Skip to main content
University of Wisconsin–Madison

Category: Features

“Not good enough”: gender imbalance drives efforts to use women as sources more often

Kate McCarthy, director of programs for the Women’s Media Center, speaks about SheSource, an online database of media-experienced women experts, to the staff of Voice of America in September 2018. Photo courtesy of the Women’s Media Center.


Journalism has a gender problem.

In 2019, according to the Women’s Media Center’s Status of Women in the U.S. Media report, men accounted for 63 percent of bylines and other credits in print, Internet, TV and wire news. The same study found that men who report on congress had nearly two times as many followers as women working the same beat.

However, the issue of underrepresentation for women in journalism extends well beyond the makeup of newsrooms — it also exists in the stories they tell.

Adrienne LaFrance, executive editor of The Atlantic, began grappling with this problem in her own stories in 2013.

“Representing women fairly and proportionally was something that I valued and thought was important, but I didn’t know if I was actually doing it. I wanted to find out,” LaFrance said.

She partnered with a graduate student at MIT to analyze 136 stories she wrote for such outlets as The Washington Post, Denver Post, Honolulu Civil Beat and other outlets across a 12-month span. The results, she declared in a 2013 Medium post about the analysis, were not good.

LaFrance found that of the nearly 2,100 people she mentioned in about 130 stories she wrote that year, just 25 percent were women. Further, 52 of those articles failed to mention women at all.

Ever since, LaFrance has consciously sought to improve these numbers. She has rooted her efforts in cultivating new relationships with “really smart women studying the things I was writing about.”

“Stories are stronger when journalists are more deliberate about looking for different perspectives,” LaFrance said. “Over a period of weeks, I made a really dedicated effort to ask people for recommendations [for women sources]. Making sure that you’re thoughtful that you have a mix of people with different backgrounds … ends up paying dividends.”

LaFrance argues, though, that diverse voices shouldn’t be included arbitrarily and that hard quotas on diversity of sources in individual stories are a bad idea.

“If you apply too rigid a framework to what we are trying to do, it doesn’t work,” LaFrance said. “There are so many editorial decisions that go into every sentence of a story, sciencing too much [making sourcing too systematic] doesn’t make sense.”

The push to equally represent women in works of journalism is also being taken on by media organizations as a whole. At the BBC, the 50:50 Challenge is an initiative that started with one program from the broadcaster and has now spread throughout the company.

The challenge is aimed at equally representing men and women across all BBC channels. Amanda Ruggeri, a senior editor and reporter with BBC Future, outlined how her team is tracking their work for the challenge.

“The way our team is counting it is in three different main ways,” Ruggeri said. “One is bylines, which is quite simple. The second is references in stories. For our purposes, that means not only who we are interviewing, but also anyone mentioned in a story, even historical figures. The third strand is pictures. Are we showing more men in pictures? Or women?”

Ruggeri said having the 50:50 Challenge at the forefront of the BBC’s reporting has made a “huge difference” in the stories they have produced.

“Not only do we believe this is the right thing to do, it is also something that makes your journalism better,” she said. “It helps us deliver fair and accurate journalism. Sometimes we’ll only catch our own bias if we speak to someone that has a different perspective than the usual, established pool of sources.”

Ruggeri also emphasized that BBC Future doesn’t seek out a woman as a source just because she is a woman, but that it strives to find the best sources and most qualified experts for every story.

Beyond news organizations, nonprofits such as the Women’s Media Center also seek to tackle the problem of underrepresentation of women in journalism. Founded in 2005, the WMC works “to raise the visibility, viability and decision-making power of women” in media and advocates to make sure women’s voices are being heard.

Part of this push is the nonprofit’s database of experts, WMC SheSource. The online tool is meant to debunk the excuse from journalists that they are incapable of finding women who are experts on a topic they are reporting on, according to Kate McCarty, who oversees WMC SheSource and is director of programs for WMC.

“With SheSource, we can find women who can talk about pretty much any issue under the sun,” McCarthy said. “Journalists saying, ‘We can’t find any women,’ is not good enough.”

WMC SheSource was originally founded by the White House Project, a different nonprofit that promoted women in government but transitioned to WMC in 2009. Since the transition, the database has grown from about 400 experts to more than 1,500.

The WMC is not alone in its mission to connect reporters with women. 500 Women Scientists, a self-described grassroots organization working to build an “inclusive scientific community,” has created its own database to connect reporters, educators and lawmakers with women scientists. Similarly, an organization called Women Also Know Stuff, has developed a database of experts who can speak about topics from African politics to nuclear weapons to terrorism.

Journalists can turn to a number of other databases as well:

Do you know about other resources we should add to this list? Please email with a brief description and link.


For information on the conference hosted by the Center for Journalism Ethics on “What #MeToo Means for Gender, Power & Ethical Journalism,” on April 26, see this summary.

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.




When news orgs cover their own scandals; media critics weigh in


As #MeToo accusations mounted against a number of high-profile media figures in 2017 and 2018, organizations faced questions of how sexual harassment and assault could fester unaddressed. But for individual journalists, particularly those who cover news media, questions focused on how they could cover these cases ethically, with the right balance of truth-telling, transparency and respect for privacy.  

Margaret Sullivan, a media columnist for the Washington Post and former public editor at the New York Times, said there is no set guideline for how to cover a harassment scandal once news of it breaks. According to Sullivan, quality news outlets try to be transparent and honest with their audience about what has happened within their own organization.

When it comes to weighing the need to be transparent with news audiences against the privacy of those involved, Sullivan says reporting decisions should not be driven by wanting to protect the organization’s reputation, since this isn’t a concern when reporting on another organization.

“We’re not thinking ‘Oh dear, is this going to hurt NBC’s reputation?’ No, we’re just trying to tell the truth, and we should be doing that in every case,” Sullivan said.

Yet Paul Farhi, a media reporter at the Washington Post, says that a news organization is both a news organization and a company, and that these two roles might come into conflict when it comes to a situation such as covering its own harassment scandal.

“We’re all in favor of transparency, but it’s not quite so simple, particularly when it comes to a company talking about an employee,” Farhi said. Companies also have obligations to their employees and their privacy.

Farhi, who has covered numerous harassment scandals—both at the Washington Post and within other news organizations—also says accusations do not necessarily turn into a story.

“It depends on who is involved, the circumstances of the accusations, how many accusations, how reportable it is—that is, can we get at the story to a level in which we are comfortable accurately reporting the story or fully reporting the story,” Farhi said.

According to Farhi, elements of sexual harassment and assault allegations make them particularly difficult to report. These include the specificity of the accusations, corroborating evidence (such as the accuser discussing incidents with another person) and time lapsed between incidents and accusations.

