Friday, February 22, 2008

Everyday Ethics - Next Steps on McCain Story: Repeating What You Don't Report

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Date: Fri, Feb 22, 2008 at 2:30 AM
Subject: Everyday Ethics - Next Steps on McCain Story: Repeating What You Don't Report

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Thursday, February 21, 2008

Next Steps on McCain Story: Repeating What You Don't Report
By Kelly McBride:
(Additional comment below from Poynter's Roy Clark, Tom Huang, Bob Steele, Al Tompkins and Keith Woods.)

"For McCain, Self-Confidence on Ethics Poses Its Own Risk," The New York Times.

Comments from The New York Times' McCain piece.

"New York Times Defends McCain Piece," MSNBC.

"The Long Run-Up: Behind the 'Bombshell' in The New York Times,"
The New Republic.

"Downie: 'Wash Post' McCain Story Helped by NY Times story," Editor & Publisher.

"McCain Camp Vows to 'Go to War' with New York Times," Politico.

"The McCain Story: What's It Really About?" Poynter's Kelly McBride.

"The John McCain Fallout: How Do You Handle the Story Tonight?" by Al Tompkins.
Most Americans will not learn about The New York Times' allegations that John McCain had an inappropriate relationship with a lobbyist from The New York Times. They'll hear it from cable television or talk radio or their local newspaper.

The rest of the world of journalism has as much credibility at stake today as The New York Times does. Here's why:
  • If you start with McCain's denial of wrong-doing, he looks guilty.
  • If you start with a statement that the McCain campaign was thrown into turmoil today, he looks guilty.
  • If you start with the allegation that McCain's staffers were worried that he was having an affair, you make him look guilty.
Our formulas for repeating news could work against us if we don't take some care and caution.

Here's an alternative structure: Give your audience the big picture. Tell them that the nation's largest and most prestigious paper published a long, complex story today, calling into question McCain's judgment on many issues. As part of that story, the newspaper revealed that eight years ago the senator's staffers feared he was having an affair with a lobbyist, who seemed to show up at unexpected times. Explain how news is originated and then repeated. Explain that many people have questions about The New York Times' approach. Examine the entangled relationship between journalism and politics.

The Times' decision to lead and end their story with McCain's relationship with Vicki Iseman is potentially distorting. The rest of the journalism world bears responsibility for minimizing or magnifying that distortion.

More From Al Tompkins:

This morning, the media pack dutifully followed the story all morning by showing split screen images of McCain and the cocktail dress-wearing lobbyist. They didn't focus on campaign reform laws or lobby laws. They didn't focus on legislation she was interested in versus McCain's support or voting. They focused on whether he had a romantic relationship.

In my video storytelling class I usually teach this lesson: "When the eye and the ear compete, the eye wins." No matter what you are saying while those images are on the TV screen, the audience will not hear you clearly -- they will remember the images.

Be VERY careful about what images, headlines and teases you use in your coverage. For television, showing McCain and Iseman on the screen at the same time may visually imply a relationship. Showing Iseman on the screen at the same time that you are showing McCain standing with his wife sets up a  
visual tension that is hard to deny. A headline that says "McCain Denies Inappropriate Relationship" is very different from "McCain Denies Lobbyist Ties" or "McCain Says He is Disappointed in The New York Times." More to come in Al's Morning Meeting.

Bob Steele:

Rigor. It's an essential value that supports responsible journalism. And it's key in this case.

The New York Times had the obligation to apply rigorous, exacting, substantive standards of reporting, editing and ethics on the McCain story. Times' editors clearly believed this story was important, given its strong play and length. The Times could have and should have given readers more information about why and how they developed, reported, vetted and edited this story. They should have revealed proactively the story behind the story. They should have better explained the decision to use some unnamed sources, better explained the timing of the publication.

The Times should have offered a better account of the rigor behind the story. They shouldn't have waited until critics started firing machine guns. It appears defensive rather than legitimately justifying the journalism.

