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Category: HOMEPAGE FEATURE

Pulitzer-winner Wesley Lowery’s take on journalism in extraordinary times

Screenshot of Director Kathleen Bartzen Culver, student Tamia Fowlkes and 2020 journalist-in-residence Wesley Lowery during an October 8 discussion of “journalism in extraordinary times.”

By Dana Brandt and Elizabeth Marie Lang Oreamuno

On Thursday, October 8, Pulitzer Prize-winning U.S. journalist and CBS News correspondent Wesley Lowery was the virtual “journalist-in-residence” and guest speaker for a question-and-answer session hosted by the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. 

Lowery was the first prominent journalist to appear in a three-event series organized by UW–Madison and focused on “journalism in extraordinary times.” Moderated by Center for Journalism Ethics Director Kathleen Bartzen Culver and journalism undergraduate student Tamia Fowlkes, Lowery answered questions on the ethics of reporting on racial justice and law enforcement and discussed objectivity in journalism, a topic he covered in an opinion piece for the New York Times this summer. 

In answering an initial round of questions on newsroom diversity, Lowery stressed the importance of having journalists from different communities and experiences so that news organizations do not miss out on vital stories and angles. 

Image of live tweet from the Q and A session: "A newsroom that's attempting to tell the most accurate coverage of a complex, diverse world needs reporters. 'If you don't have different types of people in the room, you're going to miss out on all types of stories and angles." @WesleyLowery on diversity in journalism

“One of the things we have to remember is that mainstream news media organizations have only been integrated for a handful of decades,” Lowery said. “It wasn’t until the ‘70s that there were any efforts in earnest in having Black reporters, and much less brown reporters in American newsrooms.”

“I believe [newsroom diversity] is a journalistic imperative: We cover a complex, complicated diverse world and we cover it by access to information. We traffic in information,” Lowery said.

Lowery also spoke about the challenges journalists of color face in predominantly white newsrooms, such as different standards of conduct and tokenization. 

“We have to understand where journalists of color in these newsrooms are coming from now because they are very often the only ones,” Lowery said. “They are very often tokenized because they are very often asked to stand in for large representative groups of people.”

He referred to the coverage of the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor as a challenge for Black journalists in the newsrooms.

“George Floyd happens or Breona Taylor happens and a whole room of white journalists turn to the only Black woman at the end of the table and ask: What are people saying about this? What should we do about this?” Lowery said. “That is a fundamentally impossible position to be in.”

Image of tweet recapping a question for Wesley Lowery: "Tell us what you think journalists of color are seeing, hearing and feeling in newsrooms today." - Katy Culver

Lowery then advised young journalists of color to join groups such as the National Association of Black Journalists (NABJ), National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) and others as well as remembering to speak up for yourself and your work. 

“Journalism is a field that is a profession in which you have to operate on your own ethical compass,” Lowery said. “[That] means that you have to be willing to stand up to your bosses when they want you to do things that you think you should not do or you believe that you should not do.” 

He also said journalists should walk away from things they can’t abide as a means of looking after themselves.

“You are the only one who is protecting your byline, your reputation and your name,” Lowery said.

As for the journalism industry as a whole, Lowery said journalists need to examine their processes to ensure that the methods being used have the intended consequences. Reporters can’t just rely on practices that worked in previous years, since journalism is constantly evolving, he said.

“We can’t be on autopilot. We can’t conduct journalism in 2020 based on a rulebook written in 1980. Why? Because the players have changed, the actors have changed, the dynamics have changed,” Lowery said.

He provided the example of news organizations publishing mugshots — a practice that used to serve the purpose of informing only the local community, but which now result in mugshot photos being available forever on the internet.

“Something that was about informing a community in the short term actually ends up being something that harms an individual in the long term,” Lowey said. “You have a collateral consequence that was not intended because we were following rules that worked at some point, that might be incorrect right now because of the internet.”

Along with this, he pointed out that the idea of “objectivity” wasn’t originally meant to apply to individual reporters but instead to the method of reporting — precisely because no individual is perfectly objective, without preconceptions and beliefs about issues. 