Minnesota Public Radio’s coverage of Garrison Keillor

Following Garrison Keillor’s abrupt firing from Minnesota Public Radio in November 2017, an investigative team of reporters at MPR released a story in January 2018 on sexual harassment allegations against Keillor.

The stream of reporting following the initial piece not only discussed Keillor’s alleged misconduct, but also detailed the work being done by MPR to cover up the scandal.

Eric Ringham, an arts editor at MPR, was the editor of a team of journalists covering the Garrison Keillor scandal.

“Even though it was a complication that the scandal was in-house, it was also a big part of our motivation because we had a strong sense that our readers and listeners would be interested in knowing a lot more than our employer was letting on,” Ringham said.

Ringham believes that news organizations have to be willing to treat their own the same way they have treated others.

“It was troubling to me as a journalist because I work for a company that over decades had put Garrison in the marketplace as a star, promoted his career and profited handsomely from his career and from his popularity,” Ringham said.  “To suddenly make him a non-person without any kind of a meaningful explanation as to why was doing a disservice.”

When it came to investigating the claims and reporting on Keillor, MPR’s team of journalists put themselves on the same playing field as media organizations that did not work for MPR, according to Ringham.

They did not want to use any of their insider access from working at MPR to get an advantage on the story. Instead of attending staff meetings that discussed the current state of the Keillor allegations, they avoided the meetings and interviewed their peers afterward.

Ringham admitted that there are still some strained relationships in the office following their coverage of Keillor.

“It’s a little awkward because some of them were offended—they thought we were being somehow disloyal,” Ringham said.

While MPR had attempted to hide information about the Keillor allegations from the public for some time, Ringham was gratified to see that the organization respected their investigation once the team began reporting.

“We were working with the knowledge that we at least believed there was a firewall that separated the newsroom from the business interests of MPR, and that we were independent and would be free to work independently,” Ringham said.

“I think it was an open question how firm that firewall would prove to be as this story played itself out. I’m gratified to say that the firewall held.”

NPR’s coverage of Michael Oreskes

At National Public Radio, there is a clear policy and protocol on how to cover news involving NPR in a significant way, said David Folkenflik, a media reporter at NPR and host and editor of “On Point.”

When it comes to reporting on the organization, Folkenflik said, “We want there to be a clear line. No one from executive management gets to see what we’re going to publish before it happens and, in fact, the rest of the newsroom doesn’t know what we’re going to report before it happens.”

David Folkenflik covered Michael Oreskes, the now former senior vice president of news and editorial director at NPR, when the Washington Post reported on sexual harassment allegations against him.

Folkenflik said he had previously looked into an allegation against Oreskes a year-and-a-half before the Washington Post published the first story about it in October 2017.

At that time, Folkenflik couldn’t get a source to go on record and couldn’t establish a pattern of behavior. But Oreskes was rebuked for his behavior.

After the Washington Post broke the story, NPR knew it had to be covered—not just because it was getting coverage from other organizations—but because they had reason to believe there was a pattern of behavior that had to be investigated.

“We thought we were going to own this story even though we weren’t the first ones to write a public story about it,” Folkenflik said.

Covering such an important figure at the organization added an extra level of discomfort.

“This was something that tore people up,” Folkenflik said. “It really affected the chemistry of the newsroom in a significant way.”

This was not the first time Folkenflik had covered stories of this nature. He has covered sexual harassment and sexual assault allegations at Fox News, NBC and CBS.

“It brings me no joy to do it, but then again, it’s not like it brings me any joy to write these things about other news organizations. I like news organizations,” Folkenflik said.

But he recognizes the necessity of covering these stories for the public.

“Even in a time of crisis, we are going to fulfill our mission. Even when it’s most uncomfortable for ourselves,” Folkenflik said. “These are issues that are serious and have to be exposed. There is behavior that has to be held accountable.”

Moving forward in the era of #MeToo

“It really is a different era,” Farhi said. “I think this whole #MeToo movement has created an entire set of variables that we didn’t deal with before because very few people reported on sexual harassment other than Bill O’Reilly and Fox.”

Farhi points out that the same journalistic standards should still always apply. “You try to get as much information as you can while respecting the privacy of individuals and dealing with the sensitivities of people making accusations like this,” Farhi said.

Falling back on the usual journalistic fundamentals will guide reporters, Farhi said—be fair, be accurate, be honest and be truthful about how you report.

Sullivan believes that journalists need to use the same ethical standards to report on themselves as they would on other industries.

“I’m hoping to see fairness, that you would cover yourself the way you would cover another entity, whether it’s a news organization or Congress or the Metropolitan Opera,” Sullivan said.

Folkenflik said when journalists are putting out a story about their employer, they have to dig into what happened and live their journalistic values.

“We’re major institutions, and we help people shape their views of the world. We need to get it right.”


For information on the conference hosted by the Center for Journalism Ethics on “What #MeToo Means for Gender, Power & Ethical Journalism,” on April 26, see this summary.

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.


Recap: What #MeToo Means for Gender, Power & Ethical Journalism


Director of the Center for Journalism Ethics Kathleen Bartzen Culver talks with keynote guest and leading tech journalist Kara Swisher at the Center’s conference What #MeToo Means for Gender, Power & Ethical Journalism on April 26 at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. 


More than 160 people attended the Center for Journalism Ethics conference on April 26, 2019, with an additional 435 views occurring via livestream.

Focused on “What #MeToo Means for Gender, Power & Ethical Journalism,” the conference featured a keynote conversation with leading tech journalist Kara Swisher, as well as expert panelists from leading news organizations and universities all over the country.

In the keynote discussion with Center director Kathleen Bartzen Culver, Swisher discussed the beginnings of her career. As a student at Georgetown University, Swisher called the Washington Post to complain about their coverage of a Georgetown event, a complaint that ultimately led to a job offer.

At the Washington Post, Swisher covered the Internet early on.

“I saw it as the printing press, television, radio. I saw early on what it meant for journalism. I knew this was going to change everything,” Swisher said.

Students respond to keynote Kara Swisher’s address.

She said that being a good beat reporter and covering tech news through a personal lens, rather than technical, helped distinguish her in the beginning of her career.

Swisher described the way she covers tech as this, “I won’t tell you how a watch works, but I’ll tell you the time.”

The conversation transitioned to the topic of #MeToo, with Swisher pointing out that #MeToo stories were hiding in plain sight.

She said that when she started covering it, the most interesting part was that most men didn’t know about it. She points to all-male editorial boards as a possible reason for why these stories took so long to come out.

She said that once the reporting came about, it was people who had been unsafe themselves who covered the #MeToo stories – women, people of color and LGBTQ+ people.

She discussed how hard it is to ask people to go public with their stories and how hard it is to ask people to do things that might hurt them.

Swisher next discussed three “tragedies” in the current tech workplace.

