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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Year: 2016

Duty of care: Newsrooms must address psychological trauma

As 2016 draws to a close, organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists are preparing their final tallies of the number of journalists killed over the past year. The CPJ has provided systematic data on the deaths of reporters since 1992. Groups like Reporters without Borders and the International Safety Institute also provide information on these casualties, hoping to raise awareness about the dangers that journalists face in the field and at home.

These grim statistics are vital to the broader conversation on journalistic safety. Because of these yearly tallies, news industry practitioners and members of the general public can understand the hard, cold facts: Reporters often die in the process of seeking the truth and sharing it with the world.

But journalists also face another danger, and you won’t find many organizations publishing yearly statistics on this particular peril. The unseen wounds of bearing witness are harder to track. It has become increasingly clear in recent years that psychological trauma is a major risk in news reporting. Because journalists cover things like car accidents, shootings, natural catastrophes and war, they are potential victims of the emotional fallout that can range from minor symptoms of stress and anxiety to full-blown PTSD.

Luckily, a number of organizations are speaking out about this problem. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma is one such group. The Center conducts research on the issue, aggregates research conducted elsewhere, and provides encouragement for journalists who recognize that they are not functioning the way they once did.

Freelance journalist Nadine Marroushi is one person who benefited from the Dart Center’s help. She found herself suffering from PTSD after covering the 2013 Rabaa Square massacre in Cairo, and later, the conflict in the North Sinai region of Egypt.

“All I knew is that I felt very, very sad all the time and could not feel happy. It’s a feeling that I’ve not had since I’ve come out of that. It’s just that you are constantly sad and you constantly just see black, black and white. You feel hopeless about everything,” Marroushi said.

It was the Dart Center staff that helped Marroushi identify her problem and get the proper help. But as a freelancer, Marroushi had to pay for her own therapy — a cost that was crushing, and, in her view, unethical.

“They [news organizations] need to have much more of a sense of a duty of care toward their freelancers. Look, even if you’ve written for them once, they’ve used your story. They’ve paid you. It shouldn’t just end with, ‘Well, we’ve paid you your money, and that’s it’,” Marroushi said.

The duty of care

Marroushi’s invocation of the “duty of care” raises a number of questions that are central to journalism ethics. News industry commentators have increasingly discussed the ethics of covering trauma, crucially arguing that journalism schools need to add this topic to their curricula. But the news industry rarely represents the mental health of the journalists themselves as an ethical issue in its own right.

There are a couple of reasons for the omission of reporters’ own trauma from the conversation on journalism ethics. Looking at the U.S. news industry’s major ethical codes, one reason becomes particularly clear.  The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics states in its preamble that “public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy.” Because of this, the SPJ defines ethical journalism as a practice that “strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough.”

In other words, the SPJ sees journalism ethics as a relationship between the individual journalist and the public. The journalist is the one who must act ethically, and the public is the beneficiary of this ethical action. When the SPJ calls for ethical journalism to “minimize harm,” the idea is that the journalist will minimize the potential harm faced by news sources, or members of the public more broadly. The notion of “harm” does not concern the journalist him or herself because the journalist is responsible for the public and must engage in the best possible practices on the public’s behalf.

But if journalism ethics is all about “best practices,” then aren’t there a set of best practices for the protection of the journalists themselves? Who is responsible for the journalists?

Where the question of physical safety is concerned, news editors and executives have slowly united in their efforts at preventing the injuries and deaths of reporters in the field. For example, a number of news outlets recently co-signed a set of principles for ensuring the physical safety of freelancers in the field. But this document doesn’t mention the type of emotional trauma that freelancer Marroushi experienced.

“But if journalism ethics is all about ‘best practices,’ then aren’t there a set of best practices for the protection of the journalists themselves?”

Neither does the American Society of News Editors’ Statement of Principles.  This code of ethics follows the SPJ’s code in assuming that journalism ethics is a set of standards solely meant to protect the general public. When the ASNE statement discusses the concept of “responsibility,” it does so in terms of journalists’ responsibility toward the public itself: “These principles are intended to preserve, protect and strengthen the bond of trust and respect between American journalists and the American people.”

ethical treatment of journalists, more ethical journalism

There’s certainly nothing wrong with this dedication to safeguarding the people’s right to be informed. Our democracy (ideally) depends on this dedication. But there’s actually a direct link between the well-being of the journalist and the journalist’s ability to ethically serve the public. How can the journalist remain “impartial,” for example, when he or she is drowning in the symptoms of PTSD? How can the journalist “be accountable and transparent” when he or she cannot even process the horrors of the story?

News organizations have a “duty of care” for journalists’ mental health, not only because it’s the decent thing to do. They also have a “duty of care” for reporters’ psychological well-being because this well-being (or lack thereof) can decisively impact the journalists’ own ability to remain ethical. And as Marroushi bravely asserted, this duty of care does not only extend to journalists who are on the staff of a major news organization. It also extends to the freelancers who increasingly bear the brunt of the world’s most traumatizing stories.

