All posts by

Lead feature 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)
Shadid Award

Goldman, Apuzzo, Bridis and AP are 2014 recipients of the Center for Journalism Ethics’ Shadid Award


2014 Shadid Award Winner:

Associated Press: Adam Goldman, Matt Apuzzo and Ted Bridis

Missing American in Iran was on unapproved mission

The AP’s Adam Goldman received a tip from a confidential source that turned out to be the story of an American who disappeared in 2007 on what the U.S. government always maintained was a private business trip to Iran had actually been working for the CIA. The American, Robert Levinson, had been dispatched on an unapproved intelligence gathering mission by rogue analysts. The CIA had lied about its involvement to Congress, the FBI and the White House then – after it was caught – the CIA paid Levinson’s family $2.5 million not to reveal the truth publicly.

Adam Golman and Matt Apuzzo dug into the story over the next few months. Their reporting included obtaining documents and interviewing dozens of U.S. and foreign officials, as well as Levinson’s family members.

The AP approached high level U.S. officials several times to inform them that the AP would be publishing the story in the near future. However, each time, the officials encouraged the AP to delay publishing the story, as it might endanger Levinson or compromise promising leads to find him.

As the AP waited, rival news sources began looking into the story. But, the AP would not let pressure from the competition compromise its ethical standards. The news organization carefully vetted every new piece of the story before publishing the story to ensure it did not include any false information.

Finally-while still under pressure from U.S. officials, which urged the AP not to publish the story-the AP, decided to publish the Levinson story.

“Publishing articles that help the public hold their government to account is part of what journalism is for, and especially so at The Associated Press, which pursues accountability journalism whenever it can,” Executive Editor Kathleen Carroll said in the award nomination. “This seems particularly true on this subject at a time when the decisions of intelligence agencies are being extensively debated.”

The AP understood, and said so publicly, that its decision to reveal Levinson’s secret could hasten his release but also might cost Levinson his life.

In January, Levinson’s wife publicly confirmed the AP’s reporting. The family’s lawyer said: “There is no further value in continuing to deny what everyone in the world knows to be the truth.”

The Center for Journalism Ethics honors Adam Goldman, Matt Apuzzo, Ted Bridis and the Associated Press for their commitment to this story, and its ethical implications, and is pleased to award them with the 2014 Anthony Shadid Award for Journalism Ethics.

2014 Shadid Award Finalists:

Minnesota Public Radio: Madeleine Baran, Sasha Aslanian, Mike Cronin, Tom Scheck, Laura Yuen and Meg Martin

Betrayed by Silence

Minnesota Public Radio exposed a major sex abuse scandal within the Archdiocese of St. Paul and Minneapolis after receiving an anonymous tip from a former official at the organization. MPR’s reporting team of Madeleine Baran, Sasha Aslanian, Mike Cronin, Tom Scheck, Laura Yuen and Meg Martin obtained thousands of documents detailing how the archdiocese covered up decades of sexual abuse involving children. Lead reporter Madeleine Baran conducted nearly 100 hours of individual interviews with the whistleblower.

MPR carefully considered the ethical implications of reporting information from documents that included full names of child victims and internal Church memos hiding the names of the priests, providing secret payments to pedophiles and other illegal activities. MPR published seven major investigative reports that led to a judge ordering the archdiocese and a diocese in southern Minnesota to release the names of credibly accused priests.

MPR provided the following comments in the award nomination regarding the story and its dedication to ethics:

Betrayed by Silence is the most ambitious journalism project ever undertaken by MPR News. The reporting team of Madeleine Baran, Sasha Aslanian, Mike Cronin, Tom Scheck, Laura Yuen and Meg Martin has been vigilant in adhering to the highest standards of ethics in journalism. Faith, reputations and fortunes are at stake. We have been respectful yet firm with an institution that resists outside scrutiny. We have been delicate, yet assertive, in taking on two deeply private realms of human existence: religion and sexuality. We have striven to report the truth with care, rigor, independence and humility.