The first is a lack of self-awareness and reflection. Next, believing that money equates social good. Finally, having the inability to empathize with people who are not like you.

She also touched on likeability – and the fact that she doesn’t care about being likeable.

“You don’t want to be a jerk, but when you don’t have to be the good girl, it’s freeing,” Swisher said.

“Just say things. Don’t hear no. You have to be disputatious but polite. There isn’t actually a cost. The cost is going along with things. The cost is waiting until later.”


Panel 1: The Power of Portrayals in a Wired World

Linda Steiner and Negassi Tesfamichael

  • Tracy Lucht (moderator), associate professor, Greenlee School of Journalism and Communication at Iowa State University
  • Barbara Glickstein, director of communications, Media Projects at the Center for Health Policy and Media Engagement at George Washington University School of Nursing
  • Kem Knapp Sawyer, contributing editor, Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting
  • Linda Steiner, professor, Philip Merrill College of Journalism, University of Maryland
  • Negassi Tesfamichael, education reporter, The Cap Times

This panel focused on covering stories related to #MeToo, along with how to prepare journalists to cover those stories in the future.

“I don’t think I’m surprised anymore. I think what I’m surprised about is when people are surprised,” Glickstein said.

Steiner discussed that the sheer number of women who have been willing to tell their stories and be named is surprising, and it has encouraged others to come forward as well.

“There’s something about the invasion of one’s body that makes it difficult to talk about, even if we think we’re tough,” Steiner said.

Negassi pointed out that it’s important to describe those who have experienced sexual assaults as survivors, not victims.

Steiner said that it is imperative that journalists are taught new skills to cover #MeToo.

Steiner questioned, “How do you establish an attitude of caring and empathy and give people the time and space they need to tell their stories?”

These are not the typical investigative reporting skills, but she said journalists need to know how to talk to both survivors and perpetrators.

In the same way, the panel also discussed the need for student journalists and young journalists to be prepared in case they are harassed or witness harassment.


Panel 2: Gender at Work: Overcoming Bias in the Newsroom

Michelle Ferrier, Jon Sawyer and Christina Kahrl

  • Lindsay Palmer (moderator), assistant professor, School of Journalism & Mass Communication, UW-Madison
  • Michelle Ferrier, dean of the School of Journalism & Graphic Communication at Florida Agricultural & Mechanical University, founder of
  • Christina Kahrl, senior editor for MLB coverage at ESPN
  • Jon Sawyer, executive director of the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting

Three panelists spoke on their different experiences in the field of journalism as a black woman, a transgender woman and a white man.

Ferrier discussed being one of a few people of color in the newsroom.

She found herself arguing with her own writers on the desk about diverse representations in stories they covered. And she discussed the challenges of there being so few people of color in the newsroom.

“I was terrified for the nights that I wasn’t working because of what my colleagues would do – worried about them not representing the people of color in the community,” Ferrier said.

Christina Kahrl shared her experience of working at ESPN before and after transitioning, saying that she has experience “on both sides of the gender divide.”

After transitioning, someone sat next to her in the press box at a game and asked if she needed help learning to keep score. She found it validating to be acknowledged as a woman, but extremely upsetting to see this gendered bias.

Jon Sawyer began his remarks by saying, “I’m the guy that lived his career in unconscious enjoyment of white male privilege.”

The #MeToo movement helped him realize how much he doesn’t see, as a white man.

“It was a reminder of how different the world can look if you’re a man, woman or person of color.” He continued, “You cannot assume that the dynamic that you’re sharing is the same.”

Panel 3: Real World Solutions: Moving Forward with Equity & Integrity

Jill Geisler, Lindsay Palmer, Sharif Durhams, Susan Ramsett and Traci Schweikert

  • Jill Geisler (moderator), Bill Plante Chair in Leadership & Media Integrity, Loyola University Chicago and Freedom Forum Institute Fellow in Women’s Leadership
  • Sharif Durhams, senior editor, CNN
  • Lindsay Palmer, assistant professor, School of Journalism & Mass Communication, UW-Madison
  • Susan Ramsett, general manager, KWQC TV-6
  • Traci Schweikert, vice president of human resources, POLITICO

Geisler began by saying that the standard harassment training used by news organizations has not demonstrated effectiveness, except at reducing liability in lawsuits.

Schweikert said, “Early in my career, I was taught that being creepy isn’t against the law.”

She continued to say that we shouldn’t just consider what’s against the law because then we miss the chance to catch things early. You want to make sure that there is a level of understanding that can be applied to a day-to-day scenario.

At Politico, human resources staff meet with other Politico staff members at their corresponding level to discuss the culture and expectations.

Durhams noted that everyone has worked in a newsroom where a macho culture is celebrated. He said there is work to be done in the largest newsrooms in the country and in the smaller, regional newsrooms.

Ramsett also discussed the whisper circle that exists in newsrooms. It was a circle of women who would warn each other about predators in the newsroom.

She said that she knew so many people who left the business because of how they were treated.

“Even if I couldn’t make a change to the past, I wanted to make a difference moving forward,” she said.

Geisler also presented information on the Freedom Forum’s Power Shift Project and its Workplace Integrity Training, which aims to eliminate sexual harassment from the news industry.


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.

Be accountable, be transparent – with your data too; A Q&A with Rodrigo Zamith

Photo: Steven Potter


Journalists incorporate data into their reporting for good reason: numbers tell us important, odd and interesting things about ourselves.

Hidden within raw data are insights about our patterns, problems and trends, such as the frequency of our activities, crime levels, how we distribute goods and services, where we have pockets of poverty or wealth, how we use our time and countless other measurable facts.

But as more journalists begin to lean on data as a reporting tool, they need to keep a keen eye on just how effectively — and ethically — they’re using it.

Rodrigo Zamith, an assistant professor of journalism at University of Massachusetts Amherst, does just that.

“[Data-based journalism] has become discursively valuable because a large group of people still — incorrectly, in my mind — view [it] as being more neutral and objective than traditional journalism,” Zamith says. “As a social scientist, I view data journalism as an opportunity to further imbue some of the best practices from science into journalism in order to make journalism more transparent and informative.”

His most recent study, however, found that journalists at two of the country’s biggest and most-respected newspapers were not being as transparent and informative with data as they could have been.

In his study “Transparency, Interactivity, Diversity, and Information Provenance in Everyday Data Journalism” (Digital Journalism, 2019), Zamith found that both The New York Times and The Washington Post failed to be completely transparent about the data they used, often didn’t explain their data collection or analysis methods and usually didn’t give the public access to the data they used in their reporting.

Zamith discussed his study’s findings and the ethics involved in data journalism recently with the Center for Journalism Ethics.

This interview has been edited for length.

What are the ethical concerns involved in data journalism and data-driven reporting?