In light of this issue, the field of journalism ethics shouldn’t stop at the analysis of the individual journalist’s responsibility toward the public. Journalism ethicists also need to study the ethical treatment of the journalists themselves. Governments, third-party organizations and especially news editors have a responsibility toward their employees. They should do everything in their power to keep their reporters as safe as possible, protecting them from the injuries they can see, and from the psychic wounds that are no less painful for their invisibility.

Lindsay Palmer is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UW-Madison. She studies global media ethics from a qualitative perspective, especially focusing on the cultural labor of conflict correspondents in the digital age.

Recap: Ethics and Election 2016

More than 170 people joined us at the Overture Center on Dec. 8, 2016 to discuss journalism ethics and the 2016 election with The Atlantic’s Molly Ball, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s Craig Gilbert and UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication’s Michael Wagner.

Below you will find links to the full video of the panel provided by Wisconsin Eye, two great summaries of the event from local reporters, and a pre-panel interview on WISC-TV featuring Molly Ball and CJE director Katy Culver.

Three duties in a time of Trump

In the turmoil of a Trump election victory, and the dawn of a robust right-wing American government, it is time to do journalism ethics with utmost seriousness.

Journalism ethics is not a set of formal rules that students are forced to memorize and then find these ideals inoperable in the workplace.

Journalism ethics is the heart and soul of why you are a journalist, and why it matters.

Today, this soul-searching begins with a large question: What sort of journalism does America need to meet the great political challenges ahead?

What is the point of journalism practice in a time of Trump?

My answer is: to protect liberal democracy by embracing three related duties:

  • the duty to advance dialogue across racial, ethnic, and economic divisions
  • the duty to explain and defend pluralistic democracy against its foes
  • the duty to practice the method of “pragmatic objectivity”

The duties work together to promote an egalitarian, plural, tolerant, democratic polity, which should be the political goal of public journalism. The duties work against a populist democracy dominated by a “strong man,” where freedom is freedom for the most powerful and abrasive.

The duties oppose the untrammeled, vengeful will of intolerant citizens who see the election as a “winner take all” victory for their side.

trump time

One cannot discuss the point of a practice in the abstract. Journalism ethics begins with some perception of the media’s social context. What is this context?

We live in a time of danger for moderate, liberal democracy with its divisions of power, freedom of expression, protections for the rights of all citizens, and the empowerment of minorities despite the displeasure of traditionalists.

Trump time has been a long time coming.

It has been long prepared for by: bad education, American insularity, and the myth of exceptionalism; incorporation of fundamentalist religion into politics; the deepening of economic inequality; seeing strength in guns and the person of violence; mistaking ‘in-your-face’ ranting for honest, democratic communication; and the worship of fierce partisanship over compromise.

Other contributors: An extreme patriotism which views those who disagree as enemies of the state; regarding America as white, male-dominated, and Christian; an insouciance toward fact and a suspicion of intellect; the preference for character assignation over rational argument; a fear of ‘others’ and the replacement of thought by slogan.

The result? A society populated by too many politically ignorant and apathetic consumer citizens, easy targets of demagogues. Now, these unsteady forces have the power of social media to create a totalitarian mindset in the heart of what was once the world’s greatest liberal democracy.

What to do?

Given this uncertain future, what should journalists do?

There are two options that should not be followed. One option is for journalists to counter the bombast and distorted statements of the Trumpites by producing a bombastic, counter-balancing opposition press. There is already too much rant-induced media.

“Here is where the first media duty arises: the duty to promote dialogue across divisions.”

The second option is for journalists to see themselves, delusionally, as only neutral chroniclers, as stenographers of ‘fact’ as the political drama unfolds. This is an outdated notion of objectivity formulated in the early 1900s for a different social context.

The best response lies between journalistic ranting and the mincing neutrality of stenographic journalism: it is a democratically engaged journalism committed to three duties.

A democratically engaged journalism is not neutral about its ultimate goals. It regards its ethical norms and methods as means to the flourishing of a self-governing citizenry. Here is where the first media duty arises: the duty to promote dialogue across divisions.

In a column on this site over a year ago, in the wake of the Charlie Hebdo attack, I talked about the media’s duty to mend. Journalists have a duty to convene public fora and provide channels of information that allow for frank but respectful dialogue across divisions. They seek to mend the tears in the fabric of the body politic.

In a time of Trump, the duty to practice dialogic journalism is urgent. This means challenging stereotypes and the penchant to demonize. It means linking the victims of hate speech to citizens appalled by such discrimination, building coalitions of cross-cultural support.

Go ‘deep’ politically

However, fostering the right sort of democracy-building conversations is not enough.

Conversations need to be well-informed. Here is where the second duty arises.

Journalism needs to devote major resources to an explanatory journalism that delves deeply into the country’s fundamental political values and institutions, while challenging the myths and fears surrounding issues such as immigration.

The movement of fact-checking web sites is a good idea but insufficient. It is not enough to know that a politician made an inaccurate statement. Many citizens need a re-education in liberal democracy—those broad structures in which specific facts and values takes their place. They will be called on soon to judge many issues that depend on that civic knowledge.

