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Archive for the ‘Ethics’ Category

‘Liddle’ Bob Corker

In Ethics on 13 Oct 2017 at 7:32 am

What you see above was a middle paragraph in Peter Baker’s New York Times story about the ongoing acrimony between the president of the most powerful nation in the world and the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Or, as Donald Trump calls him, “liddle Corker.”

Friends, these are strange days. When the news isn’t dominated by calamity on a global scale, it is littered with things like this. Small-minded inside attacks that are unworthy of public debate much less public office. In fact, you may ask yourself, is it news at all?

I think it is, when you are dealing with national offices and people who can create wars with a touch of a button. The state of mind of Bob Corker (who started it, I guess, by saying the White House was an “adult day care”) and Trump is of vital national interest. That is true for a range of what might to some seem private affairs. If you are a high-ranking senator or the president of the United States, there is no such thing as private.

But what if the above exchange occurred between, say, the mayor of your town and the city’s development director? Is that news? I think that is a much more difficult question for reasons I have a hard time articulating. Let me try.

For one thing, I think local officials are allowed to have private lives and private animosities. Sometimes. Otherwise, we’ll have a very hard time finding anyone (let alone someone qualified) to run for local public office. … Read the rest of this entry »


Keeping an eye on salaries

In Ethics on 24 Aug 2017 at 11:43 am

Here are two truisms about open government: The people in charge will eventually sacrifice transparency for expediency, and no one will much care outside of your newsroom… until the poop hits the oscillating fan. Your job is to keep the fan plugged in at all times.

I want to point out a particularly well executed bit of public affairs journalism I read in a weekly newspaper in California. The Palo Alto Weekly is holding the local school board’s collective feet to the fire for failing to abide by what some might consider more arcane aspects of the state’s open meetings laws. In this case, the board failed to make plain the fact that it was giving top staff members a raise. Whether it was a “mistake,” failing to abide by the letter of the law is what it is.

Two of the most important duties of newspapers are as follows: 1) Keep an eye on tax dollars. 2) Make sure public officials follow the law. If we look the other way, or don’t know the law, or behave timidly when it comes to how much officials earn, we will inevitably fail to live up to the expectations we have for ourselves.

Do me a favor: Reread your state’s open meetings and records law. And find out what the top executives earn at your public agencies. Then find out when their compensation packages come up for review. You don’t necessarily have to schedule a story right away… But make sure you are on top of it.

— Clay

What to do with rumors

In Ethics on 27 Jul 2017 at 2:17 pm

This week, a local gadfly emailed me and others around town with a scandal. He says a member of the city council cheated on his wife, got caught and moved out of the city. Even if it’s true, I’m not sure it’s as scandalous as someone making this stuff his business and spreading the rumors.

The question is this: Should the local newspaper care one way or another?

In this case, there are two separate issues and I tried to handle them separately. Hopefully, thinking about this one will help with your next such scandalous email.

First, I decided that what was going on in a local city council member’s perfectly legal home life was most likely not newsworthy. Divorces, affairs, arguments… This isn’t the president; I think local people who are all-but volunteers deserve a measure of privacy, even if they are public figures. I know the line is difficult. Perhaps it helps to think of it in terms of what is legal. If the city councilman was busted for smoking pot, which is still illegal here, I would likely run that. An affair is not a criminal matter.

The second issue is potentially newsworthy. If a sitting city council member moves out of town and continues to hold office, that is worth checking on. My first call was to the city councilman himself to say I didn’t care about the rest of it, but wanted to ask point-blank whether he continued to live in town. Then I emailed city hall to find the rules. For all I knew, it was legal for a member of council to move and continue to serve so long as he was a legal resident at the time he qualified to run for office. (The answer here is sort of complicated and involves the definition of “domicile.”) … Read the rest of this entry »

Do you name the school?

In Ethics on 23 Feb 2017 at 4:40 pm


X High School students suspected of armed robbery.

That suggested headline gave me pause the other day. The story concerned the arrest of two 16-year-old boys who had been arrested for robbing a younger teenager of his watch and some other stuff. The suspects, who by California law were not named because of their age, were charged with armed robbery because the victim said he saw a knife and the handle of a firearm during the commission of the crime.