At the top of my list is probably not taking advantage of this special status that some people grant to quantification. Stories that involve data analysis are often viewed as being more credible, and it can be tempting for a journalist to leverage that perception in order to appear more authoritative or precise. To be clear, I don’t think most data journalists intentionally do this but they certainly could. Moreover, simple misunderstandings of data borne from deadline pressures or lack of training can result in improper interpretation and contextualization, which is a more common problem.

Second, data journalists can sometimes gain access to information that would violate individuals’ expectations of privacy. This sometimes comes via individual-level data that haven’t been de-identified or through de-identified data that can become easily identifiable when combined with other datasets. The desire to be transparent and forthcoming — such as by creating databases or interactive visualizations that allow viewers to explore individual-level data points — sometimes violates the ethical objective of minimizing harm.

Third, data journalists often use data from other (non-news) organizations, and it is crucial that they remain mindful of those organizations’ objectives and potential biases in order to ensure the journalist is reporting truthful (and not just ‘accurate’) information. Journalists don’t often have the luxury of choosing from multiple datasets that seek to measure the same things. Rather, they may have to decide whether a dataset is simply “good enough” — and, in some cases, the available data is worse than having no supporting data at all. These ethical concerns only begin to scratch the surface, though. Data journalism, and journalism in general, is a challenging endeavor.

What did your recent study, “Transparency, Interactivity, Diversity, and Information Provenance in Everyday Data Journalism,” reveal about the practices of data journalism by the New York Times and The Washington Post?

The big takeaway from the study is that the potential many scholars and practitioners see in data journalism are not yet being realized in the day-to-day data journalism produced by The New York Times and The Washington Post. Specifically, the study found that those organizations favored “hard news” topics, typically used fairly uncomplex data visualizations with low levels of interactivity, relied primarily on institutional sources (especially government sources) and engaged in limited original data collection, and were far less transparent than one might hope for in terms of linking directly to datasets or detailing the methodologies used for analysis.

While that may seem like an indictment of their performance, that is not at all what I mean to convey with my study. The study measured their day-to-day work against an ideal — a rather high bar — and I believe there are legitimate structural factors that can help explain the shortcomings I pointed to. I actually think these two organizations do a good job in many regards, and my hope is to see them do even better in other areas.

Why is this lack of transparency and failure to explain methodology exhibited by the Times and Post ethically problematic?

One of the key tenets of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics is to “be accountable and transparent.” This involves explaining to readers the key processes underlying a story, including where the information came from and how the information was analyzed.

My study found that the Times and Post rarely linked directly to the datasets they used. However, they did often link to the organizations they got the information from. The issue is that it can sometimes be hard to find a specific dataset even after being pointed to an organization’s homepage. Thus, if the ethical objective is transparency, data journalists are only partly succeeding.

I believe data journalists should aim to make it as easy as possible for readers to double-check the journalist’s work and perhaps even to build on the journalist’s work. To achieve that, a direct link is preferable. This is especially important if the data journalist has altered the original data in any way, such as by aggregating data or calculating new variables, since it introduces new possibilities for human error and biases. In those cases, sharing their edited datasets is one way to adhere to the transparency objective.

My study also found that journalists seldom provided methodological details separately from an article, such as in methodology boxes at the end of the article, in footnotes that need to be clicked on to appear, or in separate articles devoted to detailing the methodology. While we did not directly measure the inclusion of those details within the article, it is rare to find them there because journalists often view themselves as storytellers and such detail can bog down the narrative.

The lack of methodological details is problematic, though, because it again fails to deliver on the transparency objective. Datasets don’t just produce errors if they’re analyzed incorrectly. They would just tell a story that misinforms. Being clear about one’s methodology provides an avenue for accountability so others can review and, if necessary, critique the journalist’s analytic choices. One of the great hopes for data journalism is that it will help increase trust in journalism precisely because of its many avenues for increasing transparency. Failing to make the data easily accessible or clearly explaining the methodology reduces the likelihood of realizing that hope.

What should these two outlets do to correct these missteps?

I think the data journalists at those organizations, and many others, generally do a good job. I also think that the shortcomings I identified are partly byproducts of journalistic conventions.

For example, the dearth of links to specific datasets isn’t terribly atypical if you consider the traditional analogue: news organizations are more likely to link to the institution affiliated with a human source rather than to the source’s biography page. I don’t think this is an unreasonable practice but I do think that it is a practice that can be adjusted to take advantage of the distinct affordances of data journalism. After all, a human source may not have a publicly available biography page but the data journalist will always have the dataset.

If the dataset is already publicly hosted, it should be easy to link directly to it, perhaps in addition to linking to the parent organization. If it is not already publicly hosted, the data journalist may be able to upload it to any of the many open data hubs out there, and link directly to that. If they’d like a little more control, news organizations should invest in the technical infrastructure for self-hosting datasets. Having said that, there are instances where it is inappropriate to put up a dataset, as in cases where it may violate copyright or a reasonable expectation of privacy. In such cases, journalists should just explain that decision.

I believe the oftentimes inadequate methodological explanations can also be attributed to journalistic norms. Journalists are tasked with simplifying things and writing in an accessible manner, which can promote doing away with technical and methodological details. I think it’s very reasonable and perhaps even a best practice to offload that information to a section separate from the article, provided it’s made clear to a reader how those details may be accessed.

However, writing up those details can be rather time-consuming, presenting a challenge to journalists constantly being asked to do more with less. This is doubly true for the day-to-day data journalism that likely won’t be nominated for prestigious awards. This would require a broader cultural shift within organizations to value this kind of work, which doesn’t typically provide immediate and easily measured benefits. However, it is important work. For the majority of people, who may not fully understand the technical details or have the inclination to evaluate them, the perception of greater transparency increases their trust in the news story and the news organization. For the minority, it allows them to scrutinize and perhaps even suggest corrections to the journalists. And we should celebrate those instances because it means that better, more trustworthy journalism is being done.

With ethics in mind, what are the guidelines and best practices that journalists should follow when working with data?

To better realize the ideal of transparency, data journalists should keep and make public reproducible analysis documents that detail how they analyzed their data. Many data journalists already keep a data analysis notebook, so they’re off to a good start. However, a best practice would be to post the original and modified datasets, as well as the analysis scripts, on platforms like GitHub. In fact, The New York Times and The Washington Post already do this with some of their projects, and they deserve credit for that openness. They’re not the only ones, with outlets like The Boston Globe, FiveThirtyEight and BuzzFeed News doing the same. My hope is that such practices can be extended to the day-to-day data journalism — even if it is not as well-documented as the bigger projects.

Over time, this would hopefully become the norm rather than the exception. However, it requires news organizations to recognize, incentivize, and reward that kind of behavior. Data journalists should also make clear in the body of a story the limitations of their datasets and analyses. It can sometimes feel like such details bog down a story or make it appear less authoritative. However, they’re crucial for ensuring a reader is well-informed, which is ultimately a key purpose of journalism.