Objectivity initially served as an acknowledgement that reporters have political beliefs, Lowery said, but recently focus has shifted onto individuals becoming “objective journalists” whose work can be discredited when others uncover evidence of political leanings. 

This new definition of objectivity has also earned new synonyms for the term, such as “balance” and “fairness,” Lowery said, which do not mean the same thing. Some reporters then take this idea of “objectivity” to levels where it becomes performative.

“It is cases where it’s a performative objectivity,” Lowey said, providing a hypothetical scenario. “You’re writing pieces on climate change and you’re going out of your way to find a climate denier or scientist so that no one can argue that you did not have that voice included even if there is no factual basis to include them.”

Image of live tweet: "What journalists can do better, according to Wesley Lowery: Break reliance on speed and commit to follow-up reporting. When you're the last person to publish the story, you write the best one!"

Lowery also wants the journalism industry to break its reliance on speed to allow reporters the time to get the full story, put it in context and spell it out when you don’t know something.

This is also true of stories on police violence, a topic Lowery addressed in his piece for the New York Times. Reporters should examine the way they write about police, he said, and ask themselves if they’re advancing the truth with each story and holding powerful people accountable. 

“A police officer is the most powerful person most Americans will encounter in their lives. Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden, they can’t pull out a gun and shoot you in the chest,” Lowery said. 

“Every single sworn police officer in the country can do that. That’s an extreme amount of power,” Lowery said. “Power can require skepticism. It requires accountability and the press is supposed to play that role.”

Journalists can write about the facts of what happened without using laudatory language, Lowery said, such as “in the line of duty” — a phrase that isn’t applied to other public servants like garbage workers or city council members. The framing of words like “armed” and “unarmed” aren’t neutral, Lowery said, and signal to an audience how they should feel about a story.

Live tweet from Natalie Yahr during Q and A session highlighting Wesley's comments on holding the most powerful people accountable in the stories covered.

And lastly, Lowery talked about the media’s coverage of Senator Kamala Harris as being a prominent person of color in the midst of the 2020 elections.

“The media has had a real trouble understanding the complexity of Kamala Harris’s identity being the daughter of a Black Jamaican man and an Indian woman,” Lowery said. “In Black communities that’s not particularly complex because Black communities have always been diverse in this way.”

To watch the entire session with Lowery, navigate here.

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.

Care about election integrity? Here are four things you can do to stop the spread of misinformation online

Internet meme showing a man looking at a woman ("disinformation") while his girlfriend ("democracy") looks on unhappy.

[This is a shorter version of our full consumer guide on navigating the facts-optional world of social media.]

Information comes at you so fast on social media that it’s hard to know what to believe. 

As social platforms like Facebook, Twitter and TikTok, and private messaging platforms like WhatsApp and Telegram, have become central parts of everyday life in the U.S., falsehoods have flourished and our democracy has been weakened by an inability to agree on facts. 

Though we all play a part in amplifying falsehoods online, it’s not up to you to clean up the internet. Social platforms will continue elevating emotional posts. Bad influencers will keep spewing toxic content. 

But there are some actions you can take now that can help blunt the reach of misinformation. And if you’re willing to help family and friends better understand what they’re seeing online, you’ll also be sticking up for the truth. 

  1. Assess credibility

A lot of people believe there’s real news, and “fake” news, and nothing in between. But it’s not so simple. Effective disinformation usually contains a kernel of truth. 

Facts are often cherry-picked and spun to suit political and ideological motives — and to make money. Funders of shady news websites, special interest groups, and bad actors hocking phony nutritional supplements all stand to profit. 

Here’s how to tell if something’s trying to fool you: 

If you can’t tell who wrote an article, that’s an immediate red flag. Some stories are written by an editorial team and will be credited as “staff report” or something similar. But most news stories credit a reporter or two. 

What was true a year ago may not be true now. When you open an article, check to see when it was published. The date should be at the top, near the author’s name. While some content is totally made up, it’s increasingly common to see reality-based photos and articles used out of context — usually, old ones presented as if they’re new. 

This image of a woman seemingly wearing a pro-Trump T-shirt appeared in the public Facebook group Sheriff David Clarke Is Right. But a reverse-image search shows that the text was digitally imposed onto her clothing.

