CMU Journalists Who Behave Themselves Honestly Earn the Public Trust Essay

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Tell me what you’ve learned in the class.

Please write 50 words on five different ways this class has made you more capable of contributing to the standards of ethics in a newsroom.

These are lectures that the professor pasted 

Lecture 1: Trust Fall

I think it’s important to start with a glaring fact: the media is not widely trusted. A recent Gallup poll showed only 36 percent of Americans trust the media. The last time the media had 50-percent trust level came nearly two decades ago, back in 2003. When I was born, in [redacted], roughly 70 percent of Americans trusted the media.

I don’t know all the reasons for this. Honestly, I think if more journalists admitted “I don’t know,” trust in the media would increase. So as a rule, I try to embrace “I don’t know.”¬†

So … I don’t know.

You might be thinking, “Social media!” And you’re right. Facebook was invented in 2004. Twitter came a few years later. As the Internet grew, trust in the media fell. You can argue this is a good thing: more Americans have more choices now. When I was young, my news came from a few local newspapers, a few television stations, and a few radio stations. If I wanted to know, say, the number of robberies in my town, I had to call the local police station and hope someone would tell me. As Americans, we know a LOT more now. And that’s good!

What’s also good is if a politician makes a claim, and a news outlet reports a claim, I can go online and find data that either bolsters or undermines that claim. Lies — or exaggerations, or honest errors — unravel a lot faster than ever.¬†

For example, here is a passage from the original police report on the death of George Floyd in 2020 in Minneapolis:

Two officers arrived and located the suspect, a male believed to be in his 40s, in his car.  He was ordered to step from his car.  After he got out, he physically resisted officers.  Officers were able to get the suspect into handcuffs and noted he appeared to be suffering medical distress.  Officers called for an ambulance.  He was transported to Hennepin County Medical Center by ambulance where he died a short time later.

Obviously, some crucial details were not included here. And if not for a 17-year-old bystander with a cameraphone, we would never know George Floyd’s name. His death probably would have not made the local news, much less the national news. If it did make the local news, George Floyd would be remembered only as someone who resisted arrest after being under the influence. After all, that’s what the police report said, and as reporters, we often just go with that.¬†

Part of the reason trust in the media has declined is because a lot of news used to go unquestioned. Now, our ability to fact-check on our own has empowered us to be our own media watchdogs. That makes the media as a whole look worse, but in my opinion, I’d rather be skeptical than gullible.

There is plenty of reason to be skeptical. Media has a long and unfortunate history of embellishing … and worse. Consider this passage from a recent article in Politico:

“Sensationalism always sold well. By the early 19th century, modern newspapers came on the scene, touting scoops and expos√©s, but also fake stories to increase circulation. The New York Sun¬ís ¬ďGreat Moon Hoax¬Ē of 1835 claimed that there was an alien civilization on the moon, and established the Sun as a leading, profitable newspaper. In 1844, anti-Catholic newspapers in Philadelphia falsely claimed that Irishmen were stealing bibles from public schools, leading to violent riots and attacks on Catholic churches. During the Gilded Age, yellow journalism flourished, using fake interviews, false experts and bogus stories to spark sympathy and rage as desired. Joseph Pulitzer¬ís New York World published exaggerated crime dramas to sell papers. In the 1890s, plutocrats like William Randolph Hearst and his Morning Journal used exaggeration to help spark the Spanish-American War. When Hearst¬ís correspondent in Havana wired that there would be no war, Hearst¬óthe inspiration for Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane¬ófamously responded: ‘You furnish the pictures, I¬íll furnish the war.’ Hearst published fake drawings of Cuban officials strip-searching American women¬óand he got his war.”

So two of the names that have prestigious journalism awards attached to them — Pulitzer and Hearst — committed ethical lapses that would have flunked them out of my class. Super!¬†

The tension between journalism-as-business and journalism-as-public-service has existed for a long, long time. We will certainly be discussing that this semester.

