NPR’s new policy on activism is smart — but will inevitably lead to confusion

Bonita Yarboro of Hamden, Conn., at the Boston demonstration against racism in August 2017. Photo (cc) 2017 by Dan Kennedy.

Four years ago this summer, I walked alongside upwards of 40,000 demonstrators in Boston who were protesting their anger and disgust at Donald Trump over his racist response to the deadly right-wing violence in Charlottesville, Virginia — and to a few cranks who had gathered on the Boston Common to express their racist views. The crowd chanted; I did not. The crowd held signs; I did not. I was careful to keep my press pass visible as well.

I wasn’t there to be “objective,” to invoke a much-misunderstood word. Besides, as an opinion journalist, I’m free to say and write what I believe. But the tradition in journalism is that all us, whether we work the straight-news or the opinion side of the street, need to maintain our independence. We don’t contribute money to political candidates or put partisan signs on our lawn. We don’t write or talk about who we’re going to vote for. (I’ve made one exception during my career, making it clear that I would vote for whoever was opposing Trump.) And we don’t take part in protests or demonstrations.

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Following the police killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, that old rule has been subjected to new scrutiny. Last July, for instance, The Boston Globe announced that it would amend its ethics policy to allow staff members to take part in Black Lives Matter rallies.

Although I have no affiliation with the Globe, the change did affect my thinking. Since then, I’ve participated in a local Black Lives Matter march and, just last week, a demonstration on behalf of transgender dignity.

And on Thursday, a large and overdue hole was punched in the wall when NPR public editor Kelly McBride wrote that its journalists could now participate in certain activities that had long been forbidden — not just by NPR but by practically all news organizations. She wrote:

NPR rolled out a substantial update to its ethics policy earlier this month, expressly stating that journalists may participate in activities that advocate for “the freedom and dignity of human beings” on both social media and in real life.

The new policy eliminates the blanket prohibition from participating in “marches, rallies and public events,” as well as vague language that directed NPR journalists to avoid personally advocating for “controversial” or “polarizing” issues….

The new NPR policy reads, “NPR editorial staff may express support for democratic, civic values that are core to NPR’s work, such as, but not limited to: the freedom and dignity of human beings, the rights of a free and independent press, the right to thrive in society without facing discrimination on the basis of race, ethnicity, gender, sexual identity, disability, or religion.”

As McBride describes it, the policy is going to lead to a lot of friction and questions in NPR-affiliated newsrooms. Taking part in demonstrations on behalf of a political candidate or a piece of legislation will still be forbidden, leading some to question whether the changes go far enough.

And though McBride cited Black Lives Matter and Pride as obvious causes that staff members would be allowed to support, there are plenty of causes that you could argue are related to “the freedom and dignity of human beings” that are also cultural hot buttons. For instance, what about pro-choice or pro-life rallies? Or Palestinian rights versus support for Israel? This isn’t going to be easy.

The irony is that NPR is probably the most balanced of our major news organizations. I don’t mean that as praise. Its devotion to both-sides-ism and false equivalence during the Trump years and their aftermath has at times driven me to distraction. Of course, in a large and diverse news organization like NPR, there are many exceptions, as well as an admirable devotion to truth-telling journalism. But, all too often, NPR has been at the forefront of normalizing the profoundly abnormal.

All things considered (see what I did there?), the new ethics policy strikes me as a smart move, despite the disputes it will inevitably lead to.

A Washington Post correction adds to confusion over Rudy Giuliani and the FBI

Rudy Giuliani. Photo (cc) 2019 by Gage Skidmore

When you have to publish a correction, be forthcoming about it. The Washington Post failed to do that over the weekend, thus compounding the harm it had done to Donald Trump adviser Rudy Giuliani. Here is the Post’s correction, published on Saturday:

An earlier version of this story, published Thursday, incorrectly reported that One America News was warned by the FBI that it was the target of a Russian influence operation. That version also said the FBI had provided a similar warning to Rudolph W. Giuliani, which he has since disputed. This version has been corrected to remove assertions that OAN and Giuliani received the warnings.

The correction makes it appear that the Post was backing down solely on Giuliani’s say-so. That led to a tweet from Caroline Orr Bueno in which she asked: “Why retract it instead of just adding in a statement saying Giuliani disputes it?” To which I responded: “Marty Baron has left the building,” referring to the recent retirement of the Post’s executive editor.