If you’re suspicious of a claim made on social media, don’t take your former roommate’s word for it — search it yourself. Look for primary sources of information and check the underlying claim. In your searches, avoid loaded terms like “exposes,” “hoax” or “uncovers” and use neutral phrasing instead, such as “where to vote” or “vaccine information.” Be especially wary if the content has been captured in a screenshot, and doesn’t include a link to supporting evidence. 

Inflammatory, provocative and loaded language is a sign that the source isn’t credible. So is an ALL-CAPS RANT with lots of punctuation mistakes and exclamation marks! Strange, off-putting and disturbing photos are another warning sign. 

Running a reverse-image search to see all the places an image appears online. Right click the image, save it to your desktop, and upload it to a tool like TinEye. 

  1. Go straight to the good stuff 

An alternative to struggling to control the firehose of misinformation that is your social media feed: Just turn it off. Knowing where to find good information is critical. Here’s how to do it: 

Checking out a news organization? Look at who’s on staff, how it’s funded, and where it’s based. How many people are involved? What are their credentials? 

Don’t confuse opinion pieces with news reporting. Opinion pieces show what an individual person thinks about something and doesn’t necessarily reflect the view of the reporters in the newsroom. 

In a good news organization, there is a dividing line between an organization’s news coverage and the opinion pieces it runs. Reporters try to draw conclusions from facts but don’t express opinions. 

Good sources don’t ask you to trust them, they show why you should. 

  1. Think twice before sharing

Since social media algorithms elevate posts with emotional content, disinformation is amplified by strong reactions — usually negative ones. Social platforms encourage people to glance at stuff, react emotionally, and share it right away. And they’ve been flooded with rumors, conspiracies and hoaxes designed to get your blood boiling.

Social media post saying "Liberals want you to die. Remember this." An example of hyper partisan content designed to get your blood boiling, and to share without thinking.

If something makes you angry, fearful or anxious, don’t click “share” right away, and don’t compose a scorched-earth hot take. Despite what you’ve been encouraged to do, nobody’s waiting for you to share this meme or that article. 

This applies beyond outrage. If content makes you feel emotionally or intellectually validated, stop to consider whether it was designed for that purpose. 

If you come across an attention-grabbing headline, don’t just pass it along. Click the link, read the article, and know what you’re sharing. If you’re uncertain, don’t share it at all. 

Propagandists would have us believe that nothing can be trusted. Don’t fall for that mindset. Navigating the social web requires emotional skepticism. But that doesn’t mean throwing up your hands and giving up, or becoming a hardened cynic. 

In the end, social media adds layers of filtration that muddy a person’s understanding of the news. You don’t need friends, family or Facebook algorithms interpreting what’s important. Go right to reputable sources instead.  

  1. Fact-check people you know

We’ve all been there: Your friend, father or elected representative shares an article pushing the Pizzagate conspiracy on Facebook, or goes on a Twitter diatribe about how COVID-19 contact tracers are spying on them. (They aren’t.) 

Research shows that you should speak up, even if it isn’t easy. Here’s how to fact-check people you know without burning bridges: 

Before jumping into the conversation make sure the content you’ve seen is actually false. Do your own homework first. 

Social media post showing a left-leaning account misidentifying the shooter of Jacob Blake as a school resource officer, and using this falsehood to argue against having police in schools.

Remember that most people don’t spread falsehoods on purpose. Be civil if you offer a correction — especially if it’s directed at a loved one. 

Whether to offer your correction with a public comment or a private message is worthy of consideration. Making the correction public helps other people viewing the content to see that it may be false. On the other hand, nobody likes feeling duped, and a call-out could invoke a defensive posture, or an argument that could amplify engagement with the post. 

Acknowledging that everyone – including yourself – is susceptible to misinformation can be helpful. Talk about a time that you were fooled by a viral image or a fabricated news story.

Link to expert sources. While this isn’t foolproof – much of the public no longer trusts government and media institutions long considered to be unbiased sources – it’s part of doing your homework.

Don’t restate the falsehood. Repetition is essential to persuasion, so start and finish your correction with the truth. If somebody else has already offered an accurate correction, go ahead and give one, too. 