The writer handled all that stuff well, I thought. It was a legitimate news story. … I just couldn’t get past naming the suspects’ high school. Ultimately, I deleted reference to it, and I wanted to mention it here in case my reasoning is useful to you.

So why did I delete reference to the school? Why not give readers all the information you have? What’s wrong with specifying where these charmers take classes? Wouldn’t mentioning it help parents take precautions that could keep their families safe?

I don’t think so. There are three relevant points for me:

First, the incident did not take place on the high school campus. The affiliation was incidental to the crime. If they were plumbers, say, would we run a headline reading “Jake’s Plumbers employees arrested for armed robbery?” If they were prominent, you might be more specific. If they were the highly recruited star football players, perhaps, or if they were two assistant principals, say, I might feel differently. I don’t think juvenile students at a local high school meet that measure. … Read the rest of this entry »

Tough decisions on deadline

In Ethics on 3 Feb 2017 at 12:19 pm
John Green / Half Moon Bay Review

John Green / Half Moon Bay Review

Recently, one of our editors called me and I could hear the concern in her voice. She was shaken after hearing from relatives of the victim of violence in her town. They didn’t like that the newspaper included unsavory aspects of the deceased’s past.

So the question today: What counts as newsworthy after someone has died?

The truth is there is no right answer. You could argue successfully that a crime victim’s past arrest is unrelated to what happened to the victim. You could argue that the arrest is public record, previously reported and adds context. The calculus likely changes depending on the deceased’s public profile.

I think finding the balance requires sophisticated reasoning, and I wanted to talk about it.

I told the editor that, in my opinion, including past felony convictions toward the bottom of the story is not only defensible, but preferable in this particular instance. The story involved a public act of violence and subsequent police chase that ended in another death. It was the talk of the town.

In addition, the previously reported arrests were also popping up in social media posts around the incident. The news was “out there.” … Read the rest of this entry »

Activist or journalist?

In Ethics on 3 Feb 2017 at 12:13 pm


This week, Margaret Sullivan writes in the Washington Post about how a guy named Lewis Wallace got fired from a journalism job for eschewing objectivity in a public forum. It’s a good reminder that, while we all have opinions and should act in accordance with our moral compass, we have obligations as employed journalists to rise above the fray.

Wallace, then a reporter for radio’s “Marketplace,” posted a blog on Medium in which he wrote, in part, “We need to admit that those who oppose free speech, diversity and kindergarten level fairness are our enemies.” He subsequently wrote another post, a very intelligent and reasoned defense for his position.

In this instance, the company says Wallace violated stated policy by saying he wouldn’t treat everyone fairly. If that is the case, I’m not surprised he lost his job.

Regardless, with great respect for Wallace’s obvious moral stance, I think publishing the fact that you plan to treat some potential sources as enemies is bad form. Company policies aside, some things are just common sense. Don’t go to pains to say you are taking sides in the ongoing, intensifying culture wars on which you report. … Read the rest of this entry »

Don’t try this at home

In Ethics on 6 Oct 2016 at 3:48 pm


Today’s really bad idea comes to us from our friends at Fox News.

That is where a man named John Watters has a recurring man-on-the-street segment he tapes for the popular Bill O’Reilly show. Apparently inspired by the fact that Chinese relations has been a regular topic on the presidential campaign trail, Watters or Fox producers or someone decided to take to the streets of Chinatown in Manhattan and make fun of people based on their race. Great idea, right?

Suffice to say, many Asian people didn’t find it funny when, for example, Fox played Carl Douglas’ “Kung Fu Fighting” behind the piece or when Watters said Asian people would vote for Hillary Clinton “So China can keep ripping us off.”

It was supposed to be funny. I get that. But surely, in 2016, we know better than to make fun out of someone’s race or culture. As a result of this ill-advised attempt at humor, there was a protest in front of Fox headquarters and the mayor of New York City called for Watters to be fired.

The piece has also drawn heat from journalists, too.

