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Building reader trust with enhanced reporter bios: A Q&A with editor Edmund Lee

Sophia Vento is a 2023-24  fellow at the Center for Journalism Ethics and an undergraduate student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Edmund Lee, an assistant editor on the New York Times Trust Team, recently helped launch a new initiative to boost trust with audiences by spotlighting journalism ethics issues in reporters’ author pages. 

Implemented last month, this project seeks to address reader skepticism about reporter bias and cultivate a more explicit understanding of the journalistic process. 

Edmund Lee, New York Times Trust Team

Prior to joining the Times as a media reporter in 2018, Lee wrote for Bloomberg, Businessweek, Advertising Age, Condé Nast Portfolio, Vibe, New York Magazine and The Village Voice. He also wrote and edited at Vox and Recode. 

Lee spoke with us about the development of the Trust Team and its operations as well as what trust means to him. This story has been edited for clarity and brevity.

How did you come to be a part of the newsroom’s trust team? What does the team do? 

I joined the Times as a media reporter. It was a really fun time because the media was changing. Media was going through so much transformation. But there was an opportunity to join a new group at the Times that they were calling trust and innovation.

The building question was how do we bridge this trust gap. It was not just this gap between readers and the Times readers, but the media altogether. A lot of it stems from what the Internet has wrought. News is no longer gatekept. The Internet has affected the news landscape, it’s affected democracy, it’s affected how readers think about the media. We needed to tackle that more head on.

We decided we needed to do a better job of explaining our process, explaining how journalism works, explaining what reporters do, who reporters are. One of those things is what we call enhanced bylines. It’s a snippet of text that runs below the byline. Readers aren’t necessarily aware of the fact that reporters have beats. They tend to think reporters are all generalists. The enhanced byline is a way to address that. 

This is a big sea change for the Times, in particular, because the adage in journalism is that we’re not the story. We shouldn’t talk about ourselves. That actually has to change because readers are more aware that there is a journalistic process. When you don’t talk about it, when you don’t explain it, they’ll fill that void by presuming something, and often it’s the wrong thing. There is a very low level of news literacy and that explains a big part of this trust gap. 

We’re updating the reporters’ author pages to show in a uniform way who we are and what we do. It describes in plain English what the reporter does and their background. We also have a new section called journalistic ethics that explicitly states how reporters operate, what we do as reporters, and the rules that we adhere to. 

Now, to be really clear, Times reporters adhere to the same ethics guidelines. It’s very extensive. Anyone can read it, but few are aware of the guidelines in the first place. The point of this little section is to explain how that applies to that particular reporter. Again, it’s the same for everybody, but how it applies is slightly different for a business reporter versus a politics reporter versus a science and health reporter. From our research, we found this did a lot to address skepticism and develop more awareness for readers. 

You’ll also notice it’s written in the first person, which is another big change. We discovered from research that having that personable tone made reporters more accessible to readers. 

This is an issue for the Times in particular where we are often seen as this sort of cold, impenetrable institution. But that goes against exactly what it means to be a reporter. We are open. We come as a blank slate so to speak. We are impressionable by design. This change in how we present ourselves allows readers to understand us better as people. We go about our jobs with an open mind every single day. That’s the fun of being a journalist, and readers don’t know that.

The inclusion of the journalistic ethics statement on author’s pages is a very specific addition to a reporter’s biography. Was there a moment or turning point that prompted the team to implement this? 

When the trust team was formed in 2021, we got in a room and discussed all kinds of different ideas. This was one of them. A lot of this stems from my time at Vox Media and Recode. We included in our author pages an ethics statement. Tech reporting, in particular, was rife with a lot of conflicts of interest. Reporters were very cozy with the subjects they wrote about —  it wasn’t totally clear where that line was. At Recode, we were very clear what that line was. We said it up front. 

I took that idea to the Times. Again, I don’t think it’s unique to what we were doing at Recode and Vox Media, but it probably was one of the only news sites around at that time that actually put out an explicit ethics statement. Of course, at the Times, it wasn’t a new thing. The Times has had an ethics guideline forever. It was just a matter of being more explicit about it.

It became more urgent, as the Times saw that generative AI was really becoming prominent and would obviously start to seep into the media landscape. We see there are potential benefits, but also a lot of pitfalls to what generative AI will do to the media ecosystem. The newsroom felt it was now more important than ever to highlight the people behind our work, that we’re not bots. We’re people with ethics and with a whole set of rules and practices. It’s important to highlight our personalities — our humanness so to speak. 

Is there research suggesting the inclusion of ethics statements increases transparency and boosts trust?

We did do extensive research on the enhanced bio. The format — what I cover, my background, journalistic ethics and contact information — was all born out of this research. These were the specific areas that readers were very keen to know about our reporters. 

Our existing reporter pages are all over the place. It’s just not really uniform.. They don’t always address the questions readers have. 

First of all, readers inherently trust the Times. Certain segments of the readership don’t trust us, but in general, there is a high level of trust. However, when they come across a story they disagree with or find objectionable, that’s when they start to question the reporter. 

If they’re fine with the story. They don’t even care who the reporter is. They just read the story. As soon as they come across a story that they don’t agree with, or don’t like, they will click on the reporter’s name and be like, “Who is this person? What’s their agenda? Where are they from?” 