It's just as important for all other news organizations following up this story to apply their own level of intense rigor. Newsroom leaders must ask hard questions as they decide why, how and what to report. Editors, news directors, producers and reporters must constantly ask themselves questions about accuracy, fairness, context and newsworthiness. Can we independently verify that information? How can we heighten fairness? What else do we need to report to make sure our story honors the context of the original story? How do we give proper tone and proportion to this story?

Rigor. It must be a linchpin value at every stage of the reporting.

Rigor is at the heart of responsible journalism.

From Roy Peter Clark:

The timing of The New York Times story about John McCain is a conspiracy theorist's dream come true.

On the right, the narrative goes like this: The Times wants the Democratic candidate to become the next president, which means it needs to help create the weakest possible Republican candidate. The Times had the story of an inappropriate relationship with a woman lobbyist as early as last December, and held it until after the primary election cycle, during which they endorsed John McCain.

The theory goes that they withheld news that might have weakened McCain at exactly a time when a  weaker McCain could have been defeated by a more reliably conservative candidate. Now that McCain has essentially become the Republican presidential candidate, the Times rolls out an explosive story designed to undercut him in the fight against the Democrats. Whew.
Times editor Bill Keller released a statement on the timing of the story: 

"On the substance, we think the story speaks for itself. In all the uproar, no one has challenged what we actually reported. On the timing, our policy is, we publish stories when they are ready.

"'Ready' means the facts have been nailed down to our satisfaction, the subjects have all been given a full and fair chance to respond, and the reporting has been written up with all the proper context and caveats. This story was no exception. It was a long time in the works. It reached my desk late Tuesday afternoon. After a final edit and a routine check by our lawyers, we published it."

For Keller, then, the readiness is all.

I would argue, in response, that while readiness is the key factor in deciding when to publish, it's rarely the only one. Reporters and editors know that stories are sometimes held so they can be lawyered. At other times they are rushed into print because of competitive pressures -- especially fears that they'll get scooped on their own story. Often on explosive political stories, internal pressures come into play that include disagreements on story focus and play.

There is a long tradition in American journalism of taking special care with the publication of explosive stories that can affect the course of an election. Remember when the Los Angeles Times ran stories about Arnold Schwarzenegger's alleged "groping" of women? The timing of that story became central to determination of its fairness. Politicians at every level know this dirty trick: If your candidate is losing, leak a story to the press close to the actual election that will turn the outcome.

Here are some questions that might help journalists determine when to publish:

1. Do we have a strong consensus inside the newsroom that now is the time?
2. Have the key stakeholders been consulted?
3. Are we prepared to explain to the public why we chose this time to publish?
4. Is it possible to publish a part of the story that is "ready" while other parts of the story are still cooking?
5. Are revelations about the personal life of a candidate relevant in this particular story?
6. Are such revelations central to the story, or just the carnival barker at the door of the tent?
7. What public interest is served by publishing this story now? 

Keith Woods:

Why now? It's such an obvious question. When a news organization tosses an explosive story into a roiling political campaign, whether it's The New York Times and the presidential race or your local newspaper and a mayoral election, the public will surely wonder about the timing.

Set aside the obvious partisan reasons people are likely to question the Times' timing on the story of John McCain's relationships with lobbyists. It's a fair question to wonder why allegations so firmly grounded in a campaign eight years ago only now are making their way into the newspaper. You don't need to be a conspiracy theorist or even a Republican to wonder, "Why now?"

The Times should have answered that question at the same moment it raised questions about McCain's marital fidelity and political fealty. What does it take, really? A few paragraphs that explain the reporting process; a few words that tell readers how many phone calls, private conversations, e-mails -- years -- it took to nail this story down.

That sort of transparency is good for a couple of reasons. For one, it answers a news question. Yes, a news question. When the nation's powerhouse newspaper plops a story like this one onto the political tabletop, the newspaper, like or not, becomes the news. And "Why now?" becomes as important a journalistic question as "Who?" and "What?" and the other core queries of the craft.