The takeaway: There are plenty of reasons for the media’s ethical challenges. Some are “good” reasons and some are definitely not. Some are new reasons and some are definitely older.¬†

Two of our goals this semester are to be aware of why the media lacks trust, and to work to repair that trust wherever we can. In this week’s opening Discussion, we will focus on both of those goals.

Lecture 2: TJ and You

There is no quiz this week. Don’t forget to complete the Poynter Course in this module!

The assigned reading is the SPJ Code of Ethics, which is the basis for the Discussion: 

https://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp (Links to an external site.)

Consider this quote from a famous American:

“Our liberty depends on the freedom of the press, and that cannot be limited without being lost.”

Now consider this quote from an equally famous American:

“Nothing can now be believed which is seen in a newspaper. truth itself becomes suspicious by being put into that polluted vehicle.”

These quotes were spoken by the same famous American — Thomas Jefferson.

https://www.loc.gov/collections/thomas-jefferson-papers/articles-and-essays/selected-quotations-from-the-thomas-jefferson-papers/ (Links to an external site.)

The first amendment comes first for a reason: it’s a bulwark against government overreach. And yet a lot of civic leaders — and their supporters — vocally decry the press and even try to weaponize it for their own ends. When the truth doesn’t serve their purposes, the easy (and effective) response is to blame the media. If you tell your followers to distrust or ignore the press, there’s a good chance they won’t come across some inconvenient truths. In fact, one of the ingredients for the American revolution was the British government’s censorship of writings in the 13 colonies.

As I write this, there’s a trending story about a controversial New York Times headline: “Opinion: Teachers Should Tolerate Bullying Towards Unvaccinated Children.”¬†

You can imagine the flap that headline created. And yet … it’s a fake headline. The New York Times never published it.¬†

So there are two problems, on parallel tracks: 1) Faking the news to dispense propaganda; 2) Using that fake news to undermine trust in the press. It can be a vicious circle, where Americans just aren’t sure what to believe … and so they don’t really believe anything they see in the papers. Then, if the citizenry doesn’t really believe anything in the press, it allows the powerful to say whatever they want without pushback.¬†

Our north star as journalists is always the truth. But there will always be powerful forces that want to suppress the truth. In an age of social media, it’s much easier to distract and distort. After all, an enraging story about teachers allowing bullying will certainly get shared far more than a story about how teachers are opposed to any kind of bullying. Social media is often fueled by anger, and never by patience. It is easier than ever for anger to be shared, and it is harder than ever for patience to spread.

All this makes it more important than ever to not only tell a true story, but also to tell a powerful story that’s rooted firmly in the truth. If it’s true, it will stand up over time. If it’s powerful and true, it might just extend the liberty that Jefferson loved and bolster the reputation of the “polluted vehicle” he decried.

Lecture 3: The Pursuit of Truth

This week’s quiz is based on Chapter 1 of the textbook (as well as the following quote):

“Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” –Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, 1927-2003

So we know we want to find the truth … but how?

Recently I got a call from The New York Times. They wanted reporting on the local response to the omicron variant. I decided to go to Barnett Park, where people were getting tested. There was a three-hour lineup of cars, and so I decided to go up to drivers and try to interview them. 

Was this a pursuit of truth? Sure. Was it effective? Well, that’s the issue. Every driver in that lineup his or her own personal reaction to Covid. So instead of getting “the truth,” I’m actually getting various personal truths. One person said she didn’t get the vaccine because she was pregnant. Lots of evidence said the vaccine was safe for women during pregnancy. But should I discard her opinion because it didn’t align with scientific truth? What if scientific truth changes — which is kind of the entire point of science?

I included her quote.