Our research showed that author pages really should address these things. We found not just this format, but specifically things like the ethics statement gave a huge boost to reader trust. It’s explicit, plain spoken and answers a lot of questions and inherent skepticism readers have. There will always be naysayers, but we found having a statement did a lot to bridge the gap. 

Screenshot showing New York Times reporter Apoorva Mandavilli's "enhanced bio," which is readable here:
A screenshot showing New York Times reporter Apoorva Mandavilli’s enhanced bio.

How are you measuring this project’s success? How’s it going so far? 

Success is getting the newsroom to do it. It’s a big newsroom. It will take time. It’s a very new initiative. We did a pilot over the summer with about a dozen reporters to fine tune. 

Of course we want more readers to be aware of this, but we felt it was just good journalism. Despite whatever metrics come out of this, it’s just a good thing to do. Showing our work and showing who we are fits into the underlying ethos of what journalism should be about. 

What have you been hearing from readers about this initiative? 

Apoorva Mandavilli, a science and global health reporter, was one of the early pilots. She shared this note from a reader just last week. 

She was on a podcast and the host was raving about the new bio format. The host said she loved it — it was much more personal and engaging. She said it made her trust her more as a reader. 

This is a loaded, abstract question, but what does trust and transparency mean to you?

My background as a media reporter is well suited to this trust initiative. Media reporting is an unusual animal within the world of journalism. It’s about other journalists. As a media reporter, you’re reporting on other newsrooms.

If the whole point of journalism is a story not about yourself,  media reporting kills that idea. It is about us to some degree. Media is hugely important and has always been. It’s a huge part of democracy. It’s a huge part of social conversation. Now, more than ever, the way that the Internet has changed everything, it’s more important to examine how information works, how journalism works, how things spread, and how things are messaged. 

In a way, everyone’s become much more aware of how media works. What trust means is embracing our profession. It’s okay to talk about ourselves. In fact, it’s more than okay. It’s necessary to talk about ourselves. We need to stop thinking we’re not the story because we are the story and will continue to be the story. 

Where do you think the industry as a whole can do to make strides to increase transparency and build trust with their audiences?

I hope they follow some of our lead. You don’t have to follow exactly what we’re doing but again, just being more explicit about how you do what you do. Proffering more transparency about the overall process, but also what is the mission of your news site? Who are you owned by? Who makes those decisions? 

All of those things should be more upfront and transparent. This is not a panacea by any means. It’s a game of inches. There is no silver bullet as far as I can tell.


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.

Announcing our spring conference, “Ethics, Urgency & Climate Journalism”


Center for Journalism Ethics hosting its spring conference, “Ethics, Urgency & Climate Journalism,” with support from craig newmark philanthropies and the Evjue Foundation

Madison, Wisconsin – The Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison will host its 14th annual journalism ethics conference at the Wisconsin Institutes for Discovery on Friday, April 28, 2023, in Madison, Wisconsin. The conference is free, open to the public and made possible by generous sponsorships from craig newmark philanthropies and the Evjue Foundation. 

Called “Ethics, Urgency & Climate Journalism,” the conference will bring together news media professionals, non-profit news leaders, media innovators, academics, climate change communicators, students and the public to address the ethical dimensions of covering climate change for our local, state, national and global communities. 

Some argue that journalism still isn’t effectively communicating the scope and scale of the climate change problem. And some barriers to conveying climate change urgency  lie within the field and practices of journalism itself, leaving journalists to question hard-baked professional practices and reimagine their position within existing ethical codes and value systems. 

As media organizations and thought leaders continue to call for new, different and improved coverage, the conference will foster important discussions around three areas of ethical concern: who gets heard on climate change?; what are the structural barriers to conveying scope and urgency?; and what are the many ways forward for journalists and other climate change communicators?  

“In this moment, climate questions feel relentless,” said Kathleen Bartzen Culver, James E. Burgess Chair in Journalism Ethics and director of the Center. “The public needs effective and ethical journalism to aid in the search for answers to those critical questions. I’m proud this conference will advance those efforts.”

Expert panelists will take on subjects such as climate reporting, equity and justice, how traditional media structures affect what gets covered and how, the contentious role of advocacy in journalism and more. TIME Magazine climate change reporter Justin Worland will provide a keynote address titled, “Justice and Journalism’s Climate Challenge.” 

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

The Evjue Foundation is the charitable arm of The Capital Times newspaper. Since its founding in the 1960s, the Foundation has made grants totaling more than $70 million to worthy educational, cultural and charitable organizations in the newspaper’s circulation area. 

craig newmark philanthropies supports groups that seek to defend values such as fairness, opportunity and respect and strengthen American democracy. The organization drives broad civic engagement by working to advance organizations focused on trustworthy journalism and the information ecosystem, voter protection, women in tech, and veterans and military families. Craig Newmark is the founder of craigslist. 

Registration is open and available here.

For more information, see the conference web page and/or contact Krista Eastman, administrator at the Center for Journalism Ethics, at

Recently retired NBC News reporter Pete Williams talked ethics and covering the Supreme Court

NBC News’ Pete Williams talks with Kathleen Culver, director of the Center for Journalism Ethics at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, during a public event hosted at the Play Circle Theater at the Memorial Union on Dec. 7, 2022. The event was open to the public and centered around questions about journalism ethics and Williams’ experience covering the U.S. Supreme Court. (Photo by Bryce Richter / UW–Madison)

Blake McCoy is a 2022-23 fellow at the Center for Journalism Ethics and a graduate student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

On December 7, award winning journalist and retired NBC News correspondent Pete Williams sat down with UW–Madison Center for Journalism Ethics Director Kathleen Bartzen Culver to discuss his path into journalism and the ethics of reporting on crime and the U.S. Supreme Court. 

