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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Author: Ben Pickman

Climate change reporting is (slowly) increasing awareness

Reporting on Justin Gillis’s keynote address at the 2018 “Division, Denial & Journalism Ethics” conference at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

In recent years, Justin Gillis, former lead writer on climate science at The New York Times and a current contributing opinion writer for the newspaper, has seen an increased awareness in the American public about climate change.

Gillis says that this added awareness is a function of two factors: an increase in the amount of journalism on the topic, and simple, daily observation.

“People are trying to figure out why things are changing in my backyard, and then they’re seeing this journalism that explains it,” he said. “[Journalism’s] slowly working, it’s just that the problem is urgent.”

Justin Gillis in conversation with Katy Culver at the 2018 Center for Journalism Ethics conference.

Speaking in late-April at the Center for Journalism Ethics’ “Division, Denial and Journalism Ethics,” conference, Gillis discussed some of the challenges that science journalists have in explaining complex concepts to the American public.

Topics are often highly nuanced and difficult to explain to an average reader. Debates over sources of information can also further complicate discussions. Gillis seeks to cover science fairly and says that false balance (equating a position with a large swath of evidence with a position with far less evidence) has historically been a problem in coverage of the environment.

But it’s one part of the profession he sees as improving.

“This is less and less of a problem now in American journalism, at least on climate,” Gillis added.

Gillis discussed how changes in the climate are very real and that those who say that there is no such thing as climate change are “just crazy.”

“We’re in a very deep hole and we’re digging it deeper,” he said.

Climate denial is largely an Anglophone concept, or prevalent in English speaking counties, Gillis said, citing research by Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at Oxford. But Gillis doesn’t see climate denial as a major factor in overseas stories. Gillis says that climate denial is “just not part of the journalism” in England, as the “conservative party is just as committed as the labor party to climate action.”

In Germany, Gillis noted that much of the coverage on climate denial is mostly about the “bizarre Americans,” and why those in the United States are preventing major measures to curtail climate change.

Still, despite some challenges, Gillis sees examples of science journalism making a difference in people’s daily lives. Referring to a story he worked on about the importance of LED light bulbs and various others means to improve energy consumption, Gillis said, “I think the story that we did on the front page of The Times ten years ago helped to push that trend forward.”

Investigative journalism and infrastructure failures: A Q&A with Brant Houston

A pedestrian bridge on Florida International University’s campus collapsed March 15, 2018, killing nine people and injuring six more. Brant Houston, the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation Chair in Investigative and Enterprise Reporting at the University of Illinois, has more than two decades of experience as an investigative reporting and has covered many similar incidents. The Center for Journalism Ethics talked with Houston about the ethical challenges of covering such incidents and about the current state of investigative journalism at-large.


Can journalism outlets and more specifically investigative reporting units continue to devote resources to some of these infrastructure related stories before problems occur or do the lack of resources lead to them being more reactionary in their coverage?

Well there are newsrooms that do these before hand, say a single thing like a pedestrian bridge maybe not, but one thing that is typically done across the country is news organizations is looking at bridge inspection. Oddly enough, pedestrian bridges don’t fall under the Department of Transportation rules and so pedestrian bridges are pretty much left up to municipalities. But in any case, newsrooms are doing stories before hand. One of the greatest examples was the New Orleans Times-Picayune, which four years before Hurricane Katrina did a five-part series on the devastation that would hit New Orleans if a major hurricane landed. So that’s probably one of the best examples I ever saw of investigative reporters and editors being proactive and we actually put that on the front of our web page showing an attempt of a newsroom to give a warning. There are stories that are done ahead of time and bridge inspection ones seem the best. Now, certainly, you saw a lot more of those stories after a Minneapolis-St. Paul bridge collapse where everybody is looking at their bridges and the same thing in Seattle. I think people tend to forget the stories done beforehand. They remember the stories done after, but seldom to do they remember right away: “We were warned about that.”


Is it difficult to allocate those resources to infrastructure projects as sometimes in inspecting them, there are no problems to be found?

I think it’s tougher for what would have been the traditional print newsroom. I think there’s no question about that. We probably lost 60 percent or more of the editorial staff, at least in the U.S. and that’s just a fact that you can’t always do more with less. I do think that the smaller newsroom and even the greatly reduced newsrooms can do more with accountability because of the increasing sophistication when it comes to using data. So, for example, there’s no way a newsroom now could really do what it could do on bridges if there wasn’t a national bridge inventory, which is a database of all the bridges in the United States. And, in addition, states have them and the other thing that’s happened, at least since 2001, a lot of the databases that were taken down on national infrastructure have gone back up. Not enough, but they have gone back up. So for example, there is the national dam inventory and even when they took that down after 9/11 you could still use it because dams don’t move unless they collapse so a lot of the data was still good.


How else do you think data has changed investigative reporting?

One way is that you can go through tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of documents very quickly. And with even a rudimentary look at things whether in Pivot Table in Excel or a query in a database manager, you can quickly see patterns and outliers. And that used to take days and weeks – really weeks and months – and that can be done once you have the skills within a couple of hours, so that changes things. Second of all, you have so much more credibility that used to be way back then you couldn’t look through all the documents, say 10,000 documents, you could look at 200 randomly or do a spot check. Now you say, “We looked at the whole population of documents, this is what they say.” You can also say, “You’re making policy on these documents, but you know what, we looked at them and they’re flawed. So how can you make reasonable policy when you’re working with flawed data.” So that takes you to a whole new level of investigative reporting. You now have the ability to do profound stories that you couldn’t do before and certainly you couldn’t do now unless you had those skills.


