Skip to main content
University of Wisconsin–Madison

Category: Practical Ethics

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.

Transparency and boldness: Q&A with Jill Geisler

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Duty of care: Newsrooms must address psychological trauma

As 2016 draws to a close, organizations like the Committee to Protect Journalists are preparing their final tallies of the number of journalists killed over the past year. The CPJ has provided systematic data on the deaths of reporters since 1992. Groups like Reporters without Borders and the International Safety Institute also provide information on these casualties, hoping to raise awareness about the dangers that journalists face in the field and at home.

These grim statistics are vital to the broader conversation on journalistic safety. Because of these yearly tallies, news industry practitioners and members of the general public can understand the hard, cold facts: Reporters often die in the process of seeking the truth and sharing it with the world.

But journalists also face another danger, and you won’t find many organizations publishing yearly statistics on this particular peril. The unseen wounds of bearing witness are harder to track. It has become increasingly clear in recent years that psychological trauma is a major risk in news reporting. Because journalists cover things like car accidents, shootings, natural catastrophes and war, they are potential victims of the emotional fallout that can range from minor symptoms of stress and anxiety to full-blown PTSD.

Luckily, a number of organizations are speaking out about this problem. The Dart Center for Journalism and Trauma is one such group. The Center conducts research on the issue, aggregates research conducted elsewhere, and provides encouragement for journalists who recognize that they are not functioning the way they once did.

Freelance journalist Nadine Marroushi is one person who benefited from the Dart Center’s help. She found herself suffering from PTSD after covering the 2013 Rabaa Square massacre in Cairo, and later, the conflict in the North Sinai region of Egypt.

“All I knew is that I felt very, very sad all the time and could not feel happy. It’s a feeling that I’ve not had since I’ve come out of that. It’s just that you are constantly sad and you constantly just see black, black and white. You feel hopeless about everything,” Marroushi said.

It was the Dart Center staff that helped Marroushi identify her problem and get the proper help. But as a freelancer, Marroushi had to pay for her own therapy — a cost that was crushing, and, in her view, unethical.

“They [news organizations] need to have much more of a sense of a duty of care toward their freelancers. Look, even if you’ve written for them once, they’ve used your story. They’ve paid you. It shouldn’t just end with, ‘Well, we’ve paid you your money, and that’s it’,” Marroushi said.

The duty of care

Marroushi’s invocation of the “duty of care” raises a number of questions that are central to journalism ethics. News industry commentators have increasingly discussed the ethics of covering trauma, crucially arguing that journalism schools need to add this topic to their curricula. But the news industry rarely represents the mental health of the journalists themselves as an ethical issue in its own right.

There are a couple of reasons for the omission of reporters’ own trauma from the conversation on journalism ethics. Looking at the U.S. news industry’s major ethical codes, one reason becomes particularly clear.  The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics states in its preamble that “public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy.” Because of this, the SPJ defines ethical journalism as a practice that “strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough.”

In other words, the SPJ sees journalism ethics as a relationship between the individual journalist and the public. The journalist is the one who must act ethically, and the public is the beneficiary of this ethical action. When the SPJ calls for ethical journalism to “minimize harm,” the idea is that the journalist will minimize the potential harm faced by news sources, or members of the public more broadly. The notion of “harm” does not concern the journalist him or herself because the journalist is responsible for the public and must engage in the best possible practices on the public’s behalf.

But if journalism ethics is all about “best practices,” then aren’t there a set of best practices for the protection of the journalists themselves? Who is responsible for the journalists?

Where the question of physical safety is concerned, news editors and executives have slowly united in their efforts at preventing the injuries and deaths of reporters in the field. For example, a number of news outlets recently co-signed a set of principles for ensuring the physical safety of freelancers in the field. But this document doesn’t mention the type of emotional trauma that freelancer Marroushi experienced.

“But if journalism ethics is all about ‘best practices,’ then aren’t there a set of best practices for the protection of the journalists themselves?”

Neither does the American Society of News Editors’ Statement of Principles.  This code of ethics follows the SPJ’s code in assuming that journalism ethics is a set of standards solely meant to protect the general public. When the ASNE statement discusses the concept of “responsibility,” it does so in terms of journalists’ responsibility toward the public itself: “These principles are intended to preserve, protect and strengthen the bond of trust and respect between American journalists and the American people.”

ethical treatment of journalists, more ethical journalism

There’s certainly nothing wrong with this dedication to safeguarding the people’s right to be informed. Our democracy (ideally) depends on this dedication. But there’s actually a direct link between the well-being of the journalist and the journalist’s ability to ethically serve the public. How can the journalist remain “impartial,” for example, when he or she is drowning in the symptoms of PTSD? How can the journalist “be accountable and transparent” when he or she cannot even process the horrors of the story?