“Journalism needs to devote major resources to an explanatory journalism that delves deeply into the country’s fundamental political values and institutions…”

John Stuart Mill once said that if we do not constantly question why we hold basic beliefs, they become “dead dogma.” How many citizens would be hard-pressed to say what democracy is (beyond voting) or exhibit an understanding of the history and nature of their own constitution beyond phrases such as “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness”? How many have a virulent and imbalanced commitment to the Second Amendment alone?

Such a democracy is flying blind and vulnerable to demagogues.

Here is a small list of some topics for explanatory political journalism:

  • The idea of a constitutional liberal democracy: Not liberal in the derogatory sense of favoring big government but liberal in making the basis of society the protection of a core of basic liberties. Plus, the idea of constitutional protection of the rights of all citizens, including minorities, against the wavering, often tyrannical, will of the majority.
  • The division of powers: The extent of the powers of a president and his duty to uphold constitutional rights including not threatening action against critical speakers. Also, the idea of judicial independence from any president who would try to tell the courts what rights to recognize or reject.
  • Deep background on immigration: Especially the difference between immigrants and refugees, the international refugee agreements, and the human face of the immigrants and refugees who come to this land.
  • The meaning of political correctness: Its origins, the abuse of the term, and its ‘cover’ for hate speech. Plus investigations into groups that support hate speech and thinly ‘disguised’ racism online.
  • The difference between a free press and a democratic press: A free press values the freedom to say what it likes, no matter what the harm done. A democratic press uses its freedom to strengthen and unify plural democracy, while minimizing harm.

Pragmatic objectivity

In carrying out these two duties, journalists are not neutral chroniclers. They are avid investigators of the facts, but they are not stenographers repeating other people’s alleged facts. They accept the third duty, of pragmatic objectivity—to systematically test the social and political views of themselves, and others.

Those who adopt pragmatic objectivity are engaged journalists who see their norms and methods as means to a larger political goal—providing accurate, verified and well-evidenced interpretations of events and policies as the necessary informational base for democracy. Their stories are not without perspective or conclusions, yet such judgments are evaluated by criteria that go beyond citing specific facts, from logical rigor to coherence with pre-existing knowledge.

“…the third duty, of pragmatic objectivity—to systematically test the social and political views of themselves, and others.”

Pragmatic objectivity recognizes that any code of journalism ethics is based on a more fundamental political and social conception of a good society—in this case an egalitarian and plural democracy. Within this overarching set of values, journalists can go about being as factual, verificational, and impartial in daily practice as they please. But they do not pretend that they are completely neutral, without values and goals. Objectivity is not a value-free zone.

In my book, The Invention of Journalism Ethics, some years ago, I introduced this idea of pragmatic objectivity as a method for testing any form of journalism. My aim was to provide a substitute for the traditional idea of news objectivity as eliminating interpretation and perspective. I believe this conception is now a timely norm for today’s journalism.

Ethics as political morality

In sum, the new social context calls on journalists to clarify their political goals and roles.

In the days ahead, the key issues of journalism ethics will be questions of political morality—the way we think a democracy ought to be organized, and the media’s role in it.

Many journalism conferences focus on practical “tool box” tips, such as using new technology; or, they focus on how to attract audiences through social media.

Yet, when a country enters an uncertain political period, journalists need to return to journalism ethics and political themes, just as such themes arose during the civil rights movement of the late 1960s and early 1970s.

For many journalists and news organizations, the next several years will be a severe test of their beliefs and ideals—and their will to defend them.

Journalists will not escape the searching question: Why are you a journalist? 

Stephen J. A. Ward is an internationally recognized media ethicist, author and educator. He is a distinguished lecturer in ethics at the University of British Columbia, Courtesy Professor at the University of Oregon, and the founding director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin. His book, Radical Media Ethics: A Global Approach, won the 2016 Tankard Book Award.

Featured photo (top right of page) by Disney/ABC Television Group CC BY-ND

NPR’s experiment with live fact-checking

NPRIt took a team of about 30 NPR reporters and editors to annotate live transcripts of the 2016 presidential debates, according to Amita Kelly, a reporter on NPR’s politics team

The roster included journalists from politics, business and international security, with editors simultaneously working to clean up the transcript itself as well as the fact checks and analysis.

“We use the term fact check a little bit broadly,” Kelly explained. “Some were straight: is this true or false? But a lot of it is just the analysis that our reporters can provide, saying: ‘Actually, there’s more to the story.'”

NPR’s fact check featured an unfolding live transcript of the debate, with various claims underlined and linked to fact checks from NPR staff. The annotated transcript of the first debate drew more than 2 million views within 48 hours.

An example of a fact check from NPR during the first debate.

An example of a fact check from NPR during the first debate.

Because many of the claims the candidates made during the debate had already surfaced at some point in the campaign, the NPR team was able to rely on previous reporting to quickly verify information, according to NPR digital team member David Eads.