Given the new, interactive, two-way relationship news organizations must forge with readers, listeners and viewers, it's not just appropriate but necessary that the newspaper should offer timely insight into its decision-making. The old "we-stand-by-our-story" posture is trite and betrays the new terms of journalism's pact with its audience. It invites charges like "arrogant" and "elitist," and it erodes our fragile credibility. And it only takes a simple act of journalism -- answering the obvious questions -- to set the record straight.

From Tom Huang:

By noon today, more than 1,500 readers had posted comments about The Times' McCain story to the paper's Web site.

The reader feedback -- impassioned and intelligent for the most part -- reveal the power that news Web sites have for fostering dialogue and debate about high-profile stories. Readers are debating how The Times framed the McCain story, and whether the story is relevant to the campaign.

"The article was about Mr. McCain's blind spots and his tin ear for feedback about how others are perceiving him," wrote one reader. "I think that is relevant information for voters to consider when someone is running for President of the United States. Mr. McCain's involvement with lobbyists is relevant as well in whether he is a part of the solution or is one of the problems in the economic challenges we face. We need something more than simply a person's opinion of themselves as a qualification to run for this office."

But another reader disagreed with the Times' decision to run the story: "I am disappointed and dismayed by the lack of judgment and professionalism displayed by The New York Times in publishing this article. To print such unsubstantiated rumor and innuendo is the type of journalism one would expect from the National Enquirer. By publishing news that is NOT 'fit to print,' don't be surprised when the overall prestige and influence of your publication is eventually compromised and lost."

At the same time, the reader comments reveal a potential pitfall. Some readers are asking about reports alleging that the Times delayed the McCain story for a few months. Readers are also questioning the timing of the story's publication.

One reader asked: "I'm a full-fledged Barack Obama supporter, but even I have to ask The New York Times the old Watergate questions: 'What did you know?' and 'When did you know it?' and an updated question, 'Why this story now?'"

By enabling readers to comment on articles, editors raise the expectation that the paper will explain the decisions behind these stories. There's a greater demand for transparency. And yet, as Keith Woods notes, the Times for now is taking a "we stand by our story" posture. As editors allow readers to communicate with one another, they will need to re-examine how well they themselves communicate with their readers.

Posted by Kelly McBride 2:20:25 PM
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The McCain Story: What's it Really About?

Within minutes of posting a long story on Sen. John McCain's ethical blindspots Wednesday evening, The New York Times' Web site was gathering hundreds of comments. Although the thrust of the story was an examination of the Republican candidate's mixed record on moral and ethical choices, that's not what most readers will take away.

The story begins and ends with an anecdote about McCain's close friendship with lobbyist Vicki Iseman eight years ago during the senator's last bid for president. Quoting mostly unnamed and few named sources, The Times paints a picture of campaign staffers freaking out at the possibility that McCain was having an affair, blocking Iseman's access to the senator and eventually confronting her in D.C.'s Union Station.

No one in the story alleges the two actually had a romantic affair. Every source interviewed suggests that their concern was as much the appearance of Iseman's frequent presence on the campaign trail, and at events. Most of the people posting comments to the story accuse The Times of speculation and rumor-mongering.

To be fair, the story is long and includes many other examples of McCain's questionable judgment. But as the story is repeated today across the country, all that context will disappear. It will go from a nuanced portrait of the candidate's shortcomings to "The New York Times today reported that eight years ago, John McCain's campaign staffers were so concerned about his relationship with this woman, (flash picture of blonde, smiling Iseman, looking beautiful and wearing an evening gown) they blocked her access to the senator and eventually confronted her in Union Station."

The Times' story is about McCain's contradictory nature. But leading and ending with the most salacious example of that contradiction guarantees that as the story is retold today, it will become a question of whether McCain had an affair.

If that's what the story is really about, does The Times have an obligation to address it more directly?

The paper reports that "Mr. McCain, 71, and the lobbyist, Vicki Iseman, 40, both say they never had a romantic relationship."

