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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Author: Isaac Alter

Local News Now case study: The Marshall Project

In conjunction with our ethics conference, “Journalism Ethics & Local News Now” (April 23, 2021), we are publishing case studies from each of the news organizations represented on our panel “Innovations in Local News.”



Founded in 2014, The Marshall Project is a nonprofit news organization that covers the criminal justice system in the United States. According to regional editor Manuel Torres, the Marshall Project exclusively focuses on criminal justice and offers different forms of storytelling with the goal of bringing more attention to the problems within the system. Along with doing their own original reporting, The Marshall Project also partners with other news organizations and has made an effort to expand its local partnerships in the midst of a crisis within local news.

The Problem

The Marshall Project was founded to address the lack of attention that problems within the criminal justice system receive from the public and traditional media. In a letter from 2014, Marshall Project founder Neil Barsky explained that despite the growing number of problems within the system, there had not been an increase in public discussion and legislative action.

Manuel Torres

“The general public has become inured to the overuse of solitary confinement, the widespread incidence of prison rape and the mixing of teens and adults in hardcore prisons,” he wrote. “The more people we put behind bars, it seemed, the more the issue receded from the public consciousness.”

Even when people are paying attention to the criminal justice system it can be hard to understand the issues at play. According to Torres, for those not directly affected there is a disconnect between what they think about criminal justice and the reality of the system. “People think ‘oh, I watch Law and Order I kind of think I know how courts work,’” he said. “And it’s not like that.“


The Marshall Project’s main innovation is to take an exclusive and in-depth look at the criminal justice system. In practice, this means longer, in-depth investigations, taking angles that traditional news outlets normally don’t and taking a more comprehensive view on issues that other media outlets cover.  For example, their Next to Die feature allowed readers to track executions across the country and their Life Inside series offers first-person essays from those who live or work in the criminal justice system.  

The Marshall Project has also expanded coverage to focus on more local issues, specifically in the South, where there is a higher level of incarceration. According to Torres, they are working to bring their journalism to more local partners and reach both national and local audiences. For example, a piece that they published in the USA TODAY Network may also be published at a smaller, more local, outlet.

The Marshall Project model comes with its own set of ethical issues. One key issue is remembering that they are a journalistic organization and not an advocacy group. “Our job is to shine a light in places that are not getting a lot of attention with the hope of prompting change, but we’re not advocates,” Torres said.

They also work to ensure that individuals are not defined by a crime they committed or were accused of committing, while still providing readers a full story. “In our coverage, we avoid referring to individuals as felons,” Torres said. “You committed a felony, but that doesn’t make you a felon. Your life is not defined exclusively by that act.”

Furthermore, they must recognize that some of their sources may be breaking rules by speaking with them. According to Torres, this is similar to working with a source who is not authorized to share documents, but he says the Marshall Project doesn’t encourage sources to break the rules, leaving the decision to speak up to the sources.


Overall, Torres believes that The Marshall Project has been successful. Torres says that interest in criminal justice has increased and criminal justice reform has come a long way as a result of organizations like the Marshall Project. That success has been recognized with numerous awards including a Pulitzer Prize, Peabody and National Magazine Award.

However, the downsizing of local news organizations across the country has presented a challenge for the Marshall Project. According to Torres, forging partnerships with local outlets has become increasingly difficult as local newsrooms continue to shrink.

“Just simply getting [local] editors that have the time to look at our stories and determine if it’s something that fits into an organization, it’s not as easy as it used to be,” he said. “And even when we provide the reporter, the photographer, we provide all the content, it’s just [that] the logistics of producing with a partnership are getting harder because of the cuts at these organizations.”

The Marshall Project has been more proactive in filling the voids that have been left in newsrooms by providing editing and data analysis for some of their partners. Additionally, as shrinking news organizations have become less able to cover criminal justice issues on their own, they have been more open to collaborations, Torres said.

Top Projects

Pulitzer Prize winner “An Unbelievable Story of Rape

Life Inside Series

The Next to Die

Additional Info

Marshall Project stakes out high ground on journalism’s slippery slope (Columbia Journalism Review)

The Marshall Project, an early model for single-subject nonprofit news sites, turns five today (and got a shoutout on Jeopardy last night) (Nieman Lab)

Covering extremism in the digital era: A Q&A with Joel Christopher

Knoxville, TN, as seen from the top edge of Neyland Stadium

Journalists have always had to grapple with how to cover extremists and hate-filled ideologies. But in today’s digital world, and with experts warning about the threat of white supremacy and far-right extremism, journalists are taking a new look at how to cover such stories. 