“I am puzzled by people who say they don’t know what they’re going to do when they grow up because I’ve always known I wanted to do this,” Williams said.

At just 9 years old, Williams started his own neighborhood newspaper. In high school and while earning his degree at Stanford University, Williams worked in radio. After graduation, he returned to his hometown of Casper, Wyoming. There, he worked as a reporter and news director at KTWO-TV and Radio. 

In 1986, Williams joined congressman Dick Cheney’s staff as press secretary and legislative assistant. Two years later, Cheney became Secretary of Defense, and Williams took on the role of Assistant Secretary of Defense for Public Affairs. 

After his time as Assistant Secretary of Defense, Williams transitioned back to journalism. Based in Washington D.C., he covered the U.S. Supreme Court and the Departments of Justice and Homeland Security for almost 30 years. 

“Maybe it’s just because I’m somebody who likes rules,” Williams said. “But I think the law is fascinating.” 

When asked about his transition from a political appointee at the Department of Defense to working as a reporter for NBC, Williams said he didn’t face ethical obstacles. 

Williams described his role at the Pentagon as an “institutional spokesman” more than a political figure. “When I came to NBC, I had worked at the Department of Defense, so I clearly was not going to cover defense issues,” he said. “It would have been inappropriate for many reasons.” 

“When I went to NBC News,” Williams said, “my job was to be loyal to the National Broadcasting Company, and I didn’t find that a difficult transition to make.” 


During his career, Williams reported on many events including the Boston Marathon bombing, the 9/11 attack investigation and the Centennial Olympic Park bombing at the 1996 Summer Olympics, as well as major Supreme Court rulings. 

“I started covering the law when I was still in Wyoming, and I always found it fascinating,” Williams said. “My legal name is Louis Alan Williams. Now think about those initials. So maybe it was predestination, I don’t know.” 

To the audience in the Play Circle at Memorial Union, Williams described the journalistic ethics of reporting on the Supreme Court. He said that the goal of a Supreme Court reporter is to be neutral. 

“Nobody should be able to watch your story on Nightly News or read it on the web and say ‘Aha! He wants that side to win,” Williams said. 

“It’s not hard to maintain that neutrality because the court is built to have two sides,” he said. “You don’t have to go searching for the other point of view. It’s right there.” 

Pete Williams speaks with Katy Culver while both are seated in red chairs.
(Photo by Bryce Richter / UW–Madison)

Williams said the reason cases come to the Supreme Court is because they are difficult cases and questions to answer. When covering the court, he said his job was to give equal coverage to both sides of cases without indicating his personal point of view. 

Politicization of the Court

“The Supreme Court does not view its mission as the judicial injustice corrector,” Williams said. “It views its mission as harmonizing the law.” 

When asked if we should be covering more of the Supreme Court and their process, Williams said the selection of what is covered comes at milestones in the cases and depends on the specific issue. For example, Williams said sometimes stories will air when the court grants a case, when the briefs are submitted and when a decision is made. 

When it comes to reporting on the court as an institution in a climate of ever present politicization, Williams said it’s “worth noting” that supreme court justices tend to vote in ways aligned with the president they were appointed by, however that didn’t used to be the case. 

“[Prior to 1985,] it wasn’t true that the people who tended to vote conservatively were all appointed by Republican presidents. Now it is true,” Williams said. 

For those keeping an eye on the Supreme Court term, Williams spoke about the coverage of 303 Creative LLC v. Elenis and Moore v. Harper

Williams said the 303 Creative case is difficult to cover because the Supreme Court has twice passed on the issues and because it is not clear yet what legal reasoning for the decision will be. 

He said the question before the court is this: “Can a business owner refuse to serve a same-sex wedding, either because of religious views or free speech views?” and “Is a website design speech?”

(Photo by Bryce Richter / UW–Madison)

In regard to Moore v. Harper, Williams said the case is huge and it’s complicated, but he doesn’t think the court will rule in favor of Moore and the “independent state legislature” theory.

“The extension of that argument is beyond just redistricting, Williams said. “If there’s any dispute over an election, the legislature gets the last word and the state courts have no role here.” 

“I don’t think [the Supreme Court] is going to go for the theory. It didn’t seem to have enough takers,” he said. 

A Career in Stories 

When taking questions from the audience, Williams said some of the most memorable stories he reported on included the 2000 presidential election, historic Supreme Court decisions including the 2008 decision about the Second Amendment, and a story about an FBI agent accused of being a Russian spy. 

When reflecting on the many ethical decisions he’s made throughout his tenure, Williams said he doesn’t think he would change any reporting choices he made. 

“There were mistakes I made, I mean, I’m a human being,” Williams said. “Those are small and, I hope, forgotten.” 

“[Ethical decisions] are the sorts of decisions that, as you know, journalists make all the time,” he said. 

Watch the whole livestream here.

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

Lack of industry guidance on ‘unpublishing’ practices leaves student journalists in the dark

Erin Gretzinger is a 2022-23 fellow at the Center for Journalism Ethics and an undergraduate student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

A lawyer who demanded we unpublish a crime story about his client’s criminal history.

A former writer, now on the job hunt, who wanted opinion pieces they wrote over a decade ago removed.

