The Ethics of Wealthy Private Newspaper Owners

In my ethics class, we recently spent time discussing the potential trend of wealthy individuals buying newspapers, like John Henry did with the Boston Globe or Jeff Bezos did with the Washington Post. We also read a piece that our guest professor, Dan Kennedy, wrote on the subject, which is worth checking out.

 Some people find this trend concerning; they question, for instance, the Post’s ability to cover Amazon and the groups it connects to, which include the CIA.

As I see it, we’d all love to go back to the more successful, independent days of newspapers, but we can’t. Let’s get papers the support they need, even if it means finding wealthy owners. Our job is not to fight this new development, but to fight to be ethical despite it.

Besides, it’s probably unrealistic to view this as some new, shocking trend in journalism. Papers have always had powerful, financially domineering men steering them (think William Randolph Hearst and Joseph Pulitzer). Perhaps the Pulitzer/Hearst heyday wasn’t the best time for ethical journalism, but it’s important to note that this isn’t so out of the ordinary, and journalism has existed on a fairly ethical level despite it for some time. Additionally, we must ask: is a publication owned by a wealthy businessman so different than a publication owned by a wealthy corporation like Conde Nast or Hearst? Corporations, as they say, don’t have souls; individuals do.

I would also add that not all, but some of the ethical concerns raised by these situations can be resolved with the ethical principle of transparency. I’ll submit an anecdote for consideration with this:

A good friend of mine works for a news source with a religious affiliation. It does plenty of spiritually-neutral reporting, but is still clearly labeled as related to that religion. My friend has told me that they’ve been told they ought to change their name to appeal to a broader audience, but they won’t because they want to be open about their economic ties.

This organization is respected by people outside of the faith. It is not a biased paper unable to cope with the task of remaining healthy and neutral in the face of backing by a large-scale interest, in this case, a church. I believe that privately owned papers like the Post and the Globe can take a note from this publication. It is less important, in my opinion, who owns a paper, and more that readers are very aware of that affiliation so that they may hold the paper publicly accountable for its neutrality or lack there of on issues that may present a conflict of interest, such as the Boston Red Sox in the case of the Globe.

Wealthy private owners may be the future of the industry and may be one of the only ways to save papers. Who knows? We should find out, and we’re not in a position as an industry to turn away money. What we can do is what we’ve always done: allow the rest of the world to play watchdog on us as we in turn play watchdog on them. 

NowThis: An Error in Storytelling

A journalist’s role isn’t just to create original content and do original fact-finding. Sometimes, it’s a journalist’s responsibility to correct, or attempt to correct, other journalists’ errors to keep the flow of information accurate. That is what I have attempted to do with a NowThis video published last month that explored the “Mulan” controversy that was then unfolding.

I’d been covering the “Mulan” story for a blog I was doing for another class, so I was pretty well-informed on it. On October 10, a blog called Angry Asian Man reported that Disney had bought a spec script for its upcoming live-action “Mulan,” and that the script starred a white man and made all the Chinese characters, including Mulan, secondary. Much of the internet was unsurprisingly displeased. Shortly after, Vulture posted an article featuring an unnamed source “close to the film,” who assured fans that in the current version of the script, the love interest, and all the major characters, are Chinese.

NowThis Entertainment made a video about the controversy. Since I had been following the saga, when I saw the video, I immediately noticed that it didn’t accurately tell the story.

https://www.facebook.com/plugins/video.php?href=https%3A%2F%2Fwww.facebook.com%2FNowThisEntertainment%2Fvideos%2Fvb.868164246578472%2F1197289276999299%2F%3Ftype%3D3&show_text=0&width=560

The video was at some points misleading and at some points just wrong, for reasons I’ve describe below, so I decided to try to contact NowThis.

I researched NowThis and discovered it is a social media-only company. When you go to their website, you find a one-page site that says: “Homepage. Even the word sounds old. We bring the news to your social feed.” The only things you can click on are links to NowThis’ social media pages and one small “Careers” button at the bottom of the page. There is not contact info and no “About Us.” Even the careers section doesn’t have contact info. There’s a really unusual lack of transparency for a news organization, but that’s not surprising, since NowThis is not following much of the typical news organization model.

Their social media pages have no extra information, but they do offer a way of contacting them due to the nature of social media.

On October 18, I sent a Facebook message to NowThis Entertainment, where the video was posted. It read:

A note for the editors of Now This Entertainment:

I’m a regular viewer of your content and I recently saw your video about the live-action “Mulan” and how it will not center on a white male, as previously reported. I’d been following the “Mulan” story and noticed an inaccuracy in the video that I wanted to point out.