How has social media changed investigative reporting?

I think we’re continuing to develop the best ways to analyze social media, but one of the great examples was a few years ago at The Guardian in which it looked at where the rioters and race riots they had in several major cities were coming from and how they communicated. We couldn’t have done that without access to social media and without the tools to see those kinds of patterns. So that’s changed too.

We’ve also had the ability to crowdsource. So although there is some unreliability with crowdsourcing you’re at least getting a much broader section of comments then you would have if you were just walking down the street.


What are the biggest ethical challenges of the crowdsourcing method?

I think you can get tips from social media, but I think the credibility of who’s sending you them – as we all know from the rise of the bots – the credibility of those folks is a challenge. Now, on the other hand, if you find that there is a lot going on that doesn’t have credibility that it’s bots or it’s trolls, then there you have another story. But you do have to look at the credibility of them.

There are always the three pillars of reporting. Those are data documents, interviewing real people with real people and then there is observation, that’s getting out in the field. So for example, on bridge data, it’s incredibly important that journalists talk to experts and inspectors and so fourth, but they also should go out and look at some of the bridges that are supposed to be so bad. So if you’re doing all three, you have a much better chance at being credible and trustworthy and getting the story right.


Can citizens seek these records out? Can they have some role in investigating these potential infrastructure shortcomings?

I think that more and more of that has happened. The challenge that people have is a lot of people say, “anyone can be a citizen journalist.” Well, anyone who has gotten training or on the job training or education training knows that there are a lot of things you have to learn to be a credible reporter, but there’s no question that someone steeped in data analysis can  get on the web, see some open government information and do some basic analysis and point out some basic problems or issues. Again, there’s some folks that say, I’ll do some quick analysis, I’ll do some visualization, I’ll throw it up on the web. If you throw it up there without some kind of explanation and some kind of understanding, it’s interesting but it doesn’t necessarily always attract attention or doesn’t get even understanding from an audience.

Years ago, Adrian Holovaty and his team at Everyblock, (a neighborhood news and discussion site) did some great work in terms of visualizing data, but they didn’t check it out in terms of what journalists did. They ended visualizing crime data in Los Angeles a few years ago, and the data had some serious flaws. It put crimes in locations which crimes never occurred and if they had looked at where some of those crimes were clustered there’s no way they could have occurred there and the Los Angeles Times did a very nice job when it analyzed the data and also did a nice, wide interview with Adrian Holovaty on the importance of checking the integrity of data.

And so, a number of programmers have said that when they switch to becoming journalists, they are surprised that you really need to get it right on the first try because they’re used to going through several versions of software until they get it right.


In general, what are some of the biggest challenges you think investigative reporters face? Or similarly, what do challenges newsrooms face when dealing with investigative reporting?

Time. It’s always been time. Investigative reporting often requires more time. Time is money. Time is taken away from other potential stories. It’s riskier in that you don’t know what your result is. If you’re doing it in certain countries, it’s risky to your health and well-being in life.

There are a series of risks, the first risk being that you’re going to spend time on something and not come back with something. Investigative reporting in some ways is the research and development arm of journalism. So there’s a risk of not coming back with something and then there’s a risk of being threatened, crossing funders or advertisers and there’s the risk of having the people you’re reporting on come after you either verbally, physically, and these days electronically. There are a number of journalists in the U.S. that have trolls coming after them all the time.


Are there certain ethical concerns investigative reporters face when they go out in the field?

The stakes are usually higher, so that the ethical concerns are typical to that of a doctor, so first of all, do no harm or minimize harm. So I believe there are ethical challenges almost daily in investigative reporting. If this comes out how will it impact this person or this institution? Are you hearing the other sides of a story thoroughly enough. Just by making a phone call can you expose somebody to attack or ridicule. You’re trying to make sure you’re taking care of people while you’re doing this in the proper way. And possibly if you have a story that could result in the resignation or the loss of a job of someone that’s high impact. So you better think about ethics everyday.


From the perspective of a professor, when teaching students about investigative journalism, how do you break the mold and show them that investigative journalism is not all the glamour that movies like Spotlight or All the President’s Men make them out to be?

I think you learn by doing. And I think Spotlight and even All the President’s Men did show some of the challenging drudgery of doing investigative reporting. But I think the romance of, “Oh I made a couple of calls and now I have a great story,” disappears very quickly after you’ve had to spend the equivalent of a day looking through data or documents. You realize it’s the excitement or interest in looking at content or talking to people that keeps you going. So I teach it by people working on stories. I had a class in which two students had to keep going back to the department of environmental education in Illinois and the data was incomplete and then it was incomplete again. The bloom is off the romance after about the third time you have to go back and you’re still getting incomplete information.


What are the basics you first emphasize with students who are learning about investigative reporting?

Well there’s one that the great team of Don Barlett and Jim Steele had which was getting in a document state of mind. I think journalists are used to doing interviews. Even though you have to practice and get better at them, they’re used to doing interviews. They’re used to walking down that road, going out and interviewing people, getting out into the field or getting people on email. But to actually say, “I want to find a document that either supports, contradicts or gives some nuance to what somebody just said,” or will give that to somebody you will interview in the future, I think that takes some practice, getting in that document state of mind.