A student whose name had been engraved into a bathroom stall on campus only to see those derogatory comments show up years later in a column still searchable online.

These are just a few examples of requests to remove content that I received as the former editor-in-chief of The Badger Herald, a nonprofit, independent student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. But there were many more requests that kept me up at night. 

According to Unpublishing the News, “unpublishing” is a set of challenges that arise from requests to take down, obscure or change accurate information published by a news organization. 

During my year-long tenure as editor-in-chief, we received more requests to take down articles than I can remember. Some were clear-cut, but most of them had competing ethical implications that felt daunting to tackle as a junior studying journalism (who was just trying to keep our newsroom afloat). 

So I went looking for resources. I searched and searched but, as it turns out, I am far from alone when it comes to unanswered questions about unpublishing – in student and professional newsrooms. 

Deborah Dwyer, a researcher who has studied unpublishing since 2016, knows the issue of unpublishing well – and the media industry’s reluctance to publicly address it.

In a 2018 survey of journalists, Dwyer found nearly 90% of newsrooms had a policy about unpublishing. However, just over half of newsrooms said their policy was not written down or documented. About 18% of newsrooms had a documented policy, but it was only shared internally with staff members. Only a small fraction of newsrooms – 10% of respondents – actually shared their policy with the public. 

“It (unpublishing) was kind of a don’t ask, don’t tell, dirty little secret,” she said.

Conversely, concrete unpublishing policies are a strong desire among the general public. A 2020 survey by Dwyer of U.S. adults found over 80% thought news organizations should have guidelines about what information can be removed from their digital archives.

As most industry leaders grapple with the best ways to address unpublishing behind closed doors, many student journalists are left without a clear model of how to handle difficult unpublishing requests. To further complicate the issue, student newsrooms face additional challenges with unpublishing that professional newsrooms do not have to consider. 

“When it comes to unpublishing, I think the hardest thing is that there is no standard that an advisor or an enterprising student can go (to) online,” said Chris Evans, the former president of the College Media Association. “That’s not particularly helpful to a student journalist who is just learning the trade.

“Unpublishing is not just a journalistic challenge. It’s a leadership challenge – both in the moment and industry-wide.”

The “wicked problem” of unpublishing

The decision to take down or keep a story online can have serious implications for individuals making the requests and the newsrooms who receive them. Unpublishing requests can arise from a number of different concerns, such as privacy, connections to past controversies, threats to reputations or traumatic experiences. 

Dwyer calls unpublishing a “wicked problem” – meaning there are so many different and complex facets to the issue that it seems impossible to solve. 

In her early conversations with newsrooms, Dwyer said many editors thought of unpublishing as an “anathema” to journalism, in which many journalists view themselves as writing the “first draft of history.” But in the digital age, where news does not fade away with the daily paper and audiences have a growing influence over news production decisions, Dwyer said journalists have a responsibility and an imperative to address unpublishing questions.

“This is another way that external actors can influence editorial decisions, and that is uncomfortable for journalists,” Dwyer said. “And it ought to be uncomfortable for us too because if not handled appropriately, it can be a major problem.” 

A lack of guidance and transparency around unpublishing is what led Dwyer to found the Unpublishing the News project – a resource and forum for newsrooms to tackle the question of unpublishing and forge a path forward to creating comprehensive policies. 

Dwyer breaks down unpublishing into two parts: post-publication and pre-publication practices. Most commonly associated with unpublishing, post-production practices include actions such as removing an article, de-indexing a link in a search engine, anonymizing a name or updating content. 

It’s a lot easier for a student to go pull up a document that tells them definitively what to do. There’s a lot of reasons just based on culture, and the nature of student journalism that makes that likely to be the fallback position. But it is likely not the most appropriate when you consider that many unpublishing issues can arise in the type of reporting that happens when people are in school and potentially not thinking about the ramifications of this being out there forever.

Deborah Dwyer

Pre-publication practices refer to steps a news organization takes before an article is online. A large portion of pre-publication considerations focus on crime reporting, including questions about what crimes outlets choose to cover and how reporters follow up on crime stories. For example, the Associated Press announced last summer that they would no longer name suspects in minor crimes.

“It’s rethinking for the digital age some of these things that we have just pulled from the print era into the digital era without giving them a whole lot of thought,” Dwyer said. “Unpublishing requests run the gamut, but a lot of this is primarily focused around crime.”

In her recently published dissertation, Dwyer found college publications actually fare better than their professional counterparts in having unpublishing policies in place. However, college publications were also more likely to have a hardline stance on unpublishing – and the answer is often never.

“It’s a lot easier for a student to go pull up a document that tells them definitively what to do,” Dwyer said. “There’s a lot of reasons just based on culture, and the nature of student journalism that makes that likely to be the fallback position. But it is likely not the most appropriate when you consider that many unpublishing issues can arise in the type of reporting that happens when people are in school and potentially not thinking about the ramifications of this being out there forever.”

Since unpublishing remains a gray area in the professional industry, Dwyer said student journalists likely believe a black-and-white policy is the way professionals handle these questions. In turn, professional organizations – who tend to claim they never unpublish despite internal exceptions – may give students a “false expectation” that they never unpublish stories even though they do.

Student publications face unique unpublishing challenges

Like the professional industry, the pressures of unpublishing on student publications are constantly increasing. Mike Hiestand, senior legal counsel for the Student Press Law Center, has seen inquiries about takedown requests from students increase every year.