But it turned out not to be so simple. Because The New York Times and NBC News had also run stories claiming that Giuliani had been warned, and they published corrections as well. Tom Jones of Poynter rounds them up. First, the Times:

An earlier version of this article misstated whether Rudolph W. Giuliani received a formal warning from the F.B.I. about Russian disinformation. Mr. Giuliani did not receive such a so-called defensive briefing.

Not much explanation there, but at least the Times isn’t attributing the reason for its correction to Giuliani. The clearest is from NBC News:

An earlier version of this article included an incorrect report that Rudolph Giuliani had received a defensive briefing from the FBI in 2019 warning him that he was being targeted by a Russian influence operation. The report was based on a source familiar with the matter, but a second source now says the briefing was only prepared for Giuliani and not delivered to him, in part over concerns it might complicate the criminal investigation of Giuliani. As a result, the premise and headline of the article below have been changed to reflect the corrected information.

That’s how you do a correction: explain exactly went wrong. Of the three, the Post’s is the worst, since the wording makes it appear as though the editors were responding solely to a complaint by Giuliani. The Times’ is OK, but its lack of clarity and falls into the “mistakes were made” category. So kudos to NBC News for doing it the right way.

Giuliani remains in a heap of trouble. His apartment and office were searched by the FBI last week as part of what appears to be a criminal investigation into his activities in Ukraine. There was no need for news organizations to pump it up with information that was unverified and, as it turns out, wrong.

And, as Oliver Darcy of CNN observes: “All the original reports were attributed to anonymous sources.”

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Taking dictation from the police is no longer good enough. In fact, it never was.

Photo (cc) 2013 by Victoria Pickering

As you may have read elsewhere, the original police account of George Floyd’s death was mostly accurate yet completely false. It read in part:

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.

Floyd’s murder at the hands — or, rather, at the knee — of Derek Chauvin is likely to have long-lasting repercussions. One of those repercussions should be a rethinking of how journalists report routine police news. It has long been the custom for reporters at small community news organizations to visit the police station every morning, flip through the publicly available log, and report what’s there. If something seems interesting, the journalist might ask to see the incident report written up by an officer. And then this gets regurgitated, the ultimate in one-source reporting.

That’s how I did it in the 1970s and ’80s. It’s how we were all taught to do it. And in a large city like Minneapolis, a man who, according to police, died from medical issues while being arrested for forgery would probably not warrant a follow-up. You’d report it, and then you’d be on your way.

Interestingly enough, one of the papers I worked for in the early part of my career would not publish the names of people who’d been arrested and charged with a crime unless it was fairly big news. We younger reporters thought it was ridiculous, and we chafed at not being able to tell the whole story. But the editor, who was also one of the owners, explained that since our coverage of the court system was spotty at best, we’d likely never know if the person had been convicted or acquitted — and if it were the latter, we’d have smeared their reputation without cause. My editor was right, and ahead of his time. We were wrong.

Earlier this week The Washington Post reported on a case in Loveland, Colorado, where police last year arrested a 73-year-old woman who’d walked out of a Walmart with $13.88 worth of stuff without paying. It turns out that she had dementia and, as is clear from the police video, presented no threat to anyone. Yet she was thrown to the ground and handcuffed, with an officer twisting her arm in such a way that she suffered from a broken bone and a dislocated shoulder.

Can you imagine what the police log item might have looked like? No big deal, right?

The problems presented by taking the police at their word was the subject of an exchange the other day involving my GBH News colleague Saraya Wintersmith, South End News and Bay Windows publisher Sue O’Connell and me. (Note: Within the last few minutes I received a press release saying that O’Connell’s papers are up for sale. More to come.)

That, in turn, drew a comment from Julie Manganis, who covers the courts for The Salem News and its sister papers.

Manganis is right, but the News is unusual in its ongoing dedication to court reporting — and even then, most routine police news doesn’t rise to that level.

An additional complication is that many police departments now post their logs online. Under the state’s public records law, police departments must keep daily records of incidents and, in the case of arrests, the name, address and charge against the person who was detained. Members of the public, including journalists, are entitled to see this information. But now these items don’t even get the light vetting that might take place when a reporter asks an officer to explain something. It’s right out there for everyone to see.