News organizations must report on these topics without amplifying and spreading hateful messages. The Knoxville News Sentinel faced this test earlier this year after a Knox County detective and pastor gave a sermon preaching extremely anti-LGBTQ rhetoric. When reporting on the story, the Sentinel decided against including videos of the sermons or directly quoting from it. 

Joel Christopher, executive editor of the newspaper, discussed this decision and the challenges of covering extremism in a recent interview with the Center for Journalism Ethics. 

This interview has been edited for length. 

Walk us through the decision to not include the video or directly quote from it in these stories. 

I’ve always had some level of discomfort with giving a platform to extremists in our coverage. I think there’s a tendency to over-cover them at times and to give them way more space or bandwidth than they deserve. You’re actually playing into distributing their message. This has been in my head for as long as I’ve been a journalist. 

Recognizing at the same time you do have to balance the fact that you have to report on this. You can’t just bury it because people have to understand what’s happening in their communities and be prepared to tackle tough issues that arise around these extremists. 

I think there’s a recognition, particularly in the digital era, that you have to be really smart about what you’re doing with your content. The fact that a lot of these extremists have gotten pretty savvy about understanding that there are certain triggers they pull that will initiate coverage from news organizations, particularly at the local level. Once that gets out into the world digitally, it often gets picked up and distributed over and over again by organizations that have much larger reach than any of these extremist groups would have had on their own. At some point you’ve got to ask yourself how much you’re being played to distribute their message on your platforms. 

So when the Fritts’ case broke, my initial reaction was “let’s not put the video out there, it’s not necessary.” You can explain that the video exists, you can explain what’s in the video but there’s no reason that you have to put that particular inflammatory language out there without context. Even with context you’re still amplifying it. 

That runs counter to a lot of natural instincts from journalists, particularly in the digital era. Where the idea is: more access to everything, let readers make their own decisions and it’s going to be out there anyway, and they can find it. Ultimately, we decided in this case, let’s not do it.

We can see that this guy and his group are intentionally putting out a series of different videos that seem designed specifically to trigger media coverage. They got increasingly more inflammatory, it’s like they tried a couple times, and no one bit on it. The one that got our attention came to us through somebody who said they used to be part of that church and weren’t anymore. I had some suspicion about whether or not that was true.  It felt like it was designed to put it right in our laps and make sure that we would cover it. 

The positive part of it from my view was that I know that video didn’t get seen as much as it would have if we’d put it out there. We still absolutely accurately explained what the extremists’ message was for people in a way that they could act on it, without doing it in a way that inflicted damage on the communities that were targeted. All the reactions that you would hope to come out of coverage like that still occurred, but without amplification and inflicting damage on communities that were targeted. There was no attempt to submerge the coverage or to whitewash it to the extent that you couldn’t tell how awful the message really was. But it was in our words not the extremist’s words.

Are decisions like this made on a case-by-case basis? Or do you take a more general approach?

We’re part of a nationwide network of newsrooms [USA Today], our company wisely doesn’t mandate blanket policies in how local coverage decisions are made. Other than that, they comply with our principles of ethical conduct for newsrooms. But there’s room within those principles for a traditional type of approach and the approach that I described. 

That’s a long way of saying I think we would still consider it on a case-by-case basis. But I can tell you that I’m done directly putting out hate-filled messages in a way that gives them massive amplification. I think it’s ludicrous. Part of being a news organization is not being played, not being used to be an instrument of propaganda. We think about that all the time in political coverage. We don’t often use the canned quotes that you see in a news release from a Democratic or Republican party spokesperson, we talk directly to the public official. We don’t use that language that is designed as much for fundraising as it is for actual adding to the political conversation. So why would we switch our standards for extremists? 

Some of it, like all things in life, aren’t new. During the civil rights movement newspaper editors and publishers sort of had an “aha” moment. You don’t need to put all your effort into covering the segregationists and the advocates of Jim Crow. You cover the people who are trying to change that system, and that changes the narrative of what’s happening, and it changes the conversation around those efforts. And can you say there’s advocacy in that decision making? Sure, it’s advocacy in favor of weighting the scale on the side of human rights and dignity over hatred and extremism. That’s a place I think any publisher or editor can safely land and defend. 

