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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Category: Lead feature

Roundtable: Truth, Trump and journalism

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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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


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


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

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

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


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


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


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


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


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

Q & A with Chris Wells: Trump as a Media Mastermind

Chris Wells is an associate professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His latest work, published in Political Communication, examines the many strategies Donald Trump used to generate news coverage. CJE sat down with Wells to discuss what the success of Trump’s attention-grabbing tactics mean for journalism.

CJE: Could you explain a bit about what your study on Trump uncovered? 

Wells: First and foremost, Trump is a media person. He’s been obsessed with getting attention. At one point, he posed as his own spokesperson and contacted news outlets. We kept asking ourselves, “Is he just an incredible strategist?” But, it’s probably more intuitive to him. It’s been his job for 35 years. A strategy feels like it should be thought out, but it’s more second nature to him. I think he’s surveying the environment very closely, when he notices attention to himself is slacking off he does stuff to get talked about. Data scientist David Robinson did an analysis of his tweets. Half are run-of-the-mill campaign tweets, like “Great to see you in Iowa.” Then there are the crazy ones, which are coming from an Android phone. The non-crazy ones are coming from another device, which suggests it’s his staff.

Credit: David Robinson

An analysis of which words appeared in Trump’s tweets sent from Android or iPhone. Analysis and graph by David Robinson.

CJE: These ‘crazy’ tweets seem to garner a lot of media attention. Is there such a thing as bad publicity?

Wells: He’s been at the heart of conflict for a constant 30 years. What we see at the beginning of the primaries, in that environment it might be all publicity is good publicity. We often are coming from the standpoint that we feel uncomfortable with things he saying, but amongst Republican primary voters his policies were very popular. He’s sensitive to how the crowd is responding and he gives the crowd what they want.

Credit: Ronald B. Rapoport

Trump’s supporters were largely supportive of his policy proposals. Analysis and graph by Ronald Rapoport, Alan Abramowitz, and Walter Stone.

CJE: Do you think Trump takes advantage of journalistic norms?

Wells: The issue is the amount of press coverage he earned. The numbers are unbelievable. He got basically as much press attention as much of the other Republican candidates combined. He’s an unusual candidate, but the one single thing about him is his ability to attract media. He noticed he liked attention and that it could benefit him. Earning 2 billion dollars in paid media is astonishing. The press noticed early on that writing about Trump got them a lot of clicks. Outlets want to get attention because they’re selling ads. But what leads them to lavish that much attention on one person? The metric which allows everyone to see number of clicks is kind of amoral. It’s totally agnostic. We’re just doing it because it gets us money. You haven’t applied any ethical standards to it, which is the issue.


Trump generated nearly $2 million in free media. Analysis and graph by The New York Times.

CJE: What is your biggest concern with Trump’s media influence, and how should journalists ideally respond to present and future Trump tactics?

Wells: The press needs to have an agenda and decide what it wants to cover and not chase around the candidates exclusively. Asking candidates something like, “We’ve done this detailed reporting on the nature of the economy and here are the major issues, please respond.” We’ve almost entirely neglected to create in the public’s mind what the real problems are and that seems like a massive failure. The bigger issue is being a little reflective of where you are allocating your news media. You have to get clicks, to get advertising revenues. The question is how and to what extent can media deal with that pressure? That’s the latest shift in this trend.

CJE: Do you have any advice for journalists going forward? 

Wells: I urge journalists to think about how can you create content that is deeper, more substantive and more issues-based and also still attracts the audience. How do we find formats that will attract audiences enough to sustain news outlet and can do this real issues-driven work? How can you bring that format out? More importantly, how can you deliver real content that will inform people? We need to gives the public hope and mobilization.

Feature image by Michael Vadon/CC BY-SA

Wisconsin legislators’ budget maneuver also strikes against Ethics Center’s core mission

On June 5, the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee added a provision to the proposed state budget that would require the independent, non-profit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism to leave its home in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication.  The provision would also prohibit anyone employed by the University “from doing any work related to the Center for Investigative Journalism as part of their duties as a UW employee.”


This action came as a complete surprise, blindsiding WCIJ just as the budget neared completion.  No legislator has yet been willing to candidly explain why this punitive, unwarranted, targeted action was taken, much less why it was passed without any debate or opportunity for challenge.

If it remains in the budget, the Joint Finance Committee’s action will affect not only WCIJ, but the Ethics Center and J-School faculty, staff and students as well.  And the impact will be nothing but harmful for all.  The Center has had a productive collaborative relationship with WCIJ from the beginning.  That relationship is now threatened with extinction.  Reaction to the provision from all quarters has been vehement and overwhelmingly critical, but the budget bill remains unchanged.