What are your expectations for data journalists going forward? How can they use data in an ethical manner?

It is my hope that data journalists will collect more data themselves, or perhaps collaborate in that endeavor. My study found that The New York Times and the Washington Post rarely collect their own data for their day-to-day data journalism, and consequently rely on third-party data that generally comes from government sources but also from different nonprofits and interest groups. That’s not surprising because it’s expensive and time-consuming to collect primary data though there are several examples of news organization doing that for bigger projects.

Nevertheless, there are a large gaps in data collection at the moment, and partnerships between news organizations and academic institutions or civic groups may yield important and timely stories that shed light on important truths within and across communities.

I also think data journalists need to become even more careful with data subsidies going forward. I expect data journalists will be increasingly targeted by unethical individuals and organizations that publish data as a strategic communication tool because they understand that citizens tend to find numbers more authoritative than personal stories. Combating that would require data journalists to become even more adept at evaluating data quality and methodologies. We have many accomplished experts who specialize in data literacy, and it’s important that we get their insights into as many newsrooms as possible.

Finally, I expect data journalism to become even more interdisciplinary in the coming years, with the likes of graphic designers and programmers being more tightly integrated with the editorial side in order to not only “support” data journalism but actively co-produce it. Some news organizations have moved more quickly than others in this direction, and I believe it is an important move to advance the most ethical version of data journalism.

What will you be studying next and what ethical issues might you encounter with it?

I view this study as an opening act because it leaves important questions unanswered. For example, the study’s design limits its ability to answer the “why” questions, such as why specific affordances, like information boxes provided at the end of an article to explain methodological choices, are not commonly utilized. Of particular interest to me is the use different collaborative platforms like GitHub to further “open” journalism, and the extent to which the transparency ideal becomes contested in the minds of journalists who use those platforms. As part of a separate line of research, I would also like to explore the third-party algorithms and tools being adopted by journalists, and how the designers of those tools — many of whom have limited, if any, journalistic background — attempt to engineer greater acceptance of their tools among journalists. I expect that line of research to directly engage with ethical tensions that emerge from the clash of different professional logics, as well as tensions that arise in the merging of commercial and public-service interests.

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.

When news orgs turn to stock imagery: An ethics Q & A with Mark E. Johnson

University of Georgia Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication student Becca Beato works with the Columbus Ledger-Enquirer’s Mike Haskey during a photojournalism workshop at the Georgia National Fair on Friday, October 5, 2018, in Perry, Georgia. (Photo/Mark E. Johnson,


As the practices of journalism continue to become more digitally oriented, they’re also becoming more visual. Metrics for more than the last two decades have shown that having a visual attached to a story, tweet or Facebook post increases engagement.

Despite these trends, photojournalists and visual journalists are often the first members of a newsroom to be the victims of budget cuts. As a result, news organizations have begun to turn to stock imagery and community photographers to help fill their newsrooms’ visual needs.

Mark E. Johnson, a senior journalism lecturer at the University of Georgia with a wealth of experience as a photo and visual journalist, sees these shifts as serious ethical issues for media companies.

In a recent interview with the Center for Journalism Ethics, Johnson spoke about stock imagery, click-driven content and more.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

What are some ethical concerns with using stock imagery to help drive engagement?

Every study out there shows that having some sort of visual associated with your social media or online posts drives engagement and increases engagement. If you have an image in your Twitter feed, people are more likely to click on it. Same for Facebook. The ethical issue that I have there is, for news organizations that are not creating imagery, they’re tending to lean on stock libraries. The problem that you run into then is that you have some dramatic image that actually has nothing to do, whatsoever, with the story. You have generic people sitting behind a desk or vacant classrooms.

There was an interesting article a couple of years ago where someone found every usage of one stock photo of a classroom. That classroom photo was associated with rising test scores, falling test scores, shootings in schools, rapes in classrooms and sexual assaults by teachers on students. It was all of these different stories with the exact same visual that had nothing to do with any of these events. The ethical issue that you run into there is if you are producing works of journalism, then you need to be producing works of journalism all the way through. You wouldn’t just grab a generic quote and stick it in the middle of your story. Why would you have a generic image and stick that at the top of your story? Or embed it in your social media post?

What are some other ethical issues fueled by online visuals?

Another issue is the use of online galleries to drive traffic. More and more news organizations over the last decade have taken to dispatching a photographer out to some event and telling them, “shoot as many pictures as you can and post them all online.” The idea then is to use those large galleries to get people to click through looking for pictures of themselves or their friends. And there isn’t necessarily a journalistic narrative there. All they are trying to do is generate more clicks. There is no real journalism in these posts. You have to ask yourself, “If it’s not journalism, then what’s the purpose of this gallery?”  

Mark E. Johnson, senior lecturer, journalism

Why have we seen an increase in use of stock imagery?

There are a couple of issues that have come up here. One, the visual staffs have not been able to defend themselves against cuts. Part of the reason for that is that visual journalists tend not to rise up the food chain of an organization. There are a very small number of publications that have had someone at the top of the masthead that has come from the visual side. When you look at the upper management structure of newsrooms, your editor-in-chiefs, executive editors and managing editors almost all come from the words side. So one of the things that needs to be done is to get visual people to do the work to be able to rise up through the management chain so they are represented at the table during the big budget meeting where decisions about cuts are made and they can say, “you can’t eliminate the photo staffs. You can’t eliminate the visual staffs, because that’s the first point of engagement we have with our audiences.” Every metric that we’ve looked at in the last 25 years shows that visuals drive engagement, why aren’t those voices being heard higher up the food chain?

The second thing is that we need to remind newsrooms that they have an ethical responsibility to accurately portray their communities. And when you do a story about issues in a school and you grab a generic image, you’re not ethically representing what’s going on in your community. You may feel that you are because the facts in the story are true, but the image is essentially a lie. And I don’t think there are enough folks that are pointing out that stock images on news stories are effectively lies. It cheapens the overall product. That’s a conversation that newsrooms need to be having. They need to be considering where in the story process they start thinking about visuals? The simple answer is, as soon as they start working on the story. You can’t divorce the text from the visuals anymore. On every platform that’s out there you need to have both. It has to be a part of a conversation right from the start.

Why have newsrooms started sending out a photographer to produce image galleries?