I tried to make my reporting as varied as I could. I went up to some expensive cars and some old cars. I went up to some cars with windows rolled down and some with tinted windows. After several interviews, I realized I had interviewed mostly women. I looked for a couple of men, but I still didn’t have an even sample. Beyond that, I had trouble interviewing Spanish-speakers because my Spanish is very poor. Did my own limitations — or random luck — keep me from finding the truth? You could say they did. Were there biases or blind spots in my reporting? The weather changed from pouring rain to sunshine as I stood there for more than an hour. Was I more patient, or less distracted, during the nice weather? Perhaps.

And did any of this matter? Interviewing 10 or 20 people doesn’t get to the real truth, right? For every person who is concerned enough to get a Covid test, there’s a person who didn’t. I didn’t interview any of them. How about people who can’t afford a car? I didn’t interview any of them.

My reporting was successful in one way: two of the people I interviewed made the front section of The New York Times. I did my job. And those quotes were accurate — recorded and attributed to real people with real, important viewpoints. That part was definitely true.¬†

What I reported was true. It just wasn’t a complete capture of the truth. And so — in my opinion — it’s important to realize the difference. There’s a level of truth we must reach, and a level of truth we can never reach.

Lecture 4: On Transparency

This week’s quiz is based on Chapter 3: Storytelling in the Digital Age, pp. 39-60.

A couple of years ago, the Washington Post asked me to write a feature on Steve Spurrier, the legendary Florida Gators coach. He had taken a job with the new Orlando Apollos football team, so I got the chance to write for one of my favorite newspapers.

Except for one thing.

I was starting a job as an adjunct professor with the University of Florida. Was this a conflict of interest? 

I’ll be honest: I really didn’t want to bring it up. I had just gotten laid off from Yahoo Sports. I really needed both the opportunity and the money. And I had never met Spurrier before. so part of me thought it wouldn’t matter anyway.

But what kind of journalism professor would I be if I just shoved ethics to the side when it was convenient?

I told my editor that I very much wanted to do the story, but I didn’t know if it was right if both the subject and I were taking a paycheck from the same institution. He appreciated my honesty and he told me to look into the exact nature of Spurrier’s role at Florida. I suggested a line at the end of the story, just so readers would know.¬†

It turned out Spurrier only had a ceremonial role at UF. And I was only an adjunct — not a full-time employee. So my editor gave me the green light. I was glad I spoke up.

Just recently, a different situation came up. Another newspaper wanted me to write about three Florida professors who were kept from testifying about a state voting law. By this time, I was a full professor here at UCF. Was this a conflict?

This time, I didn’t want any input. I had a strong opinion about the matter, and I didn’t think I could be a professor in the state of Florida and write about this situation. I turned the assignment down.

In today’s media world, transparency is more important than ever for two reasons: 1) There aren’t as many full-time journalists anymore. Writers like myself have other jobs, and the possible conflict zone is expanded; 2) Readers can easily find out your background and your opinions and express their disapproval in a public forum. That doesn’t necessarily mean those readers are correct to call you out, but it does mean it’s safer to be “over-transparent” in order to address concerns before they arise.

It’s not enough to ignore possible conflicts just because you think you will be fair. It’s also crucial to share your possible conflicts with your audience, so at least they know. “Trust me, I’m a journalist” probably isn’t the best approach.

Lecture 5: Facts

This week’s Assignments:

Read Fact-Checking 2.0 in The New Ethics of Journalism, p. 61-75.
Take Quiz 5 
Respond to Discussion 5 

My first dream job in journalism came when I was hired at ESPN Magazine. My first role was simple: fact-check. 

That meant staying up past midnight on Sunday nights — the night before publication — to make sure that stories in the magazine were accurate. I would be assigned to check every single fact in a feature story. If a writer said Michael Jordan scored 63 in a particular game, I had to make sure. If a writer said a certain coach loved Juicy Fruit bubble gum, I had to verify that. It led to some strange phone calls.¬†

At times, it was annoying. I was in my early 20s, living in New York City, and I was up until all hours calling around about whether someone drove a Mazda or a Nissan? I thought magazine life was glamorous! 