The other thing I would mention is that taking on investigative reporting class doesn’t mean you’ll become an investigative reporter. It does ensure that you’ll be a much better reporter and if you’re editing the stories, you’ll have to become a much better editor. So one of the reasons that investigative reporters in the global investigative network are so popular is that by taking their training you get skills that you can use in everyday and weekly and monthly reporting. That’s something else I also emphasize. You may not want to do the long-term project that results in a series of stories or one big story, but you know whatever story you touch after you get these skills is better.


What skills are most important?

Data. The ability to seek out data and documents. The fact that you should improve your interviewing techniques, I think it improves your preparation for interviews. It’s as basic as not asking somebody how to spell their name, but asking them to confirm the spelling that you’ve got the spelling right.

The one other thing I want to mention more than ever is the need for thoroughness and the need for accuracy and the need for transparency, especially, if there’s some uncertainty in what you have in your data or in your interviews. I think some reporters are worried about having uncertainty in there reporting and I think investigative reporting training will give a reporter the confidence to say, “This is as much as we know.”

Newsrooms have an ethical obligation to address the power structure of internships; Jill Geisler is bringing that front and center

Jill Geisler, the newly appointed Newseum Institute Fellow in Women’s Leadership, recently modered a program which focused on what interns, employers and educators should know and should do to maintain ensure workplace integrity. The Center for Journalism Ethics talked with Geisler, who is also the Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity at Loyola University Chicago, about the challenges, obligations and successes she has observed of interns as the #MeToo movement has progressed.

Q: What are some of the biggest challenges you see interns face as they enter a newsroom for the first time?

Up until the #MeToo movement I would have told you that it was about establishing yourself as a professional. And while that is still true, what we have learned from the more intense focus on sexual misconduct in newsrooms. It relates to power, and the least powerful people in any organization are interns, temporary employees, freelance employees and the very youngest and least experienced. And so, that population is the most vulnerable to harassment and discrimination. It’s caused me and it’s caused other people to say, “Let’s revisit how we prepare our newest journalists for internships and for their first jobs.”

I think we always felt that we never wanted to enphantalize our students. We never wanted to treat you like students. We never wanted to patronize. We wanted to treat you like adults, and we still do. What we’ve now realized is that even young adults in the workplace can be vulnerable. And it doesn’t mean that every place that you might work is ripe with predators, waiting to pounce on you. But what we’ve realized is that those who have been fired for that reason sometimes used “Let’s talk about your career” as the entry point for changing the subject to “Let’s talk about your personal life” [or] “Let’s talk about your sexuality.” And because of that, we now know that we have a greatest obligation to incorporate that information and how to deal with it, how to be prepared for it, into the teaching that we do with our students.

Q: Is this obligation new?

I don’t think it was the absence of an obligation. It was the absence of an understanding of its importance. Again, I’ve spent a lot of my lifetime as a professional going to career night talks, giving advice to young journalists about their careers and now as an educator, I give that advice. Never in any of that time, in any career fair, did I ever say, “And by the way, let’s talk a little bit about how to respond if you are in the presence of harassment, discriminatory conversations, bullying, uncivil behavior.” We haven’t had that in no small part because to talk about it is to acknowledge that it exists and I think we all wanted to believe that if it existed it was minimal. And now what we’ve realized is that there’s more of it then we might have wanted to believe.

Q: What role does the university play in preparing interns for some of these challenges?

I’m doing a separate, “Powers to the Interns” evening at Loyola on March 19, and I’m doing it in corporation with the head of the journalism department and instead of just talking about careers because I’ve already done a career night. Instead of it being focused on how to do your resume, it’s really going to be focused on the potential for being in the presence of bullying, discrimination, harassment, telling racist jokes. What do you do as the youngest professional in the room who wants to make a good impression but is hearing this from colleagues? And that’s not just about sexual harassment because this is beyond that we’re talking about workplace integrity. What we’ve determined as the focus of the Power Shift Summit is that workplace integrity involves an atmosphere free of harassment and discrimination.

Q: What is the importance a diverse staff in helping interns successfully enter newsrooms?

People’s behavior changes in the presence of people who bring a diverse perspective. When we’re all alike there’s too much of an opportunity for group think, there’s too much of an opportunity to believe that everyone thinks like us, so what we think is funny, everybody thinks is funny, what we think is fair game, everybody thinks is fair game. To give you an example: One of my students said that as an intern she was on a chat group – and the people involved didn’t know that she was watching – while one of them wrote about who was going to bang the intern. How does she respond to that? How does she respond if there’s no HR department.

Q: What impact can mentors then have?

Mentorship is important. But having a process for reporting something that is inappropriate, for getting advice, for determining whether what you’ve heard is intended to be what that person said. All of those things are critically important.

Let’s turn this into a process. It starts at the university level: preparing people professionally for the work, for the work ethic and for how to respond to things that are inappropriate. And then giving them mentors in the organization. Having the company prepare its interns. As an employer you need to have a process that both prepares them and briefs the staff on what’s appropriate and inappropriate behavior. Now it feels that it should be simple, that we should all know that, and that’s why it felt like people didn’t have to train us previously because we felt that people would instinctively do the right thing. But now we know that that doesn’t always happen.

Q: What are the some of the successful reporting or less successful reporting tactics you’ve observed?