News organizations have a “duty of care” for journalists’ mental health, not only because it’s the decent thing to do. They also have a “duty of care” for reporters’ psychological well-being because this well-being (or lack thereof) can decisively impact the journalists’ own ability to remain ethical. And as Marroushi bravely asserted, this duty of care does not only extend to journalists who are on the staff of a major news organization. It also extends to the freelancers who increasingly bear the brunt of the world’s most traumatizing stories.

In light of this issue, the field of journalism ethics shouldn’t stop at the analysis of the individual journalist’s responsibility toward the public. Journalism ethicists also need to study the ethical treatment of the journalists themselves. Governments, third-party organizations and especially news editors have a responsibility toward their employees. They should do everything in their power to keep their reporters as safe as possible, protecting them from the injuries they can see, and from the psychic wounds that are no less painful for their invisibility.

Lindsay Palmer is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UW-Madison. She studies global media ethics from a qualitative perspective, especially focusing on the cultural labor of conflict correspondents in the digital age.

How to teach the ethics of using eyewitness video

When journalism students visit our offices at WITNESS to learn about video and human rights advocacy, the most common questions we hear are on the ethics of using eyewitness footage: How do you verify a video you find online? How do you know if a video is “verified” and if you can use it in your story? When and how would you use videos made by terrorist groups in a report?

As a human rights organization dedicated to using video as a tool for advocacy, these are questions we and our partners wrestle with every day. Increasingly, video documenting human rights abuse is filmed not by professionals but by average bystanders who have never been trained on issues like informed consent or by organizations aiming to spark fear or groups attempting to spread misinformation.

When such videos surface as part of a news story or a human rights investigation, what is a journalist or advocate to do with them? How do we apply the traditional codes of ethics when using footage we ourselves did not produce (often described as “user-generated content,” “UGC” or “citizen video”)?

It’s not surprising these questions are what young professionals want to talk about. Eyewitness videos are not only a central part of news reporting today, but a common element in social media channels. Addressing the ethics of using eyewitness footage provides students with a lesson that is immediately relevant to their own practices as consumers, creators and curators of information.

Yet, guidance on the ethics of using eyewitness footage hasn’t caught up with its importance as a reporting tool. WITNESS’s Ethical Guidelines for using Eyewitness Videos in Human Rights Reporting and Advocacy was created to begin to fill that gap.

Considering the stakeholders of eyewitness footage

WITNESS’ guidelines were written to help reporters, producers and advocates think through who could be affected by sharing eyewitness footage, and how to minimize potential harm to those people. After all, ethical mishaps are often the result of a lack of information. In the case of eyewitness footage, many reporters or producers simply don’t know what questions to ask about the footage and haven’t had a chance to consider the potential consequences of sharing it with a wider audience.

The guide is organized in three sections depending on the stakeholders of the footage. When teaching the ethics of using eyewitness footage, this is a good place to start. For any video, the central questions you’ll want to think through are:

  • Who are the stakeholders?
  • How could they be potentially harmed by the footage?
  • How could you as a journalist minimize potential harm?

You might be asking, why “stakeholders”? Why not just “filmers”? Or “subjects”?

When using eyewitness footage, there are a number of different people who could be affected by its distribution. First of all, there are those on camera. You don’t necessarily know if they consented to being filmed or even knew that they were on camera. Finding themselves on the evening news could change their lives forever. Depending on the nature of the footage, it could put them at risk of humiliation, harassment or worse.

Other stakeholders include those who filmed the footage and those who shared it. (Often this is the same person, but it could be different people with distinct objectives). Did they realize they were sharing it publicly? Could the footage put them at risk due to the nature of the footage? Are they aware of the consequences of attaching their identity to the footage, and did they take steps to protect their identity (such as sharing it on a new YouTube account without their name on it)?

If someone uploaded a video to their Facebook page, they may only expect their circle of friends to see it. We’ve seen several headline news cases involving eyewitness footage in which the filmer later expressed regret for associating their name with the footage (such as the bystander who filmed the chokehold death of Eric Garner in Staten Island). The safety of those who provide newsworthy footage is critical for journalists to consider.

