Ethical Standards and Credibility in Professional and Non Professional Journalism

The writer of the blog, Oconee County Observations, is Lee Becker, who holds a PhD in Mass Communication, and is a Professor of Journalism and Director of the James M. Cox Jr. Center for International Mass Communication Training and Research, Grady College, University of Georgia.

In today’s ever evolving media landscape, though Becker does not write specifically for a media house, his training and past experience in the field and his stated commitment to writing a blog that is “accurate, fair and transparent”, embrace the normative standards of professional journalism as detailed in Ward’s Digital Media Ethics (2014).  While this is a blog and not his fulltime job, his approach to his writing is certainly professional.

Becker’s purpose, as stated on his blog, is to record events and discussions that directly impact the quality of life of the people of Oconee County.  He is the eyes and ears of the people at meetings with the County Commissioners, and provides residents insight into discussions and decisions made at these meetings.  He also makes links available that provide a context or easy reference for issues under consideration.

While, Becker further states on his blog “I want to offer a balanced presentation that recognizes different points of view and portrays the people involved with respect”, it is difficult for there not to be some bias because he also makes it clear that what he posts is inspired by his “experiences and aspirations for the county”.  Nevertheless, from the articles I have read on his blog about issues such as the rezone of the RV storage facility, the need for additional funding for GDOT and revisions to the draft alcohol ordinance, I cannot detect any overt bias.  He simply states the facts, the discussions, the arguments for and against and the decisions.  His position on these issues is not obvious.

Therefore, Becker does adhere to SPJ’s Code of Ethics, since he “strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough” (2014).  In his article “Rep. Quick Tells Oconee County Government Leaders She Questions the Need for Additional Funding for GDOT” there is evidence that he takes steps to verify information and report truthfully and accurately.  He quotes verbatim what Rep. Quick says and also provides video to substantiate what he reports.   Additionally, in his articles, he also furnishes hyperlinks to relevant information, documents, or his earlier blogs in which the issue had been previously highlighted.  His articles are very detailed and attempt to provide context, so that issues are seen from the perspective of the bigger picture.

I do not think that it matters whether someone reporting news is labelled a “professional” or not because I believe that everyone should be held to the same ethical standards regardless of their professional classification.  A news report, photograph, video or audio whether it is in print, broadcast , posted or tweeted, should “seek truth and report it, and minimize harm”( SPJ, 2014).  The pen, the camera, the computer, the mobile device are all mightier than the sword. Consequently, journalism regardless of whether it is considered citizen or professional carries with it accountability.

The rise of citizen journalists and bloggers has resulted in access to a wider variety of knowledge very quickly.  People post and tweet, news, pictures and video in real time as it happens, thus empowering us to make more informed decisions about issues and events.  The advantage of these new writers is that they co-produce the news, and no longer just passively accept the news (Lewis, 2011).

Professional journalists are also able to track down eye witnesses for stories through the internet and social media.  Journalist, Paul Lewis, demonstrates this in the two stories that he shared in his TED Talks presentation about the controversial deaths of two men in very different situations.  Skeptical about the official stories of these two events, Lewis posed questions on Twitter that unearthed witnesses, their footage and experiences that exposed the real truth behind the deaths of these two men: Ian Tomlinson, a newspaper vendor walking home in the midst of the G20 protests,  was killed as a result of police brutality, and Jimmy Mubenga, an Angolan refugee, was placed in a dangerous hold by three security officers while resisting his deportation on a flight back to Angola that led to positional asphyxia (2011). (The latter story is similar to the circumstances surrounding the death of Eric Garner who like Mubenga said that he could not breathe.)  Lewis purports that were it not for Twitter, the true stories behind these men’s deaths would not have been revealed; thus “social media has inserted a new layer of accountability in our world” (2011).