As the Ethics Center’s incoming director, I am deeply troubled, angered, frustrated and astonished by the actions of the legislators who voted to act against WCIJ, the Journalism School and its students in this way. And I hope either they or the governor will reconsider.

The Center’s associate director, Prof. Katy Culver, has eloquently described the situation and its potential impact in a recent post to PBS’s Mediashift.  We reprint it below with permission, and we invite and welcome your comments.

Prof. Robert Drechsel

Director, Center for Journalism Ethics


Wisconsin Lawmakers Try to Remove Investigative Reporting Center from University of Wisconsin


Early this week, I awoke to learn that University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism student Mario Koran had won a prestigious scholarship named for a brave and talented young journalist who died last year while reporting in Mexico City.

Yesterday morning, I awoke to learn an overnight move by some in the Wisconsin legislature threatened the very collaboration that helped forge Koran’s reporting skills and imperiled my freedom to teach and influence young journalists like him. I am reeling from the juxtaposition, and every person who cares about moving journalism education forward should feel threatened by these events.

Screenshot from Mario Koran's "Lost signals, disconnected lives."

Koran is a student in our journalism master’s program and went on to the New York Times Student Journalism Institute, a program that draws two dozen journalism students into work with professionals to advance their reporting and writing skills. Koran won the inaugural Armando Montaño Scholarship. At just 22, “Mando” was found dead in Mexico City, shortly after beginning an internship with the Associated Press. The circumstances remain murky, but he had just finished an assignment about police violence. He’s remembered widely for his courage and passion for reporting.

Koran shares that passion, and he was able to stoke his fire through the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, a novel –- and award-winning -– collaboration. The non-profit and nonpartisan center partners with our School of Journalism and Mass Communication to employ student interns and pursue highly respected investigative journalism to serve the public.

Part of WCIJ’s mission is to serve as a government watchdog, helping ensure our representatives act in citizens’ best interests. To that end, Koran just completed an investigation into failures in the GPS technology used to track sex offenders. It led to hearings, at which legislators read from his pieces to reinforce the gravity of problems.

Under attack

So everyone associated with WCIJ was blindsided by an overnight move to expel the center from its offices within our journalism program. The school provides no funding to the center, which is supported entirely by outside grants. It receives free space through a facilities-use agreement, in return for guaranteed paid internships for students like Koran, as well as guest lectures, class visits and educational support.

The state’s legislative Joint Finance Committee on Wednesday added a budget measure barring UW from housing the center in its space. But even more critically –- and dangerously -– the measure purports to end any interaction between journalism faculty and staff and the center:

“In addition, prohibit UW employees from doing any work related to the Center for Investigative Journalism as part of their duties as a UW employee.” (See the full motion from Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette)

This direct attack on our collaboration with WCIJ is an assault on our academic freedom, as well as on student learning. I had the privilege of meeting with Koran when he was just beginning his look at recidivism in the criminal justice system as a WCIJ intern. I told him I was astounded to learn of the proportion and cost of returning offenders to jail in the state and encouraged him to hunt for angles related to that. I did this in my capacity as a journalism professor, for which I am compensated by the university.

Threat to freedom and independence

To be clear: As written, the legislative budget measure would bar this conversation. Bar it. It would similarly prevent other things I have done with the center over the years -– reviewing intern applications, teasing out ideas from datasets, consulting on leads. And my association with the center pales in comparison with that provided by some of my colleagues.

(For a longer discussion about the motives of the Committee members adding this provision to the bill, read this article from The Cap Times.)

Clearly the measure raises constitutional questions, as a state institution that can bar us from working with WCIJ could also bar my writing for, say, MediaShift or the New York Times. And the measure is not yet a done deal. Cooler heads in the state Senate or Assembly could move to extract the provision or Gov. Scott Walker could use his line-item veto on it. Even the state’s most noted right-wing media figure, Charlie Sykes, called the action ”petty, vindictive and dumb.”

I hope citizens throughout the state and, indeed across the country, call on the legislature and governor to step back and recognize the danger of this kind of interference. Responses from the centerschool and university decry the impact on students and the climate for public affairs reporting.

Innovation on the line

Just last year, the center and school won the Associated Press Media Editors’ first-ever award for Innovator of the Year for College Students. Brant Houston, the center’s board president and Knight Chair in Investigative Reporting at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said, “The school and center have pioneered effective ways to involve students in producing award-winning journalism in the public interest.”