“The reporters are adding context and checking whether or not the statements are true, but there are also linking to stuff all around the media,” Eads said. “These became really great ways of catching up quickly on a lot of different issues. If we hadn’t had that kind of foundation of that reporting before, then I don’t think it would be quite as successful.”

But there are limits to this style of instant fact-checking, said Lucas Graves, a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin and author of “Deciding What’s True: The Rise of Political Fact-Checking in American Journalism.”

“Usually these claims are much more complicated to investigate than it seems at first,” Graves said. “If you were to try to decide from scratch whether some budget claim was true or false, and get that up in five minutes, you’re probably going to make a mistake.”

checking facts: a conversation

While the speed of the instant fact check may not always be possible, Graves said NPR’s fact-checking endeavor illustrates a conversational style that is trending in today’s journalism.


FiveThirtyEight live-blogged the first presidential debate.

Pointing to FiveThirtyEight’s election team, which takes a Slack conversation between reporters or experts on a designated topic, edits it for clarity and then posts it directly to the web, Eads said news consumers are looking for more of a dialogue than traditional journalism has offered.

“It seems that people want to hear a lot of voices, sort of in dialogue, and not this omniscient detached narrator that can provide journalism from the the 50s,” Eads said.

Kelly described the experience NPR created with the debate fact checks with contributions from reporters across beats as like watching the debate “with all of your smart NPR friends sitting next to you.”

“When Clinton, something comes up about her emails or a tax plan or a tax credit, I want someone to poke me and say ‘Hey! Actually, she’s been saying this all along, or this is different than what she said, or that’s actually not what those experts agree with,” Kelly said.

Eads noted that this particular style of journalism has the potential to fill in gaps left by social media.

“One thing that you have to be able to be successful these days, is provide a better experience than things like Twitter and Facebook,” Eads said. “And this managed to do that, in a way.”

the future of fact checking

Graves said he hopes the way this election cycle has shaped fact-checking continues.

Even in regular news pieces unrelated to the election, Graves said he’s starting to notice reporters make fact checks more freely. In the past, he said, journalists would refrain from challenging a source within a straight news report out of a fear of being accused of bias.

“There’s no good journalistic argument for repeating a claim in a news story that you know to be false without noting that it’s false,” Graves said. “I think journalistically, that’s indefensible, and we’re seeing a sort of cultural shift to accept that.”

As for NPR’s live fact check, he applauded the effort but hopes to see more fact-checking integrated into the debates themselves, either through moderators or video clips.

“If it’s built into the debate format itself,” Graves said. “The candidates themselves are actually confronted with the fact checks.”

Cadence Bambenek is a fellow for the Center for Journalism Ethics. She is a student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 

Q & A with Chris Wells: Trump as a Media Mastermind

Chris Wells is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His latest work, published in Political Communication, examines the many strategies Donald Trump used to generate news coverage. CJE sat down with Wells to discuss what the success of Trump’s attention-grabbing tactics mean for journalism.

CJE: Could you explain a bit about what your study on Trump uncovered? 

Wells: First and foremost, Trump is a media person. He’s been obsessed with getting attention. At one point, he posed as his own spokesperson and contacted news outlets. We kept asking ourselves, “Is he just an incredible strategist?” But, it’s probably more intuitive to him. It’s been his job for 35 years. A strategy feels like it should be thought out, but it’s more second nature to him. I think he’s surveying the environment very closely, when he notices attention to himself is slacking off he does stuff to get talked about. Data scientist David Robinson did an analysis of his tweets. Half are run-of-the-mill campaign tweets, like “Great to see you in Iowa.” Then there are the crazy ones, which are coming from an Android phone. The non-crazy ones are coming from another device, which suggests it’s his staff.

Credit: David Robinson

An analysis of which words appeared in Trump’s tweets sent from Android or iPhone. Analysis and graph by David Robinson.

CJE: These ‘crazy’ tweets seem to garner a lot of media attention. Is there such a thing as bad publicity?

Wells: He’s been at the heart of conflict for a constant 30 years. What we see at the beginning of the primaries, in that environment it might be all publicity is good publicity. We often are coming from the standpoint that we feel uncomfortable with things he saying, but amongst Republican primary voters his policies were very popular. He’s sensitive to how the crowd is responding and he gives the crowd what they want.

Credit: Ronald B. Rapoport

Trump’s supporters were largely supportive of his policy proposals. Analysis and graph by Ronald Rapoport, Alan Abramowitz, and Walter Stone.

CJE: Do you think Trump takes advantage of journalistic norms?

Wells: The issue is the amount of press coverage he earned. The numbers are unbelievable. He got basically as much press attention as much of the other Republican candidates combined. He’s an unusual candidate, but the one single thing about him is his ability to attract media. He noticed he liked attention and that it could benefit him. Earning 2 billion dollars in paid media is astonishing. The press noticed early on that writing about Trump got them a lot of clicks. Outlets want to get attention because they’re selling ads. But what leads them to lavish that much attention on one person? The metric which allows everyone to see number of clicks is kind of amoral. It’s totally agnostic. We’re just doing it because it gets us money. You haven’t applied any ethical standards to it, which is the issue.