Rather than simply telling somebody they’re wrong, explain why something is untrue. Give the full narrative version with as much explanatory detail as you can provide. 

Emphasize that people are entitled to their opinions, but facts still matter. Remind them that we should all care about the truth. 

And finally, know when it’s a lost cause. If someone is really digging in their heels, or the conversation is escalating from constructive to combative, find a delicate way to extract yourself. 

The Election Integrity Project is a nonpartisan initiative of the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the Center for Journalism Ethics at UW–Madison in collaboration with First Draft and with the support of Craig Newmark Philanthropies.

A guide to covering hate speech without amplifying it

Image of a microphone against a dark backdrop.
Photo by Ed Rojas on Unsplash

“Hate speech is not free speech.”

This cliche can be heard throughout public discourse, often in opposition to racist, bigoted or hateful speech. Those who propagate the idea have good intentions — but they are incorrect. Hate speech is protected by the First Amendment and the U.S. Supreme Court has affirmed that protection through years of American jurisprudence.

In his opinion in the 2017 case Matal v. Tam Justice Samuel Alito wrote, “Speech that demeans on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, religion, age, disability, or any other similar ground is hateful; but the proudest boast of our free speech jurisprudence is that we protect the freedom to express ‘the thought that we hate.’”

According to Caitlin Ring Carlson, associate professor of communication at Seattle University, those who support hate speech protection argue that hate speech functions as a bellwether for most forms of bigotry. The argument suggests that if bigots are prevented from publicly sharing hateful speech, society will have no idea of how racist, homophobic or hateful it is.

According to this logic, journalists must cover hateful speech so that it is exposed to public scrutiny. Society can then decide that hateful viewpoints are not socially acceptable.

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant,” says journalism ethics specialist and Columbia University adjunct associate professor Thomas Kent, echoing the words of the late Justice Louis Brandeis. “So we really need to be spotlighting bigoted narratives and exposing them for what they are.”

But the realities of hate speech reporting are not always so simple. Socially conscious journalists are rightly concerned with how pervasive hateful speech is in social and political discourse. Less talked about is the line journalists must toe — alerting society to hateful speech without unduly amplifying the voices of hate propagandists. The task is not easy, and if done inadequately, can have harmful consequences. Here are a few guidelines to make sure it’s done right.

POWER FRAMEWORK

To fully understand hate speech protection, it is imperative to contextualize the First Amendment. Jasmine McNealy, associate professor of telecommunication at the University of Florida, says the U.S. Constitution needs to be understood within a power framework.

The Bill of Rights was inspired by Thomas Jefferson and drafted by James Madison, both of whom owned slaves. The signers of the Constitution, many of whom went on to serve in leadership positions, were all white male property owners. In early America, Native Americans and Black Americans were intentionally left out of the country’s decision-making processes because of power dynamics and racism. In modern America, these same communities suffer the brunt of hate speech and have the most to lose as a result of unethical hate speech reporting.

“If we’re going to be Constitutionalist, we have to take into account that our Constitution was created by humans, flawed humans, who have a certain ideology,” McNealy says. “And that comes through in the language that they use, in how these things are interpreted by the courts. It continues to come through even in how we think about [the First Amendment].”

The journalist must first acknowledge the power framework that allowed for hate speech protection and how that framework informs hate speech reporting and the field of journalism in general.

NEWSWORTHINESS

Those who hold and share hateful views are often adept at trapping journalists and the news media. They create discord, often in the form of protests or rallies, that support their prejudiced ideas and opinions and then rely on news media to cover their hateful views no matter how subversive they are. Those who disseminate hate gain their power from the media, so choosing whether to cover them, as well as how to cover them, is powerful within itself.

“Journalists have to decide if hate speech is really newsworthy to begin with,” Kent says. “Is it telling us anything we don’t know?”

Responsible reporters must examine the newsworthiness of the speech to make sure they do not draw undue attention to ignorant, hateful and unproductive expression. Similarly, the journalist should examine the position and reputation of the speaker. Is the speaker a prominent figure in society, government or industry? Does the speaker have a significant following, and how likely is that group to commit hateful or unlawful acts? These are all questions ethical journalists consider. Their answers help determine whether the journalist should cover the hate speech or simply leave it alone.

