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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Category: Ethics in the news

Transparency and boldness: Q&A with Jill Geisler

“The new year demands extraordinary newsroom management skills andstrategies as an unorthodox, media-bashing president takes office. The Trump administration will challenge norms of engagement with both the public and the press, and may execute on its promise to revise existing laws and policies, making high-quality journalism more important than ever.”

Jill Geisler is the Bill Plante Chair in Leadership and Media Integrity at Loyola University Chicago. CJE sat down with Geisler to discuss her recent article for the Columbia Journalism Review, “10 resolutions for managers leading newsrooms in 2017.”

CJE: Your piece for the Columbia Journalism Review led off with the advice that newsroom managers should remain encouraging during this challenging era for the industry.

Geisler: The best antidote to bad morale is good journalism. There’s great satisfaction in producing good journalism. It’s imperative for managers to support people in that process and recognize what it takes for people to do their job. The industry has started to ask more and more of people, while we have undergone a business transformation that has, in many cases, cut back on their resources. If you as a leader are providing feedback to people, it’s about listening to them and also telling them how they’re doing. What exhausted them, what exhilarated them, what they need more of or less of and what you’re able to provide. In a world in which the criticism can be vicious and vulgar, it’s also important to help journalists put all of it in perspective and to help protect them.

CJE: You also talked about transparency and “showing your math.” Could you expand a bit more on that?

Geisler: When I work with people outside of journalism to try and explain the rigorous process in deciding what photo to use or what amount of graphic detail is incorporated, people are often surprised at the thoughtfulness of the process. Human beings tend to ascribe motive to other people and when they don’t like a story or outcome, they’re quick to ascribe motive because they don’t know the process. We need to do a better job of explaining why we came to the conclusion we did. That’s transparency, that’s showing your math.

We didn’t used to have the time or physical space to show our math. But in a digital world, we can tell readers to go to our website to see how we did certain things or encourage them to talk to us on Facebook. We have unlimited opportunities to connect with people. We also now have the ability to decide how many platforms we’ll use based upon importance or potential controversy of a given topic.

CJE: How can journalists practically demonstrate boldness, specifically in regards to the Trump administration’s press conferences?

Geisler: I think we’re in an era now where journalists have to ask questions for which the answers may range from deflections to duplicitous. In real time, if you’re live at news conference, it’s not bias if you say, “You didn’t answer my question.” It’s boldness, not bias, to ask the same question immediately after it went unanswered for another journalist, instead of just saying, “Oh my competitor got shut down, I’m glad.” If the question is important, if the information is important, you repeat it at the risk of looking a little bit pushy. You’re going to have to do it because it is at that point you’re supporting the public’s right to know and the idea that people can’t be shouted down.

CJE: To what extent is it ethical for journalists from various outlets to ban together in an effort to gain information?

Geisler:  Competition is generally a business value: I want to get a story faster than you do. It can also be a journalistic value on those occasions in which speed itself helps the public. For example, if I’m the first to announce a tornado, I’ve beaten the competition and also given people the information they need faster. Competition is sometimes just a business value so you can have bragging rights. When you are talking about solidarity, you have to say what is the solidarity in service of? If I’m going to stand in solidarity with a person I’d otherwise compete with, it should be in service of information the public is being denied. Solidarity has to be about the importance of the information and about making certain that a process does not exist that leverages competition as a way to shut down information. We have a journalistic obligation to transcend the business value, step up and have that question answered.

CJE: We’ve talked a lot about the news curators, but what advice do you have for news consumers?

Geisler: I’m coming from the media literacy standpoint. At the very least it would be helpful to say consumers should comparison-shop news. I would like to think that informed citizens do comparison-shop for news. I want them to know that it’s in their best interest to do so. We understand confirmation bias and our inclination to seek out news outlets that confirm our biases. We know from Facebook’s algorithms that your feed probably contains information and misinformation in your filter bubble. We know the impact of fake news and that there’s a real possibility that you’re looking at two parallel universes on your feed, to the point where we’re not even agreeing on basic facts. We don’t have to tell people what to watch or to read, but we can certainly ask that they comparison-shop and find ways to double-check what they’re hearing. 