What techniques and methods can you use to balance drawing the public’s attention to these types of stories while not spreading an extremist’s message? 

I think the answer to that is really easy. There’s no news organization in Knoxville that covered Detective Fritts more than we did. And there’s no news organization that reached more people in coverage than we did. And we very clearly explained what his message was. We just did it in our language, instead of his. 

Fundamentally what his call was, was state-initiated arrests and execution of LGBTQ people. Now he said it in ways that I would never say it, and I won’t dignify it by saying it the way he said it. But I just explained to you very clearly what he said. And you can get the impact and the horror of that statement without me saying it in his words. And we didn’t shy away from being very clear that’s what he was saying. But we just don’t owe anybody, including our audience, an unfiltered pipeline from the extremist to the receiver of that message. It’s not hard to go find what he did and what he said. But I don’t need to take you directly to it. 

There’s another component that doesn’t get into the conversation often enough. From a pure mechanics of how the digital world functions; in search [engines], established reputable news organizations are the gold standard in terms of referrals. Every time we directly link to something like that, we’re telling search engines “this is good content, this is content you ought to direct people to.” 

We’re giving them an endorsement in some sense. A spider that’s searching the web doesn’t understand that there is good content and bad content based on us linking to it, they just know that we linked to it so it’s “good” content. Why would we put that powerful endorsement onto content that we think is abhorrent? From a purely technical issue you have to be very thoughtful about it. 

Thirty people would see a video like this if we don’t link to it. We link to it with an audience of millions? You have to be smart about that. We put more thought into the inadvertent obscenity that might appear in a raw video of a police shooting for instance. And there are lots of news organizations, and I’ve been in the middle of these coverage efforts, where you don’t think twice about putting out someone calling for violence or suppression of rights against minority groups, under the guise that it’s necessary for people to know what’s out there. 

How do you determine when to label someone or an organization a white supremacist, and what are the ethical implications of that language? 

I think the Associated Press has done a really nice job taking news organizations through that thought process and making sure that you fully understand what the terms mean. Our own organization, the USA TODAY NETWORK, has thoughtful guidelines to talk you through when that’s appropriate language. 

There are also great organizations who study these groups for a living, Southern Poverty Law Center, for instance. They don’t lightly attach extremist labels to groups because they want to reserve it for those that truly fit that description. I think following that thought process in news coverage is useful, as well. It’s never a decision that would be made lightly at a level in the news organization that wouldn’t require approval all the way through the organization. 

How has news coverage of these types of stories changed as the digital world has grown and messages spread more rapidly? 

A good analogy to how coverage has evolved on this is The Westboro Baptist Church. They figured out how to trigger media long before anybody else did and got really good at getting coverage everywhere. By the end they were so effective at it they weren’t even showing up at places. All they had to do to trigger coverage in a community was send out a release saying they were coming there. It took a long time for news organizations to figure that out. 

Finally, enough smart editors said, “What are we doing here, why are we covering those guys? Why are you inflicting this hate-filled message on a minority community without thinking about what the effect is on folks? There’s not a debate here that’s going on about different schools of thought on American Constitutional rights. It’s the equivalent to extremist trolling.” 

I think some of that same thought process has gone into coverage of other extremists. There are times in my career where, if you had the ability to put a video out there, why wouldn’t you? We can see it, why shouldn’t everybody else see it? Nobody’s a gatekeeper.

Now I think there’s more of a realization that no, you’re not a gatekeeper in the sense that you could have been in a pre-digital era where you really could keep something away from the vast majority of people. But you can still be a gatekeeper on the standards of what you put in front of large audiences. Whatever people want to say about media these days, your news organization is still the biggest one in town and still has the biggest local audience digitally. Think about if you want to lend that audience to extremists. 

In the past, I probably would have put a video up. Maybe would have done an explicit language warning. Or maybe if we didn’t put the video up, we still would have quoted very directly and extensively from it and have been very clear where people could find it. A lot of those things we’ve definitely rethought. I guarantee if you call 20 of my colleagues, you would get some different schools of thought. Which is OK too, I’m not pretending that I have the only and correct answer here. 

Law enforcement agencies continue to warn that far-right groups and white supremacists are a growing threat. Do news organizations have a role in combating that threat?