The business model for online sites is clicks. The more clicks you get, the more revenue you generate. You sell ad spaces on a cost per impression platform, so for every 1,000 clicks a page gets, you get paid $20 from an advertiser. So you want to generate as many clicks as you possibly can, and visual galleries are the quickest way to generate a lot of them for a relatively low cost because you can find someone in your community who just loves taking pictures and wants to go to an event. They spend 90 minutes at that event and take a picture of every face that they can find. And then they dump all of that stuff on the website and push it out on social media and the front page and promote it as a gallery. In turn, you have people that were at the event clicking through trying to find themselves. But there’s no story there. Ask any word-side editor if they would ever send a reporter out to an event and tell them, “just collect the names of as many people that are there and let’s just publish a list online.” What’s the value of that?

Is this something that affects smaller newsrooms more than major ones?

I think that if you look at the major news organizations, they have a higher ethical standard. They have a stronger commitment to journalism because they can afford to have that stronger commitment. It’s pretty rare that you see stock photos in The Washington Post or The New York Times. It does happen from time-to-time, but it tends to be more on the feature sections, and almost never in the news sections.

There was a terrible incident that someone pointed out to me last year where a local radio station in Utica, New York, did a story about some sort of gun incident in the city. They grabbed a stock photo of a brick building out of focus and there was barbed wire in the foreground. When you look at that photo long enough you realize it’s actually a very specific piece of barbed wire in front of a very specific building. The building was the entrance to Auschwitz. The story was two guys who were arrested for having guns. The stock photo they grabbed was of a concentration camp. Would you just insert something into the middle of a story about the Holocaust? You would never do that. Why are you doing it with visuals?

Johnson wrote about stock imagery last year in this piece for Poynter.

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.

“Perversion of Justice” wins 2019 Anthony Shadid Award for Journalism Ethics

“Perversion of Justice” by Julie K. Brown and Emily Michot of the Miami Herald has won the 2019 Anthony Shadid Award for Journalism Ethics from the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. This three-part series investigated how Jeffrey Epstein, a wealthy hedge fund manager, struck a secret deal with U.S. prosecutor Alexander Acosta — now the Secretary of Labor — to cover up his crimes of molesting and sexually assaulting scores of underage girls.

Named for UW–Madison alumnus and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter Anthony Shadid, the award honors the difficult ethical decisions journalists make when telling high-impact stories. Shadid, who died in 2012 while on assignment in Syria, was a member of the Center for Journalism Ethics advisory board and worked to encourage integrity in reporting.

Lucas Graves, associate professor in the UW-Madison School of Journalism and Mass Communication and chair of the Shadid Award judging committee, said this year’s winner stood out in an exceptionally strong pool of finalists.

“The Herald’s in-depth accountability reporting had an immediate impact, including a recent verdict confirming prosecutors broke the law,” Graves said. “The Herald team told the stories of dozens of young women who were victimized first by a wealthy sexual predator and then by the justice system. We are proud to recognize the care they took in their reporting and the challenge of the ethics choices they faced.”

Graves praised the other four finalists for the award:

  • Garance Burke and Martha Mendoza, Associated Press, for “The Innocents: How U.S. immigration policy punishes migrant children” – a year-long investigation into the Trump administration’s family separation policy.
  • Hannah Dreier, ProPublica, for “A Betrayal” – the story of a teenager and MS-13 gang member who became a government informant, only to face death threats and deportation after federal agents reneged on a promise to protect him.
  • David Jackson, Jennifer Smith Richards, Gary Marx, Juan Perez, Jr., Chicago Tribune, for “Betrayed” – an investigative series that exposed Chicago schools’ failure to protect students from sexual abuse and assault.
  • Maggie Michael, Nariman El-Mofty, Maad al-Zikry, Associated Press, for reporting throughout 2018 that investigated atrocities occurring during Yemen’s war.

“Attacks on news media seem to come at a fever pitch lately,” said Kathleen Bartzen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics. “But these winners and all the finalists remind us of the power of courageous journalism practiced with integrity.”

The winning team will be presented with the award May 14 in a ceremony at the University Club in New York City.

Registration for the ceremony is now open.

The Center for Journalism Ethics, housed in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UW-Madison, provides an international hub to examine the role of professional and personal ethics in the pursuit of fair, accurate and principled journalism. Founded in 2008, the Center offers resources for journalists, educators, students and the public, including internationally recognized annual conferences exploring key issues in journalism.

For information, contact Krista Eastman, Center for Journalism Ethics administrator, at

Changing the conversation, one word at a time: how professional organizations are pushing for changes in the AP Stylebook – and beyond

Photo of AP Stylebook: Coburn Dukehart / Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism

It started with a single word: Boy.

At a protest following the in-custody death of Freddie Gray, a black woman had been caught on video hitting and berating her teenage son for participating in the demonstration.

“I believe the headline was ‘Woman beats boy,’” Sarah Glover, president of the National Association of Black Journalists, recalled. “That really bothered me because the African-American male subject was not a boy. He clearly was a teen, if not a young adult, if not a man.”

But it wasn’t just the young man’s age that made boy the wrong word, Glover argued. The word itself, when used to describe black males, was historically derogatory.

“That really resonated with me as a clear example of everyday journalism which we can do better,” Glover said, “and I took it as a call to action to reach out.”

Glover asked The Associated Press if NABJ could submit suggestions for a revised AP Stylebook entry for boy. The Stylebook editors agreed, opening the door for the professional association to help shape the language used in American journalism.

NABJ proposed expanding the Stylebook entry to offer more context on what might have seemed like a simple term.

“Words do matter,” Glover said. “The Stylebook isn’t a dictionary… but it is providing context on how to use words.” The entry could not be complete, Glover argued, if it didn’t explain the term’s history with respect to black men. “The word has a different meaning when you’re talking about that population.”

“It no longer becomes a word around age. It becomes a word around power, from slavery to Jim Crow-era lynching, to violence and death that black men are subjected to,” Glover said.

Also pushing for the change was NABJ Vice President-Print Marlon A. Walker, who began his career as a copyeditor and calls himself “the grammar Nazi of our board.”

NABJ sent recommendations about several other terms as well, including multiracial, biracial, -American, and reverse discrimination, for Stylebook editors to consider. Several of those recommendations were adopted in the 2018 Stylebook.

An ever-evolving guide

This wasn’t the first time Stylebook editors had acted on recommendations from marginalized groups. In February 2013, Jen Christensen, then-president of the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association (now known as NLGJA/The Association of LGBTQ Journalists), wrote an open letter to then-Stylebook Editor David Minthorn requesting that AP revise the husband, wife, entry to allow those terms to be used to refer to people in same-sex marriages.

A week later, The Associated Press announced it would adopt the change beginning in the 2013 edition. In the same edition, the editors revised the illegal immigration entry, advising journalists, “Except in direct quotes essential to the story, use illegal only to refer to an action, not a person: illegal immigration, but not illegal immigrant.”

“The Stylebook team has been tackling more issues-oriented concerns in recent years,” Paula Froke, Stylebook lead editor, said in an email.