But as I grew as a writer, I realized how crucial this was. ESPN Magazine had an entire research department devoted to making sure everything was accurate. Everything. And eventually, when I started writing my own features, I was endlessly grateful for the people fact-checking my stories.

After I left ESPN, I started freelancing at Newsweek. I will never forget when I asked how to submit my story to the research department. My editor said, “Here, you are your own fact-checker.” Gulp.¬†

But that is what’s changed in modern journalism. Subscriptions decline and management has to make cuts. Often, the cuts come in the copy editing or research areas. And so it’s increasingly on the writers themselves, or the editors, to make sure everything is right. And as you know, this comes during an era when readers can do their own fact-checking.¬†

Whenever I help a student get a story into a professional publication, I am very clear: Make sure every single thing is accurate. Your first shot at paid writing could be your last shot if you don’t get it right.

Yes, I realize we live in an era where powerful people lie all the time, and people shrug it off. The Washington Post kept track of every “false or misleading” statement made by former President Trump since his inauguration. The paper found Trump averaged eight false or misleading statements every day. And he’s hardly the first president to lie brazenly to the American public.

You’ll hear a lot of sighing about how the truth is blurry these days, or we live in a post-fact world. Personally, that only makes me believe we need to stay as accurate as ever. If journalists let the facts slide into “truthiness,” it’s time to find another job. Our job is to tell the truth, first and foremost, as best as we can.

One of the lowest moments of my career came after I wrote a story about a boy with cancer and his relationship with the Detroit Red Wings. I spotted the boy during an open locker room and asked the team who he was. A member of media relations told me he had kind of been adopted by some of the players because of his condition. I thought it was a sweet story. 

A couple of weeks later, I was at a bar in San Diego and I got an email. According to a relative of the boy, he didn’t have cancer at all. I was shocked and concerned. I wrote that story for an audience of millions. I wanted the email to be wrong — maybe some angry in-law.¬†

But what choice did I have but to look into it? I re-reported the story, and I wrote a new one. It turned out the Red Wings had no idea either. It was a sad, elaborate hoax. I wrote a new feature — basically a full-length correction.¬†

Fortunately, my editors understood and supported me. And I’m glad I told them exactly what had happened. Looking back, I’m grateful I was the one who found the hoax, rather than another reporter. Remember: it’s a blessing to be able to correct your own errors — no matter how public or painful.

These are some discussions written in the class and their topics 

Discussion one

Research and write about an ethical lapse in journalism. What went wrong andwhat could have been done to prevent it?

Keep your posts to roughly 150 words. You MUST refer to a *specific* incident. (Translation: Saying “CNN lies all the time” or “FOX is garbage” is going to get you a zero.) Proofread for grammar, punctuation, spelling, typos. Remember to reply to another student for full credit.

Discussion 1: Problem Spotting

Word Count: 150

Following the conviction of Ghislaine Maxwell, the BBC reached out to lawyer Alan Dershowitz for a comment. His views were subsequently aired in a manner that depicted him as being an impartial observer. However, Dershowitz has actually been accused of sexual misconduct by Virginia Roberts Giuffre. Giuffre is one of the individuals believed to have been recruited by Maxwell for clients such as Dershowitz and Prince Andrew (Saad, 2021).

Dershowitz had the motive to misrepresent facts during his interaction with the BBC reporters. Therefore, the BBC erred in leading its viewers to believe that the lawyer could be trusted. Moreover, there was a time when Dershowitz had strong connections to Maxwell and Jeffrey Edward Epstein, who was a convicted sex offender. Indeed, he was part of the Epstein defense team that negotiated a non-prosecution agreement in 2006 (Edwards, 2020). The BBC has since apologized for breaking its own editorial standards.

References

Edwards, B. J. (2020). Relentless pursuit: My fight for the victims of Jeffrey Epstein. Simon and Schuster.

Saad, N. (2021, December 30). BBC apologizes for Alan Dershowitz interview that didn’t mention Epstein connection. Los Angeles Times. https://www.latimes.com/entertainment-arts/tv/story/2021-12-30/bbc-statement-alan-dershowitz-ghislaine-maxwell-interview (Links to an external site.)