On issues of law enforcement, our role is the same as it’s always been. We’re not agents of law enforcement, and we should never consider ourselves to be. How law enforcement combats that are entirely different questions from how we cover it. We should never be comfortable to be in collaboration with law enforcement on strategies involving extremists. 

What we should be concerned about is what are our constitutional obligations to cover both those groups and government reaction to it? And what’s the interplay between those interactions with the constitutional rights of those who aren’t extremists.

Some of the best First Amendment law came out of really offensive speech in a lot of cases. So you have to be really careful about calling for some sort of ban or trying to erase the fact that these groups are out there, that’s not the intention at all. But you have to report on it in a thoughtful manner. 

What can national news organizations learn from local newsrooms when it comes to covering these types of stories? 

All national stories start local. That sounds obvious, but people don’t think about that sometimes. It’s just that they resonate in some way that goes beyond the particular local audience. News organizations that have national reach need to be super thoughtful of the fact that their ability to amplify is so much more powerful. The thought they put into it has to be measured with that power. I think a lot of national news organizations do a pretty darn good job of it. I think in a lot of cases, they have more structure in place and more process that they don’t generally lightly make decisions to post things without a lot of thought about what the message is. 

But they make mistakes too. However you fell on it in the end, The Covington Catholic experience showed news organizations that there needs to be a checklist in place for how you vet video that you post. And I think those same principles could apply to any inflammatory or extremist content as well. It’s important that the national news organizations, and local news organizations, are clear about how and why they’re doing what they’re doing. 

For more guidance in reporting on extremism, please see this tip sheet from Journalist’s Resource. 


The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.


Avoiding the horse race: a resource guide for ethical election coverage

On April 3, 2018, students fill out ballots for the Wisconsin Spring Election in Tripp Commons inside the Memorial Union at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, one of several official polling places for UW-Madison students living on campus. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)


The 2020 presidential primary will not officially begin for another ten months. And yet campaigning, and media coverage about that campaigning, are already well underway. A large field of Democratic candidates and a long election cycle present a challenge for journalists and news organizations.

The ethics question at the heart of election coverage is this: what approaches best serve the public interest? In the past, media outlets have tended to use what some call horse race coverage, an approach that focuses on the competition between candidates. Rather than exploring candidates’ proposed policies or substantive issues, horse race coverage tries to gauge who’s winning and who’s losing. In horse race coverage, fundraising and endorsements are tallied to see who’s ahead, polls are hyper-analyzed and overplayed, differences between candidates are inflated and electability is scrutinized.

This kind of election coverage is also increasingly coming under scrutiny. According to its critics, horse race coverage trivializes elections and fails to adequately inform voters. Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for The Washington Post, wrote in a February column that the early horse race coverage for 2020 had started to make Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Beto O’Rourke seem “inevitable” and “invincible,” a trend she said could be potentially dangerous. At its worst, horse race coverage can take media outlets from informers, who serve the needs of voters, to influencers, whose coverage affects the result of elections.

To help navigate election coverage, we have collected resources on alternatives to horse race coverage, as well as additional resources for ethically covering elections.

Alternatives to Horse Race Coverage

  • “I’d prefer that it not be covered as a game, that the seriousness of it comes through,” Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center, said. While things like endorsements and fundraising matter, Burden said it is important to do more than just keep a tally of those numbers. Rather than totaling up the sum of fundraising, he suggested writing stories on the nature of the fundraising and where donations are coming from.
  • Media critic and professor of journalism Jay Rosen wrote a Twitter thread about the “citizen’s agenda,” an approach to election coverage created by The Charlotte Observer. This approach seeks to answer the question “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?”
  • In an article written for Nieman, Jim Morrill examines the relevance of the “citizen’s agenda” in 2020 and discusses whether it should be used in the upcoming election. His answer? Yes and no.
  • Storybench, a digital storytelling project out of Northeastern University, is creating a tracker for media coverage showing which outlets are using horse race coverage and will provide analysis on what news media are covering.

Additional Resources

  • Poynter provided this brief list of approaches that were used in the 2018 midterm that could be useful in the 2020 election.
  • The Columbia Journalism Review offers eight tips for covering the upcoming election.
  • The New York Times debuted a live tracker that can help navigate the crowded field. It puts people into five categories: running, likely to run, might run, unlikely to run and not running. The tracker also provides a brief background for each potential candidate and signature issues for those who are running or are likely to run.