But The Times provides no context for either denial. Did the paper ask both the senator and the lobbyist directly if they had sex? Under the circumstances of this story, would such a direct question be appropriate?

The Times reports that McCain called Times Executive Editor Bill Keller to complain about the paper's inquiries. When? What else did the senator say to the editor, and what did Keller say?

Where should the reporting go from here?

Posted by Kelly McBride 12:51:23 PM
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Monday, February 4, 2008

Posted by Kelly McBride 4:43:40 PM
Tuesday's Problem: Should Journalists Declare Party Allegiance?
"Super Tuesday Tips," by Butch Ward, Jill Geisler and Ellyn Angelotti.

"Denver Post Editor Gives Some Staffers Go-Ahead to Caucus, Bars Others."

"John Temple Just Says No to Caucusing by Rocky Staffers."

"Good Journalism Requires Sacrifice of Political Life," by Rob Karwath, Duluth News Tribune.

"Journalists Give up Privileges to Limit Perception of Bias," by David Zeeck, The News Tribune.

In the past two weeks I've been asked over and over if newsrooms should allow journalists to participate in caucuses and primaries where voters must publicly declare a political affiliation in order to get a ballot.

Editors and news directors want to know what boundaries to set. Journalists everywhere get uncomfortable when it feels like their right to vote clashes with newsroom policies.

I liked how Denver Post editor Greg Moore put it in his recent memo to staff. He said he would not prohibit folks from attending, but that he would prefer they hold back.

He shares the concern that many editors have, namely that a record of the political affiliations will reinforce the perception that newsrooms are biased. It's a legitimate worry, given the slipping credibility of professional journalists.

Moore went on to point out that certain journalists with very specific job titles must not declare a political affiliation. His list was more inclusive than most, including all metro and business columnists, department heads and those in online operations.

Moore's counterpart over at the Rocky Mountain News, John Temple, took an even more restrictive approach. He said no to all journalists participating in a caucus.

Editors in Duluth, Minn., and Tacoma, Wash., took on the issue this weekend as well, coming down in different places.

It's a tough spot for the head of a newsroom to be in. You can't prevent an employee from exercising a constitutional right. But you can minimize staffers' involvement in political coverage if they have created a perception of bias or a conflict of interest. And if a significant portion of your staff can't cover politics, can't edit politics and can't write headlines over political stories, that's a problem too. 
This might be a problem that's peculiar to newsrooms in the United States, where news content (as opposed to opinion and editorial) remains free from political affiliation. It could be that someday we will move to something more like the European model, where many newsrooms reflect a political position. 

I still think there's value in a newsroom with a neutral point of view when it comes to politics. As long as neutrality is a value, it seems that caucuses and restrictive primaries will pose a difficult choice for journalists.

What are some other ways to resolve this issue?

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Thursday, January 24, 2008

Tensions of The Trade: Competing Loyalties, Conflicting Interests

By Bob Steele
Nelson Poynter Scholar for Journalism Values

Dozens of time every year, I get a call or e-mail from a journalist or a newsroom leader who's wrestling with an issue involving possible conflict of interest. It's one of the most common ethical challenges in our profession.

Sometimes, these matters are high profile. The New York Times public editor, Clark Hoyt, wrote about the intersection of public and private lives in his January 20th column

He posed this intriguing question: "What do you do when a journalist's spouse or lover is also a newsmaker?" and focused on the paper's Supreme Court reporter, Linda Greenhouse, and the intersection of her work with that of her husband, an expert on military law.

Hoyt interviewed me for his column, and in thinking through the Greenhouse case I wrote down some broader thoughts that apply to all journalists and news organizations, not just the superstars. I focused on loyalties, the root of relationships and the potential trigger for the conflicts.

All journalists have competing loyalties. These are intersections of their professional roles and personal lives. Relationships with family or very close friends can lead to promises made, secrets kept and obligations made. These understandable and inescapable personal loyalties can, however, create tension with the journalist's professional duty and ethical responsibilities.