Ethics in the News – Dec. 15

News media are raising questions about the mystery owners of one of their own.

A division of Gatehouse Media sold the Las Vegas Review-Journal this week to News + Media Capital Group. The owners of that company have not revealed themselves.

(Meanwhile, Gatehouse bought The Erie (Pa.) Times-News, which had been family-owned for more than 120 years.)

The sale of the newspaper to unknown owners creates a conflict for journalists who preach transparency and avoidance of conflicts of interests.


Last night something strange came across my screen. I think it qualifies as a mystery. News that the Las Vegas…

Posted by Jay Rosen on Friday, December 11, 2015

That potential conflict of interest became a reality when later that day a Review-Journal story was edited to remove a quote that questioned the owners, according to a Huffington Post story.

Journalists have responded by tweeting the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics.

Even GOP presidential candidate Jeb Bush took a jab at the secrecy of the owners.

Documents name Michael Schroeder as the company’s manager.  When The New York Times contacted Schroeder, he refused to talk about the owners.

The name of Sheldon Adelson keeps coming up as a possible owner in news reports – but without much given evidence.

Fortune Magazine, for its part, reported that the owner is not the Koch brothers.

In other ethics news this week:

  • Kickstarter hired a journalist to investigate a project funded through the site that failed.
  • The writer for, which along with other sports-team-owned news sites has faced ethical questions, responded to a reader’s question about conflicts of interests.
  • LA Times faced criticism for making an implicit comparison between Serena Williams and American Pharaoh, a horse.

Ethics Center in the news:

Ethics in the news – Dec. 8

The group representing black journalists is in serious financial trouble, according to a Huffington Post story Monday.

The National Association of Black Journalists is in such dire straights, it is considering using a Ford Foundation grant designated for strategic planning to pay the bills, the story said. The 40-year-old organization, which is the largest representing minority journalists, may have to shutter its physical location in College Park, Maryland.

Journalism ethics and their formalized codes often talk about interactions with the public through interviews, publishing, and responses to what is published. But, racial representation with the newsroom is an ethical consideration of the same importance because it helps news organizations seek and report the truth. Representation in the newsroom is reflected in those public interactions.

Kathleen Culver, associate director, wrote about how a lack of representation in the news for decades and centuries has lead to distrust among racial and ethnic minorities of traditional news organizations.

It’s an issue news media have talked about for decades without much improvement. Newspapers under 50,000 circulation have median of zero minority reporters. Even top-circulation papers like The New York Times recognize their need to diversify.

Because reaching diverse audiences can boost revenues as well as connection with communities, some see reader demands for more diverse newsrooms as a way to change numbers that have been stagnant for years. But, the pipelines to professional newsrooms – student media – are still mostly white as well.

Nieman Labs this summer asked Twitter for ideas and solutions.

Read the ASNE newsroom survey that tracks diversity.

In other ethics in the news this week:

Ethics Center in the news:

Ethics in the News – Dec. 1

The Canadian Broadcasting Corporation will suspend online comments on stories about indigenous peoples until at least January after a spur of hate comments on related content, the CBC’s acting director of digital news announced Monday.

The announcement sparks an interesting conversation about the use of third-party moderators for online comments. CBC uses third-party moderators to monitor conversation, but found that more subtle racism could survive the process.

“We do see people who use language that, on the surface, if you’re a moderator and you’re not familiar with the story, it might not stand out to you as a racist comment, but in the context of the story it becomes obvious what it is, even though it’s almost disguised,” acting director of digital news Brodie Fenlon told The Globe and Mail.

Fenlon added that the CBC news review may result in new practices such as moderators reading the stories or other background material.

While there has long been a debate about whether comments should be vetted before or after publication, Keith Bilous, president of ICUC Moderation Services, a Winnipeg-based company that deals in moderating online content, told Neiman Lab that the harder question is typically when to turn off comments completely, as CBC news did.

Comments was also the topic of conversation at Monday’s Hack/Hackers NYC event “What is the public forum?”