Some Quick Tips

  • Write about the candidates themselves. According to Burden, most of the candidates are not well known right now. “Part of what reporters can do is just help voters get to know who these people are,” he said.
  • Avoid entertainment fodder. “Who Cory Booker is dating is an entertainment item, it’s probably not going to affect how he governs,” Burden said.
  • Pay attention to the rules. An open primary in New Hampshire, new “remote caucus” rules in Iowa and early voting in California could all play a role in the Democratic primary, according to Burden.
  • Don’t overplay opinion polls. “National polling right now is not indicative of much,” Burden said. According to him, polls will have more value as election day draws closer and the polls become more state-specific.
  • Learn from mistakes made in polling and interpreting polling results in the 2016 presidential election. The American Association for Public Opinion Research has a must-read evaluation of 2016 polling.
The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism, and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.

Changes in HR: What #MeToo means for news organizations

On Jan. 15, 2019, the Freedom Forum Institute’s PowerShift Project hosted the PowerShift Summit 2.0 at the Newseum. The summit gathered invited leaders across journalism and the media industry to focus on #MeToo and the media one year later. (Summit photos courtesy of the Newseum)


In October 2017 the New York Times published a story detailing decades of alleged abuse by film executive Harvey Weinstein. The story marked a watershed, resulting in new stories of sexual harassment and workplace misconduct that spanned industries, including media organizations and newsrooms.

“There was a tremendous wave of press coverage of sexual misconduct at the top of many organizations, not just media,” said Cathy Trost, senior vice president and executive director of the Freedom Forum Institute, the education and outreach arm of the Freedom Forum and Newseum. “We got interested in how we could convene around these issues.”  

The Institute held the PowerShift Summit in January 2018 and the PowerShift Summit 2.0 in January 2019 to create a conversation around harassment and workplace integrity. The summits each brought together more than 130 people, including newsroom leaders, journalists, professors and human resources leaders.

At the Summit we came away knowing that our tolerance in media organizations, not just of harassment and misconduct, but of discrimination and corrosive behavior, had really left a trail of damage in the news industry,” Trost said.

It was clear that HR practices in their current format had failed and needed changing.

Sharif Durhams speaks at the PowerShift Summit 2.0

“Everything that happened, happened on our watch,” Traci Schweikert, vice president for HR at Politico, said at the 2019 summit. “We didn’t do all the things that we needed to do. From an HR standpoint, we did what was legally required.”

Less clear, however, was how to repair the damage and prevent future misconduct and harassment.

This is a moment when there isn’t a clear playbook, and we’re trying to figure out as a company what do we do to address this?” NPR President of Operations Loren Mayor said in 2018.

As allegations poured in, news organizations and media outlets began to look internally at their own practices and address their own issues. Many found that the issue was more complex than they’d initially thought.

“Sexual harassment was just the tip of the iceberg,” Mayor said in 2018. “It opened up all of these broader issues about power dynamics, inequalities in the organization, racial issues, it ran very deep.”

The complex nature of these issues meant that traditional online harassment training was not doing enough to prepare employees.

“That kind of check-the-box, online training really doesn’t create the strength that an organization needs to transform its culture,” Trost said.

New solutions

According to Trost, after the first PowerShift Summit it was clear that there was a desire for a new approach to creating and maintaining a positive work environment.

There was a real demand for a new kind of curriculum, a new kind of training, to help media organizations create safer, but also more respectful and diverse cultures across newsrooms and the whole organizations,” she said.

In response, the Freedom Forum Institute turned to Jill Geisler, a managing consultant with expertise in media organizations, to develop its Workplace Integrity Training. The training takes place over two days and uses critical thinking, creative role playing and group exercises.

The goal of the training is to “teach ways to be both proactive and reactive, to not just illegal harassment and misconduct, but to the kind of behaviors that we know now can lead to it,” Trost said.

News organizations send representatives to the workshop, where they practice teaching what they learn, so they can return to their own organizations to teach others. According to Trost, there have been four trainings and about 70 people have attended.

At NPR, Mayor began what she called “listening sessions,” where she met with groups of 20 people or fewer to hear what was on employees’ minds. Staff members came forward and requested a peer-to-peer support group for people who had concerns about harassment and broader workplace issues.

According to Sara Goo, managing editor at NPR, educating and training people throughout the company provided a new resource for them.

