscriptions can deliver, especially at start-up.  It would certainly go a long way in establishing and maintaining credibility of news sites acknowledged the sponsor-as-subject connection in a transparent and responsible manner, especially when specific stories seem to favor a presenting sponsor.

Read Calderone’s article here.

Read Gupta’s article here.

In the news Reporting

Rolling Stone journalist and Koch Industries exchange barbs over fairness

A Rolling Stone’s contributing editor and Koch Industries recently got into a battle of conflicting reports regarding Koch Industries’ practices and history, raising questions of subjectivity and objectivity.

Tim Dickinson, a contributing editor for Rolling Stone writing primarily on National Affairs, recently wrote an in-depth story outlining how Charles and David Koch, the CEO and Executive VP, respectively for Koch Industries, amassed their wealth and the allegedly illicit practices that the company has engaged in over the years.

Dickinson focuses on a wide array of topics, from the history of the Koch family all the way to their expansion into high finance. Many of Koch Industries wrongful actions are highlighted throughout the piece, painting the picture of the multi-billion dollar private corporation as a classic business empire bent on achieving the most wealth as possible.

When this story was released, Koch Industries was quick to release a press statement regarding the exposé on their company. In their press release, Koch was adamant in their opposition of what Dickinson used in his story, saying that based on what they saw as, “past distorted and dishonest coverage of Koch” Dickinson would not be “fair and objective” with them.

The press release then went on to target Dickinson himself, citing his, “willful omissions” of answers that the company provided for him, as well as attacks on his credibility as a journalist, saying they felt Dickinson, “was simply regurgitating and cribbing from past pieces hostile to Koch,” and cited his career at “left-wing outlets like Mother Jones” for his biased views.

Dickinson himself then responded to the press release, pointing out major discrepancies from the press release, such as the fact that a supposed off-the-record email was published as a part of the press release.

Through this exchange of heated words between a journalist and his source, both sides seem to be to an extent accurate in their arguments.

Dickinson, throughout his piece, cited huge amounts of information regarding about Koch Industries allegedly illicit past practices and disregard for the safety of citizens in order to increase their profits. Salon posted an article summary clearly outlining eight points of key information that Dickinson shared about Koch, including when they were found to be stealing oil from Native Americans.

Dickinson, however, omits some information that may have made the article more objective. In their press release, Koch cited several articles that showed that in some respects, they were working with communities to improve plants and refineries owned by the company, such as this one by the Star Tribune. With these omissions, Dickinson is seemingly only focusing on the negatives that Koch has done, thus falling short of attempts to minimize his story of any bias.

Koch, on the other hand, does not stop at refuting Dickinson’s claims. In their first few paragraphs of the press release, Koch aims to paint themselves as the good guy and Dickinson as a biased journalist with a hidden agenda. Instead of simply providing details to counter some of the claims of the articles, Koch aims to diminish Dickinson’s image and reputation as a journalist. They further muddied the water by publishing information from what they earlier agreed were off-the-record emails.

In the case of this back and forth “he-said, she-said” debate, both sides appear to be at fault in some sense. Dickinson seems to have fallen short in his attempt to remain objective, while Koch chose to go after Dickinson personally.  Unfortunately, sources and their spokespeople are not really bound to ethical standards in the same way journalists are.  As such, while subjects may lob ad hominem attacks at journalists, journalists are best served letting their reporting speak for itself.

Plagiarism Politics Reporting

Campaign season raises ethical issues of press access, plagiarism and fairness

As candidates enter the last month of campaigning in this election season, seemingly perennial ethical issues between journalists and candidates as well as between candidates themselves are once again presenting themselves around the country.

One need look no further than our local Wisconsin media this week to find charges of credentialed journalists being denied access to campaign events.  Meanwhile, charges of plagiarism between candidates regarding their own political communication materials are being thrown back and forth.