“We should be far beyond tired, racist stereotypes and targeting an ethnic group for humiliation and objectification on the basis of their race,” said the Asian-American Journalist Association in a prepared statement. … Read the rest of this entry »

Did I read that somewhere else?

In Ethics on 18 Aug 2016 at 3:49 pm
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This week, in the trials of a local newspaper editor, I’m sharing a story of plagiarism masquerading as marketing.

At issue was a provided column about an upcoming seminar on the topic of aging gracefully. The author was a local therapist who was giving her lecture at the local senior center. The problem came when it read a little … too well. I suppose I could use some software to help me sniff out copy and paste, but my own senses seem to work pretty well. So I copied a snippet into Google and found the same material here. And here. And here. You get the picture.

So I wrote a fairly snotty email to the nice lady who runs the senior center accusing the author of plagiarism and giving her a high-minded lecture on the integrity of our little newspaper and how I won’t run a plagiarized column.

It turns out it is a bit more complicated than I thought. The copy wasn’t so much purloined as it was purchased. The therapist got the marketing material from a national outfit that authorizes its use with its program that she is delivering here. Oh. … Read the rest of this entry »

About that speech

In Ethics on 22 Jul 2016 at 8:27 am


There was a bit of an uproar on the plagiarism beat this week. Perhaps you heard.

This time the culprit (or victim, depending on your perspective, I guess) was Melania Trump. Her speech before the Republican National Committee on Monday was, in places, word-for-word the same as Michelle Obama’s speech before Democrats eight years earlier. I guess that means the two sides agree on more than they will admit.

If I were a plagiarist, I would call stealing words the unoriginal sin. Since I’m not, I’ll tell you that line comes from Poynter’s Peter Roy Clark. And sin it is. There is no greater sin in our business than taking passages from someone else and passing them off as your own. It’s unethical and it can get you fired.

Because it is so important, please take a moment to read Benjamin Mullin’s good and short explanation of plagiarism on the Poynter site. He walks us through the kinds of plagiarism and their definition.

Look: Journalists who take the words of others aren’t really journalists at all. It’s like buying the cookies at the grocery store, transferring them into your Tupperware and calling yourself a baker. It’s ludicrous and a lie. Let’s stipulate that we aren’t liars. … Read the rest of this entry »

Is it OK to change that opinion?

In Ethics on 14 Jul 2016 at 4:47 pm
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The other pride of Colorado State University, Liz Spayd. Via New York Times

The New York Times’ new public editor, Liz Spayd, took up an interesting topic when she addressed the newspaper’s decision – made in conjunction with an opinion writer – to massage a pointed piece penned in the wake of police shootings in Louisiana and Minnesota. The Times toned down Michael Eric Dyson’s piece, headlined, “What White America Fails to See,” in the wake of a sniper’s attack on white officers in Dallas.

Times’ Opinion desk editors and Dyson both say they wanted to be sensitive to those hurting after the latest attack, so they changed the original piece significantly, both online and for the weekend print editions. The story now contains a one-line explanation of the changes: “This essay has been updated to reflect news developments.”

Spayd quotes reader Rand Richards Cooper, who had questions:

My questions are: Is it acceptable to change an opinion piece this substantially once it has been published? Do such changes imply that the opinions originally expressed in the piece are no longer valid? That the author no longer stands by them? Did the impetus for these changes come from the writer, or the newspaper? And what about the “record,” or perhaps the imprint, made by the originally published piece? Is it simply gone forever? What are the journalistic/ethical considerations involved in making the original essay vanish in this way?

Spayd acknowledges that these are good questions, but she eventually sides with the author and editors. She thinks the changing dynamics of the news demanded a nuanced editing of the piece. She does fault editors for not being more transparent in their explanation.

My inclination, however, is to side with Mr. Richards Cooper. I think many – heck, all – of our stories and opinion pieces are snapshots in time that can’t be divorced from the point at which they were written. Consider more stark examples. Many newspapers argued for appeasing Germany prior to World War II. If these newspapers were digitizing their archives, should they feel free to scrub that historic record? My own newspaper wrote some hateful things about Japanese-Americans at the time? Should I change that history now that our sensitivities have changed? … Read the rest of this entry »