“But the responsibility of the journalist is not whether the people have the right to say what they say,” Kent says. “It’s whether the journalist chooses to include it, and in what detail and for what purpose.”

Hateful, outrageous speech may be protected by the Constitution, but just because the speech is protected does not make it news.

CONTEXT

Information does not exist in a vacuum and understanding where hateful expression is coming from is essential for understanding its meaning and effects. Amy Eisman, assistant professor of communication at American University, stresses the importance of context when reporting on hate speech.

“You are not just a microphone under somebody talking. You are putting it in a context,” Eisman says. “The context might be historic, it might be social, it might be legal. It could be any number of those things. But you have to be a reporter, not a recorder, and you have to offer context to whatever it is you’re reporting.”

According to Carlson, by failing to contextualize hate speech, the journalist does not tell the full story and in turn, does a disservice to the audience. When a journalist fails to explain the context of the speech, the audience may not understand the gravity of the speech and its negative effects on marginalized communities.

“Failing to contextualize some of these issues might serve to normalize it or make it seem like some of these terms or images don’t carry the weight that they do,” Carlson says. “Making it look kind of pedestrian or everyday, I think, takes away some of the impacts that it has on the people who are targeted by it.”

This normalization creates hostile, unsafe environments for those affected by hate speech — most often, people of color, LGBT-identifying individuals and religious minorities, according to Whitney Phillips, assistant professor of communication and rhetorical studies at Syracuse University.

FAIRNESS AND FRAMING

Journalism students are often taught to cover all sides of a story. But when it comes to hate speech reporting, balancing hateful speech with opposing viewpoints is a nonstarter, Phillips says.

By equating hate speech with opposing views — the opposite of hate, whatever that looks like — the journalist essentially claims that hate speech is an acceptable mode of public discourse and belongs in the marketplace of ideas. Attempting to appear unbiased by showing opposing perspectives is a moot point, as there is no neutral stance to take, Phillips says.

“The both sides impulse when you are responding to hate speech, still it takes a stance. It makes a claim about the value of hearing this kind of speech,” Phillips says. “And that can really embolden and empower racists, even if that’s not the journalist’s intention, even if the journalist’s intention is to be really neutral. Neutrality isn’t neutral.”

Applying the “both sides” standard to hate speech reporting does nothing to help the public understand the root of this hatred and its effects on the communities targeted by hate. These stories should not be told through a point-counterpoint framework, Phillips says, but through a counter-frame.

In her report “The Oxygen of Amplification: Better Practices for Reporting on Extremists,Antagonists, and Manipulators Online,” Phillips says reporters should emphasize the perspectives of those harmed by hate speech instead of offering the aggressor an opportunity to justify their repugnant views. Reporters should also avoid framing bad actors as the center of the narrative, as this behavior amplifies hate speech even when it is meant to condemn it.

“By not just shining a light on the aggressor or the racist expression, you can tell a fuller story by panning out and seeing who else’s story you can tell,” Phillips says.

Another framing technique could be covering the reaction, not the speech. In 2010, when a Florida minister planned to burn copies of the Quran, several publications centered their coverage on the minister or the fringe congregation. But the Huffington Post and Mother Jones took a different approach, choosing instead to report on the Military Religious Freedom Foundation’s campaign to donate to the Afghan National Army a copy of the Quran for every copy burned. By framing the story around the reaction, rather than the hate speech, those journalists alerted the public to harmful expression without amplifying the islamophobia of a fringe group.

“How we frame things translates to reality, or how people perceive reality,” McNealy says. The journalist must be aware of how their frame translates to reality, whether that be undue amplification or other effects.

BACK TO BASICS

Covering hate speech is a delicate business full of fine lines journalists must walk. When done correctly, hate speech reporting can fight the spread of prejudiced ideas and educate the public. When it misses the mark, reporting on hate speech can contribute to radicalization and amplify the hateful viewpoints it is meant to condemn. To avoid that, Carlson suggests journalists go back to the basics of journalism ethics.

“What I always think about is that the Society for Professional Journalists has that code of ethics. And it requires journalists to one, seek truth and report it and two, [minimize] harm,” Carlson says. “I think we’re doing harm to our audience when we don’t call out certain terms or actions as what they are.”