USA TODAY: Paul Overberg, Meghan Hoyer, Jodi Upton, Destin Fraiser, Jerry Mosemak, Anthony DeBarros and Jodi Upton

Behind the Bloodshed: The Untold Story of America’s Mass Killings

Even before the Newtown, Conn. killings, a collaborative USA TODAY data team dedicated itself to correct the public’s inaccurate view of mass killings—often created by the FBI and other organizations misreporting mass killing data. The team, which included: database editors Paul Overberg and Meghan Hoyer, senior database editor Jodi Upton, Gannett Digital designers Destin Fraiser and Jerry Mosemak, Gannett Digital director of interactive applications Anthony DeBarros and USA TODAY senior database editor Jodi Upton, worked together to design, research, interview survivors and the victims’ families and publish an online interactive that better defined mass killings and detailed FBI data of actual mass killings from 2006 to 2011 was only 61 percent accurate.

Before speaking with survivors and families of the victims, the team spoke with trauma experts to ensure they approached the issue with sensitivity. The team was made sure to avoid adding trauma to the situation, as the interactive did not name or provide specific ages of victims or survivors and included just one photo of a victim and one of a survivor. The Army’s 2nd Psychological Operations Group contacted USA TODAY to use the data for training, since it was more complete than other available reports.

“USA TODAY covers breaking news as all news outlets do, but we try to avoid the ‘If It Bleeds, It Leads’ mentality that, unfortunately attract many readers. This project was a lot more work and we were not first, but we felt it was more important for both victims and survivors to be right,” said Upton in the award nomination.

Propublica: Michael Grabell

Temp Land

While reporting on the recession, Michael Grabell, a reporter for ProPublica, discovered a harrowing series of abuses against temp workers in the U.S.—revealing an industry-wide problem of exploitation and other offenses against workers who had been laid off from factory jobs and were only able to find work through temp agencies or as independent contractors.

“I wanted to learn more about this growing ‘contingent’ workforce and set out to learn everything I could through data and on-the-ground reporting,” Grabell said.

Through interviews with over 100 temp workers across the U.S., Grabell saw much of the injustice first-hand.

Early on, I came across a group of immigrant laborers in Chicago who were getting on a school bus at 4:30 a.m. on a cold January morning. All they knew was that a labor broker named “Rigo” told them there was work at a place called los peluches — Spanish for the stuffed animals — and to meet in the alleyway behind the dental clinic. It turned out they were working through one of the largest temp agencies in the United States for one of the largest stuffed animal manufacturers in the world.

My editors and I struggled with how to expose abuses that could only be documented through on-the-record interviews and how to balance the fears of workers living a neighborhood where the labor market is largely controlled by these labor brokers.

Grabell also interviewed labor brokers, temp agency employees, worker advocates and others in the temp industry. After obtaining workers compensation claims, he discovered that temp employee were six times more likely to be hurt on the job than regular employees with similar jobs.

Many of the workers — and the other temp workers we wrote about in the series —  were afraid they wouldn’t be sent out by the temp agency anymore if they talked.
‘I would be homeless if they found out who I am,’ one woman said. Another explained that after the reporters left and the story was published, ‘I still have to live in this neighborhood.’ This is why many of the interviews were conducted in the early morning hours or late at night and why many of the workers remained on background. One interview was conducted entirely in whispers as the woman feared her neighbors in the next apartment would overhear. During another interview, one man simply got up and left, telling a reporter in a text message that he feared he had been seen by a labor broker’s sons.

“Thankfully, after multiple trips to Chicago, I gained the workers’ trust and many had the courage to go on the record. After the stories, several temp agencies changed their practices,” Grabell said.

The Illinois and federal labor departments have launched a joint initiative to investigate issues temp workers face on the job, and have since opened investigations into three temp agencies for issues Grabell wrote about.

Stephanie Mencimer, writing for Washington Monthly

The War of Rape

Stephanie Mencimer set out to set the record straight about an alleged 2005 rape incident that happened in Iraq and involved U.S. citizens and a private contractor.