Every educator, reporter and organization that champions forward-thinking journalism education should fear the legislature’s effort and the censorial intentions behind it. Efforts to kill the intern model here in Wisconsin endanger other pro-am efforts housed at public universities in other states. Our WCIJ interns work with text, audio, video and data in addition to and in service of their reporting. They are getting daily, real-world, multimedia, leading-edge experiences that simply cannot be replaced in a classroom.

In the end, they suffer. “My time as part of the original, founding class of interns at WCIJ was invaluable in launching my career,” said former intern Alex Morrell, who has worked for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Green Bay Press-Gazette and Associated Press. “It taught me to think clearly and dissect complex issues with precision and confidence. It instilled in me the public value of fair, non-partisan investigative reporting and trained me to approach every issue and idea with the same vigor.”

Citizens suffer, too. No news outlet has covered the issues reported by WCIJ with its depth or sustained focus. The center’s free distribution of its work has informed audiences of 230 news outlets across the state and nation.

Fighting for press freedom

In a climate fraught with recent government surveillance of AP and FOX News reporters, every one of us must be vigilant. Students like Koran deserve the very best and most innovative models journalism education can give them. And citizens deserve the most full-throated defense of public affairs reporting and open government we can muster.

This brazen move against students and journalism is unconscionable. Our silence would be unforgivable.


for related commentary:

Read Prof. Deborah Blum’s comments on

Read the statement by Greg Downey, director, UW-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication


Join us Friday April 5 for our 5th annual ethics conference: “Who is Shaping the News?”

Save the date! Our 5th journalism ethics conference will be Friday, April 5, 2013 at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery in Madison, Wisconsin. It will be our biggest conference yet. This year, a distinguished and dynamic group of journalists and scholars will explore “Who is Shaping the News? Academics, Corporations, Critics.”

Award-winning investigative reporter Lowell Bergman will deliver our keynote speech, and we will present this year’s Anthony Shadid Award for Journalism Ethics. Panelists include CBC producer Ira Basen, CNBC senior correspondent Scott Cohn, CJE’s Katy Culver, Andy Hall of WisconsinWatch, media scholar Lew Friedland, Lorie Hearn of Investigative Newssource, investigative journalist Brant Houston, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Jan Schaffer, journalist and scholar Lee Wilkins, Continue reading

The Ethical Character of Public Broadcasting

The presidential election campaign has stirred debate over the role of government, including taxpayer support for public service media. Much coverage has focused on possible cuts to shows like Sesame Street, and its iconic Big Bird. Long-time public broadcaster and executive Bryon Knight reminds us that funding for public media buys us more than Big Bird. It supports a locally based system of public service that is accountable not to advertisers and shareholders. It supports a service accountable to all citizens. Continue reading

Many thanks to our conference speakers and participants!

Once again, the Center is grateful for the energy and dedication of all who participated in our 4/13/12 conference, Ethics & Elections: Media, Money & Power in 2012.  Special thanks to our technical crew, and to the staff of Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery, for helping everything go smoothly.  Full video of the conference will be posted here shortly!

Why transparency is not enough: The Case of Mr. Mike

Canadian journalist Ira Basen analyzes the seminal case of prominent tech blogger Mike Arrington to underline the confusing and controversial issue of conflicts of interest among “new media” writers such as bloggers. He argues that their mantra, “transparency is the new objectivity,” has limitations. Stating that you are biased or that you have a conflict of interest may not be enough to produce trustworthy journalism. Maybe neutrality – or having no agenda – is still the best ethical approach to good journalism. Continue reading

The Fall and Rise of Partisan Journalism

You don’t need to have a degree in history — or even to have paid much attention when you suffered the US history survey course as an undergraduate — to know that American newspapers were very partisan in the 19th century. “Editors,” wrote one historian, “unabashedly shaped the news and their editorial comment to partisan purposes. Continue reading

Thanks to our sponsors, panelists, and conference attendees!

The Center for Journalism Ethics stages a conference on partisan news media April 15, featuring a keynote by a leading Al Jazeera English official and sessions on the impact of partisan media on public broadcasting, polls, and public opinion. Leading journalists, media ombudsmen, and communication experts will lead the discussion. For full details . . . Continue reading

Governor Walker and the Beast: Do ends justify the means?

The storm of controversy that swirls around the prank call to Gov. Scott Walker raises the oldest question in ethics: If you achieve results, who cares about the means?

Of course, we are taught to be wary of “the ends justifies the means” reasoning, but is this always the case in journalism?

By existing journalism standards, the prank call was unethical practice. But explaining how such standards apply in a world of new media and new practices is complicated . . . Continue reading