Trump generated nearly $2 million in free media. Analysis and graph by The New York Times.

CJE: What is your biggest concern with Trump’s media influence, and how should journalists ideally respond to present and future Trump tactics?

Wells: The press needs to have an agenda and decide what it wants to cover and not chase around the candidates exclusively. Asking candidates something like, “We’ve done this detailed reporting on the nature of the economy and here are the major issues, please respond.” We’ve almost entirely neglected to create in the public’s mind what the real problems are and that seems like a massive failure. The bigger issue is being a little reflective of where you are allocating your news media. You have to get clicks, to get advertising revenues. The question is how and to what extent can media deal with that pressure? That’s the latest shift in this trend.

CJE: Do you have any advice for journalists going forward? 

Wells: I urge journalists to think about how can you create content that is deeper, more substantive and more issues-based and also still attracts the audience. How do we find formats that will attract audiences enough to sustain news outlet and can do this real issues-driven work? How can you bring that format out? More importantly, how can you deliver real content that will inform people? We need to gives the public hope and mobilization.

Feature image by Michael Vadon/CC BY-SA

Don’t look to flash polls to determine a debate winner

Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton in the second presidential debate. Photo by Bill B/CC BY

Hours after the first presidential debate of 2016 concluded, Republican nominee Donald Trump took to Twitter to proclaim his victory. “Thank You! Four new #DebateNight Polls with the Movement winning. Together, we will make America Safe & Great Again!,” he tweeted. Underneath Mr. Trump’s message was a graphic displaying four polls from Breitbart, Variety, and The Hill, that all conclusively showed Trump winning the debate.

But the polls Trump cited should not be taken as certain indicators of the debate results. Flash polls like the ones mentioned above, as well as online polls from other publications like MSNBC and Time magazine from after the first debate, are not at all scientific. As a result, while Trump and his surrogates propagate their message of victory using these polls as evidence, the polls provide no actual insight about who won or lost a particular debate.

One reason for not putting much value in the results of these polls is that most who respond to them  are frequent visitors of the website where the poll is hosted. It is not surprising then, that on, a conservative, pro-Trump news outlet, more than 160,000 people voted that they thought Mr. Trump won the first debate compared to 51,000 who believed the Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton won. In many cases, the results of these polls are merely reflective of the audiences that the websites attract and not potential American voters as a whole.

“They’re just garbage. They’re opt-in polls,” Professor Dhavan Shah, Maier-Bascom Professor at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said. “In fact, many of them can be machined. You literally can set up systems that go and log in and vote hundreds of times, thousands of times. You can tilt the scales in one direction or the other. They do not represent any sample. Period.”

Users and advocates can easily affect the result of these polls. As Shah points out, computer programs can vote hundreds or thousands of times. These polls are more a reflection of fan support than anything else, as many message boards during the debate called for Trump supporters to flock to these various polls to support him. Sometimes just a simple refresh of an Internet browser allows debate watchers to vote for their candidate over and over again. A voter doesn’t even need to watch the debate to vote in such polls.

“Think of it like if you’re at Lambeau Field and the referees call holding on the Packers – 60,000 people at Lambeau Field say, ‘that’s not holding,’” Mike Wagner, an associate professor at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication said. “That’s a huge number, 60,000 people, but of course they’re highly skewed toward liking the Packers. And that’s the same for someone who would go to [conservative website] Drudge to fill out a poll or [liberal leaning] MSNBC to fill out a poll. And so the difference is in scientifically valuable public opinion surveys everyone has an equal opportunity of getting contacted which is not the case when you’re talking about an Internet web poll.”

The CNN/ORC post-debate poll is a scientific poll conducted in the hours after the debate. Screenshot from

Post-debate scientific polls like the CNN/ORC poll or PPP poll are instead conducted using pre-screened debate watchers who planned on watching the debate and said they were willing to answer a poll immediately after the debate about their thoughts. And while these poll samples might slightly skew toward a particular party, their slight partisan imbalance doesn’t make the poll invalid because these polls are still representative of the United States’ voting profile as a whole.

CNN/ORC and PPP also do not conduct these polls as a means of attracting attention to their content, but instead to help inform the public.  Flash polls, Wagner said, are designed to drive clicks and attract attention to the host website. They can be trying not so much to gauge opinion as to drive opinion.

“I wish they [online websites that conduct flash polls] would consider how running the results of a poll that is substantively meaningless harms their brand, but that doesn’t seem to be a concern for some of these places,” Wagner said. “I would actually make the argument that it isn’t ethical for journalistic outlets to report the results of unscientific polls.”

Trump’s campaign frequently reports these polls to build support for his campaign, but it is hard to condemn him for doing so, according to Chris Wells, an associate professor in UW-Madison’s journalism school. Wells notes that many groups, political and otherwise, try to build support using unscientific online polls. But according to Wells, what journalists are doing or not doing to help people understand what these online polls actually represent raises ethical issues.

Many unscientific polls do get covered, but their flawed methodology is seldom mentioned. They are cherry-picked and used as equal evidence to counter a more scientific poll or focus group-based study. But because debate watchers can easily opt-in to game the system, voting countless times to support their own views, these polls have little actual merit.