However some of these new writers pose various challenges as they are unwilling to abide by the code of ethics governing professional journalism.  Ward (2014) is concerned about “the culture of online journalism which emphasizes immediacy, transparency, partiality, non-professional journalists and post-publication correction”.   The desire to post first, often results in inaccuracies which can sometimes lead to libellous content and in some instances there is unapologetic bias in what is published.  The culture of these new writers has also impacted traditional media who sometimes take their cues from social media posts and negligently report erroneous information as was evident in the Boston marathon bombings and the shooting of US representative Gabrielle Giffords.

Conversely there are “non-professionals” who show good judgment, assemble information for balanced stories, and build up credibility.  Fashion blogger, Ashley Robinson, identifies the hallmarks of professional bloggers as people who treat their work with respect and care, regard everything that they post and tweet as their digital footprint and [high on my list] hold themselves accountable (2013).  If everyone, who uses social media “to witness, record and share” (Lewis, 2011), employs the same ethos, professionals and non-professionals alike would truly be watchdogs of society and ensure accountability.

References

Becker, L. (2014). Oconee County Observations.  Retrieved from http://oconeecountyobservations.blogspot.com/2014/09/compliance-with-key-provisions-of.html

Lewis, P. Crowdsourcing the news. [Video] April 2011.  Retrieved from https://www.ted.com/talks/paul_lewis_crowdsourcing_the_news

Robinson, A. (2013) 7Signs you may be a professional blogger.  Retrieved from http://heartifb.com/2013/04/15/7-signs-might-be-professional-blogger/

Society for Professional Journalists. (2014, September 6). SPJ Code of Ethics. Retrieved from http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp

Ward, S. (2014).  Digital Media Ethics.  Retrieved from http://ethics.journalism.wisc.edu/resources/digital-media-ethics/

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Mistakes, False News, and Errors

The very first standard in the Society for Professional Journalism’s Code of Ethics reads “Journalists should take responsibility for the accuracy of their work; verify information before releasing it and use original sources whenever possible” (SPJ, 2014).   Therefore the modern trend of “report now and apologize later” is a violation of the SPJ’s Code of Ethics.

Several media houses including CNN, the Associated Press, Fox News, the Boston Globe and other local Boston news outlets reported erroneously that an arrest had been made in the Boston marathon bombing, when there was none at the time (Carter, 2013).  These faux pas set the work of the FBI and other law enforcement agencies back, and unfortunately such incidences of inaccuracies are all too common.  Of this worrying trend the F.B.I. “warned that such unverified reporting could have “unintended consequences” for its investigation” (Carter, 2013).  However, CNN thought that their sources were accurate and they vehemently defended their reporting because they had “three credible sources on both local and federal levels,” and “one of their law enforcement experts, Tom Fuentes, [was] a former assistant director of the F.B.I.”  (Carter, 2013). The latter factor was reason enough for them to think that their sources were beyond reproach.  While I am willing to give CNN the benefit of the doubt, Carter reports that in the previous year CNN and Fox News also misreported the result of the Supreme Court ruling on President Obama’s health care overhaul law (2013), so there is a pattern of erroneousness, not just for CNN, but the media in general.

While the SPJ encourages journalists to “identify sources clearly” because “the public is entitled to as much information as possible to judge the reliability and motivations of sources” (2014), very often sources are not revealed, so the authenticity of the source cannot be verified.  Inaccurate reporting leads to unwarranted fear, hysteria and distress to the general public, especially in times of crisis.  In the case of the Boston marathon bombing, the errors were many.  In fact the Huffington Post released a video highlighting the numerous blunders the media made that week: incorrect pictures of possible suspects were posted on the front page of the New York Post; the Wall Street Journal reported that there were five additional explosive devices; it was broadcasted that cell phone service in the area was suspended, and MSNBC linked a fire at the JFK library to the Boston bombing (Siddiqui, 2013).  It was a media frenzy of misinformation.