Discussion two 

Read through the SPJ Code of Ethics and write 150 words on *one* of the tenets:

https://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp (Links to an external site.)

Explain why you chose that one, why it speaks to you, and why it’s important in the age of social media.

Remember, for full credit, you must 1) Cite the tenet you want to discuss and 2) Reply to one other student.

Discussion 2: Code of Ethics

Word count: 159

Journalists have a responsibility to get the evidences right, thus finding and reporting the truth is essential. Journalists must be truthful because if they misreport the news or misrepresent facts, they are guilty of bad journalism. When sloppy journalism is exposed, the public loses faith in the reporter and, in certain cases, the newspaper or website for which they work, which can lead to more confusion and misinformation for their audience (Farley et.al 2014). This will have a long-term effect on journalism in the long run. As a journalist, this principle resonates with me since I am obligated to ensure that what I write and present is accurate. It is also important for reporters to give the full picture and not just one viewpoint. After a story is printed, if the person involved wants to chance the story that they think is not reliable, the journalist must meet with the subject and record the respective changes that may arise.

Discussion 3: Twitter Spaces

167167 unread replies.193193 replies.

Here is a real-life challenge from just a few weeks ago:

The head coach of the Florida State football team, Mike Norvell, lost a prized recruit to Jackson State. The fans were beside themselves.

One such fan created a Twitter Space — an online forum where like-minded fans could vent about the situation.

He called it “Fire Mike Norvell.” In order to participate in the discussion, a user had to say “Fire Mike Norvell.”

Very soon, reporters saw Florida State fans flooding into this Twitter Space. Now here is the dilemma:

Is it ethical for a reporter to enter a Twitter Space devoted to rallying for the firing of a coach? 

If not, why not? If so, what should the rules of etiquette be for a reporter who is visiting such a space? 

Discussion 3: Twitter Spaces

Based on provided information the head coach of Florida, state football team, Mike Norvell, lost prized recruit to Jackson state. In response, a fan made a group with the name Fire Mike Norvell. It is important to mention that reporters have ethical responsibilities towards reporting pattern and there should be always a right choice between covering media trends or to follow one’s instincts. I think it would be unethical to enter into such space because the fan may not like to have someone who is trying to report their activities so it may come under invading someone’s space without their consent. Moreover, I think it is also unethical to take personal agreements on social media website. By giving my attention to such hate group I would be endorsing what is being said and done in the group. So, I think it would be against work etiquettes to enter such space in the first place and later reporting on this hate content.

Discussion 5

Let’s say you are covering a press conference about an outbreak of lead poisoning in your area. The elected official behind the podium says the water is safe to drink if it is combined with a “plant-based medicine” you’ve never heard of. You aren’t quite sure if this is true or not, and almost immediately there is a social media argument over this treatment. Many insist it’s helped them, and others say it’s dangerous. You have to report on this press conference, and you have to do it right away. Your reader is relying on you for accurate information during a time of fear and uncertainty. What do you do?

Please write a 150-word post and reply to one other student. Remember: up to seven points for the post, and up to three points for the reply.

Discussion 5: Challenges of Fact-Checking

I would report that the water is unsafe for drinking and that people should take the necessary precautions. Considering that the elected leader did not provide more detail about the “plant-based medicine, it would be unethical to report that the water is safe for human consumption. Therefore, to ensure that people are safe, they should be informed that plant medicine has not been proven effective. In addition, I would ensure that I gather detailed information about the safety of the water before reporting. By doing so, I will avoid passing the wrong information or endangering people’s lives. However, if there is proven data on how plant medicine works and its effectiveness, I would report that people should embrace it to avoid being poisoned. Reporting accurate information helps one maintain the integrity and pass the correct information to the people. When other people’s health is concerned, one should be cautious about the type of information that is reported.

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