“We function to both guide people who have harassment concerns, and also as a kind of heatmap of the company to monitor when we see issues that really need to be addressed,” she said.

Jill Geisler at the PowerShift Summit 2.0

NPR worked with its legal and HR departments, as well as a consultant, to make sure their team was educated and well-prepared, according to Goo.

“It’s been a really incredible effort to watch,” Mayor said. “We’ve created something of a network of people around the company who are trusted and are an open door.”

Politico has looked to focus more on the environment they want,  rather than just the basic legal requirements, according to Schweikert. This has meant going above legally required online training.

Schweikert said they have begun having conversations that go beyond textbook policies, and instead focus on what things can look like on a day-to-day basis.

“As part of new employee orientation, we’re not just talking about the policies,” she said. “We’re talking about, ‘this is Politico, this is the culture we want.’ We have conversations about what that might look like. And if you are met with a situation where you don’t see that, who are the people you can go to.”

While the industry continues to make changes, Trost said eventually workplace integrity will become the culture rather than the goal.

“There’s enough organizations like ours,” she said. “And enough really good people in the news industry that see this not just as something they have to do to prevent illegal behavior, but as a better pathway to stronger journalism. And that’s the bottom line.”

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism, and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here
Our spring conference “What #MeToo Means for Gender, Power & Ethical Journalism” will take place on Friday, April 26, in Madison, Wisconsin. More information and registration can be found here.

Populist times and the perils of “neutral” journalism: A Q&A with media ethicist Stephen J.A. Ward

Stephen J.A. Ward

Stephen J. A. Ward is an internationally recognized media ethicist and the founding director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. His new book, “Ethical Journalism in a Populist Age: The Democratically Engaged Journalist,”argues that a new form of journalism is needed to address the challenges that a populist age presents. The Center for Journalism Ethics spoke with Ward about what he sees as the urgent need to reexamine journalism’s approach to neutrality.

This interview had been edited for length and clarity.


Q: Tell us about your book.

A: The book comes out of the very existential crisis in democracy, not just in America but around the world. I had written quite a bit about dialogic democracy and other ideals, but I became increasingly dismayed and worried about what was happening around the world with far-right populist groups, people like Donald Trump, and the development of intolerance right at the heart of important democracies. Basically, the book is an attempt to say how to do journalism responsibly and democratically in a populist era where there are many forces leading us against democracy. The book starts with the premise that democracy is in trouble, that in fact journalism is part of that problem and we can’t be disengaged. I talk a lot about how journalists have to do things, be engaged and reject previous models of neutrality.


Q: What are some of the ethical challenges that journalists face in the populist age?

A: One of the basic problems, for journalists, is how to verify information that is washing over us from all sides and is out there on social media. There’s a verificational truth aspect to all of this, which is incredibly difficult right now and it’s only going to get worse.

The second one is how to deal with demagogues, ideologues and ideologically diverse populous, such as you have in the United States (I’m not speaking only about the U.S. but it is a very good example). What do you do as a journalist in a situation where you have a public divided and where a good deal of people simply refuse to listen to journalists simply because it does not fit their world view or their political view? And where they prefer to believe people who agitate and build up fears of other people and believe that the media are generally totally biased? Breaking through that is really a challenge. First of all, journalists, the good journalists, have to stand out from the crowd, by doing great journalism. But I think they have to do more than that. One of the problems of the public sphere is not just about fake facts. Most of the issues that are out there, that are really affecting us, are about matters of principle. Political principle: the meaning of the First Amendment, the meaning of the Second Amendment, the notion of what democracy requires of us as citizens, notions of human values, of dignity and respect for others who are not like us. These are not simply getting the facts wrong, these are matters of philosophy. Journalists have to be careful of facts, and pointing out fake facts, and I think what we have to do with journalism is dig very deeply into our culture and explain our culture to ourselves. Why do we believe in these principles? How do they apply in various circumstances? There is that interpretative element of journalism that’s more important than ever.


Q: Your response to the populist age is the democratically engaged journalist. What is that and how does it align with ethical journalism?