However one of the most tragic blunders was Reddit’s incrimination of missing 22 year old Brown student, Sunil Tripathi, as a second suspect.  As a result, many posts and tweets were posted calling for death and pain on his family (Brostradamus, 2013) and the Facebook page that his family had set up to look for their beloved son and brother was desecrated by hate messages.  After confirmation that Tripathi had not been involved, Reddit apologized, “The downside of instant journalism is that we sometimes get things wrong. And sometimes media outlets can take this false information and run with it” (Brostradamus, 2013).   Nonetheless, apologizing after the fact is not enough; the damage had already been done. How does that fit with minimizing harm and treating the public with respect?  “I share Buttry’s view that the SPJ Code of Ethics needs to state unequivocally: Journalists, not sources, are responsible for the accuracy of the stories; you should verify thoroughly enough to refute false information from sources(2010).

We are all to blame for this trend.  Journalists want to be the first to break a story; social media beats them to it every time and we, who are constantly connected to our mobile devices, want the news as it happens.   Consequently, social media along with traditional media pander to us, in an effort to increase ratings, followers and ultimately advertising.  It is a vicious cycle.  In this twenty first century, “critics see a world without editors, of unfettered spin, where the loudest and most agreeable voice wins and where truth is the first casualty (Kovach and Rosenstiel, 2011, p. 7). While this may be a fair assessment, because we all have the power to report the news, the onus is on everyone to be more media literate and act responsibly.  Even so, journalists and traditional media must lead by example and not abdicate their positions as gatekeepers of the truth and facts.  It is up to us all to dispel the fears of Judy Muller, a former network news correspondent, who teaches journalism at the University of Southern California, that we have permanently entered The Age of Retraction in our rush to always be first to publish, post or tweet (Carter, 2013).

References

Brostradamus. (2013, April 19). We owe Sunil Tripathi’s family an outpouring of love and an apology. We brought unintentional pain to them tonight. Let’s find their son. Retrieved from http://www.reddit.com/r/inthenews/comments/1co5o1/we_owe_sunil_tripathis_family_an_outpouring_of/

Buttry, S. (2010, November 7). Journalists’ Code of Ethics: Time for an update?  Retrieved from http://stevebuttry.wordpress.com/2010/11/07/journalists-code-of-ethics-time-for-an-update/

Carter, B. (2013, April 17). The F.B.I. criticizes the news media after several mistaken reports of an arrest.  Retrieved from http://www.nytimes.com/2013/04/18/business/media/fbi-criticizes-false-reports-of-a-bombing-arrest.html?_r=1&

Kovach, B and Rosenstiel, T.  (2011). Blur: How to know what’s true in the age of information overload.   New York: Bloomsbury USA

Siddiqui, S. (2013, April 22). Boston bombings reveal media full of mistakes, false reports (VIDEO). Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2013/04/22/boston-bombings-media-mistakes_n_3135105.html

Society for Professional Journalists. (Revised 2014, September 6). SPJ Code of Ethics. Retrieved from http://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp

3.1 Blog: Sources, Credibility, and Social Media

3.1 Blog: Sources, Credibility, and Social Media

1. The article that I have selected to examine the cited sources is Andres Jauregui’s article on the Huffington Post website entitled “Grand Jury in Eric Garner Case Wasn’t Asked to Consider ‘Reckless Endangerment’ Charge: Report”, which was posted on December 5, 2014. Firstly I sought to examine the credentials of the writer of this article Andres Jauregui to ascertain whether he is a credentialed expert, and he is not; an editor, at The Huffington Post, Jauregui writes about “crime, weird news, truth, justice and the American way”, according to his Twitter profile. He was awarded a BSc in Journalism from Boston University in 2003, and has been at the Huffington Post for 2years and eight months (Linkedin, 2014). The article fits the category of journalism of aggregation as it incorporates reports from NBC New York, ABC 7 Online, Huffington Post and SILive.com, all reputable news agencies. The original reports upon which this article is written are examples of journalism of verification, as they make every effort to provide multiple sources for their reports.
The first source is an article written by Andrew Siff of NBC 4 New York: Staten Island DA Didn’t Ask Garner Grand Jury to Consider Reckless Endangerment Charge: Source. The article is current and cites verbatim the words of the victim “I cannot breathe” from the widely publicized video and District Attorney Donovan’s statement. There is nothing that suggests bias in the article. NBC is considered a reputable news corporation.
A legal definition of what according to New York law constitutes ‘reckless endangerment’ is provided from a website entitled FindLaw which is a legal information portal that has been in existence since 1996 and is linked to Thomson Reuters “a pioneer and innovator in marketing solutions for law firms, online legal information and services for lawyers, businesses, and individuals” (FindLaw, 2014). It is evident that this is a commercial site but it is accessing data from existing laws so it can be considered credible. The explanation serves as a guide for the lay person reading the article to have a better understanding of the legal terminology and helps them to make decisions about the applicability of this charge in this particular case.
Jauregui then comments on public opinion on the Garner case by citing an article Conservatives Join Outrage over Grand Jury Decision in Eric Garner’s Death by fellow Huffington writer, Ryan Reilly, who presents the unanimity of the voices online who believe that the failure to indict Pantaleo was an unjust decision. This article provides a variety of perspectives from people who are not authoritative, but its focus is on emphasizing that even conservatives disagree. The names of those voicing their opinions have been presented and links to their original posts and tweets are also provided, so this adds to the authenticity of the article.
An interesting article by Tom Hays and Colleen Long is cited next. I found the article’s title Eric Garner Protests Spread Across The Country; Police Arrest More Than 200 to be deceptive, as I thought that it would focus on the protests but it also showed the other side of the protests, the police officers, who according to the article feel ‘demoralized, misunderstood and all alone’ (Hays and Long, 2014) as they are being demonized and condemned in the court of public opinion for doing their jobs. In the article Maki Haberfeld, a professor of police studies at John Jay College of criminal justice, comes out in defence of the police as do the police unions and US Representative Peter King, R-N.Y. Hearing authoritative voices from the other side in this cited article, attests to its credibility.
Similarly in the ABC7 Eyewitness News Report that was cited, the issue of whether the action of the officer was racially motivated or not, and the feeling of the police officers that they have been thrown under the bus by politicians, features. In this article statements made by the President, Mayor and Governor of New York, Reverend Al Sharpton and Garner’s widow, Esaw and his mother Gwen are featured and accompanied by video clips in some instances (Wilson, 2014). These all add invaluable validation to the information presented.
Probably the most compelling source refers to legal experts who “told SILive.com that Pantaleo’s testimony was likely a huge factor in the decision not to indict” (Jauregui, 2014). The link to this article leads us to the website of Staten Island News Live which is a commercial website linked to the Staten Island Advance newspaper which fits the descriptor of a news and journalistic site, an E-zine (Montecino, 1998). The information provided is current and there are a host of authoritative sources, namely criminal defense attorneys. Their views provide authentication to the article because of their qualifications and experience, thus I also consider this a convincing source.
This article which “harnesses and organizes existing information” (Kovach and Rosenstiel, 2011), attempts to provide a broad overview of the Eric Garner case at this juncture, but it is clear that there continues to be a lot of unanswered questions. I find Jaugeri’s WWW resources to be credible, as they draw from the websites of reputable news agencies whose writers have not taken any personal stand on this controversial issue.
2. Information from non-professionals such as bloggers can be trusted if they exercise due diligence in ensuring that their sources are accurate. So long as they guard against what Kovach and Rosenstiel (2011, p. 75) call the “voice of God” approach where the blogger takes on the role of the source and fails to provide any other source and instead provides several reliable sources who may be eyewitnesses, experts with relevant experience and or qualifications pertinent to the issue, their information should be trusted. “In other words, the more specificity we have about the source, the better” (Kovach and Rosenstiel 2011, p. 76). In addition, if bloggers write about something that they have seen and experienced firsthand then this is an ideal situation that puts readers in an advantageous position to be able to draw their own conclusions.
Nonetheless, “One of the biggest concerns journalists have had since the explosion of blogs on the Internet is that people with no training in reporting will post “news” without verifying information obtained from a single person or uncertain sources” (Hall, 2013) and unfortunately that has been the case with some bloggers. For example, Logan Smith in a blog posted on March 29, 2012, claimed that South Carolina governor Nikki Haley was about to be indicted on tax fraud charges which was completely false and resulted in Smith being slapped with a defamation lawsuit. Smith claims to have got the information from only two sources another blog and a television newscaster. Haley’s team worked hard to dispel the rumor but damage is always inevitable (Hall, 2013). Bloggers, like journalists, need to verify their sources, be accountable and choose accuracy over speed, if their information is to be trusted. However, it is important to note that traditional journalists also fall into the trap of reporting inaccuracies based on questionable sources, all in the fight to scoop the story first.
3. Social media has influenced the spreading and receiving of information by giving a voice to the voiceless and to readers a wide array of articles and information with which to make decisions and understand issues. However, social media has also placed greater stress on traditional media to publish first because they often report the story before them. Nevertheless, after significant missteps and misinformation; for example the New York Post’s publication of the pictures of two suspects in the Boston Marathon Bombing who were totally innocent all because of a post on Reddit, “some news organizations are instead placing higher value on being right even if that means not being first in reporting a story ( Vis, 2014).
Social media, like Twitter and YouTube, also have the power to make a news item go viral, even if it is misinformation – so gatekeepers, traditional journalists, people in the know – must be in place to ensure the authenticity of reports (Vis, 2014).
References
Donnelly, F. (2014, December 4). Experts: Officer Daniel Pantaleo’s testimony likely factored heavily in grand jury’s decision not to indict. Retrieved from http://www.silive.com/news/index.ssf/2014/12/experts_garner_cops_testimony.html
FindLaw. N.Y. PEN. LAW § 120.20 : NY Code – Section 120.20: Reckless endangerment in the second degree. Retrieved on December 6, 2014 from http://codes.lp.findlaw.com/nycode/PEN/THREE/H/120/120.20