“Every news media organization really needs to be prepared for it,” Hiestand said. “It’s just part of doing business these days.”

In addition to being less experienced and resourced than seasoned editors, certain unpublishing issues bubble up in student publications that professionals do not have to grapple with, said Evans, who has been a college newspaper adviser since 2004.  

For example, university and student government officials may attempt to interfere with students’ unpublishing decisions. In an anecdotal experiment that Evans has run with dozens of student journalists, he asks them if they would take down an article if the university president told them to. He estimates that about 80% say yes. 

This imaginary scenario has real-world consequences. Evans recounted one experience where student journalists wrote a negative story about a university employee who immediately launched a “pressure campaign” against the publication to take down the article. Evans said the students eventually removed the story because the employee’s stream of unrelenting emails hurt their recruitment efforts. 

Students also face legal pressure to take down articles. One of the key cases to land in court about unpublishing stemmed from a student publication. Evans said the intimidation alone can be enough to convince students to remove the article. 

The first thing we need to know is, was it lawful when it went up? Did you get the story right? And if that’s the case, we move from the legal side into the ethics side, into the editorial side.

Mike Hiestand

Students should know there is a silver lining on the legal side of this debate. As long as the content was accurate when it was published, Hiestand said there is not much legal standing for lawsuits related to libel or defamation. 

“The first thing we need to know is, was it lawful when it went up? Did you get the story right?” Hiestand said. “And if that’s the case, we move from the legal side into the ethics side, into the editorial side.”

Another quick trick to assuage legal concerns is to check when the article was published. In most states, Hiestand said defamation cases have a statute of limitations of one to three years. 

However, this does not make the ethical deliberations behind unpublishing any easier. 

This is exemplified in another unique challenge for student publications: getting requests from former writers themselves. Former student writers may request to remove an inflammatory opinion piece or story that is hurting their job prospects, or perhaps a now-professional journalist finds an article they wrote in college does not reflect their best work. 

Hiestand, Evans and Dwyer agree that requests from former writers carry complicated implications and questions for student newsrooms. Hiestand noted an additional unintended consequence of strict unpublishing policies: chilled speech among student writers. 

“I would hear students talk about how they were reluctant to write a piece about legalizing marijuana or something like that,” Hiestand said. “They might strongly believe in that, but there was some concern (of) how that might come back to bite them in the butt.”

Steps to take for students

While there are few clear-cut unpublishing decisions – and examples of policies in the professional world are scarce – there are some steps student publications can take to address the daunting issue of unpublishing in their newsrooms. Here is a guide compiled throughout the reporting of this story to help students handle individual requests and create comprehensive policies.

Unlike other journalistic industry standards, Dwyer doubts all newsrooms will come to agreement on unpublishing guidelines – but the key ingredient she thinks every policy needs is transparency. To obtain transparency in unpublishing, Dwyer said newsrooms should have written policies that are accessible to the public. Transparent policies should also explain who in the newsroom decides what content is unpublished and how content is updated or removed.

Dywer notes there are equity considerations with transparency. Without a public policy detailing the process behind unpublishing decisions, it is easy to exacerbate inequities between who does and does not get “digital redemption.”

“Without transparency, we don’t know that it’s only the white attorneys who were friends with the publisher who are getting their DUIs removed, and it’s not the kid who maybe is from the wrong side of the tracks who actually needs that leg-up more.”

Without transparency, we don’t know that it’s only the white attorneys who were friends with the publisher who are getting their DUIs removed, and it’s not the kid who maybe is from the wrong side of the tracks who actually needs that leg-up more.

Deborah Dwyer

Another consideration Dwyer and Hiestand proposed is for news organizations to consider front-end, pre-publication policies based on the news value of leaving certain content online forever. For instance, Dwyer said news organizations could determine that the value of reporting on minor crime is to inform the community and decide that type of content only needs to remain indexed for a year – meaning the article would remain online, but it would be obscured and harder to find based on personal identifiers, such as names.

“By making some of these decisions on the front end about life cycles of content, it allows you to do that to where it’s much more equitable, and you take a lot of the potential bias out of the process,” Dwyer said.  

Hiestand encourages student media to avoid a “one-size-fits-all” policy and weigh various editorial and ethical considerations in their unpublishing decisions. In his view, age is an especially important consideration for students to take into account. He suggests that young people shouldn’t be given a “free pass” for past behavior but perhaps some “breathing room.” 

“If a college kid is busted for underage drinking or something like that, and you put that in your news article, and that can be searched and pulled up 30 to 40 years years later or whatever, you know, how valuable is that? Is that really serving any sort of purpose?” he said.

Evans’ advice for students is to look at the unpublishing policies that already exist and talk with community members – especially those from marginalized groups – about what a good policy would be. 

Evans and Dwyer also recommend students look into how the European Union addresses some of these issues through “Right to Be Forgotten” legislation, which provides private citizens the ability to petition search engines like Google to deoptimize certain parts of their online presence.

Despite the challenges, unpublishing is an issue journalists – especially young ones – cannot shy away from. 

“It’s really thinking these things through on the front-end and being exposed to them, which is why discussion in the professional world and in classrooms is so important – so you have heard of these things before,” Dwyer said. “You didn’t get that first request as a student editor.”

Read and bookmark our guide to creating an unpublishing policy. 

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.