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.

A human and civic duty: mentioning climate change in weather broadcasts

Cloud-to-ground lightning 1. 5 miles west-northwest of Gilbert, IA.
Photo by NOAA on Unsplash

About five years ago, veteran meteorologist Bob Lindmeier was pondering the disconnect between the science of climate change and the public’s understanding of it. Around the same time, he celebrated the birth of his first grandchild, a milestone that helped push him to change his approach to the weather segments he’d been doing, since 1980, at WKOW-TV in Madison, Wisconsin. 

“That’s when my focus started to shift not just to my lifetime, but their lifetime, and what the climate could very well be like when they’re adults,” says Lindmeier, who began tying climate change science into his weather segments. 

For a long time, weather forecasters were hesitant to discuss climate change, and some were even denying the science. According to Bud Ward, editor of Yale Climate Connections, the conversation changed about 10 years ago when a front page story ran in the New York Times.

Ward says the article was “about broadcast meteorologists who were basically key potential educators and informers or communicators on climate change science, but that they weren’t doing a very good job.”

Many factors have contributed to this lag in climate coverage, including lack of time or comfort on the part of broadcasters, concerns about viewership and management priorities. But according to Ward and others, broadcast meteorologists and weather forecasters have an important role to play in delivering accurate information about climate change.

As one of the more trusted broadcasters, meteorologists and forecasters need to consider their influence over viewers and how they can best use this connection to inform the public about climate change and its  impact on local weather.

Barriers to mentioning climate change

Part of the lag in coverage can be attributed to management and viewership issues, according to Lindmeier.

“There are some stations’ management that say, ‘We don’t want you to speak out about it,’” Lindmeier says. “Some of it is because they’re part of a conservative station group; they just have conservative leanings.”

Lindmeier also says that if a meteorologist or weather forecaster is new to the industry and trying to establish a loyal following, they may be more hesitant to discuss the issue. He reports losing some “long-term” viewers due to his broadcasting, but he has been willing to sacrifice that because “the upside of what [he is] doing…weighs so much more than the downside.”

While some broadcasters don’t have the knowledge to speak comfortably about climate change, the one-minute nature of a weather forecast may also be a barrier. According to Ward, the problem of brevity is compounded by the differential scopes between weather and climate: short-term and long-term, respectively.

Ward also cites the “media revolution” – the widespread migration from print to digital news – as part of the problem. Changes in funding have translated to lower staff numbers and not as many science reporters staffed to work alongside meteorologists. Justin Gillis, a columnist for the New York Times and former lead writer on climate science, also believes this to be part of the problem.

And yet, even with these barriers, Gillis does not let forecasters off the hook. 

“They are dealing with the weather on a daily basis and the problem people were observing and identifying is you [have] clear-cut events linked to climate change,” Gillis says. “It was not only not being mentioned by the weather forecasters, it was often kind of outright denial.”

Fortunately, there has been improvement over the past decade. According to Jeff Berardelli, meteorologist and climate specialist at CBS News, where climate change is concerned, reality has caught up. “I’d say the main reason is that climate change impacts are accelerating,” Berardelli says. “It is no longer far off in the future.” 

The role of weather forecasters in communicating science

Berardelli says weather forecasters have a responsibility to use their knowledge of climate change to inform the public.

“It is our duty to illuminate the issue with science, to educate the public and help viewers decipher what is true. It is both a science, and more importantly, a civic duty,” Berardelli says.

For much of the public, weather forecasters and meteorologists may also be their main point of contact with science.

“What I really emphasize to my viewers, or when I give a talk, is number one, this is not my opinion, this is what climate scientists are stating, and what I use a lot is peer-reviewed science,” Lindmeier says. “I use the trust I built up with my viewers and the public in general over 40 years so that they know that they can trust me when I say I’m giving them that peer-reviewed research, the accurate research.”

When the connection between climate change and weather events is straight-forward, the job is easy. And yet, according to Berardelli, this is not always the case.

“In other cases, the connection between climate change and weather is more gray and consensus has not been reached yet,” Berardelli says. “In those cases, it’s OK to tell the viewers that the science is not yet settled.”