NPR right now has developed a team of volunteer staff members who exist to help people who may have a question, have a concern, who don’t feel comfortable going to HR. They can go to these colleagues who have actually taken some training and work with them to get advice on whether they should report, how they should report and how they should respond. Sometimes people don’t know for sure if they’ve been targeted. If you’re manager says, “let’s go to lunch and talk about your career,” it could be something or it could be nothing. What women have often done over the years is called the whisper network: “What about him?” or “When he hugs me is he being friendly or is he trying to take advantage of me?” Those informal networks have existed, sometimes because people thought that they couldn’t talk to HR.

Q: What role do men play in reporting harassment and assault in the workplace?

Men play a huge role. First of all, this is not an exclusively women issue, men can be victimized just as much as women, and men, when women are victimized, can be allies. There’s a whole concept of active bystanders which universities are already and started with partying, so now there’s the whole active bystanders concept goes to the workplace.

This is not just a white women’s issue. This is an issue that transcends race, it transcends gender and it sometimes is multiplied for people who are female and are people of color, who may experience multiple forms of either harassment or discrimination. Some of it is subtle and some of it is blatant. But again we don’t want to scare anybody from going into the workplace nor do we want them to think it’s full of snakes. But, if there’s one snake, I want to make sure it doesn’t bite you.

Solutions to low media trust not clear

One of the researchers of a study that finds Republicans and supporters of President Donald Trump have far more negative attitudes toward the press than Democrats and Trump opponents, doubts that incremental changes in news ethics will make a significant change in media trust.

Andrew Guess, who along with Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler, studied media trust along ideological and partisan lines for the Poynter Institute.

The researchers additionally find exposure to anti-media messages, including attacks by Trump on “fake news,” have relatively limited effects on attitudes toward the press.Their research also suggests that Republicans and Trump supporters are far more likely to endorse extreme claims about media fabrication, to describe journalists as an enemy of the people and to support restrictions on press freedom than Democrats and Trump opponents. Overall, the majority of the public does support the press, albeit weakly.

According to Guess, however, the pattern of polarized media trust by party is not a particularly new phenomenon.

But nevertheless, finding a solution to reduce such problems, seems to be a complicated process.

“I think that we can begin by acknowledging that there is a trust problem,” said Indira Lakshmanan a Washington columnist for the Boston Globe and Newmark Chair in Journalism Ethics at the Poynter Institute said. “I think that one of the most important things in that regard is figuring out why we have the problem.”

Lakshmanan said she believes increasing transparency about the reporting process and reducing the use of anonymous sources might help increase the trust people have in the media.

Guess, while acknowledging increasing transparency, crediting sources and correcting mistakes are positive steps that may help, these measures will be unlikely unlikely to shift people’s views as drastically as some journalists might think.

“It seems kinda unlikely that a little bit of extra transparency about the way that reporting is done is gonna move a lot of these attitudes,” he said.

Instead, Guess also suggested that media organizations should work to avoid any appearance of partisanship and reach out to Republicans and Trump supporters who affirm the importance of a free press. Doing so might create a more bipartisan consensus on the importance of journalism in a free society.

Additionally, Nyhan told Poynter that it feels like “double-edged sword” to try an increase trust through the work of one political party.

“We’ve seen these dynamics occur on issues with scientists and their perception is being affiliated with the Democratic Party, and it really harms scientific credibility in the public debate,” Nyhan said. “If journalists go down the same road and become seen as part of the Democratic [Party] coalition, I think it’s very harmful to the ability of all you to do your jobs and to create this reasonably broad, shared consensus about the nature of reality that we’d like to hope is a mission of journalism.”

Another suggestion from Guess to reduce potential media polarization is to initiate more opportunities for journalists to speak to Americans around the country “outside of the partisan fray.”

“Maybe there is also some merit to getting out there and speaking to people as people and not as journalists,” he said.

“I think we know what the problem is now,” Lakshmanan said. “I think it’s time we find a solution.”

Making the call: Determining when to call a political statement a lie

Tom Beaumont is a national political reporter at the Associated Press. Beaumont answered some questions by phone about the ethical issues in reporting in an ever-changing, fast-paced news cycle.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.


What journalistic practices, if any, should journalists do differently?

The one thing that frustrates me a lot is what I see an apparent disregard for regular journalistic standards in social media. I’m just talking about Twitter since that’s the only platform I’m on. I just keep it as spotless as I can because they’re watching, and they don’t need any more ammunition to indict the press. I am careful in how I reduce a headline to 140 characters. It’s gotta be clean, not just because it’s the right journalistic standard, but because I also represent the AP, which is not Salon. It’s not Slate. It’s not anything that has much of a voice except for the voice of authority. And it’s got to be authoritative. And it can’t crack. I don’t know if this is because the AP is kind of like the team that doesn’t have names on the back of its jerseys. That’s kind of what I like about the AP, we’re about the stories. We’re just about pounding the nail and driving the story.

I don’t know what it’s like for the coming generation of journalists, but I want them to watch themselves really closely, but without that impartiality, that’s when the fourth estate begins to decline or declines more rapidly.


How do you think journalists have done covering [President Donald] Trump’s Twitter feed and if anything, what should change about the coverage of it?