A: What I’m doing is arguing against a very old tradition, what I call the professional objective model, which basically said what a journalist does is provide unvarnished facts and just the facts in a very neutral manner. I think that model lends itself, in a time of deliberate disinformation, to manipulation. Because basically what is a fact is up for grabs, and if you’re not actively doubting what people are saying you are going to be manipulated. Secondly, you can’t simply repeat what people are saying. I don’t think that was ever right. Many people out there are saying extreme racist statements that you simply should not repeat. You want journalists these days to call liars liars, and the President is a liar. You need journalists who are engaged in the sense that they do not worry excessively about being neutral. Historically people think of objectivity as a sort of neutrality, what I’m arguing is that’s a really bad view. I’m talking about objective engagement. Journalists are engaged and advocates for what? For dialogic democracy. They have goals, let’s not pretend they don’t. Journalists are in the business of advocating for a certain type of society. How are we objective then? We’re objective not in our goals; we’re objective in our methodology.


Q: How do we move from the theory of democratically engaged journalism to actually practicing it in newsrooms across the country and the world?

A: I call this macro-resistance. We, as a culture and perhaps globally, have to come together in coalitions to fight the forces that are fighting against democracy and rationality. Journalists can play a part. I want to stress that it has to be journalists in league with educators, universities, schools of journalism and with all kinds of other actors out there, where we come together to create mechanisms and public processes to enforce the sort of journalism and public discourse that we want.

Within journalism, it begins with the teaching of journalism. We have to teach journalists not only skills of the latest technology, but skills in really great verification. And we also have to teach them to know something about the world, to know philosophy, the world’s history, the philosophies in the cultures, so they can be very good interpreters of the social scene. We have to deepen the mind, we need cosmopolitan students, students with very broad minds, not just technical minds.

The other thing they have to do in newsrooms is become transparent. But I think also actively helping citizens to identify where stories come from and the reliability of those stories and sources. There’s a lot of ways we can build some confidence and try to help reduce the public discern.

The other thing that’s crucial is journalists have to reposition themselves in society from being at arm’s length and being an inward-looking culture to an outward culture where we actually go out and work with people. We should be teaching society-wide programs in the schools about how media works and how we evaluate them. Journalists need to be part of that. They need to be going to schools and telling students what the difference is between a good journalist and a bad journalist, what’s the difference between a good report and propaganda. Breaking down the barriers between themselves and society, there’s just enormous work to be done there.


Q: You write that we need a journalism beyond facts, how can we achieve that?

A: I don’t want to come off as saying facts are not important, of course, but straight news reporting is only one of many, many types of media that the democratic public needs. The other stuff we need is great explanatory journalism. We need a re-emphasis on great investigative journalism. We need more advocacy journalism talking about where society is falling down and needs to be reformed. We need to give the citizens a chance to participate in discussions around media and media ethics. And finally, we need to create media spaces for dialogue, spaces that aren’t about great ratings but in fact where you open up the space to reasoned dialogue. There’s nothing new about this, you can see this going on already, but we need way more of that and we need it online. When we do those forms of journalism we’re leaving fact-stating behind, that’s what I mean by “beyond facts” – we’re going to be great interpreters of our culture.


Q: How can journalists cover hate speech and extreme speech ethically?

A: You do not always have to cover it. You have to first of all develop some policies in your newsrooms as to when you think it’s necessary to cover someone who is having a racist meeting. Not all of it is worth covering, but some of it we have to cover. Where racist people or extreme speech groups start to become politically powerful enough to capture, I hate to say this, the public’s imagination or support, you have to report on this. A lot of people say “don’t report on this at all.” Unfortunately, that’s just part of journalism. We can’t ignore this. And if you decide you’re going to cover them, it’s not like you just say, “Whatever they say we take it down, we’re neutral reporters and we just say whatever the guy said.” You have to be incredibly critical in your reports about what these people say, which means you don’t give them a free pass. Your report itself points out the dubiousness of certain claims statistically, you have to make questions of whether certain things they say are worth reporting. There are lots of coverage decisions you have to make.

You have to ask yourself the harm you’re going to cause to public order or even groups in the community by reporting on it. So, minimizing harm, attempting in any way you can to provide as much context and as much critical analysis of it. For example, you have to give the background and a sense of their importance. If they get one percent of the popular vote is it worth being at the top of the news? You have to cover some of this, but you have to do it in a critical manner.


Q: Looking forward, you write that we’re currently in a toxic public sphere. Do you think we can move past that?