The problem with causal links

When drawing connections between climate change and weather, Ward said weather forecasters and climatologists have grown eager “to show whether there’s a causal relationship or whether there’s just correlation between climate change and weather.”

However, Ward cautions that this is not the right relationship to be seeking.

“They probably shouldn’t ask, ‘Is that storm caused by climate change?’ They should ask whether it was influenced by climate change because there’s a much closer correlation between influencing than causing,” Ward said. “The answer may well be scientifically sound that (climate change) contributed to its frequency or severity, but not very sound in terms of whether that particular storm was caused.”

In relation to climate change’s influence, Gillis says that if and when events become more frequent, it is the job of a weather forecaster to report that.

“So when events happen, that we have the science…to say this is a lot more likely now that the climate is changing, it’s just irresponsible for people not to point that out on their weather forecasts,” Gillis says. “And the clearest case is heat waves. I mean if global warming means anything, it means that heat waves are going to increase.”

Ward also stressed the importance of not overstating climate change’s influence in weather events, such as flooding from storms.

“A good example is some of the storms that have hit the East Coast or the Gulf of Mexico, and some will say, ‘Well was that flooding caused by climate change?’ The answer may be no, but sea level is rising, in part because ocean temperatures are getting warm, so you’re starting from a larger foundation in the first place,” Ward says.

Berardelli also points to the importance of making the global phenomenon of climate change as local as possible.  In his forecasts, he talks about trends in local weather, such as temperatures or flooding, and talks about the impact these trends are having on his audience.

“We should show how those changes impact our viewers: should we plant our gardens earlier, buy more flood insurance and will our local ski resorts have enough snow to stay open?” Berardelli says.

Furthermore, Berardelli says meteorologists should be “empathetic about how people are impacted by climate change,” recognizing its uneven distribution, often affecting vulnerable populations the most. 

In the end, Berardelli, Lindmeier, Ward and Gillis all emphasize that the meteorologist’s responsibility is to deliver the truth.

“Regardless [of politicization], they should not shy away from their human duty of leveling with viewers by telling them the truth and their civic duty as an expert in conveying the science,” Berardelli says.

Resources for covering climate change:

Communicators have resources available to ethically and accurately cover climate science and weather. Lindmeier is part of the American Meteorological Society, which works to “promote the broadcast meteorologist to be the station’s scientist and use that as a way of talking about climate change.”

Climatecentral.org is another resource available to professionals that provides peer-reviewed science in localized contexts for broadcasters to use in their segments. 

Lastly, National Climate Assessments are researched and compiled by the U.S. Global Research Change Program and delivered to the President of the United States and Congress every four years. Such assessments provide information on the impact of climate change on the U.S. and also break information down regionally.

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.

Changing the narrative on gun violence: the new ethics of covering gun violence and trauma

Image of two people's hands holding one another
Photo by Rémi Walle on Unsplash

A shift is underway in how journalists cover episodes of gun violence and other forms of trauma in the United States. New ethical considerations are redefining the role journalists play in telling these stories and increasing the amount of community-based coverage, with journalists often building trust by reporting on the long-term effects of violence in their own communities.

“I don’t think it’s a hopeless picture,” Bruce Shapiro, executive director of the Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma, says. “I think there actually is a lot of innovation going on in this area.”

According to Shapiro, the question of which types of gun violence get covered is something that has changed over time, with journalists now placing greater focus on historically under-covered types of gun violence such as suicide, an effort that gives people a more accurate picture of where the biggest threats lie.

“We kind of define as news the thing that seems unusual, notable, new, right? That’s what makes it news,” Shapiro says. “This leads journalism too often to focus on the most spectacular kinds of carnage and ignore or pay insufficient attention to the most common and ordinary threats.”

According to Shapiro, the increase in the number of episodes of gun violence in the U.S. is partly responsible for coverage that favors larger, more horrific acts of violence. According to data gathered from Gun Violence Archive, a nonprofit that tracks shootings, at least 15,292 people were fatally shot in the U.S. in 2019. This figure excludes suicides. Also driving the coverage is the increasingly polarized debate around gun violence and about which measures, if any, the government should take to prevent it.