Journalists have the unique and essential role of seeking the truth and reporting it as fully as possible. That primary duty is partly built on the principle of independence. Journalists should not allow undue influence from others or their own self interest to erode the independence that could in turn corrode the integrity of the journalism.

Conflicts of interest can undermine independence. Individual journalists and their news organizations must constantly manage competing loyalties to make sure they don't evolve into problematic conflicts of interest.

Managing competing loyalties means anticipating, identifying and addressing the points of tension so that routine potholes don't turn into huge pitfalls. The journalists and their supervisors can consider a range of alternatives in managing the competing loyalties.

It's always important to anticipate and recognize the potential intersections of the professional and personal and make sure that the integrity of the journalism is not adversely impacted. That requires ongoing discussions, probing questions, and sound checks and balances in the editing process to surface any concerns.

So, what's the remedy when competing loyalties cannot be managed and a conflict of interest is apparent? In some cases, it might be necessary for the journalist to recuse himself from certain stories where the personal loyalties and the professional role intersect. To turn over a particular story to a colleague.

In some cases, it may be necessary for the journalist to change reporting assignments or beats to stay completely away from any coverage of someone with whom the journalist has a significant competing loyalty.

And, in some cases, the journalist (or the other family member involved in the competing loyalty) might choose to leave a professional position in order to fully honor the personal loyalty and to remove a professional conflict of interest.

What about disclosure of a competing loyalty? Is that a sufficient remedy? Yes and no. Disclosure is one form of transparency. Disclosure informs and alerts other stakeholders (readers, for instance, or those involved in the stories the reporter is covering) of the competing loyalty. It allows other stakeholders to be aware of and scrutinize the disclosed competing loyalty and raise a red flag if they see a conflict of interest.

Disclosure reveals and shines light. But this form of transparency must be accompanied by accountability. The journalist and the news organization must commit to an ongoing process of examination and oversight to make sure that a manageable competing loyalty does not grow into a problematic conflict of interest.

Posted by Bob Steele 11:51:14 AM
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Friday, January 11, 2008

Campaigns Putting News to Use
Reporters new to the politics beat are often shocked -- shocked -- to find their stories re-purposed as campaign ads. It happens all the time, on television ads and in printed fliers.

Additional resources for and articles about ethical decision-making in the newsroom

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Reporters' objections are understandable. When favorable stories about a political candidate are used by a campaign or a political action committee to generate support, or when the opposition uses negative stories to tear down a candidate, it compromises the perception that the reporter and the newsroom are independent.

Most newsrooms have reprint policies that dictate who can obtain copyright permissions, what they can do with reprints and how much they have to pay. Given the perception problem, when it comes to political stories, why don't newsrooms refuse to grant permission to people who seek to use content for campaign purposes?

A recent case in Indiana shows just how hard that would be. Last September, Daily Herald columnist Amy Mack published a column detailing how the McHenry County State's Attorney had billed taxpayers $17,000 for sweets.

In November and December, someone anonymously mailed 900 copies of the column to residents in the area. Mack wrote a column telling readers she didn't send out the mailing.

Last week, a competing newspaper, the Northwest Herald, got to the bottom of things. It turns out the Republican Party Chairman Bill LeFew paid $400 of his own money to the Daily Herald to reprint and distribute the column. He did so, he said, to inform voters who might participate in an upcoming primary. He claims he was acting as a private citizen, using his own funds. He gained the permission through an online link on the paper's website.

Political interests on all sides directed their anger at the paper for allowing the column to be used.

Here are my questions: How could newsrooms limit reprints? Should they require those seeking reprints to refrain from using them in political ads? Is that legal? Would that have stopped the distribution in this case?

Or, is it better to be liberal with reprint requests? Would it leave newsrooms open to more charges of bias if they had to determine if a use was political? Are there any newsrooms out there that successfully limit use of their material in campaign ads?

Posted by Kelly McBride 1:33:47 PM
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