The video says that “Disney heard your complaints loud and clear,” but if you look at the Vulture article (see link below) that broke the news that the white man spec script was not being used, you’ll see that the source was actually an anonymous source close to the film and Disney didn’t make any sort of comment on the controversy around casting. Additionally, if you look at what the source has to say, it’s clear that Disney hasn’t changed any plans because of the controversy; the spec script was changed or thrown out before the news of its existence ever broke. Your video seems to say that Disney has made changes in response to the outcry, or even responded in some way to the outcry, but neither of those things are true.

Additionally, later on in the video it mentions that Disney has hired new writers. This is true – Rick Jaffa and Amanda Silver were hired after the spec script was purchased – but the way that information is framed in the video, it’s easily interpreted as Disney responding to the controversy by changing writers and going in a new direction. That isn’t true; their hiring was announced before the recent controversy, and again, Disney didn’t publicly respond or change course in any way. In fact, no one really knows what Disney’s current course is, since both the initial story and the Vulture follow-up used one unnamed source each and no official announcements have confirmed or denied the information in them.

I enjoy you videos and watch them regularly, so I wanted to let you know about the errors. I hope this information is helpful to you and you’re able to fix or add an update to the video to clarify what’s happening with the story.

I’d love to hear from you about what goes into making your videos and why you decided to frame the content as you did here.

Thanks for your time and I hope to hear from you!

Georgeanne Oliver

http://www.vulture.com/2016/10/fans-dont-want-a-mulan-with-a-white-male-lead.html

By October 21, the end of the week, I had not heard anything and the message had not been viewed according to Facebook. I sent this follow-up message:

I’m just following up on my message from earlier this week. I’d love to hear from you concerning the “Mulan” video and the errors I’ve pointed out. I hope to learn more about your process!

With still no reply on October 24, I tweeted at @nowthisnews and @nowthisgif, which are the only two NowThis twitter accounts.

With still no reply and no evidence that I am going to get a reply, I have decided, on November 10, to go ahead and publish this post, both as a means to get the information out and as a tool to hopefully draw NowThis’ attention. After publishing this, I will tweet and message it to them so that they can see a more in-depth look at the error I’m pointing out. I will update this post if there are any developments from those attempts at advancement.

Update: As of November 28, I have gotten no response or results. I also reached out to Lerer Hippeau Ventures, the venture capital firm of NowThis founders Ken Lerer and Eric Hippeau, and had not heard back at the time of this update’s publication.

My Personal Ethics Code

Everyone, from companies, to bosses to, probably most of all, readers or audiences, has an idea of what makes for ethical journalism.

Company codes, boss suggestions and audience ideas are important. But, to put it simply and perhaps a bit stupidly, the only person who can make the decision is the person actually making the decision.

We’ve discussed in my ethics class the importance of codes, and now we’ve been tasked with making our own code. I’ve decided to write my personal ethics code as a process that I can follow as I do my journalistic work.

  1. I will think before I start. While it’s important to pull on all threads when given a potential story, many unfortunate ethics mistakes could have been prevented if the journalist had thought through whether pursuing the story is a good idea at all. If a story is not newsworthy or is unethically, unjustifiably harmful, then I won’t tempt myself or start the process that will lead to the unethical story. I will think about the golden mean to determine if a story is inappropriate.
  2. As I write the story, I will be willing to walk away. I will try to never be so invested in a story or so concerned by my own goal that I ignore warning signs, sketchy elements or unethical factors.
  3. I will not cut corners on double-checking. Particularly with sensitive information, I will prioritize truth and accuracy, even over bosses wishes or deadlines. I won’t report or publish until I have double-checked facts to whatever extent I can, and I am certain of them. I will stick to this even if it means disappointing an editor.
  4. I will follow rules-based ethics by never violating the rules of my publication without speaking with my editor first. If something is borderline, I will not make the call on my own, because I will remember that I agreed to the publication rules when I agreed to be a voice for the publication.
  5. I will always keep in mind that journalists should be making their world better. Since the golden rule is not always possible, I will use this ends-based philosophy: if I feel I am making the world better, then I will deem the harm as justifiable. If not, the story is not worth the consequences.

This list doesn’t cover every situation and I’m sure it won’t always make tough decisions easy. However, I do believe that it is general enough to give me at least some guidance under most circumstances.

 

Critiquing a Critique

Update: After publication of this piece, I interviewed Cory Shouten, a senior editor for the Columbia Journalism Review, who worked on the story. Shouten had not read this post at the time of the interview, but spoke about the topic.

