Tag Archives: journalism ethics

Why can’t the news be more honest?

Dow Jones, the company that owns the Wall Street Journal, recently issued some directives concerning employee use of social media (read: Facebook, Twitter). (Thanks, Lucas!)

Some of the rules make sense, like not using fake names, not expressing partisan opinions, and not engaging in epic flame wars with those who would criticize you. Some other ones are the kind of stuff you might not think of off the bat, like not Facebook-friending anonymous sources.

And then there’s the cover-your-ass boilerplate that sounds like it’s meant more to build a wall between journalists and readers than to ensure journalistic integrity: “Let our coverage speak for itself, and don’t detail how an article was reported, written or edited. Don’t discuss articles that haven’t been published, meetings you’ve attended or plan to attend with staff or sources, or interviews that you’ve conducted.”

Meanwhile, Bloomberg has issued orders that employees are not to write blogs that discuss work, aren’t allowed to link to competitors or even discuss them.

It’s unfortunate that even with the rise of the Internet, major news organizations still fear true transparency. They’re all about using Facebook and Twitter for marketing and finding that man-in-the-street source that turns an issue story into a human interest story. But the news media want to project an image that they are without flaws.

Steve Proulx explored this issue in a recent post, pointing out that they’re particularly awful when it comes to reporting bad news about themselves.

Quebecor, Canwest, CTV and others will dutifully report on the press releases issued by their parent companies, but when it comes to analysis, you have to seek out their competitors who are more free to explore the issues.

An exception to this is the CBC, who – probably because they’re a public broadcaster and are ultimately responsible to politicians instead of corporate shareholders – follow a culture where employees can be critical of management and don’t have to clear every Twitter post through corporate PR.

These are generalizations, of course. There are probably many middle managers at the CBC who believe in silencing dissent, just like there are some at private media who believe in transparency.

But when in doubt, many media err on the side of keeping embarrassing information to themselves, or at least trying to bury it.

That’s unfortunate, because it builds resentment among honest journalists, and mistrust among news consumers. Neither of those is healthy for a news organization.

We all have flaws. Some of them are embarrassing, others less so. Most distill down to something more complex than “we’re evil” and would probably be understood – even if not agreed to – by the audience.

Building a culture of honesty by putting one’s flaws out there for people to see gives people the impression that the news outlet they’re dealing with is like them: human.

Nelson Dumais and Cyberpresse need to stand up for integrity

A few weeks ago, Cyberpresse technology blogger Nelson Dumais had a curious post on his blog attacking the Quebec Press Council. It seems the Conseil de presse du Qu├ębec had issued a decision which blamed him for accepting free trips, a violation of the council’s code of ethics.

The situation is somewhat nuanced, so let me explain:

The council only acts based on complaints. In this case, a reader who has a beef with Dumais accused him of being biased in favour of corporate software and against free software, because of these free junkets he went on. The complainant also accuses Dumais of censoring his comments on Dumais’s blog. The council rejected both of these complaints, failing to find any bias in Dumais’s work and ruling that Dumais has the authority to moderate his blog as he sees fit.

But the council did give Dumais a slap on the wrist for accepting free travel sponsored by the companies he writes about, without fully disclosing the trips to his readers. He hasn’t hidden the fact that he gets these trips for free, he even wrote a blog post about it in 2006, but since not all readers will have seen that post, he should disclose it whenever there might be a conflict of interest.

Paid travel is listed as an example in the council’s section on responsibilities of the press to avoid conflicts of interest:

Preventing Conflicts of Interest

The Press Council recommends that media enterprises develop clear policies to prevent and deal with conflict of interest situations. Those policies should apply both to reporters and opinion writers. All situations that risk compromising the independence and impartiality of journalists should be addressed. Examples include paid travel, privileges and gifts, as well as awards and prizes offered by any group whose main purpose is to promote something other than journalism.

It acknowledges that there might be exceptions (reporting from war zones or other far-off places where commercial travel is unfeasible), but that there must be full disclosure in those situations.

Of course, these are all guidelines. The council has no official power. It cannot fine or discipline journalists for violations, and participation in the council is optional.

So a body with no power has mostly cleared Dumais of wrongdoing, only saying that he should disclose where the companies he writes about give him free travel to their junkets. Simple, right?

Obviously not, because Dumais is pissed. And I must be missing something, because most of his readers are too, and even fellow journalists.

Dumais’s argument is also nuanced. First of all, he’s not on staff at La Presse or Cyberpresse. He’s a freelancer, which means he basically has to look after his own expenses.

He also trots out that well-worn of excuses that everybody else does it, so that makes it okay.