“It’s as valuable as saying, ‘Well, I can look at out my window and see that it’s sunny here in Madison, and so therefore it is sunny in Seattle, Washington,’” Wagner said. “There is no bearing upon what you see in an Internet-based flash poll and reality.”

Trump repeated his claim that the polls had deemed him the winner after the second presidential debate. Politifact rated that assertion a “pants on fire” false claim.

Ben Pickman is a second-year student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UW-Madison. He is double-majoring in journalism with a reporting focus and history. His main journalistic interests include sports media and sports media ethics, sports and society, and political reporting.

On Haiti and the ethics of disaster

Why you should stop encouraging news consumers to blindly donate to Haiti relief

Last week I messaged a source of mine in Haiti near Port-au-Prince to ask how he’s weathering the storm that hurricane Matthew has wrought upon his country. He replied that houses in his neighborhood had fallen “victim to floods.” The good news? “No one has died.”

That’s more than people living on Haiti’s southern peninsula can say. The death toll—now officially at 336, though likely far higher—is a big part of why the world is paying attention to Haiti right now. It’s in the headlines, it’s in the ledes. It’s the reason news agencies continuously hunt for the highest figures: The higher your death toll, the more fresh, the more ominous your reporting appears, and the more likely it is that TV news stations, newspapers and news websites will choose your story over your competitor’s. (This weekend The New York Times wrote about the challenges of calculating a death tolls).

We should care that hundreds of people have died. But we shouldn’t only care when a storm hits. More than 9,000 Haitians have died from cholera in the six years since the United Nations introduced the disease there. Diarrhoeal diseases kill at least 4,600 Haitians each year. Those diseases are usually brought on by lack of clean water and sanitation — things with relatively simple and low-cost fixes that neither Haiti’s government nor the international aid community has invested in sufficiently to fix.

In fact, giving money to disaster relief in Haiti is probably one of the worst ways to spend your money. In most cases, by the time a disaster strikes, it’s simply too late to do very much. Billions of dollars flowed into Haiti following its 2010 earthquake, but the number of people pulled alive from the rubble by international medical teams likely measured only in the hundreds. When an earthquake hit Turkey in 1998, 98 percent of the people pulled from the rubble were saved by neighbors, relatives, friends — not internationals.

When disaster strikes, the first 24 or 48 hours are the critical windows in which to save lives. But even then, there’s precious little that emergency donations can accomplish. A friend of mine who works for a major aid organization in Haiti messaged me last week that “it’s awful trying to get to the south with the bridge down, blocked roads, etc. So sad.” She’s talking about a bridge on the same road I traveled back in 2010 to cover hurricane Thomas as it struck Haiti’s south. Indeed, bridges in Haiti fall frequently when storms hit. Without them, aid workers can’t get to the affected areas easily, or at all.

But how many of us have opened our wallets in the past five years to donate to the construction of bridges in Haiti — or roads?

More to the point, how many news outlets that are gaining clicks and ad revenue by reporting on the current death toll in Haiti bothered to report on any solutions to Haiti’s chronic infrastructure or health problems in the past? Absent any solutions-oriented coverage, the recent barrage of news about the tragic toll of Hurricane Matthew feels an awful lot like disaster porn.

In this December 2014 photo, a man navigates his boat toward an island off Haiti's Southern peninsula -- the area area hardest hit by Hurricane Matthew this month. (Photo by Jacob Kushner and used here with permission)

In this December 2014 photo, a man navigates his boat toward an island off Haiti’s Southern peninsula — the area area hardest hit by Hurricane Matthew this month. (Photo by Jacob Kushner and used here with permission)

A better way

When disasters strike, news media tend to act as conduits for our money, writing on the assumption that news consumers can alleviate the crises through their pocketbooks. Our headlines, our leads, urge our audiences to focus not on the underlying causes of Haiti’s suffering, but on fleeting relief efforts:

“Aid Agencies Rush to Help Hurricane Matthew Victims in Haiti,” says Voice of America.

“Haiti Relief Efforts Step Up as Higher Death Toll Feared,” says the Wall Street Journal.

Corporations like Facebook, Apple, Amazon and T-Mobile make the Red Cross their default charity whenever disaster strikes, irrespective of that agency’s mixed record of helping Haiti in the past. Often, reporters naively follow their lead.

Having spent two years living and reporting in post-earthquake Haiti, following the money and reporting on failures in international aid, there are few charities that I feel comfortable recommending people donate to. I was saddened last week to see that even some of those were using this disaster as a means to fundraise.

There’s no denying that we tend to be more moved by emotional appeals and breaking news than by logic or reason. Perhaps there’s an argument to be made that now is the right time for media to spread the message. But that’s only true if we direct people to charities that do long-term capacity building work and have evidence that they do it well, rather than just the ones with the big names and the sad pictures.