How journalists can better sound the alarm on climate change

Photo by veeterzy on Unsplash

A Q&A on climate change coverage w/ Oxford Climate Journalism Network co-founder Wolfgang Blau

Wolfgang Blau, the co-founder of Oxford Climate Journalism Network (OCJN), started his career as a radio news presenter and news editor in Germany. After working for different German news media, he became a reporter in Silicon Valley, the editor-in-chief of Zeit Online, the executive director of digital strategy at The Guardian for the UK, US and Australia, chief digital officer of the global media company Condé Nast and then global chief operating officer and president international of Condé Nast. Since last year, he has also served as an advisor to the United Nations climate change division.      

Throughout his career, Blau has been passionate about the environment and concerned about climate change. His extensive newsroom experience has also led him to an important but troubling observation: For various operational and cultural reasons, most newsrooms are struggling to integrate aspects of the climate crisis into their day-to-day reporting and do not realize that climate change will soon become journalism’s greatest challenge. 

Blau began interviewing news organizations around the world about their climate journalism, hoping to detect patterns that could then lead to new ways of supporting the news media. Based on this research, he then developed and co-founded the Oxford Climate Journalism Network together with the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. The network’s mission is to help journalists and editors develop their coverage of climate change. 

We spoke with Blau about why climate change is so often not considered “news,” how climate coverage needs to be a part of all beats, about charges of activism in journalism and much more.   

This interview has been edited for clarity and concision. 

How did your experience in the newsroom lead you to creating the Oxford Climate Journalism Network?

The first phenomenon that intrigued me was how covering the environment and climate change was always considered an add-on, a supplement to the main publication and not an integral part of it. Second, in my experience, a lot of what is called climate journalism does not find great audiences by standard audience metrics. My third experience was at Condé Nast, where I was able to create roles for sustainability editors for various brands. I found it surprisingly difficult then to recruit journalists with the qualifications we needed. All these experiences led me to really want to understand why it is so difficult for the news media to cover climate change appropriately, given the importance and urgency of the climate crisis.

Then I started interviewing dozens of news organizations around the world and asking them the ever-same questions: Are you planning to expand your coverage of climate change? What are your challenges? Do you give special training to your staff? Are accusations against your team of being activists an issue? How did you organize your newsroom? Do you rely on your science desk or do you start a separate climate desk? Do you encourage all of your teams from sports to culture to cover climate change or only your climate specialists? 

From these interviews and a structured survey, a pattern emerged of what was missing and how we could support the news industry.

Two working assumptions are driving us now at the Oxford Climate Journalism Network. One is that while you do need climate experts, meteorologists and climate scientists working within a news organization, you also need to raise the average climate literacy across all teams. This is similar to how newsrooms once had to increase their digital literacy across all teams. The second is that the climate crisis is not a topic that you can squeeze only into a science desk, politics or occasionally the business desk. The climate crisis is not just about science, politics or business but also changes the world of sport, food, travel, gardening, real estate and personal finance, to mention a few. It changes everything. We want all journalists to be able to competently and accurately add the climate dimension to the stories they are already covering, where that is relevant. Today, that climate dimension is still mostly missing from stories that really should have included it. 

What are the biggest challenges climate journalists face?

If you speak with the climate journalists that are currently part of a science desk or dedicated climate desk, a key challenge for them is that they’re often being told there are other, more important topics to pay attention to than climate change. More often, it is the news desk that decides against giving their story premium placement during prime time. 

This has to do with what is called the news value criteria. A news desk editor – I’ve been one myself for many years – tends to be flooded with potential topics and so they need a kind of mental filter or set of criteria for selecting the few stories they run and for rejecting all others. If you interview experienced news editors about what their news value criteria are, you often hear a combination of these filters or criteria: First, the story needs to be new. After all, it’s called ‘the news’ for a reason. To which you could say, well, climate change, isn’t really news. Climate change has been around yesterday and last year, and it will be around next year, so why run the story today? In many newsrooms, your story also has a better chance of making it into the news list if it describes something that happened in close geographic vicinity to where your audience lives. This proximity news value is why an accident in your neighborhood is more likely to make it into the news than a very similar accident in another country. Apply this to the climate crisis and you will notice how it is mostly regional extreme weather events that help the climate crisis make it into the news, while these extreme weather events are only the ‘breaking news surface’ of something much bigger. News topics also shouldn’t be so complicated that you need additional explainer pieces or explainer pages just so that your audience can even make sense of that one news story. Climate change is not a simple topic, though, nor a mono-causal story; it is fairly complex. 

Many news organizations also have a preference for news stories with an event angle on a topic or a personalization angle on it. But again, with climate change there aren’t that many event angles, apart, of course, from the growing number of extreme weather events and the occasional climate summit or release of an IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report. This focus on events can have absurd consequences, though: Sometimes, when a big sheet of Antarctic ice breaks off, this event or incident becomes news, also because there are images to publish. But the more important event of a major scientific study being published about the Western Antarctic possibly reaching a tipping point barely makes it into the news because there’s no event attached to it. So, apart from extreme weather events and the occasional climate summit, climate stories often miss the event angle or the personalization angle, another helpful route for a topic to make it into the news list. 

You are then left with another news values criteria, which is the public interest. Sometimes, a news story does not fulfill the most common news value criteria and – in the case, for instance, of election results – isn’t even news anymore but still makes it into the news list, simply because the story is considered vital to the public interest. Several chief editors believe that the public interest in climate journalism is much greater than what we thought in the past. There are a few news organizations, notably Agence France Presse, who are beginning to adjust to the climate reality and acknowledge in their news selection just how much coverage of the climate crisis is in the public interest.        