A: I do think we can. But it’s going to have to be a huge society-wide effort and it’s going to take some time. I’ve been thinking recently – with the synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh and the pipe bombs – that you’re going to have to admit that there are going to be a certain percentage of the population that is ideologically fixed and will never change their mind. They’re never going to listen to facts and counter perspectives. They don’t want to hear about it. I don’t think we should give up on the rest of the populous. I think there’s lots of people out there, people in the center, we have to appeal to them and hope they become politically activated. The biggest problem right now is they’re not. There’s a lot of apathy, a lot of people didn’t vote in the last [presidential] election. These people are going to have to stop saying, “Politics is bullshit, and it’s terrible and I don’t want anything to do with it,” to realize that their country demands that they do something about it.

The main thing I’m trying to say is, this is very urgent. Journalists need to rethink what they’re doing and think of ways they can push back on a lot of these forces. For me neutrality or disengagement simply is not an option, either for journalists or for ordinary citizens. I teach young people and a lot of them are so apathetic about politics. I understand why they’re so cynical. But I hope that the urgency of the situation we’re in will get through to some of the book’s readers.

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Training provides resources and guidance before midterm elections

Photo: Tom Arthur from Orange, CA, United States (vote for better tape) [CC BY-SA 2.0], via Wikimedia Commons


Personal security, misinformation, ethical questions and data protection are all key issues facing journalists during election season. With the U.S. midterm elections a month away, the Society for Professional Journalists and Google News Initiative co-sponsored a free training on Oct. 4 in Madison on covering and protecting elections.

Led by Andy Boyle, Dan Petty and Kathleen Bartzen Culver, all experts in their respective fields, the training covered data journalism, safety and security, verification and fact checking, and ethics and elections. Below are some of the best resources and tips from the training.

Data Journalism

Andy Boyle, director of platform architecture at Axios, covered a number of different tools and resources that journalists can use to find, clean and use data.

According to Boyle, Google Trends is among the best places to find data. Trends can show you what terms and topics have been most searched for at a given time. You can break the data down by country, state and even county. Trends also has a page dedicated to the midterm elections where you can find a variety of information related to the upcoming election.

To create visual graphics with data, Boyle recommended using Tilegram, Flourish and Google Sheets. For data directly related to elections, Boyle suggested visiting Electionland or ProPublica’s Election DataBot.

Safety and Security

Dan Petty, director of audience development for Digital First Media, had one major takeaway in his section on safety and security: use two-factor authentication.

Two-factor authentication is a method used to confirm a user’s identity by asking for a second form of verification. After submitting a password, you are asked to submit some other information, such as a code sent to you via text, to confirm your identity.

Petty also provided tips for creating strong passwords. He suggested moving away from using a password and instead using a passphrase. A passphrase is generally longer than a password and consists of a series of words. For added security, Petty suggested changing your passphrase every four months, making it a minimum of 16 characters and using nonsensical phrases.

You can find more information on protecting your information at

Verification and Fact Checking

When news breaks or a big story is taking place, false images and information pop up all over the Internet and social media, posing challenges for journalists covering a story.

One method to avoid misinformation is to use a reverse image search. This tool allows you to see whether an image circulating on the Internet has been used before and can help you track down the original image.

To find reliable information, Boyle suggested using Google Scholar, which provides scholarly literature and case law. And to find a diverse range of sources, Boyle recommended using Advanced Search on Google, which allows you to search by file type or website type.

Ethics and Elections

Kathleen Bartzen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, which co-sponsored the event, offered a number of tips for journalists on how to remain ethical while covering elections.

Culver reiterated that journalism’s role is to serve voters and democracy, while noting that election season can present journalists with a number of minefields. To avoid those minefields, Culver suggested:

  • not overplaying the polls
  • avoiding poorly constituted voter focus groups
  • using confidential sources only if absolutely necessary
  • staying away from last-minute revelations
  • establishing a clear line between news and opinion

Culver also recommended heeding your “inner alarm bell” when reporting on a story, asking yourself:

  • What public interest is being served by this reporting?
  • Am I missing an important point of view?
  • Will I be able to clearly and honestly explain – without rationalizing – my decision to anyone who challenges it?

Answering these questions can improve the quality of your reporting. When in doubt on an ethical question, the Society for Professional Journalists’ Ethics Hotline also offers journalists coaching from ethics committee members schooled in the Society’s Code of Ethics.

For more information on all topics from the training, and to find courses, tools and resources visit