Hingham, MA. — Even when our publications have ethics codes in place, we rarely think of newsroom technique as being able to help elevate the ethical underpinnings of our reporting.
But a recent Poynter Institute webinar, “New Ethics for News Managers,” offered potent ideas for an ethical review process that can do just that.
Two cases cited in the webinar — one stemming from a shooting and the other about the reporting of hateful tweets growing from the selection of a non-white Miss America — may more closely reflect issues in general-circulation media. Their lessons, though, apply as well to the world we inhabit at trade publications.
Poynter ethics expert Kelly McBride began the webinar, still available here, with a description of how complicated the editor’s job has become these days, especially online. Budget and staffing reductions put remaining editors in the position of “wearing 10 to 15 different hats,” she said. We are like air traffic controllers, avoiding disasters; traffic cops, enforcing standards and policies; quality control officers; and – in perhaps the most recognizable comparison – border collies (although it may be hard to picture them in hats.)
Part of the value of establishing a process is that it gets editors thinking about their internal training role. It readies the staff for paying attention to those sticky ethical problems that often arise unpredictably. And, significantly, it instills an ethical mindset even for more “routine” coverage, by allowing editors to weigh in with alternative ways of serving the audience.
Regular ethical discussions in the newsroom amount to a form of training. “The best place to strengthen the culture of ethical decision making in any organization is [with] middle managers,” McBride said in an email interview. “They have the power to set culture and to change culture.” And “when journalism companies invest in training that middle layer of editors in ethics, it’s like a dose of vitamin C for your immune system.”
The first step in the process involves recognizing relevant values: obvious ones like truth-seeking, establishing independence, and minimizing “harm for people who are going to be collateral damage” when stories appear, as McBride put it in the webinar. Then, she mentioned the “neutral values” that get thrown into the mix — such as earning a profit for the publisher, or “getting clicks” — and, of course, “bad values,” which would include giving in to advertisers when that independent truth-seeking produces a result displeasing to them.
The next step in this Poynter-proposed process is identifying a journalistic purpose behind the material being discussed. This may be something not verbalized often, like holding powerful forces accountable, or simply serving as a medium of record.
Then came the crux of the newsroom-process approach that the webinar proposed: that it allows discussion of alternatives that can help the coverage achieve the purpose, while reflecting the publication’s best values.
McBride acknowledged in the interview that editors do “use a process to arrive at ethical decisions most of the time.” In the current coverage of Ferguson, Mo., racial disturbances in the wake of the shooting of Michael Brown, she said, “A lot of newsrooms were employing a healthy process.” For an example of failure, she added, “you can see BuzzFeed’s own admission that it didn’t think through the removal of thousands of stories” from its archives.
As for the cases raised in the webinar, McBride introduced the fact-verification approaches used by news organizations when National Public Radio reported – incorrectly, as it turned out – that Rep. Gabrielle Giffords had died in the 2011 Tucson mall shooting. (NPR had two solid-sounding sources, both of which had it wrong. While six died in the shooting, the congresswoman survived.) In another webinar example, Poynter questioned BuzzFeed’s reporting on the hateful Twitter reactions immediately after selection of the first Indian-American Miss America.
Among McBride’s suggestions in the webinar, based on the two examples: asking sources the basis for their claim that Giffords had died, and putting Twitter results in better context, if the results were considered news at all. But in all cases where time permits, a process letting staffers discuss coverage alternatives has great merit.
Noted McBride in the webinar, “No matter what hat you’re wearing (as an editor) this process works.”
Poynter has had about 250 enrollees for the webinar so far. It is available at no charge because of a grant from the Ethics & Excellence in Journalism Foundation.
Roy Harris is president of the ASBPE Foundation, and a member of ASBPE’s Ethics Committee.