It helps to understand here that the climate crisis isn’t just a topic but something more fundamental or systemic, if you prefer that word, in how it affects and changes every area of our lives, our economies and cultures. In that way, the climate crisis also affects or provides journalistic opportunities to every desk or vertical of a typical news organization, from news to culture to sport. Take real estate journalism, for instance. There are regions in the United States where it is getting difficult or prohibitively expensive to get insurance for the new house you want to buy because of the climate-related risks of sea-level rise, floods or fires.  

So, instead of reading a story about climate change from the science desk, you could be reading a real-estate story, but – if done right – that story could include an informative, journalistically relevant component of climate journalism. To competently add such climate dimensions to your sports, health, real estate or travel journalism, your editors and reporters need to collaborate very closely with the climate experts in your newsroom. Often this higher degree of collaboration depends on the leadership skills of a newsroom’s managing editor or chief editor.

The second big challenge is the lack of climate literacy in most newsrooms. We expect a sports journalists, certainly the leader of a sports desk, to know the basic rules of how their country’s election system works. Just like you’d expect a political journalist to not be completely ignorant of your country’s most popular sports. In newsrooms, these things are considered general education. Typically, though, we don’t view climate literacy as general education yet. And I really mean the basics: What is the natural greenhouse effect and how does it work in broad terms? What are the main sources of CO2 and what does it do to the climate? What is the world’s remaining approximate carbon budget to keep global warming under 1.5 or 2 degrees? This kind of basic climate literacy needs to be established across all teams of a news organization so that a news desk editor or other editors across any desk can understand the relevance of a specific climate story or of a climate aspect within their own subject matter area.           

Next, there are the organizational questions in a newsroom: should we set up a climate desk or should we just expand the existing science desk? Or should we pursue a ‘virtual hub’ approach where editors from all teams meet once or twice a week to discuss their longer-term story plans and potential climate aspects they may want to add to these stories. 

These are all operational questions, as they either require budget increases or more management attention or both. 

In many regions of the world, there is also the issue of missing data or a lack of access to relevant scientists who can help journalists make sense of climate research or climate-data. 

Another very typical complaint, especially among younger climate journalists, is that they are often being accused of activism and of violating journalistic norms if they want to cover the climate crises more frequently than before. 

Newsrooms typically know how to navigate ethical conflicts. A familiar question in many news organizations is how to detect and deal with potential conflicts of interests. As an example: What do you do as a journalist when you are being asked to write about a company that your spouse is working for or may own shares of? Especially the large news organizations have created editorial codes of ethics to help them deal with these day-to-day conflicts. Not many news organizations, though, have dealt with the question of how to delineate their journalism from activism, nor are they very transparent about their news value criteria, i.e. the criteria by which any given topic is deemed newsworthy or not.

How do you think news organizations need to deal with journalism/activism binary concerning climate journalism? 

An important first step for news organizations would be to include the question of how to delineate between journalism and activism into their existing codes of ethics or codes of practice. An editorial code of ethics is a bit like a legal text in that it needs to have a high degree of abstraction and thus can’t possibly define or anticipate every possible real-life conflict that comes up. What such a code can give you, though, is a basic framework and a shared language to discuss practical conflicts as they come up. Just the process alone of drafting such an added paragraph on the delineation between journalism and activism can already help a newsroom become more aware of the issues, including the harm that can be caused by needlessly accusing climate journalists of being activists simply because they’ve expressed a high degree of urgency or concern about climate change     

Also, when looking at how to delineate activism from journalism, a more instructive starting point is not to try to define what journalism looks like that is free from any element of activism – an almost impossible task – but to approach the question from the other end and to ask what the typical elements of activism are. This approach will allow you then to identify potential activism in your newsrooms journalistic output more easily: Activism is very monothematic and often focused on achieving one single thing, such as the change of a law or of a specific product. It is the nature of journalism in contrast to present a multitude of possible approaches to a given problem. Activism also needs to be highly repetitive in its messaging so that a campaign can reach its one defined target or milestone. Journalism in contrast can’t afford to be that repetitive. 

Activism often tends to have a tonality of ‘us versus them’ and can be based on clearly defined group identities. Good journalism, in contrast, needs to be as inclusive as possible. It also comes with the nature of activism that an activist campaign is not keen on revealing logical contradictions or unknowns in its own line of arguments or demands, whereas good journalism ideally is transparent about what is yet unknown or contradictory in anyone’s proposals. Activism also tends to speak from a position of moral superiority, which journalism does as well at times, but shouldn’t. 

Having said that, there is something else I must emphasize: While journalism and activism play different roles in society and should be kept separate, they are both needed and important. Journalism owes a lot to activism and journalists should not speak pejoratively of activism. Without the work of activists of past generations, we would have no freedom of speech, no right to vote and no freedom of the press. Activism and journalism are both valuable. They are just not the same. The fact that journalism itself often struggles to remain impartial does not mean then that we may just as well give up on the idea of impartiality and objectivity at all. The very act of striving for maximum objectivity, fairness, accuracy and transparency already creates a different culture and journalistic product compared to journalism that has given up on or disregards these ideals. With all our personal biases, different formative life experiences and backgrounds, we will never achieve being objective or fair, but the very act and practice of trying to do so every day is still the best we have got and is also what our audiences in many countries clearly prefer. 