The AP’s White House team now has somebody up early every day checking that thing. Since the campaign we knew that he would get up early and opine on something, so we’ve been on that for over two years now. And because they come from the President of the United States’ account, they are presidential pronouncements. They drive the day. It’s unbelievable. This isn’t an editorial comment; it’s just a statement of fact. The House was getting ready to unveil tax legislation. The Senate was down to its last strike on health care. North Korea was threatening war, and Trump spent four consecutive days arguing on Twitter about the NFL’s role in observing the flag and the national anthem. The contrast to what he’s saying and what the policy is just needs to be pointed out, and that’s not an editorial statement, that’s just factual context. That’s remarkable.


How does the non-stop news cycle affect your coverage of government?

Trump has rewritten the book so to speak on political speech for this chapter and [former President Barack] Obama to an extent had rewritten political speech in a different way for the decade prior. It doesn’t change how the AP and how I as a member of the AP work because we’ve been a 24-hour news cycle since before cable. I haven’t been with the AP but for six years, but it’s a 24-hour cycle. We’re constantly updating. So in that way I think a lot of other print media have been catching up to the AP for the last several years.


How should we handle remarks and tweets that some deem racist or indicative of white supremacy?

I don’t feel it’s appropriate for me to label him a white supremacist. We can say what he said. We can say he defended the actions of people affiliated with the group. But I don’t think that that’s even correct. It’s the same question of watching your words like you do on Twitter. If you report it accurately, people can argue with it. But if it’s defensible from the standpoint of objectivity, then you got nothing to worry about.

If you say the President first said there were bad actors on both sides of the Charlottesville clash, then that would be accurate. You could say that then he came out and denounced white supremacists, that too would be accurate. You could continue to say that he first came out against white supremacists, you can make the point that others are making by taking a shortcut by not taking the shortcut.


Some would say that using the term “lie” can hinder objectivity. What do you think of that?

The case in point was throughout the campaign, as in 2015 I was the reporter covering Jeb Bush. As the Republican campaign began, we could see how the other candidates were reacting to [Trump]. And it felt to me at one point to write more about the allegation that President Obama was not a natural born U.S. citizen because at one point Jeb Bush took issue with that statement with Trump. As it happens, when you’re kind of on the run, people pick something up and kind of run with it for a while. When I was writing about this, we, as a political team, came to the agreement that it was OK to call that a lie because it had been reported by us repeatedly. There was evidence provided by the White House that President Obama coughed up his birth certificate and yet Trump continued to say or alleged that the President was not a natural born U.S. citizen. It is a constitutional requirement of holding the office. That’s such a heavy accusation to make about a sitting president that once it’s proven to be false and he continues to say it, we would say, Trump continued to promote the lie that the President was not born in the United States.

That’s a long way of explaining the thought process, but it’s not just something that you fire from the hip. That’s an example of something that’s serious, that was proven to be false over and over and that he continued to promote. We came to the decision that that was OK to call it a lie because he had to have been aware that the evidence was there proving it otherwise.


Do you have this process with a lot of his statements or a lot of his tweets?

We, like a lot of news outlets, have what they call fact-checking teams. That term kind of annoys me because aren’t all stories supposed to be fact checked in real time? Isn’t that the burden of reporting to not just say, ‘He said x. She said y.’ ? But the AP does the math and puts a line of context in there to say which one has the evidence. We have dispatched a team of really good reporters and editors whose job now it is to constantly do that with Trump’s allegations because the factually questionable things that he offers are so frequent that it requires a team of a reporter and an editor, a couple of reporters and an editor to hound that stuff.


How much do you rely on confidential sources and what are some of the complications with using confidential sources in your reporting?

I think the chief complication is that I don’t know what the criteria are for other news agencies. I know what the criteria are for the AP. I trust it because I know when I’ve reported something and I know when others’ have reported something that we discuss, without disclosing too many company secrets, we don’t publish anything until we feel as an organization, that means we as an editorial leadership, everyone right up the chain, are cool with it.

But I don’t know how it moves within other newsrooms. I know that when we have it, it’s solid, and when it’s not, it’s not. I watch our AP news app all the time for corrections because it’s like  errors in a baseball game. You just can’t have the turnovers, to mix my sports metaphors. So I’m good with us, but we’re not in a vacuum. So if CNN is reporting something and The New York Times is reporting something and there’s an explosive denial from the White House, I don’t know what they’ve got. If it comes from the AP, I know who our team is and I trust them pretty implicitly. Like I said, the AP is like a 150 years old or something like that and you don’t get to be the world’s only global news outlet by trading falsehoods and reporting a lot of sketchy information.


What is the role of the journalist today?

I’ll tell you what I think the role of the political journalist is, and that is to drive the story forward of this revolution in politics that’s going on. This revolution of money. This revolution of speech, of reported information. When people are comparing Breitbart and the AP on the same platform that tells me that we have our work cut out for us because there is an entire segment of the population that sees them as the same – one abides by the journalistic principles that you and I are talking about, like fairness, context and I don’t know how it works inside the other one. But people have come to the same conclusion. I have to check my perception of reality all the time because you get into a lane and you start to see certain things in a certain way and you have to step outside that lane and make sure that you’re not going over the same ground. I have to continually remind myself that simply because I’ve reported something once, it doesn’t mean it’s true again.

Sometimes I think political journalism falls victim to groupthink and that’s dangerous. You’ve got to get outside that and look at things from different perspectives. That seems like Journalism 101.

Technology complicates ethics of natural disaster reporting

More than a decade after covering Hurricane Katrina for The (New Orleans) Times-Picayune, John Pope, a member of the team that won two Pultizer Prizes, remembers how live-blogging, a relatively new media technology at the time, improved his publication’s coverage of the storm.