Indeed, as I’m writing this, I’m looking at a report from one of the larger cities in the Boston area about a woman who was arrested and charged with trespassing. It’s a pretty thorough entry, and yes, it includes her name, age and address. It is probably accurate. I have no idea if it’s also true — that is, if it offers all the context we need to know to understand what happened.

Major crimes will always receive journalistic scrutiny. Official sources may have the upper hand early on, but as reporters keep digging, they’ll generally ferret out the truth. But we need a serious rethink of how we cover routine police news. And we need to do it at a time when local news resources are stretched to the limit.

One rule we might follow is that if an incident is so minor that it’s not worth devoting the resources to getting all sides, then it’s probably not worth reporting in the first place. But this is just the beginning of a conversation about how to practice ethical journalism at a time when the old ways of doing things are no longer good enough. And never were.

More: I’m pasting Paul Bass’ comment here because I think it adds some important information on how to do it the right way. Bass is the founder and editor of the New Haven Independent, a nonprofit digital news organization.

We have always felt strongly at the Independent that media should not print names of arrestees unless we have their side, we have seen independent evidence corroborating the charges, an immediate threat exists to public safety requiring divulging the name, or a court has adjudicated the charge. I have personally gotten flak over the years from mainstream corporate journalists who felt outraged that we were being so “elitist.” The policy began after noticing that many Black people in new Haven were charged with crimes they didn’t commit. (See this Nieman Journalism Lab story.)

An ethical dilemma in Maine as a police officer pretends to be a reporter

Image (cc) 2008 via the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center

Now here’s an ethical dilemma. In Livermore Falls, Maine, a man who had taken four people hostage in a home called a television news reporter who was outside covering the standoff. Police asked the reporter to hand them his phone. He complied, and an officer continued the conversation with the hostage-taker while pretending to be the reporter.

It would seem to violate any sense of journalistic ethics — and yet it was a life-or-death situation. What would you have done? I think I would have done exactly what the reporter, Taylor Cairns of CBS 13, did, and then wondered later if there might have been a better way to handle it. I definitely believe Cairns did the right thing in the moment.

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Earlier this week, University of Maine journalism professor Michael Socolow and I talked with Nick Schroeder of the Bangor Daily News. As I told Schroeder, “You can see what a difficult situation everybody was in. Lives were at stake here.” But I also told him that maybe this should lead to training for both reporters and police officers aimed at coming up with a better solution if a similar situation should arise in the future.

The story came to a gruesome ending. Though none of the hostages was harmed, the hostage-taker, Donald White, died of a self-inflicted gunshot wound after having been shot by a state police officer, according to police.

Should opinion journalists disclose whom they’re voting for?

Photo (cc) 2018 by Bill Smith

Previously published at Poynter Online.

We’re all familiar with newspaper endorsements. But what about individual journalists whose job descriptions include expressing their opinions about politics and politicians?

Is the old rule that opinion journalists shouldn’t reveal whom they’re voting for still relevant?

I’m referring to columnists for newspaper op-ed pages, certain types of magazine writers, journalists for websites that combine news and opinion, and the like. I’m not referring to partisan commentators whose loyalties are explicitly with a political party or candidate. That would apply to cable talking heads such as David Axelrod or Rick Santorum. They can do as they like.

But opinion journalism, properly understood, is bound by the same ethical considerations as straight news reporting. You don’t make political contributions, you don’t put bumper stickers on your car or signs on your lawn, and you certainly don’t take part in a campaign in any way.

I’ve been working the opinion side of the street since the early 1990s, first as a writer for the alt-weekly Boston Phoenix, now as a panelist on WGBH-TV’s “Beat the Press” and as a columnist for the WGBH News website. I’ve always tried to take the ethics of my craft seriously.

Though bound by the same ethical considerations, there are some differences between opinion journalism and straight news reporting. The most relevant difference is this: I am free to write (for example) that I think Elizabeth Warren is the best-qualified candidate for president by virtue of her policy positions, her experience and her temperament. What I’m not free to do is to take the next logical step and say I’m voting for Warren.