Solution journalism is often offered for making climate change news more popular. What do you think about that?

Yes, there is quite a lot of research available that shows how humans prefer to engage with threatening information if there is also a perspective provided on what could be done to address a danger or problem. Journalism’s primary duty, of course, is to report on the world as it is. But if this means to only report on problems, threats and risks without also reporting on what could be done to address these, then journalism is not doing its job either. Several institutions, such as the Solutions Journalism Network in New York, the Constructive Institute in Denmark and Germany’s Bonn Institute for Journalism and Constructive Dialogue all offer training for journalists on how to add constructive perspectives to their work.

Unfortunately, though, many journalists falsely assume that constructive journalism means to somehow sugarcoat reality. I think this is a misunderstanding and that we should make a greater effort to report on potential solutions and answers to the climate crisis. From the most recent Reuters Digital News Report, we know also that news avoidance is a growing phenomenon which has to do with people feeling demoralized and disempowered by a steady stream of news that doesn’t also include reports on positive changes that are already taking place, whether these are positive changes at a political, corporate, cultural, scientific or personal level. 

It probably was a mistake to speak of ‘constructive journalism’ or ‘solutions journalism’ as if these were separate types of journalism or movements. Journalists don’t like to join movements. We should rather view the tools these organizations have developed as methods than can help make journalism more successful and useful.

Is there a first domino that needs to fall for climate coverage to do what it needs to do? If so, what is that domino in your opinion?

As we saw with both the Black Lives Matter movement and the MeToo movement, there certainly were tipping points of public perception after which you could see widespread changes in societal norms and behaviors, including a change in how mainstream news organizations reported on these issues. The question then is: has the issue of climate change seen such a tipping point in public perception already?  I think the answer to that very much depends on the region of the world you are in and how much your respective country has already been affected by climate change. Similarly to the Black Lives Matter or the MeToo Movement though, it is difficult, if not impossible to predict what that tipping point or trigger event might be for a country and why one catastrophe may have that galvanizing effect and another doesn’t. 

Going back to your question about whether there is a domino that needs to fall: I don’t think so. The dominoes are already falling. From the work of neuroscientists such as Prof. Kris de Meyer at London’s Kings College, we know that seeing other people change their climate-relevant behaviors can have a greater effect on our own positive behavioral and attitudinal changes than reading or seeing reports about climate catastrophes. In that sense, I try to balance my worry about scientific climate tipping points with my hope for positive social tipping points. These positive tipping points are probably more about multiple self-amplifying network effects than about linear rows of dominoes. 

The subject of climate change is very politicized, especially in the US. How should journalists work on such a politicized subject?

I keep hearing that climate change has become very politicized but shouldn’t be politicized. I am not sure I agree with that. Yes, of course, the question of whether we respect the science of human-made climate change must not depend on our respective political orientations. Climate science should not be political. 

The consequences, though, of climate change and the questions of how to mitigate further climate change and how to adapt to the unavoidable climate change are all deeply political questions. They are also questions of distributing costs, tax burdens and profits. To shift from a fossil-fuel-based economy to renewables, to redesign our agricultures, our steel, cement, textile and chemical industries and the transportation sector will all have tremendous political consequences. We are looking at a massive redistribution of power and wealth at a national and global level. Of course, this is political and it should be! Societies will have to make hard choices on what to prioritize and on the sequencing of their climate action. These decisions very much belong in the political sphere so that we can ensure transparency, societal cohesion and, ideally, good decision-making. It is only climate science itself that is not for politicians to decide over. Not because they shouldn’t, but because they can’t. We have options for how to address climate change. But the fact of climate change itself is no longer optional. 

Are there any lessons from covering COVID-19 to help newsrooms to be more ethical in covering climate change?  

Yes, many. If you and I would have been daydreaming just three years ago about the idea that people across a wide range of industries would transition to working from home with no more than a few days notice, we both wouldn’t have believed such massive and sudden change was possible. The pandemic taught us that societies can make very sudden, large-scale behavioral changes, which is encouraging. We have also witnessed the scientific breakthrough of new vaccines in record time. As for journalism, there were two major lessons: one is about newsroom collaboration, the other about the value of metrics. In my research, many newsrooms confirmed to me that covering the pandemic has dramatically increased all their teams’ collaboration with their science editors, something that will also be critical for better covering the climate crisis. You also saw business editors or political editors realize they had to become ‘covid-literate’ and acquire that basic scientific knowledge within days. 

Another useful development of covering COVID-19 has been the emergence of a small set of key metrics to measure the current status of the pandemic: infection rates, hospitalization rates, vaccination rates as well as death rates. Over time, this small set of metrics provided readers, viewers and listeners with the necessary minimum context to understand whether the situation was currently getting worse or improving. We are still lacking a similarly concise set of metrics for the climate crisis but there are various groups of journalists and academics working towards one. So, greater newsroom collaboration, a greater appreciation for basic scientific literacy and a better understanding of how important metrics are for conveying complex stories are all lessons learned during these first years of the pandemic that are now valuable for covering climate change. 

The Oxford Climate Journalism Network (OCJN) is a new program at the Reuters Institute for the Study of Journalism at the University of Oxford. Its mission is to help journalists and editors develop their coverage of climate change, and support leaders in identifying the issues involved in reporting on the climate crisis. The network is free to join and is open to working journalists, employed or freelance, covering any beat, not just environment and climate.

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