I was encouraged to see that in its emails this week, the American Jewish World Service avoided the implication that donating money would immediately save lives from the storm. Instead, AJWS explained its long-term road map toward helping local Haitian organizations and institutions build the capacity to prevent such catastrophes in the future. AJWS wrote in an email that while “Most of the first-responder organizations will focus on food, shelter and clean water,” it would be focusing its efforts on “Rebuilding of infrastructure for partners who have reported damage” and preventing water-borne diseases from spreading in the coming days in communities that were the hardest hit.

“In an environment in which international aid is controversial, and is seen to only weaken Haiti’s efforts to establish autonomy and accountability, AJWS seeks to advocate for all aid organizations to work directly with Haitian national and local organizations – to give flexible support and to promote sustainable rebuilding and prevention work,” wrote the charity.

If an international charity can describe the complexity of Haiti’s situation — the long-term challenges and the long-term solutions — in a simple email, why can’t news outlets do it in their stories?

What you can do

On Friday a journalist friend of mine based in Kenya who has never been to Haiti was thinking about going there to cover the storm’s aftermath. There has to be a better way than chasing the storm.

The Solutions Journalism Network has an excellent toolkit for reporting news in a productive way — not by sending readers fumbling blindly for their wallets, but by identifying an initiative that took a deep look at a chronic problem, devised an evidence-based solution to it, and managed to put it into action.

Yesterday, another journalist colleague of mine who has spent years writing about foreign aid came up with some basic guidelines to follow for giving to Haiti, most of which come down to the simple but essential rule of give cash, not stuff, and don’t fly down yourself.


screen-shot-2016-10-09-at-12-24-38-pmBut for journalists I would add another suggestion to the list: don’t encourage your audiences to give to relief in the first place. Direct them to science-based charity navigators like GiveWell, which analyzes the research behind different charities to identify where your money is most likely to do the most good. Your readers will soon learn that disaster relief is one of the most inefficient ways to save a life, but that there are other ways in which even a little bit of philanthropy can go a long way.

Help your readers become effective altruists. An effective altruist would argue, correctly, that things like Hurricane Matthew ravishing Haiti are not truly “natural” disasters, but man-made ones. Florida has twice the population of Haiti, and yet the death toll there isn’t approaching 1,000 — it’s only 6. That’s the result of our investment in modern infrastructure and health systems, in taxpayer dollars being spent on welfare and other programs that help people meet their own needs.

We can prevent such travesties in Haiti too: Rather than encourage news consumers to throw enormous amounts of money to post-disaster rescue teams that are rarely able to save many lives once the storm has hit, let’s give them the tools to direct their philanthropy wisely toward preventing the next one.

Jacob Kushner, UW Journalism ’10, spent two years investigating foreign aid in Haiti.

Editing Trump’s words

Last Friday, The Washington Post published video footage from 2005 of Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump making crude remarks about his seemingly unwelcome advances on women.

The reporting following the video’s publication prompted Poynter to take a look at how regulations and editorial decisions led different outlets to either publish Trump’s raw, unedited words, or cleaned up transcripts.

From The Post, to The Guardian, Fox News, and CNN, Poynter broke down each newsroom’s decision to edit’s Trump’s words.

You can read Poynter’s full piece here.

Should moderators fact-check the presidential debates? Yes, in moderation

Photo by <a href="" target=blank>Hofstra University and used here with permission.

Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump square off in the first 2016 presidential debate. Photo by Hofstra University and used here with permission.

If there is one thing we’ve learned from years of judging at intercollegiate debate tournaments across the country, it is that the best decisions are made when both sides are held to the highest standards when constructing arguments.

Rather than intervening, we allow debaters to make mistakes, capitalize on strategic misfires, and argue their way to victory. We are acting as adjudicators, not moderators, and are often the sole voice in declaring a winner. In presidential debates, however, the voters are the adjudicators, and moderators must act as communicative conduits to ensure an informed electorate capable of making the best possible decision.

Caught between two seemingly irreconcilable perspectives on their role as either minimalist facilitator or relentless truth-seeker, moderators seem unable to escape scrutiny. Faced with inevitable conflict over nuanced topics distilled into value-laden sound bites, how should moderators ethically define their role within this vast political spectacle? Under what circumstances should a moderator interrupt the flow of the debate to fact-check a candidate? Answering these questions first requires some understanding of how presidential debates have evolved throughout history.

Rather than serving as mere facilitators, moderators have a primary responsibility to act on behalf of voters.

The first televised debates occurred in 1960 between John F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon and, according to presidential debate historian Alan Schroeder, included attempts by producers to craft a more interactive dialogue between the candidates though that format was vetoed by campaign advisors. Since then, presidential debates have matured from events that were, at times, glorified press conferences, to structured discussions with ample room for direct interaction between the candidates. More recent debates have seen increased participation from both moderators and audiences; it was not until 1988 that moderators began asking opening questions, and the town hall format was not introduced until 1992.