Finally, stakeholders include the audience. What are the potential consequences of sharing footage that may turn out to have been disseminated as part of a misinformation campaign or a hate group? What sort of footage would warrant a warning to viewers about its graphic nature? How can a journalist share footage responsibly when it has not been independently verified?

How to teach the ethics of eyewitness footage

Our ethical guidelines don’t provide answers to these scenarios, but rather sets of questions to help reporters identify and address ethical challenges that can easily fall through the cracks.

In your classroom, you can find an example from the week’s news, from your community or from a class project, and use these checklists as a starting point for a discussion on the ethics of reporting with eyewitness footage.




If you are searching for examples for discussion, you can find several from around the world in WITNESS’ Ethical Guidelines. The Eyewitness Media Hub’s Medium channel is another great source of case studies illustrating how eyewitness footage used in the media inadvertently affected the people behind the footage.

More Resources

For much more on the ethics of using eyewitness footage in reporting, check out our blog series tackling a different aspect of the topic each week. The Eyewitness Media Hub, First Draft News and the ONA’s Build Your Own Ethics Code are other fantastic resources for guidance, tools and case studies on using eyewitness videos in reporting.

How do you discuss the ethics of using eyewitness video to journalism students, and what has been particularly challenging or successful? What resources would you recommend? We look forward to hearing from your experience in the comments below.

Madeleine Bair leads the WITNESS Media Lab at WITNESS where she examines how eyewitness video can be used safely, ethically, and effectively for human rights reporting and advocacy. Follow her on Twitter @madbair and follow WITNESS at @WITNESSorg. WITNESS Program Coordinator Sarah Kerr also contributed to this post.

This post originally published at MediaShift. Reposted here with permission.

How Gannett used engaged ethics to help kids in crisis

I still remember the feeling I had when I read the first lines of the story.

“The mics are off and the lenses capped,” reporter Rory Linnane wrote. “We’re wrapping up the interview, getting ready to shake hands and head out, when Angela Wesener grabs a photo album off the shelf and perches beside me on an ottoman in her family’s living room.

“We’ve both been crying.”

I immediately felt I was getting something different from the investigative and daily reporting I was used to from Linnane, a stellar young reporter I first met as a student in my class in 2010.

And indeed I was. I had landed on a story in “Rory’s Diary,” a gripping and novel element of a months-long series by USA Today Network-Wisconsin, delving into the state’s youth mental health crisis. In the diary, Linnane opens a window for readers into the reporting and the people behind the stories. She talks about her emotions, how her sources are affecting her and what the state’s elevated teen suicide rate costs us.

And she says that every time she does this, she feels uncomfortable — she was talking about herself, not something reporters often do.

Despite that discomfort, the Kids in Crisis series marks an interesting turn for USA Today Network-Wisconsin and maybe for journalism ethics overall. In many of their choices, the reporters and editors on the series embraced engaged ethics — drawing communities in closer rather than keeping them at arm’s length. Shunning a traditional — and often lifeless — view of journalistic objectivity, the team chose openness, transparency and a certain form of advocacy. Their sources and audiences seem glad they did.

A Project Idea from an Engaged Approach

USA Today Network-Wisconsin, formerly known as Gannett Wisconsin Media, includes daily publications in 10 cities, ranging in size from Wisconsin Rapids at 18,000 people to Green Bay at 105,000, plus smaller weeklies. The network employees 135 journalists in the daily newsrooms, plus another 15 at weekly publications. In the model USA Today Network is using, the individual news organizations cover community issues and activities locally. But they also cooperate across the organization to do bigger projects with statewide implications.

When Pam Henson, president of USA Today Network-Wisconsin, arrived in spring 2015, she spent 6 months traveling and meeting with people to learn what issues matter in the communities they cover. Jim Fitzhenry, the network’s state business development director, said Henson kept hearing over and over again about teen suicide. After some initial reporting showed the state’s teen suicide rate was about a third higher than the national average, Fitzhenry invited staffers across the network to pitch story ideas from their communities. As soon as he saw them, he was convinced consistent themes across all these areas meant they needed to do a major project, expanding their scope from suicide to youth mental health broadly.

The series launched in January with three main phases. The first chapter explored the state’s challenges and why its kids are dying at higher rates than in other states. The second covered possible solutions to the crisis, asking what ideas and initiatives could help turn the situation around. The final chapter called the state to action and involved town hall meetings in all 10 areas USA Today Network-Wisconsin covers, plus a Day of Action in the state capital.

The Kids in Crisis efforts included town hall meetings and a Day of Action in Madison, the state's capital. (Photo by Katy Culver)

The Kids in Crisis efforts included town hall meetings and a Day of Action in Madison, the state’s capital. (Photo by Katy Culver)

An open window on reporting

Throughout it all, Rory’s Diary was the common thread woven through all the elements. The at-times heartbreaking stories have a more human side to them because the audience sees behind the reporting. Take the diary entry on Angela Wesener.

“The loss of a child is unimaginable to those who haven’t experienced it,” Linnane writes. “But it’s human nature to try. Etched in my memory is an image of my friend’s mom draped over his casket, unmoving, desperate to hold onto her moment of goodbye to her lost son.”

The entry accompanies a more traditional piece about the the interplay of bullying and teen suicide and a video showing how losing a compassionate boy named Jonathan forever changed a family.

Linnane says transparency was critically important in getting her past her discomfort. She felt that while she was letting the audience know what she was thinking and feeling in her reporting, she wasn’t telling them what to think or how to feel.

“People understood exactly where I was coming from, and when they read the stories I reported on, they knew my perspective but could come to their own conclusions.”

Flawed ideas of objectivity

This engaged approach to ethics marks a departure from some traditional practices, a welcome change for the Wisconsin network’s vice president for news, Joel Christopher. He supports the role of journalists as neutral observes but argues that idea can get twisted and portray news organizations as separate and apart from the communities they serve.

“You’ve got to give people more than just this drumbeat of critical looks at the places that they live in or the organizations that they’re a part of,” Christopher says, emphasizing news media can facilitate needed change in society. “We want to make sure stakeholders are connected as effectively as possible to effect change.”

He says USA Today Network-Wisconsin purposely chose to challenge traditional notions of objectivity and distance in reporting and producing the series.

“I think sometimes there’s a mindset that objectivity completely removes a journalist from the world that he or she covers, and I think that’s mistaken thinking,” Christopher says. “The idea that journalists aren’t able to make objective decisions yet still retain some humanity? It’s a false choice, and I think that a lot of times we use that to actually avoid interaction with people because we didn’t want them to have a front-row seat to how we created the journalism.”

By embracing new forms of engagement, including the town hall meetings, the journalists on the series better represented the publics they serve, he argues.

“Audiences demand, rightfully so, that there’s some access to the people who are providing their news, and they want to see that there is an investment and a buy-in from the journalists.”

Andrew DeVigal, chair in journalism innovation and civic engagement in the University of Oregon’s School of Journalism and Communication, said embracing engagement recognizes that news organizations are no longer the powerful community gatekeepers they once were. He sees this shift in mindset as critical but often overlooked.

“In our radically connected world, I think community members being able to tell their own stories is already happening,” he says. “The more we distance from that fact — the more that we deny that that’s already happening — the less relevant we become as news organizations to the communities we’re supposed to serve. Our roles are changing within the public we are serving.”

Strong Response

The public noticed. In addition to the more than 1,000 people attending the town halls and Day of Action in person, livestream and archived video also saw strong performance. The series drew half-a-million page views in its initial months. But most importantly for Linnane, families affected by youth mental health issues consistently told her how much the series and her approach meant to them.

Archived video from USA TODAY NETWORK-Wisconsin's engagement efforts is available online. (Screenshot of Post-Crescent)

Archived video from USA Today Network-Wisconsin’s engagement efforts is available online. (Screenshot of Post-Crescent)

Michael Newton, a University of Wisconsin-Madison police officer and mental health advocate, says work like this goes a long way toward transforming the stigmas attached to mental health and helping the public see this for what it is: a public health issue.

“Somehow along the way, people have forgotten that this is an illness,” Newton says. “The fact that these journalists were engaging the community and trying to find solutions was inspiring and energizing.”

Fitzhenry sees potential for their approach to work with other issues of public importance, such as substance abuse or drunk driving. “We were able to bring together people who would never get into the same room. There were connections there that were very powerful,” he says. “People were hungry for those connections. It goes back to a basic sense of democracy. Having an exchange of ideas and knowledge is very powerful and people are interested.”

Kathleen Bartzen Culver (@kbculver) is an assistant professor in the School of Journalism & Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, teaching and researching at the intersection of ethics and digital media practices. Culver also serves as director of the Center for Journalism Ethics and education curator for MediaShift.

This post originally published at MediaShift. Reposted here with permission.