“We frequently seek feedback and advice from groups and people who are experts in certain areas or who have extensive background in topics we’re discussing,” Froke said. “It’s natural that we would turn to NAJA (Native American Journalists Association), NABJ and other journalism groups for their input on race-related topics and terminology.”

Making the preferences official

Of course, contributing to the Stylebook is not the only way in which communities shape the language journalists use. Organizations like NABJ, NLGJA and NAJA have long held their own style preferences and advised other journalists.

“We offer ourselves as a resource to The Associated Press and any newsroom that would want to tap the NABJ to get our insights on representation and communities of color,” Glover said. For at least 20 years, NABJ has maintained its own style guide, which explains many terms related to African-Americans and the African diaspora that don’t appear in the AP Stylebook.

NLGJA also maintains its own guide — available in English and Spanish.

Bryan Pollard, director of programs and strategic partnerships for NAJA, said for years Native American journalists found some Stylebook entries lacking.

“Well, I think any of us that are Native and have been in the journalism business, we all kind of have our own experience for looking through the AP Stylebook and finding an entry and being like, ‘What?’” Pollard said.

But NAJA had not formalized its style preferences until Froke contacted the organization for advice on creating an entry for Indigenous Peoples Day. NAJA’s board of directors took that opportunity to suggest changes to a few other entries as well.

“It wasn’t that the entries were wrong, necessarily, but we felt like they didn’t provide really clear guidance,” said Pollard. “But that kind of spurred the thought: If we have these style preferences, we can’t just sit back and rely on the AP to adopt these because they may or may not. That’s their choice.”

To make those preferences known, NAJA produced a one-page, die-cut insert, for sale on its website, that snaps directly into the Stylebook.  “It’s literally our addendum to the AP Stylebook,” Pollard said.

In fact, so many groups now have their own guides that one veteran editor created a website to make them easier to find.

“I have been editing for over 20 years, and I’ve accumulated a lot of style guides written by communities telling people exactly how they want to be talked about,” said Karen Yin, founder of Conscious Style Guide. “I realized that this stuff is spread out all over the Internet, and wouldn’t it be awesome if somebody just put it all together on one website and linked to these fairly hidden resources?”

Usage requires awareness, Yin said. “If you don’t know it’s out there, you’re not going to be able to use it. So I see a lot of editors kind of just floundering. Most of us want to do the right thing, but we don’t know what it is.”

Going beyond the Stylebook

Yin initially focused on creating and compiling glossaries but soon realized that writers and editors would need deeper guidance to choose the right words.

“I want people to realize the importance of how content works with context,” Yin said. Because context and audiences vary, Yin said there are no one-size-fits-all terms. In one context, queer might be the right word; in another, it would be LGBTQ.

“I don’t know how your words are supported by the context, therefore I cannot say, ‘This is the word you should use.'”

While Yin’s website links to a wide variety of key glossaries, Yin has turned her own energy toward compiling and writing articles that help writers and editors — of journalism, fiction, or ad copy — to think deeply about their language choices.

“I’m trying to push critical thought more,” said Yin. “There are no simple answers. You need to just live conscious language.”

Yin aims to educate writers and editors about the “current mood and feeling” so that they can better anticipate the impact their words will have. That is, assuming they care: “If you don’t care about impact and you think intention is all that matters, then you’re probably not somebody who reads Conscious Style Guide.”

Pollard agrees that terminology alone is not enough. He said many journalists covering Indian Country don’t have enough context to tell stories accurately.

“Most mainstream journalists feel like they can just go in and cover it like they cover any other news story, and it’s really not true,” Pollard said.

Pollard argues that journalists covering Indian Country need to look at their stories through at least three lenses: news, culture and colonization.  To help journalists understand those contexts, NAJA produced six one-page guides.

Say you’re reporting a story related to the Indian Child Welfare Act, for example. If you take 10 minutes to read NAJA’s guide to that law, you’ll be better prepared to tell that story, Pollard said.

“It will give you some really good background information on the law, some of the nuances of it, how it affects Native communities and Native people and Native children.”

Of course, there is only so much context one can learn from a single page, so NAJA gives newsroom trainings across the country on how to cover Indian Country more accurately and completely.

Some recommendations not yet accepted

Some changes suggested by advocates have not yet made it into the Stylebook.

Yin has been pushing since 2014 for Stylebook editors to add entries on bisexual and asexual. She would also like to see writers replace the opposite sex with a different sex or another sex in order to not reinforce that binary, and she would like writers to not use the phrase coming out every time a person publicly discloses their non-heterosexuality for the first time.

“It assumes that it’s something that we hide and then suddenly we are out of the closet now,” Yin said. “Not all people in the LGBTQ community have been in the closet, and we’d like to be able to talk about it without people thinking that we’re admitting something that’s shameful or secretive.”

Pollard, meanwhile, has been lobbying Stylebook editors to capitalize indigenous when referring to people or communities, as opposed to plants, for example. He said some outlets have already adopted that style.

“AP will eventually come around,” Pollard said. “They may be late to the game on that particular change, but I think that they’ll get there. But if I could snap my fingers and make a change right now, that would be the one.”

Meanwhile NABJ’s Walker is still trying to persuade Stylebook editors on one point.

“For me, black as a standalone noun should never be a thing,” Walker said, noting that white is never used as a noun except alongside black. The Associated Press still permits this use in headlines in order to save space, as in Chicago TV station WGN9’s recent headline, “How the Sears catalog revolutionized the way blacks shopped,” but Walker disagrees.

“At the end of the day, if you can find more space for other things, you should be able to find more space to describe who you’re speaking about,” Walker said.

Stylebook editors work on updates and additions throughout the year, considering ideas from a variety of sources. Among those sources are public suggestions submitted at the online suggestions link, questions from Twitter and Facebook, emails, recommendations from other members of the AP staff, and the observations of Stylebook editors themselves. (You too can make a Stylebook suggestion by emailing Froke at

“The Stylebook team reviews suggestions and decides which ones most merit attention,” Froke said. “We then discuss ideas and approaches, craft an initial entry, continue to discuss, and revise as warranted. A great deal of time and thought goes into every entry.”

Revising the “Bible”

Revising the Stylebook is just one step in changing the narrative about people of color, said NABJ’s Glover. In June, NABJ will continue its annual Black Male Media Project for the third year, and this time they’re considering issuing guidelines for visual journalism. Glover, who trained as a photographer, said the group seeks, among other changes, to counter the practice of using mugshots to depict individuals who are not suspects in the story.

“If they’re a victim, they’re a victim,” Glover said.

Changing the Stylebook might be a single piece in the puzzle, but Glover calls it “a huge industry impact.”