Here are some tweets from the presentation:

In other journalism ethics news this week:

Center for Journalism Ethics in the news:

Ethics in the news – Nov. 24

CNN journalist in a Nov. 19 tweet reported the passage of a House bill on immigration that could limit the number of Syrians the U.S. accepts. Then, she tacked on a sentence:


Later that evening, she tweeted that she apologized for editorializing.


But, her apology wasn’t enough to save her from a two-week suspension.

Former center director Stephen A. Ward has written about the changing norm of objectivity in journalism, but he is adamant that the principle not be abandoned.

The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald wrote that expressing opinion isn’t uniformly punished at CNN. But, that Labott’s opinion wasn’t good for business made it worthy of punishment, he wrote.

Mathew Ingram at Fortune Magazine agreed that Labott’s sin was not expressing any opinion – it was expressing a political opinion.

Afterall, earlier that day a different CNN journalist had asked President Obama a rather blunt, editorialized, sensationalized question. HuffPost’s Michael Calderone wrote that these situations  highlight “the often arbitrary distinction between analysis and punishment-worthy editorializing or opining.”

In other ethics news this week:

Ethics Center in the news:

Ethics in the News – Nov. 3

The Kansas City Royals win over the New York Mets last Tuesday not only hit off the 2015 World Series, but ignited a conversation about journalism ethics after media outlets reported the unexpected death of Edinson Volquez’s father during the game and before Volquez himself had been informed.

Confusion ensued after Enrique Rojas of ESPN Deportes reported that Volquez’s father, Daniel, had passed away at the age of 63 earlier that day as a result of heart complications and that Volquez had been informed of it on the way to the ballpark. Shortly after, however, reports trickled in refuting Rojas, saying instead that Volquez did not know of his father’s passing. A Royals’ statement later confirmed that Volquez indeed did not know and had never known at any point during the game.

Some have since condemned breaking the news without Volquez’s knowledge. Besides flooding social media, large outlets like ESPN and the Associated Press and the New York Times reported the death while it was still unclear whether the family had been informed in full. Sports on Earth writer Will Leitch reported said he felt “disgusting” about knowing before Volquez.

Others like Fox Sports chose not to report on the loss until Volquez finished pitching and they were certain Volquez had been told by family. Fox sideline reporter Ken Rosenthal defended the decision explaining that broadcast is a different medium than print or online, and the risk of Volquez hearing the news passively was more likely with the broad reach of television broadcasting.

“These decisions are balancing acts,” Society of Professional Journalists ethics committee chairman Andrew Seaman said in a release. “It comes down to, what is the importance of this information to the public? When in doubt, journalists need to remember that their subjects are human beings deserving of respect.”

In other journalism ethics news this week:

  • New York Times opinion writer Margaret Sullivan addressed an undisclosed conflict of interest in a T Magazine technology article written by Laura Arrillaga-Andreessen, wife of Marc Andreessen who happens to be a major investor in one of the companies featured.
  • A National Public Radio music editor resigned after it was discovered that 10 stories filed jointly on the NPR Music and WQXR websites were copied from other sources without attribution.
  • LA Weekly rekindled discussion about ethical funding of journalism in a piece analyzing Exxon’s relationship with the L.A. Times.

Ethics in the News – Oct. 27

The World Health Organization said Monday the scientific link between processed meats and cancer is definitive. In the next breath, the organization said there’s strong evidence that red meat causes cancer.

As this article explains, the WHO put processed meat in the same carcinogenic category as tobacco. That means the strength of the evidence that processed meat causes cancer is firmly established. It doesn’t mean the cancer-causing effect of tobacco is the same as that of processed meat.

But, this TIME article said that ham and arsenic are equally dangerous:

Screen Shot 2015-10-26 at 3.56.28 PM


There’s been plenty of bad science journalism this week. And, it’s not just this week. Science 2.0 called out science journalism just last week for failing to cover studies that mitigate the splashy earlier studies that make headlines.

Science journalism is a balance between using exact language and understandable language. And, some organizations are aiming to help improve those efforts.

Deborah Blum and Tom Zellner this week announced plans for “Undark,” a new science journalism magazine. They said a goal is quality science journalism in a new iteration of Knight’s Tracker blog.