“The beauty of blogging is that you don’t need a fully formed story,” Pope said.


During the storm, became a place where millions of people went to read about Katrina’s impact and its aftermath. Stories were continuously updated. And a community bulletin board was created to allow people who needed help in New Orleans to post their location and ask for assistance.


“When you go live, you have to realize that you can’t take it back. What comes in the lens is what goes out the pipe,” Tompkins said. “You may see things you may not have wanted to see or show things you didn’t intend for people to see.”

But developments in technology in the years since have continued to change how reporters cover disasters. In turn, reporters are tasked with making new, difficult ethical decisions.


Al Tompkins, of The Poynter Institute, notes the ease a publication can produce content in real time has drastically improved since Katrina.


“It’s so much easier to go live from anywhere then it was 10 or 15 years ago,” Tompkins said.


Tompkins, though, warns that just because reporters can go live from almost anywhere, publications shouldn’t put their writers at physical risk.


Additionally, more fast-paced digital coverage means reporters have to be even more accurate with what they report in the field. On television, increased live access means networks have to be even more aware of what they show on screen.


“When you go live, you have to realize that you can’t take it back. What comes in the lens is what goes out the pipe,” Tompkins said. “You may see things you may not have wanted to see or show things you didn’t intend for people to see.”


Social media also complicated natural disaster coverage. While journalists are now able to communicate with their audiences more efficiently, reporters feel pressure to get information out without compromising accuracy.


“With a tweet or a blog, you get something out quickly,” Pope, now a contributing writer for the Times-Picayune, said. “But you better be sure that it’s right.”


Online audiences are also playing a role in spreading unverified content, sometimes meant as pranks. The Verge and CNN analyzed why people create and share fake storm-related content, suggesting that people’s confirmation bias can often time explain why a fake storm picture goes viral.


“Don’t let the intensity of the moment rob you of your common sense,” Pope said.

Various technological tools, however, can reduce the chance of sharing fake disaster images:

Still, even with improved technologies and additional ethical concerns, many of the same principles of disaster reporting that existed prior to digital technology remain important.


Tompkins said that a newsrooms have an ethical responsibility to continue long term reporting on storms, and thoroughly cover their aftermath. Stories about people falsifying charitable fundraisers or grant applications and city waste are common story themes published in the wake of disasters. Though Tompkins also said that journalists shouldn’t just look for stories that are negative.


“It’s important to do that to show that this was a terrible thing that happened,” Tompkins said. “But people really are resilient and sometimes people are there very best when things are at their very worst.”


Pope added that empathy, especially while reporting in real-time, is essential. But more than anything, Pope said that remembering to be inquisitive, yet fair when reporting on the scene is of the utmost importance.


“Don’t let the intensity of the moment rob you of your common sense,” Pope said. “Ask questions. Be sure of what you’re saying, verify what you’re saying. If you think it may be the biggest flood since Noah, get someone to tell you so, don’t just go on your own supposition.”


The Role of Today’s Journalists: Q&A with Al Tompkins

Al Tompkins is a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute and author of “Aim for the Heart: A Guide for TV Producers and Reporters.” We talked to Tompkins about the role of journalists in today’s non-stop, fast-paced media environment.


CJE: What is the role of a journalist today?


Tompkins: Part of what we’re trying to do is verify. We’re trying to understand. Our job isn’t to persuade. So sometimes that involves testing the truth; sometimes it involves just reporting the facts as we find them. There’s no one way to do our job, but our central question is, “What does the public need to know in order to make sense of this?”—in order to figure out not just what happened but why it happened and what’s going to happen next and who benefits and who suffers because of it. A good chunk of what we do every day is just sense-making.


Journalists are generally not in a popularity contest either. Certainly, they have a business that they have to endure but the fact of the matter is people generally don’t appreciate information that doesn’t jive with what they already believe. It’s not convenient to get served up a menu of stuff that is not what you want to hear. And for Trump supporters particularly, there’s darn little that they want to hear because it doesn’t fit with why they supported the guy and they still do in very significant numbers, popularity polls notwithstanding, there are significant numbers of people in the United States who completely report Donald Trump’s point of view. And if there is a criticism I would level, it is we seldom hear from those people except in a marginalized, nut-case kind of way. They have a voice in the same way that critics do. And that voice ought to be understood.


Should journalists do anything differently to improve public trust?


It depends on what they think their job is. If they believe their job is to be an antagonist, then they should change because just being an antagonist is not being a journalist. The job of the journalist is to report, verify and put into context what’s going on regardless of whether or not you agree with it; regardless of whether it fits your needs; regardless of whether it hurts or harms you personally. Will you fairly, accurately, thoroughly report things that do not benefit you or what you personally believe in? That to me is the deciding factor as to whether you are a journalist or just a provider of information or opinion. Fairly, accurately, thoroughly, even-handedly report information with which you personally disagree.


How does the non-stop news cycle affect journalists’ coverage of government?


Narrow and deep reporting is almost always more valuable than wide and thin reporting. The what of a story is what moves across social media. The why, the how, the what happens next and what does this actually mean takes a journalist to figure out.