The use of YouTube and Twitter during the 2008 presidential debates demonstrates voters’ desire for candidates to respond directly to their voices. This election season, the Trump and Clinton campaigns agreed to historically weak restrictions on direct exchanges between the candidates, renewing conversations about the degree of moderator involvement.

the moderator

While it may be most objective for moderators to stay out of the debate, simply asking questions and enforcing the agreed-upon rules, this has become difficult in practice. The increasing amount of direct contact between candidates has created an occasional volley wherein a candidate will directly ask the moderator to intervene and influence their opponent’s behavior. For example, in the 2012 election cycle, Candy Crowley was pulled into several procedural disputes between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney, in addition to engaging in a heated fact-check over the Benghazi attacks. During the 2016 vice presidential debate, Elaine Quijano repeatedly intervened to enforce time constraints and refocus the candidates’ attention. Increased interaction, then, often necessitates a more active moderator to keep the debate from becoming unruly.

Moderators should first provide candidates with a chance to fact-check their opponent for themselves.

Going beyond drawing the moderators in to resolve a disagreement, candidates occasionally criticize their questions, behavior and ethics altogether. Ted Cruz’s tirade against the presidential primary moderators serves as an excellent example of how moderators are often forced into a more participatory role.

Open criticism by a candidate during the debate brings even the most passive moderators into the spotlight and grants them considerable influence over the direction of the discussion. Cruz was raising an important point about what ethical standards moderators ought to uphold when crafting their questions and what the function of debates ultimately should be.

the candidates

Presidential debates should inform voters of each candidate’s values and the policies they plan on implementing, but ultimately, candidates are interested in winning voters through whatever means necessary. That emphasis on swaying voters, often at the expense of accurately conveying political agendas, is a deeply flawed model for educating those who decide the fate of American leadership for the next four years.

Ideally, voters would be motivated to investigate claims made by each candidate. For many, however, the presidential debates and subsequent polarizing articles will determine the direction of their ballots. The stakes are far too high for candidates to present incomplete or inaccurate visions of their presidencies.

 If candidates continue to peddle such thoroughly discredited information without acknowledging their context, they should expect immediate and impartial pushback.

If the goal of debates is to create an informed electorate, candidates should conduct the vast majority of fact-checking onstage. The reality, of course, is that candidates are incentivized to rebut only with the information that most benefits them, regardless of its proximity to the truth. Moderators, on the other hand, are agreed upon by both campaigns for their ability to act as neutral arbiters in a highly politicized environment. If candidates are to merely use the debate stage to reiterate their respective talking points, then there is no purpose in having a moderator at all.

Rather than serving as mere facilitators, moderators have a primary responsibility to act on behalf of voters. This is a difficult line to walk, as moderators must intervene in a way that benefits voters in every ideological corner. This requires particular attention in deciding where to fact-check so as to not become a focus of the discussion themselves. Each campaign has a core set of mistruths that it has relied on, from Trump’s support of the initial invasion of Iraq to Clinton’s claim that she never received classified emails on her private server while secretary of state. If candidates continue to peddle such thoroughly discredited information without acknowledging their context, they should expect immediate and impartial pushback.

Moderators should first provide candidates with a chance to fact-check their opponent for themselves, but then be ready to supplement the rebuttal with factual statements about previous political positions and figures from relevant primary sources. Additionally, introducing a topic or question with contextualizing information for those unfamiliar with the issues can raise the level of discourse and make it clear when a candidate is having an “Aleppo moment.”

the audience

How candidates respond to argumentative pushback in a debate is valuable information for voters, even if candidates dodge the follow-up question. A moderator doesn’t have to act as the “truth squad,” to use Chris Wallace’s words, to point out that a candidate is ignoring the original question or violating the agreed upon rules for speaking time limits. The audience can and will decide for themselves – but the moderator can still provide a useful context for potential voters to navigate issues. If our democratic problem is that we have an electorate that is overwhelmingly cynical, polarized and politically apathetic, we need debate moderators who will bridge candidates where they agree, highlight their differences and help voters translate abstract policies into their tangible impact on everyday life.

The audience can and will decide for themselves – but the moderator can still provide a useful context for potential voters to navigate issues.

Massive media spectacles like the debate draw an atypical audience that otherwise steers clear of politics, and that’s a wonderful thing. In this unique moment, moderators should not offload their journalistic responsibility to inform citizens onto dedicated fact-checking venues that publish hundreds of pages of post-debate fact-checks that many voters will never read. That being said, whoever ends up the 45th President of the United States will not do so solely because of the fact-checking decisions made by moderators. Broader dynamics are at play, but moderators can help set standards for how well-prepared we expect candidates to be when it comes to informing the public.

Ultimately, the onus is on voters to seek out resources and cast informed ballots, just as we have spent countless hours educating ourselves to fairly adjudicate debates. Moderators should have some obligation to be active facilitators in that process. They should not become the center of the story, but to write them off as passive, neutral facilitators of candidate conversation is to abdicate their responsibility to vocalize the needs of voters.

CV Vitolo

CV Vitolo is the Director of Debate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a doctoral student in the Communication Arts department. Their research concerns public deliberation and discourse surrounding science and medicine.



JJordan Foleyordan Foley is the Assistant Director of Debate at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a doctoral student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication. His research focuses on political communication, media psychology and public opinion.