Meanwhile, Science Surveyor was announced late last week as a new tool to help science journalists accurately communicate new scientific studies on deadline.

In other journalism ethics news:


Ethics in the News – Oct. 20

In the wake of a report about the extent of philanthropic money given to education journalism, ethicists are discussing what the proper relationship between targeted money and journalism should look like.

A new blog looking at education at the The Washington Monthly revealed that the Gates Foundation gave about $7 million per year to news organizations who cover education. Many other organizations give money to nonprofits like NPR and for-profit news like Seattle Times for targeted coverage, the report said.

The blog’s author told Poynter that though Gate’s funding is targeted toward education issues that aren’t covered in everyday news, the issues it supports such as quality teachers aren’t controversial.

Some of the issues of giving for targeted journalism are controversial, though, The Nonprofit Quarterly pointed out. And, while money may not come with stipulations about the perspective of journalism, it certainly could have an influence.

Stephen Ward, former director of The Center for Journalism Ethics, said the ethics of accepting donations to fund journalism are tricky when nonprofit journalism organizations were emerging.

He offered that journalism organizations should have explicit codes for dealing with gifted money for news. He wrote that adherence to the code should available to the public and adherence to the code should be scrutinized by the public.

“Declining public confidence in news media will be extended to these new journalists on the block if nonprofit leaders do not put transparent ethical policies into place,” Ward wrote.

In other news

Center for Journalism Ethics in the News

Ethics in the News Oct. 13

A journalism ethics summit themed on traumatic event reporting is scheduled for Oct. 27 at the Center for Ethics in Journalism at the University of Arkansas.

The summit, “Take Care of Yourself: an introduction to journalism, trauma and the workplace,” aims at addressing the ethical concerns about the impact of traumatic events both on survivors and journalists.

Stephen Ward wrote about the steps newsrooms can take to ethically care for its journalists who face traumatic situations. He suggested:

      • Media outlets must acknowledge trauma as reality and a concern; not as a career “stopper”
      • They must regard trauma services as part of staff well-being, similar to other programs
      • They need to make information available to journalists and hold information sessions
      • They should offer confidential counseling
      • They should encourage journalists to monitor themselves and their colleagues
      • They need to develop a policy on reporting crises, such as rotating reporters and de-briefing

Journalists are obliged not only to be considerate when interviewing survivors and witnesses, but also to care for themselves Self-estrangement, frequently experienced by war reporters, may cause journalists to become antisocial and unable to emphasize for future reporting. Many institutions, like the Dart Center, have been providing guidance for journalists to report traumatic events.

Another aspect of this ethical issue is the line between objective reporting and active engagement. A CNN report featuring a correspondent providing medical treatment to a baby survivor of the 2010 Haiti earthquake had been criticized for misrepresentation and self-promotion. And media-savvy NGOs feeding journalists with disaster stories further complicate the issue.

Read more about trauma and journalists from the Center for Journalism Ethics here.

In other news this week:

Ethics in the News Oct. 6

The deadly campus shooting Thursday at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, that left 10 dead and others injured conjured up familiar ethics debates about reporting in post-tragedy environments.

Notably, conversation circulated around the naming of mass shooters, following comments by Douglas County Sheriff John Hanline who refused to say the shooter’s name publicly. While many have rallied behind movements like #NoNotoriety as a strategy to deter mass shooters, National Public Radio’s Elizabeth Jensen argued in favor of shooter identification as a means of unraveling a story and placing it in the larger context to hopefully identify trends and prevent future tragedies. Poynter’s Kelly McBride added that naming the shooter can prevent misinformation, citing the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting where gunman Adam Lanza’s brother, Ryan Lanza, was incorrectly identified as the perpetrator early in the investigation.

But some large news organizations like CNN have observed the #NoNotoriety concerns and minimized both naming and showing the community college shooter. Fox News evening host Megyn Kelly brought the debate to Twitter voicing her disagreement with CNN’s Don Lemon who asserted that “we journalists must name shooters” in a tweet of his own. The debate is sure to continue as details emerge about UCC gunman Chris Mercer, 26, following the Oct. 1 shooting.

In other journalism ethics news this week:

Center for Journalism Ethics in the news: