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When coverage is what they want: covering mass shootings without perpetuating them

As news of yet another school shooting — this one in Santa Clarita, California — broke in mid-November, one key piece of information was decidedly absent from the headlines and initial internet search results: the name of the perpetrator. 

Though police had identified the gunman, many major outlets gave his name and description low billing in their reporting. It’s part of a reporting shift over the past few years that goes well beyond decisions about using names or images. In response to research suggesting that extensive coverage of these assailants may encourage others to follow suit, many outlets have chosen to devote less coverage to perpetrators and more to victims and to the laws and policies that have not prevented these tragedies.

Are the killings contagious?

Long before Julie Turkewitz knew she’d become a New York Times National Desk reporter — and long before she knew she’d cover more mass shootings than she can count — Turkewitz was a 13-year-old watching coverage of one of the nation’s earliest mass shootings: Columbine. She’s never forgotten what she saw. 

“That was really the beginning of streaming news, 24-hour news,” she said of the 1999 tragedy. “Some of the images that I saw on TV …  are seared in my brain still.”

Coverage of the nation’s early mass shootings focused heavily on perpetrators, a fact that has not escaped later perpetrators seeking such attention. So many people have admired the Columbine attackers that the phenomenon has a name — “the Columbine effect” — and admirers have a name too: “Columbiners.” 

And it’s not just Columbine that inspires new attacks. The gunman who killed himself and nine others at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, in 2015 expressed in an online manifesto his allegiance with the Isla Vista gunman. It was the first mass shooting that Turkewitz would cover. 

And the teenage gunman who killed 17 at a high school in Parkland, Florida, in 2017 said in a cell phone video, “I’m going to be the next school shooter of 2018 … It’s going to be a big event. When you see me on the news you’ll all know who I am.” 

Researchers are working to determine whether mass shootings are essentially contagious, and the results are not yet clear. A 2015 study found that the likelihood of a mass shooting event was greater within two weeks of another mass shooting, but a 2017 study found no such link. Still, the authors of the 2017 study noted, “if outsized media coverage of mass killings is indeed increasing the frequency and lethality of subsequent attacks, the priority should be on altering coverage of these incidents so that no additional harm is done.” 

“They’re seeking notoriety”

Caren Teves needs no convincing that the contagion effect is real. When her son Alex and 11 others were killed in 2012 in a movie theater in Aurora, Colorado, the coverage was perpetrator-focused as it had been 13 years before. “If coverage had changed immediately following Columbine,” Teves said, “I do believe my son would still be alive — and thousands of others.”

Since 2012, Teves and her husband, Tom, have made it their mission to convince media outlets to minimize their use of assailants’ names and photographs and thereby avoid glorifying assailants and their crimes. Their organization, No Notoriety, calls on news outlets to follow six guidelines, including naming perpetrators only once per story, not adding color to descriptions of perpetrators and not publishing perpetrators’ “self-serving” statements, photos or manifestos.

“The perpetrators are telling us themselves,” Teves said. “They’re seeking notoriety. So if we can eliminate notoriety, hopefully we can really cut down on rampage, mass shootings.”

The fact that journalists have already changed their practices to reduce the risk of suicide is proof that they can change their practices on this issue too, Teves said. “We’re not asking to reinvent anything. We’re just asking journalists to use the practices that are already in place.” In 2017, suicide-awareness group SAVE published recommendations designed to help reporters do just that.

Coverage shifts

While few outlets have publicly pledged to follow all of the No Notoriety guidelines, there’s no question that many outlets have changed their approach.

In a June Poynter article titled, “Not naming mass shooters (much) is now the norm,” Kelly McBride, chair of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership at The Poynter Institute, wrote, “For an industry that is often criticized for being slow to change, this development is remarkable.”

Al Tompkins, senior faculty for Broadcasting and Online for the Poynter Institute, has long made clear that he doesn’t believe outlets should stop naming perpetrators altogether. “There’s a difference between reporting and glorifying,” he said, differentiating between the nicknames news outlets gave criminals a century ago. 

In fact, Tompkins said, reporting on the assailant’s behavior can provide an important service. “Virtually every mass shooter in the last 20 years has left behind a substantial trail of evidence that somebody could have stopped it,” Tompkins said. “You’ll never know everything we should and could know about the shooters — about what motivates them, who they are and so on — unless we take time to figure out who they are.”

But, given the possible risks, Tompkins said, minimizing the use of an assailant’s name and photo may be appropriate. (He offers his own recommendations here.)

The New York Times has no policy against naming the perpetrators of mass shootings, but Deputy National Desk Editor Julie Bloom said the outlet has taken steps to avoid feeding into the violence. It’s not rules but “more just a …  sense of this is how to responsibly handle it.”

“I think we’re very careful,” Bloom said, noting that the Times makes deliberate choices about how often to name perpetrators and often avoid using their names in display copy. “We don’t want to be a platform …  for giving attention to gunmen or attackers.”

Reporter Julie Turkewitz said this also means making choices about how to portray the gunman. Descriptions of an assailant’s outfit — for example, whether he wore white supremacist symbols or body armor — can become problematic, as they “sort of turn them into an image of an action figure,” whose image other perpetrators ritualize and copy. “That’s why it’s important to hit pause and say, ‘Is this description of their outfit adding something to the greater knowledge and reporting here?’” Turkewitz said.

Instead of just describing their outfits, Turkewitz said, reporters should ask deeper questions: “Where did they get that body armor, and why did nobody raise a flag? … If a perpetrator was wearing something with white supremacist symbols on it, what role did the political climate and white supremacy generally play?”

Meanwhile, many outlets have shifted coverage from assailants to the victims, survivors and their families, whose emotional and physical wounds will last lifetimes. Teves has noticed the shift. “When my son Alex was killed, if you think about the front page of the newspaper, all you saw was that red-haired individual,” Teves said. “If you look at the most recent shootings, if you look at the front page of the newspaper, what do you see? You see photos of the victims. So we know it’s changing.”

Growing frequency, technology prompt new approaches

Turkewitz attributes these new practices to the growing frequency of mass shootings. “It was hard to have that conversation … even in 2015 because these things didn’t seem to be happening quite as frequently,“ Turekwitz said. “As they have happened more and more, I think that there has been more of a reckoning and more of a thought to what is our involvement.”

But responsible reporting gets tougher as reporters are expected to report faster than ever, Turkewitz said, pointing to the 2015 San Bernardino shooting — which quickly became a talking point in the presidential campaigns — as the start of accelerated expectations. 

Digital environments have also raised new ethical challenges for this reporting, Bloom said. Each outlet wants to appear at the top of the search results when someone Googles “El Paso attack,” for example, “but we also want to be careful that we’re not helping boost, say, the name of a gunman.” 

Outlets could soon have a new set of principles to guide their reporting on these events. In an August Columbia Journalism Review article, Miles Kohrman, special projects editor at The Trace, and Katharine Reed, professor of practice at the Missouri School of Journalism, invited newsrooms to work with them as they draft guidelines on covering mass shootings. “Our work should not contribute to the country’s accelerating scourge of mass killings, driven by young men with firearms seeking fame and recognition,” the authors wrote.

But just making more ethical reporting choices isn’t enough, said Joy Mayer, an engagement strategist and director of Trusting News. Newsrooms also need to explain their choices to their audiences, as the Viriginian Pilot — a participant in the Trusting News project — did when it chose to name the man who killed 12 in Virginia Beach in May. 

“The efforts of journalists to make thoughtful, respectful, consistent decisions are invisible to their audiences unless they shine a light on them,” Mayer said in an email. “The importance of transparency increases when the stakes are high. We simply must find ways to explain that we aim to be a public service, and we need to walk them through our decision-making.”

Not just about names — or even mass shootings

But ethical reporting on gun violence goes beyond decisions about naming or describing perpetrators. “This is the most low-hanging of all fruit,” Tompkins said, arguing that stopping shootings would require changing access to guns and ammunition. “But people don’t want to do that. What they want to do is say, ‘Oh, you know, if you just stop mentioning the shooter’s name, that’ll do it.’ No, it won’t … It’s just too simple. And all the easy stuff’s already been done.”

But writing stories about the laws and policies that have allowed these tragedies to occur comes with its own challenges. “We don’t know what policy failed if we don’t know what happened,” Turkewitz said. “We’ve got to understand the who, what, why, where and when, before we can step back and have the bigger conversation … I do think that’s why it’s kind of important to explore both wings.” 

For The Trace, a nonprofit news outlet exclusively covering gun violence and gun policy, policy issues are the issues. While The Trace includes basic information about a shooting in stories about policy or victims, it doesn’t cover the events themselves as news. Many outlets want to “report out all the gory details of a particular incident and how it unfolded and what actually happened,” Kohrman said, “and I think our job is to kind of contextualize the shooting.”

In covering the Las Vegas shooting, for example, The Trace’s coverage focused on bumpstocks and “barely legal” accessories that can make legal guns more lethal. And in covering November’s Santa Clarita school shooting, The Trace asked how, in a state with some of the strictest gun laws in the country, a 16-year-old got a gun. 

Getting serious about gun violence also means looking beyond single events, Tompkins said, noting that far more people die of gun violence in general than die in mass shootings, and yet more die from suicide than homicide. “We get so focused on the smallest numbers, while the largest numbers we don’t pay attention to,” Tompkins said.

Those largest numbers are the specialty of the reporters at The Trace. “I understand why news outlets focus so much on mass shootings because they are these huge international news events,” Kohrman said, though they represent only about 3% of all gun fatalities in the U.S. each year. “The media landscape coverage is skewed towards mass shootings. And that’s … not really an accurate representation of the issue.” 

The Trace, meanwhile aims to explore “everyday gun violence … the steady drumbeat that happens every day.” 

But, Kohrman acknowledges, The Trace is able to do that work in a way most outlets can’t. He said he talks to many editors who say they’d like to do more investigative reporting on guns but don’t have the resources. That’s why The Trace partners with other outlets, he said, to combine both gun expertise and local expertise. 

“But, I mean, I think it’s something that everybody’s struggling with,” Kohrman said. “There’s no easy answer to it.”

 

CJE Fellow Natalie Yahr served as a freelance reporter for the New York Times national desk during the fall 2019 semester. Her work for the Times was independent of her reporting on this story.

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.

 

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

Photo: Steven Potter

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This interview has been edited for length.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What should these two outlets do to correct these missteps?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.

Avoiding the horse race: a resource guide for ethical election coverage

On April 3, 2018, students fill out ballots for the Wisconsin Spring Election in Tripp Commons inside the Memorial Union at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, one of several official polling places for UW-Madison students living on campus. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW-Madison)

 

The 2020 presidential primary will not officially begin for another ten months. And yet campaigning, and media coverage about that campaigning, are already well underway. A large field of Democratic candidates and a long election cycle present a challenge for journalists and news organizations.

The ethics question at the heart of election coverage is this: what approaches best serve the public interest? In the past, media outlets have tended to use what some call horse race coverage, an approach that focuses on the competition between candidates. Rather than exploring candidates’ proposed policies or substantive issues, horse race coverage tries to gauge who’s winning and who’s losing. In horse race coverage, fundraising and endorsements are tallied to see who’s ahead, polls are hyper-analyzed and overplayed, differences between candidates are inflated and electability is scrutinized.

This kind of election coverage is also increasingly coming under scrutiny. According to its critics, horse race coverage trivializes elections and fails to adequately inform voters. Margaret Sullivan, media columnist for The Washington Post, wrote in a February column that the early horse race coverage for 2020 had started to make Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and Beto O’Rourke seem “inevitable” and “invincible,” a trend she said could be potentially dangerous. At its worst, horse race coverage can take media outlets from informers, who serve the needs of voters, to influencers, whose coverage affects the result of elections.

To help navigate election coverage, we have collected resources on alternatives to horse race coverage, as well as additional resources for ethically covering elections.

Alternatives to Horse Race Coverage

  • “I’d prefer that it not be covered as a game, that the seriousness of it comes through,” Barry Burden, director of the Elections Research Center, said. While things like endorsements and fundraising matter, Burden said it is important to do more than just keep a tally of those numbers. Rather than totaling up the sum of fundraising, he suggested writing stories on the nature of the fundraising and where donations are coming from.
  • Media critic and professor of journalism Jay Rosen wrote a Twitter thread about the “citizen’s agenda,” an approach to election coverage created by The Charlotte Observer. This approach seeks to answer the question “What do you want the candidates to be discussing as they compete for votes?”
  • In an article written for Nieman, Jim Morrill examines the relevance of the “citizen’s agenda” in 2020 and discusses whether it should be used in the upcoming election. His answer? Yes and no.
  • Storybench, a digital storytelling project out of Northeastern University, is creating a tracker for media coverage showing which outlets are using horse race coverage and will provide analysis on what news media are covering.

Additional Resources

  • Poynter provided this brief list of approaches that were used in the 2018 midterm that could be useful in the 2020 election.
  • The Columbia Journalism Review offers eight tips for covering the upcoming election.
  • The New York Times debuted a live tracker that can help navigate the crowded field. It puts people into five categories: running, likely to run, might run, unlikely to run and not running. The tracker also provides a brief background for each potential candidate and signature issues for those who are running or are likely to run.

Some Quick Tips

  • Write about the candidates themselves. According to Burden, most of the candidates are not well known right now. “Part of what reporters can do is just help voters get to know who these people are,” he said.
  • Avoid entertainment fodder. “Who Cory Booker is dating is an entertainment item, it’s probably not going to affect how he governs,” Burden said.
  • Pay attention to the rules. An open primary in New Hampshire, new “remote caucus” rules in Iowa and early voting in California could all play a role in the Democratic primary, according to Burden.
  • Don’t overplay opinion polls. “National polling right now is not indicative of much,” Burden said. According to him, polls will have more value as election day draws closer and the polls become more state-specific.
  • Learn from mistakes made in polling and interpreting polling results in the 2016 presidential election. The American Association for Public Opinion Research has a must-read evaluation of 2016 polling.
The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism, and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.

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

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

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

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

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

Graves praised the other four finalists for the award:

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

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

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

Registration for the ceremony is now open.

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

For information, contact Krista Eastman, Center for Journalism Ethics administrator, at krista.eastman@wisc.edu.

Changes in HR: What #MeToo means for news organizations

On Jan. 15, 2019, the Freedom Forum Institute’s PowerShift Project hosted the PowerShift Summit 2.0 at the Newseum. The summit gathered invited leaders across journalism and the media industry to focus on #MeToo and the media one year later. (Summit photos courtesy of the Newseum)

 

In October 2017 the New York Times published a story detailing decades of alleged abuse by film executive Harvey Weinstein. The story marked a watershed, resulting in new stories of sexual harassment and workplace misconduct that spanned industries, including media organizations and newsrooms.

“There was a tremendous wave of press coverage of sexual misconduct at the top of many organizations, not just media,” said Cathy Trost, senior vice president and executive director of the Freedom Forum Institute, the education and outreach arm of the Freedom Forum and Newseum. “We got interested in how we could convene around these issues.”  

The Institute held the PowerShift Summit in January 2018 and the PowerShift Summit 2.0 in January 2019 to create a conversation around harassment and workplace integrity. The summits each brought together more than 130 people, including newsroom leaders, journalists, professors and human resources leaders.

At the Summit we came away knowing that our tolerance in media organizations, not just of harassment and misconduct, but of discrimination and corrosive behavior, had really left a trail of damage in the news industry,” Trost said.

It was clear that HR practices in their current format had failed and needed changing.

Sharif Durhams speaks at the PowerShift Summit 2.0

“Everything that happened, happened on our watch,” Traci Schweikert, vice president for HR at Politico, said at the 2019 summit. “We didn’t do all the things that we needed to do. From an HR standpoint, we did what was legally required.”

Less clear, however, was how to repair the damage and prevent future misconduct and harassment.

This is a moment when there isn’t a clear playbook, and we’re trying to figure out as a company what do we do to address this?” NPR President of Operations Loren Mayor said in 2018.

As allegations poured in, news organizations and media outlets began to look internally at their own practices and address their own issues. Many found that the issue was more complex than they’d initially thought.

“Sexual harassment was just the tip of the iceberg,” Mayor said in 2018. “It opened up all of these broader issues about power dynamics, inequalities in the organization, racial issues, it ran very deep.”

The complex nature of these issues meant that traditional online harassment training was not doing enough to prepare employees.

“That kind of check-the-box, online training really doesn’t create the strength that an organization needs to transform its culture,” Trost said.

New solutions

According to Trost, after the first PowerShift Summit it was clear that there was a desire for a new approach to creating and maintaining a positive work environment.

There was a real demand for a new kind of curriculum, a new kind of training, to help media organizations create safer, but also more respectful and diverse cultures across newsrooms and the whole organizations,” she said.

In response, the Freedom Forum Institute turned to Jill Geisler, a managing consultant with expertise in media organizations, to develop its Workplace Integrity Training. The training takes place over two days and uses critical thinking, creative role playing and group exercises.

The goal of the training is to “teach ways to be both proactive and reactive, to not just illegal harassment and misconduct, but to the kind of behaviors that we know now can lead to it,” Trost said.

News organizations send representatives to the workshop, where they practice teaching what they learn, so they can return to their own organizations to teach others. According to Trost, there have been four trainings and about 70 people have attended.

At NPR, Mayor began what she called “listening sessions,” where she met with groups of 20 people or fewer to hear what was on employees’ minds. Staff members came forward and requested a peer-to-peer support group for people who had concerns about harassment and broader workplace issues.

According to Sara Goo, managing editor at NPR, educating and training people throughout the company provided a new resource for them.

“We function to both guide people who have harassment concerns, and also as a kind of heatmap of the company to monitor when we see issues that really need to be addressed,” she said.

Jill Geisler at the PowerShift Summit 2.0

NPR worked with its legal and HR departments, as well as a consultant, to make sure their team was educated and well-prepared, according to Goo.

“It’s been a really incredible effort to watch,” Mayor said. “We’ve created something of a network of people around the company who are trusted and are an open door.”

Politico has looked to focus more on the environment they want,  rather than just the basic legal requirements, according to Schweikert. This has meant going above legally required online training.

Schweikert said they have begun having conversations that go beyond textbook policies, and instead focus on what things can look like on a day-to-day basis.

“As part of new employee orientation, we’re not just talking about the policies,” she said. “We’re talking about, ‘this is Politico, this is the culture we want.’ We have conversations about what that might look like. And if you are met with a situation where you don’t see that, who are the people you can go to.”

While the industry continues to make changes, Trost said eventually workplace integrity will become the culture rather than the goal.

“There’s enough organizations like ours,” she said. “And enough really good people in the news industry that see this not just as something they have to do to prevent illegal behavior, but as a better pathway to stronger journalism. And that’s the bottom line.”

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism, and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here
Our spring conference “What #MeToo Means for Gender, Power & Ethical Journalism” will take place on Friday, April 26, in Madison, Wisconsin. More information and registration can be found here.

Should journalists be transparent about their religion?

Photo by Aaron Burden on Unsplash

Jaweed Kaleem, National Reporter, Los Angeles Times

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Center for Journalism Ethics encourages the highest standards in journalism ethics worldwide. We foster vigorous debate about ethical practices in journalism, and provide a resource for producers, consumers and students of journalism. Sign up for our quarterly newsletter here.