“Those [AP] datelines show up all over the world, so this certainly has the capacity to have a major impact worldwide in terms of how black males are covered in general,” Glover said, adding that as journalists consult the Stylebook, the revisions will prompt newsroom conversations about context and impacts on communities of color. “Editors and reporters will have discussion around covering diverse people and communities and not just reach for the low-hanging fruit.”

Walker agrees. “It’s exciting,” he said of the opportunity for journalists of color to help shape that conversation. “As a journalist, the AP Stylebook is the Bible. So to be able to say that I contributed to changes in the Bible is an amazing thing.”

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.

Should journalists be transparent about their religion?

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Jaweed Kaleem, National Reporter, Los Angeles Times

In her years as a religion reporter, Cathy Grossman has traveled from Texas to Vatican City and covered nearly every religious group imaginable. But amid her thousands of interviews, she’s had a strict policy of never revealing her own faith. In fact, she’s gone lengths to hide it from sources, even avoiding putting photos of her Jewish holiday observations on her personal Facebook account — lest a source find them.

Talking about her own religion is “a poor practice and one that I do not follow,” said Grossman, a freelance writer who most recently spent close to three years at Religion News Service and was the religion reporter at USA Today from 1999 to 2013. “Any answer I might give will influence how the source replies to me. And it will waste our time while potentially distorting the reporting.”

It’s the kind of view that was likely once dominant. That’s when interviews were more often one-way streets, journalists lacked social media accounts, and their faces and backgrounds were largely unknown to the public if they weren’t household names. Today, as reporters become more diverse — by race, religion and more — and notions of objectivity become increasingly debated, some journalists on the religion beat are choosing to be more open about their own faiths and lack thereof.

The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics says journalists should be “accountable and transparent.” It defines that as “taking responsibility for one’s work and explaining one’s decisions to the public.” Part of accuracy, it says, is fairly making corrections. Another part is to “encourage a civil dialogue with the public about journalistic practices, coverage and news content.”

When it comes to covering religion, does the concept of transparency apply in the same way?

“I don’t see it as a matter of ethics — a matter of moral right and wrong,” Grossman said. “I don’t think reporters who choose to share this about themselves on the job are unethical.” To her, instead, it’s simply not a useful move.

“If you are writing for readers, you aren’t the story. If you want to be the story, get a column or go write in your diary,” Grossman said.

While that perspective is far from uncommon, views are changing, said Eileen DeLaO, a former religion reporter for the Austin American-Statesman and adjunct religion journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin.

“I tend to lean toward a more old-school approach on revealing your religion but I recognize this is a very gray area,” said DeLaO, who has taught at the university since 2007 and was a religion reporter and columnist at the newspaper for 11 years. DeLaO compared her experience covering religion — in which she often wrote about evangelicals in Texas — to her time reporting on politics in Boston before she moved south.

“In the state legislature, nobody ever ever asked me who I voted for … they did not want to know my personal take on whatever bill was being proposed. Nobody cared about my opinion.”

But her religion reporting students, she said, by and large hold a different perspective.

“A lot of students have to be untrained from the ‘me-me-me’ interactions with social media, the ‘I’ statements and everything directed inward about the individual self,” DeLaO said. “I know I am an old fuddy-duddy to say this, but I wish they would not share so much.”

On religion, she’s come to a compromise in her teaching. DeLaO tells students that there are “situational ethics” in religion interviews.

“If you interview the bishop of your local Catholic diocese about the sex abuse scandal, you don’t need to share anything personal,” she said. “That is a hard news story. You are there to get facts.”

“If you go to talk to a victim of sex abuse and you are trying to create trust, if you are completely shut off and not willing to share anything about yourself, that can also hurt the reporting process.”

Sometimes, she noted, the question about a reporter’s religion is simply a way for the source to ascertain how much they need to explain about the basics of their faith. As someone who grew up Catholic, sharing that fact has helped her establish a baseline of knowledge in interviews to skip ahead to deeper questions.

But not everyone has a choice to not reveal their religion, DeLaO noted.

That includes people who wear visible signs of the faith or whose names correspond closely to specific religious traditions.

Asma Khalid, a politics reporter for National Public Radio, falls into this group. A Muslim, she nearly always wears a hijab.

“It is very hard for me to avoid specifying my religion in the way that many of my friends who don’t wear scarves can avoid,” said Khalid, whose beat isn’t religion but whose reporting frequently hit on the topic as she covered President Trump’s campaign in 2016. “It’s something that elicits very strong opinions from people, Muslim and non-Muslim.”

Questions about religion — such as her views on terrorism committed by Muslims and women’s rights in Islam — have come up several times while reporting. In one recent instance during the 2018 midterm elections, Khalid was interviewing a prominent Republican volunteer in the Youngstown, Ohio, area who told her to “‘take off that scarf, I don’t like that scarf’” after making clear that she did not “care for Muslims,” Khalid said. (The comment about the scarf, Khalid said, is a paraphrase and did not make it into her story).

Khalid decided in that moment that interrupting her interview subject wouldn’t be useful even though she found the comments to be inaccurate and based on anti-Muslim stereotypes. “I am hesitant to jump in with follow-up questions when I am doing voter interviews,” she explained, saying she prefers to let subjects speak extensively before returning. She also wanted to give the source time to clarify her views through more discussion.

“We talked for a few hours. I didn’t let the whole interview go on, but she did speak for a little. Then I did come back to the topic. I said, ‘I want to ask you about something you mentioned,” Khalid said. “Normally, back in 2015, I wouldn’t have asked why she said she didn’t care for Muslims.” But Khalid’s faith was a primary topic of the 2016 Trump campaign, in which the president vowed to ban Muslims from immigrating to the U.S. and once said in a CNN interview that “I think Islam hates us,” among other negative remarks about the religion and Muslims since his campaign. As a result, Khalid has become more open to asking and answering questions about it while on the road.

She isn’t the only reporter who has little or no choice in revealing her faith when reporting.

At Christianity Today, a publication founded by the Rev. Billy Graham, all staffers must be Christians and adhere to a statement of faith. Freelancers are not required to follow that rule. The magazine and website cover a wide array of news in Protestant Christianity, but they are known for reporting on the Southern Baptist Church, evangelicals, and Christian movements in Africa and Asia.

Even if it’s assumed that he’s Christian, that doesn’t mean his religion is always relevant to reporting, said Deputy Managing Editor Jeremy Weber.

“I don’t view the journalist’s religion background to be any different than other personal attributes,” Weber, who is Anglican, said. “There are times that it’s strategic to disclose about yourself to build rapport with a source, but when a person reads a final story, it should not be obvious to them what your religion is.”

Weber compared specifying one’s spiritual practice to conveying other personal attributes.

“I would say it’s similar to sharing if you are married or have kids — if your source does — or what college you went to if (the source) went to the same one,” Weber said. “It can be a way of getting a returned call, establishing trust.”

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.