This week, a credentialed reporter from Wisconsin Reporter, the state level bureau for, was barred from a campaign event for Democratic gubernatorial candidate Mary Burke that featured First Lady Michelle Obama. is a project of the Franklin Center for Government and Public Integrity, and operates as a collection of local, independent journalism dedicated to in-depth and investigative governmental reporting, primarily in small and mid-size markets.

According to the Wisconsin Reporter, the journalist was denied access by Wisconsin Democratic Party communication director Melissa Baldauff because the online publication isn’t a legitimate news source, after initially saying the decision was made based on space limitations.

“Well, you’re not the press though, so, thanks,” Baldauff said, according to Adam Tobias of the Wisconsin Reporter.

In fact, the Wisconsin Reporter has been credentialed by the Wisconsin Capitol Correspondents Board to cover legislative sessions at the statehouse for the past several years.

This decision by the Burke campaign came on the heels of another incident of press restriction in Milwaukee when Burke’s staff tried to block reporters from talking to crowd members Sept. 29 in Milwaukee.

The Madison chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists, the Wisconsin Newspaper Association and the UW-Madison Center for journalism Ethics each expressed disappointment in the Burke campaign’s actions.

Robert Drechsel, a journalism professor at the University of Madison-Wisconsin and director the school’s Center for Journalism Ethics, told Wisconsin Reporter he can’t comprehend why the Burke campaign would bar certain media from Tuesday’s campaign rally, especially after the negative attention created at the Milwaukee event.

“I think it’s a very unfortunate thing,” Drechsel said. “It’s certainly not the call I would make.”

In addition to skirmishes between media organizations and candidates, inter-campaign charges of plagiarism have been tossed back and forth.

Dee J. Hall, writing for the The Wisconsin State Journal, reports that campaigns for incumbent Republican candidates Gov. Scott Walker  and Lt. Gov. Rebecca Kleefisch are both claiming ownership of the phrase “Wisconsin is open for business.”  Walker used it in his 2011 inaugural address, although Kleefisch claims on her website she is “widely credited” for the phrase.  Hall goes on to report the phrase has been used by former Gov. Jim Doyle, Wisconsin Manufacturers & Commerce, and agencies in several other states.

This “whose line is it anyway” exchange comes shortly after the Walker campaign criticized competitor Mary Burke for plagiarism because campaign communications used phrases that also appeared in materials for Democratic gubernatorial candidates in other states.  Burke blames the common phraseology on a consultant who repurposed some well-crafted lines without telling the Burke campaign.

Speaking with Hall, Michael Wagner, UW-Madison assistant professor of journalism and political science, said he would not call either Burke’s re-use of language or the common claim of ownership over “Wisconsin is open for business” as plagiarism.

“What Gov. Walker and Burke have done is called practicing politics. It is certainly unimaginative, but that’s not a crime nor is it an ethical violation.”

Read Hall’s article here.

Read Wisconsin Reporter’s article here.



Center for Journalism Ethics 2015 Conference to focus on Sports Journalism


The Center for Journalism Ethics will address the topic of ethics in sports journalism at our seventh annual conference, which will be held April 10, 2015 at Union South on the University of Wisconsin-Madison campus..

The conference, titled Fair or Foul: Ethics and Sports Journalism, will feature Robert Lipsyte, veteran sports journalist, author and current ombudsman for ESPN, as keynote speaker.  The program will include panels addressing ways journalism ethics come into play in topical areas including issues of privacy, editorial independence in a world of sponsorship and rights fees, representation of minorities, and the bounds of civil discourse in a sporting context.

fedexfieldpressboxWe need look no further than recent headlines for examples of events and the coverage that followed them for rich subject matter, such as Donald Sterling’s leaked racial commentary, the NFL handling of a domestic abuse issue that blew wide open with one TMZ video post, or Bill Simmons’ recent suspension for his heated criticism of both the NFL and his own management.  These and other stories will serve to inspire panels and the selection of panelists with the goal of offering lively discussions and, perhaps, some direction looking forward.

Be sure to save the date, April 10, 2015.  More details will be available here on our site in the coming weeks and months.

(Photo credit: Scott Ableman/Flickr-Creative Commons)