He said the CJR doesn’t often use anonymous sources but said that there are “extraordinary circumstances where I think there’s some justification for it.”  He pointed out that there are several sources on record at the front of the piece.

He said it was a tricky story in terms of editing, writing and reporting. 

“Getting the number of people that we got on the record in this story, getting to that point was difficult,” he said.

He also said that Schwartz “took steps to verify” the information from anonymous sources.

Last month, the Columbia Journalism Review published an article titled “Vice shows how not to treat freelancers.” The piece, by Yardena Schwartz, was a scathing look at the alleged practices of Vice in regards to freelance journalists, which, if the article is to be believed, are at best disappointing and at worst horrific. She interviews journalists, many of whom corroborated each other’s stories of bad company practices and poor treatment. The author herself explains that she’s been a victim of Vice. 

The story is a glimpse into the already-difficult lives of freelancers and a somewhat sickening look at an influential media power’s disregard for journalist’s needs and livelihoods. The story it’s really telling is one of Vice letting our struggling industry down. It should be a huge one-two punch directed at Vice and a very powerful piece for readers.

I say should because when I read this article a few weeks ago, I was shocked by the treatment it described, but that’s not what stuck with me after I closed out of the website. What I couldn’t shake was a concern in regards to the journalism ethics practices that showed up in the story.

The piece used anonymous sources, which are always tricky. It makes it harder to trust the story, and it gives the journalist a lot of power, maybe more power than they should have. However, much good reporting has been done historically with anonymous sources, and sometimes that’s the only way to get the truth to the public, which is ultimately the most important goal of journalism.

But Schwartz didn’t use one anonymous source.

She used somewhere between seven and nine.

It’s a little hard to exactly pin down because some journalists in the story are spoken of specifically as individual sources while others are referred as a number in a group consensus and it’s hard to be sure of anything because of vagueness, but by my estimate, out of the 18 (19 if you count Schwartz) people used as examples for or against Vice in this story, seven of them spoke off-the-record, plus one who refused to speak with Schwartz period but was still used as an nameless example case and two whose opinions are mentioned as part of a group but are not named for unspecified reasons, possibly irrelevance. Of the sources whose names appear in print, three of them are Vice employees or journalists that the author found through Vice that support the company.

So in a story incorporating 17 people that’s attempting to bring to light a problem with Vice’s practices, there are a total of five named critics.

In the article, Schwartz describes how when she sent a note out to journalists explaining the bad experience she had as a freelancer with Vice, her inbox was “flooded with emails from other journalists who had suffered similar misfortunes with Vice.”

Where are they? She describes a particular group of 25 people that she was in contact with, and explains that only three had positive things to say. They wouldn’t go on record. And apparently the 23 that didn’t have anything nice to say weren’t much help in that regard either!

Despite the email responses, there is no flood of journalists on-record in this story. There are not any pictures of these email responses. There is just the description of a flood that we never see being corroborated in any checkable way, described by an openly-biased writer who is part of the Vice/freelance controversy she’s writing about. If this flood really happened, and yet so few people, as we see from the ridiculous amount of anonymous sources, were willing to talk about it, that’s potentially a story. There’s apparently a sweeping discomfort across the industry about speaking out against this publication. That’s weird. That needs to be addressed. Instead, this story treats it as normal that criticism of one website has a culture of confidentiality on level with the Pentagon papers! The story affords only a minimal amount of time for explanation of the silent parties’ motives.

Yes, the article does have a few very solid, on-record interviews that point at a potential problem, but it doesn’t have enough to indicate the trend it’s claiming as opposed to just demonstrating isolated failures on the part of Vice or biased accounts on the part of the journalists. It tries to hit its claim of a systematic problem home in the extensive use of unnamed sources that are used to add bulk to the list of complaints, but what that creates is a trend piece based on only a few traceable sources and a whole bunch of elusive maybes that we’re supposed to eat up as a trend.

This all deals with a number of ethical principles. The big one is transparency. There is little to no transparency in this story. It is almost not worth talking about transparency in this story, because when there’s seven to nine unnamed sources, there is no question of transparency. Arguments can be made for anonymous sources, but this many? That is at odds with the ethical principle of transparency, in my opinion.

This also gets into the idea of accountability. How can an audience hold a journalist and a publication accountable if everything is untraceable and none of the facts can be investigated or even put into a frame of non-hypothetical reference? 