Hall, R. (2013, November 14). Idiot’ Blogger Finally Apologizes for False Report He Posted During 2012 Election. Retrieved from http://newsbusters.org/blogs/randy-hall/2013/11/13/idiot-blogger-finally-apologizes-false-report-he-posted-during-2012-elec#sthash.5Eddxwvz.dpuf
Hays, T and Long, C. (2014, December 5). Eric Garner Protests Spread Across The Country; Police Arrest More Than 200 In NYC. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/05/eric-garner-protests_n_6273810.html
Jaueri, A. (2014, December 5). Grand Jury In Eric Garner Case Wasn’t Asked To Consider ‘Reckless Endangerment’ Charge: Report. Retrieved from
http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/05/eric-garner-reckless-endangerment_n_6275698.html
Jaueri ,Andres @dutchvowels. Retrieved from https://twitter.com/dutchvowels
Jaueri, Andres. Retrieved from https://www.linkedin.com/profile/view?id=30843530&authType
Kovach, B and Rosenstiel, T. (2011). Blur: How to know what’s true in the age of information overload. New York: Bloomsbury USA
Montecino, V. (1998). Criteria to Evaluate the Credibility of WWW Resources. Retrieved from http://mason.gmu.edu/~montecin/web-eval-sites.htm
Reilly, R. (2014, December 3). Conservatives Join Outrage Over Grand Jury Decision In Eric Garner’s Death. Retrieved from http://www.huffingtonpost.com/2014/12/03/eric-garner-conservatives-chokehold_n_6264886.html
Siff, A. (2014, December 5) Staten Island DA Didn’t Ask Garner Grand Jury to Consider Reckless Endangerment Charge: Source. Retrieved from http://www.nbcnewyork.com/news/local/Eric-Garner-Daniel-Pantaleo-Daniel-Donovan-Grand-Jury-Charges-NYPD-284869641.html
Wilson, R. (2014, December 5). Judge Allows Release of Limited Grand Jury Material in Eric Garner Case. Retrieved from http://7online.com/news/grand-jury-no-indictment-against-cop-in-eric-garner-case/418889/

Vis, F. (2014, April 14). How Does False Information Spread Online. Retrieved from http://www.socialsciencespace.com/2014/04/how-does-false-information-spread-online/