Unfortunately, as with so many customs, President Donald Trump has broken the mold. Four years ago I made it clear that I would vote for the Democratic nominee against Trump regardless of whether it was Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. I considered Trump a threat to journalism and the First Amendment, and I thought it was important for journalists to take a stand in defense of both. And I’m repeating that in 2020: I will vote for the Democratic nominee.

I’ve seen others make the same assertion. I’ve even seen a few mainstream opinion journalists come very close to disclosing their preferred candidate. Some find themselves in conflicted positions, including two New York Times columnists: Michelle Goldberg, who has disclosed that her husband is a consultant for Warren, and Thomas Friedman, whose every effusion on behalf of Michael Bloomberg is accompanied by a statement that Bloomberg gave money to a literacy museum Friedman’s wife is building.

As with any custom, it makes sense to revisit this one from time to time and ask if it still matters.

The argument in favor of disclosing your vote is that traditional notions of objectivity are obsolete (although I would argue that Walter Lippmann’s original conception of objectivity as the dispassionate pursuit of truth is as relevant as ever), and that journalists should aim to be as transparent as possible.

The argument against disclosure, which I’ve always accepted, is that not only does disclosing your vote change your audience’s perception of you, it also changes the way you write and comment on the candidates.

Some years back, I wrote a commentary for The Huffington Post arguing that President Barack Obama’s crackdown on leaks within his administration was a threat to the First Amendment. His Justice Department at the time was threatening to jail journalists if they refused to reveal their sources. The headline: “Obama’s War on Journalism.”

I admired Obama then and admire him more today. I wrote all kinds of laudatory things about him as a candidate and as president. But I never wrote that I would or had voted for him. If I had, I think it would have changed the calculation, not just for readers but in the way I would have approached writing such a commentary. I don’t need those kinds of entanglements, and readers have a right not to have to wade through them.

I put the question up on Twitter and Facebook earlier this week. A few thought disclosure was acceptable, but most believed that the old rules should still apply.

“Wouldn’t go there,” said Mike Pride, editor emeritus of New Hampshire’s Concord Monitor and retired administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes. “Makes future commentary too easily dismissible. Readers/listeners may figure out where you stand from what you write/say, but keep your vote to yourself.”

Added liberal columnist Michael Cohen of The Boston Globe: “If you take sides, particularly in the primary, it makes it harder to be an effective analyst.”

The other side was perhaps best expressed by Joshua Benton, editor of Nieman Lab, who also used the occasion to snark at The New York Times for its dual endorsement of Democrats Warren and Amy Klobuchar:

“I don’t see why someone paid to have public opinions should be prevented from having this particular one,” Benton said. “I think it’s a useful clarity. In the same way I wouldn’t want an editorial board to interview all the candidates, have clear strong opinions, and then not pick one.”

So is there still a meaningful difference between expressing your opinions about politics and saying whom you’re voting for? I think there is, and I come down on the side of withholding that last piece of information — with just a few obvious exceptions, such as my “anyone but Trump” assertion. (I may have let my 2020 choice slip once or twice on Facebook, and I shouldn’t have.)

“I am a champion of old rules in a new world,” is the way Pride puts it.

I’ll be away on a reporting trip next week, so I’m going to take advantage of early voting by casting my ballot in the Massachusetts Democratic primary this Friday.

But no, I’m not going to tell you my choice.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

I will vote against Donald Trump. There, I said it.

Donald Trump in 2011. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore.
Donald Trump in 2011. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore.

Donald Trump represents a challenge on many levels. One of those challenges is to the traditionally independent role of journalists—even opinion journalists like me. Because I’m in a position to express my opinions freely, I am not violating any ethical standard by saying that I think Trump is a racist demagogue who advocates violence and who is, in my view, the greatest threat to American democracy since the Great Depression.

What I always refrain from doing, though, is saying whom I’ll vote for. If you read me (thank you), you can probably guess at least 95 percent of the time. But I don’t take that last step. I have opinions, but I support no one. Nor do I make political donations, or put signs on our lawn or bumper stickers on my car.

Trump, though, is a clear and present danger to our country. NPR recently tied itself up in knots because Cokie Roberts—a commentator who is supposedly free to offer her opinions—wrote an anti-Trump column co-bylined with her husband, Steve Roberts. Like a lot of observers, I found that to be incredible. So let me tell you right now:

I will not vote for Trump. Assuming that Trump wins the Republican nomination and there is no viable independent candidate whom I prefer, I will vote for the Democratic candidate, most likely Hillary Clinton. If Bernie Sanders somehow manages to wrest the nomination from Clinton, I’ll vote for him.