In terms of the ethical principle of minimizing harm, the ethics of this story do get more complicated. It is probably safe to assume that if seven people wouldn’t talk about Vice, in a positive or negative way, there is a real professional danger for the sources here. In order to minimize harm, perhaps it was necessary for Schwartz to support her fellow journalists and protect them with anonymity. Still, this is highly critical information that could impact Vice’s ability to get freelance journalists to write for them and, more generally, readers to share and support them. Harm is being done to Vice in this story, and it doesn’t necessarily have the strong sources needed to make that justifiable.

The final issue I want to raise is the issue of independence. Schwartz is not a neutral party here. She’s not only biased, but she’s part of the story as a journalist wronged by Vice. Can you be independent and also be a part of the story and biased? She says at one point that after she interacted with Vice, she spent a “month feeling cheated and sorry” before trying to warn journalists off of the site. Some might argue that her transparency on her involvement and bias made this okay, or that this piece merely has an editorial-slant, but this is a facts-based journalism article that has an unapologetic bias and is written by an involved party. There’s no way to get around that.

Maria Henson and the Ethics of Covering Domestic Abuse

Maria Henson and the Ethics of Covering Domestic Abuse

Since my college courses just got underway this semester, I spent this past weekend getting involved in activities on campus, doing early homework and hanging out with friends I hadn’t seen all summer. However, I still managed to find time to uber to Cambridge, Massachusetts for the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer prize. The event included many prominent winners from different fields and, naturally, raised some interesting ethical points and questions, like should we be giving out awards for journalistic excellence named for the man who put the yellow in yellow journalism?

That won’t be the topic of this post; however. I’ll leave that for you to think about in your own time.

One of the presenters was Maria Henson, who won the 1992 Pulitzer in Editorial Writing while working at the Lexington Herald-Leader in Lexington, Kentucky. The winning work was a series that covered domestic violence and revealed the shocking realities of victims. Henson said in her presentation that, as part of the work, she made suggestions for reforms in laws that cover domestic abuse and was successful in creating legal change.

As is to be expected with something so sensitive, this topic brings up many ethical questions.

This story had very traceable, quantifiable results that outweighed some ethical problems that could arise from covering this sensitive topic. The sheer amount of lives that have been improved or saved surely justifies at least some risk or negative aspects. 

But when listening to Henson talk, or when breaking the issue down in terms of important principles in the ethical decision-making process, it does get more complicated.

The principle that really stood out to me while hearing her speak is the principle of minimizing harm. Henson said she interviewed domestic abuse victims for the story and was afraid of publishing their names.

“If they put these women’s names in the paper, [am I putting them] in further danger?” she said at the event.

Was it ethical to publish the names in that case? Henson told an example she had used about a woman who was killed in a case of domestic violence. That is one way to deal with the ethics question: by using victims who cannot be put in danger by the publication of their names. However, Henson interview and published the names of women who were living and potentially in danger. This causes potential harm. 

But by drawing attention to an unaddressed or minimized problem (Henson said one domestic abuse victim she knew of was told to go to church with her abuser by a judge as a solution), she prevented a great deal of contemporary and future harm, so it’s easy for me to see how she could make the ethical choice to publish.

If she had decided not to publish their names and instead use anonymous sources, the story might have run into an ethical issue of transparency and been less impactful, since anonymous sources can be harder to trust if you’re a reader. Concealing identities in a sensitive situation like this might seem like a good choice, but there is always that ethical flip side.

The presentation made me think about some additional ethical questions to apply which were not raised by Henson. I do not know if they are applicable to her Pulitzer-wining piece, but they are important things to keep in mind in terms of covering domestic abuse as a journalist. The book “The Ethical Journalist” by Gene Foreman goes into detail about Sonia Nazario’s ethical dilemma in reporting for her work “Orphans of Addiction,” which ran in the LA Times. She observed the lives of neglected children with drug-addicted parents for “Orphans.” She saw children living in horrible situations and did nothing because she needed to report her story. She was heavily criticized by some for letting the situation go on as it did. This was not mentioned as an issue Henson faced, and she did say that the legal system was failing women at the time, so perhaps there was nothing she could do in the situations she encountered other than report. However, it seems like a realistic problem someone covering domestic abuse from a journalism perspective might face: if you see a dangerous situation, do you continue as a reporter or do you forget that and do what you can to get that person out? “The Ethical Journalist” mentions a case where Philadelphia Daily journalists immediately reported an abuse situation they found. Whether a reporter should mimic the Daily reporters or Nazario in a domestic abuse reporting situation is a difficult issue that, in my opinion, can only be determined on a case-by-case basis, but is worth discussion and thought.

 

Citations:

Foreman, Gene. The Ethical Journalist: Making Responsible Decisions in the Digital Age. 2nd ed. West Sussex: Wiley Blackwell, n.d. Print.