The story of Jamie Leigh Jones, a contractor in Iraq working for the Kellogg, Brown & Root (KBR) private contractor company and her personal account in 2007 of how she was raped by a gang of coworkers in 2005, created a media firestorm and national outcry regarding the regulation of U.S. companies involved in the Iraq War.

Media coverage fueled a national discussion and prompted Congress to get involved. Sen. Al Franken (D-Minn.) to introduce and pass legislation on the victims behalf, which banned the Pentagon from contracting with companies that require employees to arbitrate sexual assault claims rather than appear in a jury trial.

However, when Jones was finally granted a jury trial in 2011, a Houston jury found no evidence that Jones’ story had ever happened. The jury had reviewed evidence that reporters, who earlier sensationalized her claims, never fully examined. The media fell silent and few media outlets covered the verdict.

“From start to finish, this piece is an exercise in accountability. It takes to task the media and Congress in one strong piece based on solid, verifiable documentation,” Mencimer said.

Mencimer sifting through court documents, State Department reports and expert witness testimony, seeking to report what the mainstream media left out. But, to minimize harm, Mencimer decided not to disclose the family’s mental health history.

Throughout her reporting, Menicmer emphasized the value of accountability and her dedicated to the highest standards of journalism. Mencimer commented:

My story was an attempt to set the record straight. It took apart Jones’ story and exposed just how little of it was true–and how the American media failed to correct the original narrative, possibly in part because the real story was uncomfortable and challenged a lot of conventional wisdom.

Mencimer received some backlash from people, stating her story would hinder efforts to maintain actual victims with access to the court system, but Menicmer argued she was a journalist – not an advocate – and people had the right to know Jones’ story.

A graduate of the UW-Madison, Anthony Shadid died in 2012 while crossing the Syrian border on a reporting assignment for the New York Times. He won two Pulitzer Prizes for his courageous and insightful foreign correspondence. Shadid sat on the ethics center’s advisory board and strongly supported its efforts to promote public interest journalism and to stimulate discussion about journalism ethics.

The award, which now carries a $1,000 prize, honors a journalist, or team of journalists, whose reporting on a specific story or series best exemplifies four key criteria: accountability, independence, and commitment to finding truth and to minimizing harm. In its first five years of awards, the ethics center limited nominations to journalists in Wisconsin, but this year expanded the scope nationwide.

[Photo by Jentri Colello for UW Center for Journalism Ethics].

fair use In the news

Getty Images changes the game by allowing free non-commercial use of some 35 million images

Getty Images website via British Journal of Photogrpahy

Reporting for the British Journal of Photography, Olivier Laurent details how Getty Images is introducing a game-changing policy that allows free non-commercial use for a large portion of its digital photography library:

The controversial move is set to draw professional photographers’ ire at a time when the stock photography market is marred by low prices and under attack from new mobile photography players. Yet, Getty Images defends the move, arguing that it’s not strong enough to control how the Internet has developed and, with it, users’ online behaviours.

“We’re really starting to see the extent of online infringement,” says Craig Peters, senior vice president of business development, content and marketing at Getty Images. “In essence, everybody today is a publisher thanks to social media and self-publishing platforms. And it’s incredibly easy to find content online and simply right-click to utilise it.”

: : :

To solve this problem, Getty Images has chosen an unconventional strategy. “We’re launching the ability to embed our images freely for non-commercial use online,” Peters explains. In essence, anyone will be able to visit Getty Images’ library of content, select an image and copy an embed HTML code to use that image on their own websites. Getty Images will serve the image in a embedded player – very much like YouTube currently does with its videos – which will include the full copyright information and a link back to the image’s dedicated licensing page on the Getty Images website.

BJP offers this editorial note at the end of the article:  BJP will analyse the full impact of today’s news in a series of articles to be published later today and this week. Stay tuned.

Read the entire article here.

Updated 3.5.2014 10:30 CST:

There’s a lively discussion going on regarding the Getty Images policy change under a post by  Russell Brandom at The Verge.  Read it here.