I also hope the Republicans somehow find a way to deny Trump the nomination at their national convention this summer, which could happen if he’s ahead but commands less than a majority of the delegates. Trump has threatened us with riots if he’s spurned in such fashion, but that’s all the more reason to keep him off the ballot, not to retreat.

No, I’m not going to send Clinton a check or put a bumper sticker on my car. But I’m abandoning my independence just this once to make it clear that I will vote against Donald J. Trump.

The 11th element of journalism

UnknownIn Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s classic work “The Elements of Journalism,” they list nine (later revised to 10) qualities that define good journalism. These include principles such as an obligation to the truth (rather than mere he-said/she-said accuracy), verification of facts and independence.

This week I asked students in my Journalism Ethics and Issues class to come up with an 11th element. I am delighted with the results, which you can read by clicking here.

When the news comes from agenda-driven sources

Palestinian refugees in Syria wait for food assistance.
Palestinian refugees in Syria wait for food assistance.

Yesterday morning I was talking with my students about the importance of independence in journalistic ethics. Today The New York Times reports that a photo of Palestinian refugees in Syria has come under scrutiny, with some suspecting the picture is a digitally altered fake.

Perhaps questions would have been raised in any case, but it doesn’t help that the photo was distributed by the United Nations Relief and Works Agency (UNRWA). According to the Times, the photo appears to be genuine, and depicts the brutal reality of everyday life in Syria. But when the news comes from organizations with an agenda, it’s only natural that observers will ask questions.

The UNRWA photo is important and well worth calling to the world’s attention. But with more and more news coming from non-journalistic organizations, the value that journalism can bring is to scrutinize and determine what’s real and what isn’t.

Globe acknowledges lifting material from WBUR

The Boston Globe today admitted to “the use of material without attribution” in a recent editorial criticizing Vice President Joe Biden. The Aug. 17 editorial, which took Biden to task for his “put y’all back in chains” comment, tracks closely — very closely — with a commentary by Republican political consultant Todd Domke that was published two days earlier on the website of WBUR Radio (90.9 FM).

An editor’s note published by the Globe reads as follows:

An Aug. 17 editorial on Vice President Joe Biden’s comments on bank regulations contained some similarities in phrasing and structure to an opinion piece by Todd Domke on WBUR.org. The use of the material without attribution was inconsistent with Globe policies, and the Globe regrets the error.

WBUR reports on the editor’s note here.

Domke’s commentary is longer and better written than the Globe editorial. The problem is that the editorial tracks with Domke virtually paragraph by paragraph, with similar and at times identical language, while offering nothing that Domke didn’t come up with first. Even if it’s not actual plagiarism, Globe editors obviously believed it was close enough to warrant a mea culpa.

Which raises a few questions:

If this were a signed column rather than an unsigned editorial, wouldn’t this be a bigger deal? Wouldn’t we be wondering whether the writer had been or should be disciplined? Does the anonymity of editorial-writing mean less scrutiny than this would otherwise warrant?

And, more important, what are we to make of a partisan political argument written by a Republican contributor to WBUR becoming the official position of the region’s paper of record? The Globe editorial accepted the view that Biden’s comment was somehow racial in nature, even though Biden’s reference to “chains” was arguably a response to House Speaker John Boehner’s promise to “unshackle Wall Street.”*

As former conservative Charles Johnson wrote: “The right wing media are still shrieking about Joe Biden’s ‘chains’ comment, even though not a single one of these demagogues honestly believes there was a racial intent to it.”

Not to beat a dead horse. The Globe acknowledged its misstep. But really.

*Note: What Biden actually said was, “Romney wants to let the — he said in the first hundred days, he’s going to let the big banks once again write their own rules, unchain Wall Street. They’re going to put ya’ll back in chains.” It was Obama campaign spokesman Robert Gibbs who later cited Boehner’s remarks.

How to drain the cesspool of news-site comments

I’m speaking to Professor Nick Daniloff’s Journalism Ethics and Issues class at Northeastern University tomorrow. Since the topic may be of general interest, I thought I’d post the slides in advance.