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Media Ethics and Missteps 101

By Ben L. Kaufman · June 13th, 2012 · On Second Thought

Journalists do stupid things. We err, eavesdrop, plagiarize, fake stories and indulge in coverups that, were anyone else doing it, would leave us roaring with pitying laughter. 

When we get caught, it’s our version of “stupid criminal tricks.” 

We also tell you about these missteps, these ethical failures and sometimes criminal acts. That’s why it’s easy to teach my “Media Ethics and Missteps” at UC’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute each autumn. Reality is my textbook. 

I’m not immune. I wrote about an indictment for a June 31 homicide. Now-extinct copy editors, copy desk chiefs and proof readers let it pass.

“It’s obvious the guy’s innocent,” a droll reader told me on the phone. “No one could be guilty of a killing on June 31.” It still didn’t register. “There is no June 31.” Oh. 

That kind of error entertains a reader and hurts only the reporter’s ego.  

But criminal eavesdropping on Chiquita’s voicemail forced The Enquirer to back away from its otherwise substantive 18-part probe of Chiquita’s actions in Central America. 

Reporter Michael Gallagher was fired and convicted but did no federal prison time; he named his source for voicemail access. Gallagher’s dishonesty and lies to his editors damaged two more careers. The paper apologized on Page 1 and paid Chiquita a reported $14 million to not sue. It took years before Enquirer morale recovered and talented aspirants again applied for jobs at the paper. 

Plagiarism is rife today. Even cartoonists are pleading mea culpa. Just Google “plagiarism” and see what happens. 

Email creates new plagiarism hazards. Poynter critic Craig Silverman calls it the “Maureen Dowd” defense. Accused of plagiarism, the New York Times’ Dowd said she quoted a friend’s comment from an email, unaware that her friend quoted someone else. 

The Washington Post says a recent email pratfall involves a plagiarism accusation against Watergate figure Oliver North in a Fox News commentary. North might have fallen into the Dowd trap. Fox first removed the suspected plagiarism then took down the whole column.  

Fakery is more interesting. Janet Cooke’s stories about Jimmy, a child heroin addict forced The Washington Post to return her Pulitzer Prize. Jimmy didn’t exist. The paper also reported how the fakery happened.

Jayson Blair embarrassed the New York Times with his career of fakery, as did Stephen Glass at The New Republic. Both publications told readers how editors’ credulity helped them get away with it. 

Cooke, Blair and Glass — all young, talented and ambitious — lost their jobs. Cooke and Blair are black. That also figured in editors’ willful blindness. 

Mitch Albom was too valuable to fire at the Detroit Free Press after his advance column was published, saying two former Michigan State stars attended a Spartans’ Final Four game against North Carolina. Neither player showed. 

As any “-gate” scandal reminds us, coverups usually fail. The latest involves phone hacking by journalists on Rupert Murdoch’s British papers. As with other coverups, this one is failing because so many people are involved. Journalists have been charged in the hacking and failed effort to contain sleaze that also pollutes Scotland Yard and No. 10 Downing Street. 

Top editors claimed illegal hacking was limited to a rogue reporter and a private detective paid to hack royals, celebrities, professional athletes and others. 

Then it began to unwind. Murdoch’s News International paid handsome settlements for invasions of privacy. A probe of the first sycophantic police investigation found cozy relationships and payoffs to Scotland Yard. 

Police resignations and journalists’ arrests began, right up to but short of Murdoch and son James. Doubts linger about their statements and possible knowledge of payoffs to London police, a crime in the United States under a foreign bribery law.  

The latest juicy turn is the perjury charge against Andy Coulson, a persistent denier of knowledge of wrongdoing and the scope of the phone hacking. 

Coulson was editor of the News of the World, Britain’s largest and tackiest kiss-and-tell Sunday paper when some hacking and payments occurred. The paper was so rotten with widespread criminal hacking and dubious denials that Murdoch closed it in attempted contrition. 

Meanwhile, many News of the World journalists found cushy jobs at Scotland Yard and Coulson was hired as chief spokesman by the new and Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron.


• Cincinnati’s business is business, regardless of the industry, i.e., shampoo, education, sports.

entertainment, health care, banking, etc. That’s why I subscribe to the Business Courier.  It’s also the genesis of my sorrow at the decline of the Enquirer’s business section. It’s an institutional, rather than individual failing, and it never was clearer than a recent Sunday. That’s the big paper, the big circulation, and it once was the showcase for Enquirer talent and vision. One story in that recent Sunday business section was bylined by a staff reporter. A column was by the section editor. Everything else was by a contributor or the source/writer was not identified. Those anonymous short inside stories read more like responses to press releases than any demonstration of initiative. Worst was the “provided” group photo. It resembled a bad early cell phone camera image enlarged too far. I doubt that anyone unrelated to the people in the picture could identify them from the blur. That miserable photo reinforces the sense that the business staff has been reduced so far that just about any crap is good enough for Sunday Enquirer readers. The irony, of course, is the historic and accurate perception of Our Sole Surviving Daily as the voice of the business community.  