I would say where you should spend your energy is less in chasing the bathrobe and more in chasing the immigration story or the confirmation story. So one of the questions that we can have is – what do people need to know versus what might they graze? If all you do is serve the people who are information-snackers, you’re not really fulfilling their needs. You’re only fulfilling the momentary appetite of what’s easy to pick. Part of what we have to become is an essential part of people’s civic life. And I use that word civic intentionally because one of the things that I think we are lacking at the moment is a sense of civics; a sense of what it means to be a good citizen. And part of what it means to be a good citizen is to be selfless to your community, to be sure that you’re thinking about the long-term and short-term effects of what you’re doing and not to be simply self-serving.


What is one thing that journalists can do differently when covering politicians?


One of the biggest criticisms I have of how we cover politicians and politics is that we penalize people for changing their minds based on facts. Let me give you an example. Let’s say for example for 20 years, I’ve been a global warming denier but now, faced with overwhelming scientific evidence, I say, “You know what, I think the evidence now is so large that I have to be convinced that there is such a thing as climate change and that people are doing something to contribute to it.” You would eviscerate me. You’d call me a flip-flopper. There was a time I think, although I could be wrong, that we thought of people who were willing to change their minds based on evidence as enlightened. But now, the only way that you can be elected is to be intractable, regardless of the evidence. We as journalists propagate that by calling them flip-floppers, by pointing out that they changed their minds and by showing that they have been inconsistent on something. As people evolve their thinking based on the evidence I don’t think they ought to be penalized for it.


Some argue that journalists calling out false statements or using the term lie hinder their objectivity. What are your thoughts on this?


There are lies; but to me, that’s a pretty strong word. Lie implies intent and in order for you to know intent, you really have to have evidence. Just because they say something that the facts don’t bear out, doesn’t mean they intended to do that. For example, I don’t think Kellyanne Conway intended to mislead people into believing there was a massacre in Bowling Green, Kentucky. I just don’t think she knew. So you can call it whatever you want—misinformation, bad information, lack of information—but I haven’t seen any convincing evidence that she attempted to lie on that; I just don’t think she was informed.


Roundtable: Truth, Trump and journalism

We asked several media experts to weigh in on some of the ethical dilemmas facing journalists as they report on the Trump administration. From dealing with dishonest sources to using the term “lie” to describe falsehoods, our experts say the challenges the press faces today should be met with a renewed commitment to the core tenets of journalism.

Some members of President Trump’s administration have been accused of dishonesty when dealing with the press. Should media outlets continue booking guests they believe have been dishonest? And what, if any, journalistic practices should change when interviewing such guests?

Margaret Sullivan, Washington Post: We may not have the luxury of excluding these officials, since they are in positions of authority and power. However, we can bring particular awareness and preparation to our knowledge that they haven’t been truthful in the past, and be ready to challenge them, especially in the moment.


Keith Woods, NPR: I think our job is to report on facts and inaccuracies. So talking to the official spokespeople for the White House is critical. Our job, when there is reckless disregard for facts, is to ramp up our truth-telling, fact-checking efforts and continue to show the public the actions of those elected and appointed to represent them. Our sin isn’t in talking to people who continuously get things wrong; it’s when we fail to report their falsehoods.


Dave Zweifel, Wisconsin State Journal: I think it all depends on who the interviewee is, what position he or she holds. Frankly, I think that the interview shows should stop inviting a Kellyanne Conway, for example, who has become known as a notorious liar, famous for her admiration for “alternative facts.” Besides, it’s become apparent that she doesn’t really know what she’s talking about and is frequently contradicted by her own boss, the president. There are others, though, who are key people in the president’s administration that should be heard, lies and all. What practices need to change, though, is that interviewers need to point out obvious falsehoods or have other guests on the show that can do that … to let obvious false statements stand is a disservice to the reader/viewer. If a guest refuses to appear again, that fact should be pointed out with an explanation why the invitation was refused.


Scott Cohn, freelance journalist: Like it or not, any administration gets to choose its spokespeople. A blanket refusal to book an administration official or spokesperson because he or she might possibly give dishonest answers does not further the ultimate goal for journalists (and the public) of getting to the truth. Instead, the journalist must come to every interview fully prepared and armed to the teeth with facts, and not be afraid to question any statements that appear to be false. But it is important to draw a distinction here between official administration spokespeople and “surrogates,” i.e., people who purport to speak for the administration but have no official role. If they have demonstrated dishonesty in the past, there is no reason to continue speaking with them, any more than there is a reason to deal with any other source that has proven not to be credible.


I would add that this question speaks to a broader issue that predates the Trump administration. Particularly when it comes to cable news, but by no means limited to that medium, too much of what passes for journalism is in fact simply “talking heads” allowed to speak unchallenged. If the current dynamic in Washington leads to more actual reporting on this administration and future ones, the profession and the country will be better off.


Jill Geisler, Loyola Chicago: “Dishonesty” is a word that we need to treat with care. Journalists understand that sources of all types may not tell them complete truths, may provide information out of context, may reframe issues to appear better or worse than objective facts support, and some may intentionally provide false information. Journalists have dealt with these issues long before the Trump administration. They do so by persistent questioning, fact-finding and reporting what they learn. They respectfully challenge and responsibly report.


Having said that, we know that respected fact-checkers have found that this president and some of his representatives and supporters have been prolific in providing “alternative facts” – i.e. untruthful or deceptive replies.


So, what about your question about booking such people as guests on media outlets? I think there’s a difference between interviewing individuals who are appointed or elected members of the Trump administration, in their official roles, and booking “guests.” For example, CNN used some Trump supporters as surrogates in panels during the election. If those people have consistently dissembled and don’t now hold official positions in the administration, then CNN can reconsider booking them. If they hold official positions, the very nature of their positions keeps journalists from avoiding them.