And yet the way journalists see their role in covering these horrific acts of violence is also changing.

“There are a lot of reporters, including at mainstream media outlets, that have been trying over the course of the last five or 10 years to do a different kind of reporting on gun violence,” Shapiro says, “to do the kind of reporting that focuses on the community impact of gun violence beyond these spectacular breaking news interruption kinds of stories.”

Among those reporters is John Woodrow Cox, an enterprise reporter at the Washington Post, who has written several articles about gun violence that focus on community effects.

In one article titled “How many children are affected by school gun violence in America?”, Cox argues that death toll figures that follow episodes of gun violence fail to capture the long lasting effects on those who witness such carnage and survive. “Beginning with Columbine in 1999,” Cox writes, “more than 187,000 students attending at least 193 primary or secondary schools have experienced a shooting on campus during school hours, according to a year-long Washington Post analysis.”

“Many are never the same,” Cox adds.

Cox’s reporting provides readers with information that can change behavior or even inspire action. Cox goes beyond reporting the numbers, succeeding in helping the public more fully understand the issue. This type of reporting helps policymakers and community leaders better understand how they can support and heal the community following an act of violence.

Shapiro says that reporting on episodes of gun violence has too often focused solely on nurturing sources within the criminal justice system, such as police officers.

“If our sources are only people from the criminal justice system, then we’re missing half the story,” Shapiro says. “You need to have sources that are dealing with the impact of gun violence every single day. And if you’re talking to those sources patiently over time, that will change what you think the story about gun violence really is.”

Another reporter engaging in this sort of community-based reporting is Peter Nickeas, a general assignment reporter for the Chicago Tribune, who covered violence and trauma for the Tribune’s breaking news desk for seven years.

In one article titled “‘Staggering’ number of children exposed to violence in Chicago; new study says kid population greater in high-homicide areas,” Nickeas reports that the number of children in Chicago living in areas with higher rates of homicides has increased, even though the overall number of homicides in the city has decreased over the last few years.

“Over the Fourth of July holiday, Felix Kombwa brought the children he mentors to a festival where a law-enforcement exhibit allowed visitors to sit in a squad car, try on police gear and chat with officers,” Nickeas writes. “But the fireworks, the presence of the officers and the sight of their weapons all scared the children, Kombwa said. They mistook the fireworks for gunshots and thought the guns, though holstered, were ‘too loud.’”

Like Cox’s reporting, Nickeas succeeds in helping the public understand the long-lasting effects of gun violence in their community. Nickeas’s reporting also helps the public understand where the threats are.

The kind of reporting that Cox and Nickeas are doing is notable because it defines the role of journalists as more than merely news gatherers and disseminators. This type of reporting asks readers to see journalists as fellow members of the community and has the potential to build trust.

Another example of innovative reporting on gun violence is The Trace, an independent, nonprofit news organization dedicated to expanding coverage of guns in the U.S. The Trace has produced several stories that represent a wide range of angles that often go uncovered.

In a recent article titled “When Protesters Carry Guns, Does It Impede Others’ Free Speech?”, reporter Olivia Li recounts how a January rally in Richmond, Va. ( in which pro-gun activists were protesting a series of gun reform bills going through the state General Assembly) subsequently prevented a group of counter protesters from attending, fearing violence. Many of the pro-gun activists in attendance were utilizing Virginia’s open carry law.

“Many of them were armed. The specter of a massive open carry demonstration was difficult for anyone to ignore,” Li writes, “but the day was also significant because of the people not in attendance outside the state Capitol grounds.”

This powerful lead offers a unique angle in its reporting on gun violence, focusing on the implications on freedom of assembly, a key pillar of democratic and civic life in the U.S. Li offers readers a look at the free speech implications resulting from open carry demonstrations and the potentially chilling effects on speech, and by extension, on democracy.

Li asks the reader to consider a distinct effect of the increased polarization around the gun debate and how that affects the communities in which people live.

These are just a few examples of individual reporters and news organizations engaging in a more thoughtful type of journalism—reporting that is grounded not only in informing people where the threats are but in uncovering the many ways communities are affected by acts of violence. 

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