Finally, he adds that in no way have these junkets affected how he reports, and requiring disclosure on every piece he writes would give people the false impression that these companies are paying him for his opinion.

But none of these excuses justifies accepting all-expenses-paid trips from software companies, much less deciding not to disclose them fully.

First of all, as any ethics expert will tell you, it’s not just about conflict of interest. It’s about the appearance of conflict.

Second, if these junkets truly had absolutely no effect on how journalists report, they would not exist. These giant software companies aren’t morons. They know if they give you free food and free travel, you’re a lot more likely to talk about their product. There might not be any direct quid pro quo, but they know you’re a lot more likely to say something positive about them. And if you have a reputation as someone who bashes the products promoted on these junkets, you won’t be invited to them in the future.

Finally, Cyberpresse should not be exploiting freelancers as a way of getting around paying expenses. Dumais is right that if he billed Gesca for all these trips, he wouldn’t be allowed to go on them anymore (an argument that makes it clear these trips are of value to him). But if we accept that journalists should not get free travel, then even freelancers should have their expenses paid for, no questions asked. This judgment is as much a stain on Gesca as it is on Dumais.

Dumais says he doesn’t have a choice in this matter. That’s bullshit. He can refuse these junkets. He just doesn’t want to, and neither does Cyberpresse, because they both (indirectly) profit financially from them.

Dumais and Cyberpresse must put an immediate stop to this, and stand up for journalistic integrity. These junkets should be outright banned, Dumais’s previous articles online should be edited to add disclosure statements to them, and a policy should be setup to ensure that freelancers do not feel they have to deal with their own expenses when they write original pieces for Gesca-owned properties. Other media organizations should follow suit with similar policies, including full disclosure of any gifts, sponsorships, favours or expenses paid for by companies seeking favourable coverage.

Someone must stand up for ethics, even if that means he stands alone.

If Frank Zampino is getting raked over the coals for accepting a yacht trip that he paid for, why should Nelson Dumais be allowed to accept trips that were provided for free? Do we expect stronger ethics in politicians than journalists?

The oxymoron of media ethics

I’m told there’s a free conference on media ethics Friday/Saturday at U de M, sponsored by the CREUM (ethics research centre). Most of it happens before noon when I’m unconscious, but there’s a panel at 5:30 on Friday about whether competition hurts journalism, with Michelle Blanc and Yves Boisvert. If I had any ethics, I might go.

The full schedule (in PDF) is here.

National Post apologizes for reporter’s Twitter tantrum

Some people see Twitter as a form of instant messaging. But those people can quickly forget that what you say on Twitter is just as public (if not moreso) than what you post on Facebook.

National Post technology reporter David George-Cosh learned that the hard way today when an expletive-filled argument he had with a source on Twitter was publicized (and republicized and republicized), making him (and the paper) look pretty bad.

The result, mere hours later, was an apology posted to the Post’s Editors blog (which doesn’t name the reporter it’s apologizing for, nor the person it’s apologizing to, nor the nature of the conduct, but who needs specifics for these things?). (Via Regret the Error)

Reporters are human, and like everyone else they’ll have off days and they’ll get into arguments. But when they happen online, those arguments can easily become public, and this is probably not the last time we’ll see apologies for personal conduct of people associated with media.

In this case, the reporter’s actions were in a professional capacity (which makes it the paper’s problem), but I wonder when the time will come where reporters, columnists and other public figures associated with a publication’s brand will have clauses in their contracts about what they can post to their Facebook profiles, personal blogs or other public and semi-public forums online.

UPDATE: April Dunford, the victim of the tirade, has similar thoughts on her blog.

UPDATE (Feb. 12): More reaction from Roberto Rocha and a let’s-attack-the-victim post from ZDNet’s Jennifer Leggio (which gets its basic premise wrong). Additional commentary from Mathew Ingram and the Telegraph’s Shane Richmond.

UPDATE (May 25): Three months later, George-Cosh writes about the “incident” on his blog, saying he’s learned some hard lessons, though he still makes excuses for his behaviour.

Star runs You Be The Editor quiz

The Toronto Star, still looking for some holiday filler, has produced a journalism ethics quiz which it invites readers to answer on its website. (via J-Source)

The Gazette did something similar a while back.

Editors deal on a regular basis with tough ethical decisions, and must choose between publishing something or holding it back. The Star gives some examples, at least some of which were based on actual events which were published in the paper and got complaints.

Most are unfortunately a bit too easy to answer for me.

As holiday filler for this blog a public service, here are my answers to the quiz and the explanations for them:

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