In his time in office so far, Trump has been openly hostile toward the press. What, if any, journalistic practices should change in response to this?

Sullivan: We should not rise to the bait of being the enemy or opposition party. We should realize that this is a political strategy that has worked very well for Donald Trump. Our response should be to do our jobs of examining the facts, challenging assertions, digging into documentation, developing sources and holding the administration accountable. We should be neither friend nor enemy, but watchdog and citizens’ representative.


Woods: Journalism has been reviled by powerful people since the first presses rolled. Our job doesn’t change because the president dislikes us. But we do have the responsibility–and opportunity–to explain ourselves and prove the power and relevance of strong journalism as the president calls more and more of the public’s attention to the role of the press in America.


Zweifel: I don’t think there’s a need to change any journalistic practices. Throughout history, there have always been politicians who’ve been hostile to the press. The best bet is to keep doing the job we’re trained to do, digging for the truth and informing our readers. And, we should also make sure our readers know of the president’s (or any other politician’s) hostility. They can judge who’s right.


Cohn: Very little should change. Trump is not the first president to be hostile to the press, even if he has raised that hostility to a new level. He won’t be the last. Journalists must continue to do our jobs, unswayed by the inevitable personal attacks on us and our colleagues. We know how to report, and the fundamentals do not change just because the person or entity we are reporting on does not like our findings. The truth is the truth, and I firmly believe that readers and viewers are ultimately smart enough to recognize it even amid shouts of “fake news.” Having said that, it is particularly important in this environment for journalists to be accurate and fair, and to take extra pains to do so. The reporting on the Martin Luther King bust in the Oval Office is a prime example of the kind of unforced error we cannot afford. There will always be honest mistakes, and this one was corrected quickly. But why was everyone so quick to accept the premise that the bust had been removed? What would it have taken to double check or seek a comment before reporting it? The most effective response to a hostile source is to do our jobs impeccably. Our most powerful weapon is the truth.


Geisler: The journalistic response should be a heightened commitment to the First Amendment, to investigative reporting, to keeping bias out of our journalism, even when we are angered by the injustice of the presidential vilification, and we should make certain we support each other in public forums such as news conferences. If the president or a representative refuses to answer one journalist’s question as a way to punish that person, and the question is of importance to citizens, other journalists present should pick up the baton and keep asking the question. This isn’t just to create a theater of solidarity among journalists, it is to put competition aside in pursuit of information the public deserves to know.

Some argue that journalists calling out false statements or using the term “lie” hinder their objectivity. What are your thoughts on this?

Zweifel: I think it’s a journalist’s duty to call out false statements and when warranted brand a statement of claim a “lie.” I applaud The New York Times for doing this on occasion. Being “objective” doesn’t mean we should ignore basic facts. That’s more a disservice to so-called objectivity than pretending that we don’t know if a statement is a lie when, in fact, we do.


Cohn: Our business is about facts. If a statement is demonstrably false, we have a duty to say so. That does not hinder objectivity; that IS objectivity. But characterizing a statement as a “lie” is a different matter. The term “lie” implies intent, and in most cases it is impossible to know the intent of the person making the statement. That is not to say we can never characterize a false statement as a lie. If we can provide evidence that the person knew a statement was false when he or she made it—for example, the person wrote or said something different in the past—then the statement is objectively a lie, and we have a duty to characterize it as such. (Then again, the original statement or writing might be the lie, and the more recent statement might be the truth. See how tricky it is?) The bottom line is that we should report what we know, not what we think. If we know a statement to be false, we must say so. If we know a statement to be willfully false—and that is a high bar—we should call it what is: a lie. But if we don’t know that, we have no business reporting it.


Sullivan: I would use “lie” sparingly—only when we have full reason to believe that a falsehood is intentional. And we should be ready to use it, using the same threshold, for people other than Trump. If a news organization isn’t prepared to use the word for a business leader or a foreign head of state, then it shouldn’t be using it for the U.S. president. But when something is clearly an intentional falsehood, use it. We took too long to use the clearly understood word “torture” when the facts called for it. Same thing here.


Geisler: The word “lie,” used as a verb, should be handled with care. It says the speaker knew it was false and intended to deceive. If we know the speaker’s knowledge and intent, the word applies as a verb. But how do we know that? At the same time, the word “lie” as a noun, can mean “falsehood”—so, it might be used, as The New York Times did.


I’m splitting hairs pretty finely here, but I do see a difference. Still, the word “lie” always carries with it a certain name-calling, and journalists should avoid putting themselves in the position of appearing to be attacking. There are plenty of other words: falsehood, untruth, fabrication, fiction, distortion, whopper, tall tale, for starters. As for calling out false statements, yes, journalists should not hesitate to clearly state that what has been said is untrue—and to do it in chyrons, headlines, tweets, interviews and within the body of stories. We can’t let “alternative facts” overtake provable truth. It’s on us to provide the proof.


Woods: I’m not a fan of using the word “lie” without a fairly high level of proof that a person intended to mislead. I think we can do all that public service journalism is designed to do—identifying errors, exaggerations and false or misleading information—without suggesting that a person intended to tell a lie. It may be so; it may strongly appear to be intentional. But if we can’t prove intent, we should save that powerful tool for when we have the factual goods to justify it.

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.