The Enquirer sponsored and published an outside poll of local attitudes toward politics and government. There were no surprises but unlike too many poll stories, this one shared the methodology and questions with us. Good. The methodology was described in simple, clear terms, including the statistical reliability of the responses. Questions form the answers. Now we can judge the poll, its results and the reporter’s interpretation by knowing what was asked. I wish the paper would do the same  for other polls it finds newsworthy. 

• Opinion polls (above) often are damned as biased or, worse, unreliable predictors of respondents’ behavior. Some are biased. That’s why it’s important to know who did the poll, who paid for it, and what was asked. As for the ability of polls to predict behavior, maybe, maybe not. A poll is a snapshot of attitudes at a particular moment. Subsequent events can change people’s opinions and plans. No poll can anticipate that reliably. That’s fortune telling. 

* Another knock on polls (above)  is how some public officials shape their words and actions to respondents’ answers. Why is that a bad thing? It’s a way for a supposedly representative sample of some larger group to express itself.  Isn’t that what unhappy Americans say they want, a voice in policies and programs? It doesn’t make sense to blame  polls for what’s done with the responses. 

• Earlier this month, Enquirers offered a curious contrast in business reporting. An AP national story described how long it would take for fuel savings to equal the additional cost of a new Honda all-electric car compared to a comparable gas-fueled model. Typical of the Enquirer’s “boost, don’t knock” approach to local firms, a contributor’s business section story about a Loveland company doing fuel-to-electric conversions ignored payback economics. I guess it’s “If you have to ask, you can’t afford it.” 

• Jim Behr was among the Enquirer’s most thorough and critical readers. After he died, I missed his almost daily calls about stories in the (New York) Times that weren’t in that morning’s Enquirer. My usual response was that the Times has  more people and more space. He didn’t care. The Enquirer was his paper and he never accepted limitations. It was the kind of relationship we never will see again. I thought of Jim as I prepared the following two Curmudgeon Notes: stories in the Times that I don’t recall seeing in the Enquirer:

First, do our local colleges and universities — whether public,  private or commercial — use bank debit cards to distribute financial aid? If yes, what fees further increase the student’s debt? If yes, what do the banks pay the institutions for access to their students? As reported in the Times, the national scene is not pretty. It’s often a less-than-transparent school-lender relationship enriching schools and money lenders at students’ expense. 

Second, a Times story involves the unintended consequence of home solar panels and selling excess power to the local utility at retail rates. The Times’ showed how this pursuit of virtue probably can shift costs to non-solar customers: someone has to maintain transmission lines and generating capacity on which everyone relies. It won’t  be folks selling power to Reddy Kilowatt. Has anyone in the local asked Duke about this? 

Car Talk, NPR’s most popular show, downshifts by the end of September. Tom and Ray Magliozzi will do no more original shows. WVXU-FM/WMUCB-FM will carry edited reruns in their regular time slots. Robin Gehl, the stations‘ vice president for programming, said Car Talk’s “Doug Berman is a good producer, and we'll certainly give his re-tooled programs a try ...  on Saturdays at 10 a.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m.”

• The latest word to spread across the news media is “meme.” It follows avatar, IED, gravitas, “free and fair”, etc., as signals that the writers know stuff we don’t. Meme? Look it up. 

• Unthinking censorship can create laughable results. South Africa’s previous white-minority government confiscated/banned Black Beauty, unaware it was a story about a horse. Then there is resistance to “gay” for “homosexual.” An Illinois editor hadn’t heard of the Enola Gay, a B29 whose nuclear weapon helped end the war against Japan. He wrote this headline about a controversial Smithsonian Institution display: “Atomic Bombers Upset Over Enola Homosexual Exhibit.” The Washington Post said the American Family Association  required that software replace "gay" with "homosexual" on its Internet site, OneNewsNow. So it changed an AP story about Tyson Gay's amazing Olympic qualifying trial to read this way: “Tyson Homosexual was a blur in blue, sprinting 100 meters faster than anyone ever has.”

Poynter.org reported a more recent brain fart. Barnes & Noble’s e-book text of doorstop War & Peace was altered to substitute “Nook” — B&N’s e-reader — for “Kindle,” a competitor’s product. That created these howlers: 

Captain Tushin, having given orders to his company, sent a soldier to find a dressing station or a doctor for the cadet, and sat down by a bonfire the soldiers had Nookd on the road. (P. 670)

“Believe me,” said Prince Dolgorukov, addressing Bagration, “it is nothing but a trick! He has retreated and ordered the rearguard to Nook fires and make a noise to deceive us.” (P. 907)

The storm cloud had come upon them, and in every face the fire which Pierre had watched Nook burned up brightly. (P. 2661)

As soon as she heard his voice a vivid glow Nookd in her face, lighting up both her sorrow and her joy. (P. 3171)

• Gannett — owner of the Enquire — has found another way to save money: publish faux news written by corporate PR people. Nashville Scene says Vanderbilt University Medical Center was bylined in the paper’s new health section and two PR people wrote the stories. This approach, the Tennessean’s top executives said, assures readers of “medical advice from local health-care providers.” Andrew Beaujon at Poynter.org says he also found a story bylined by St. Thomas Health.  

This is advertising, not news. The advice, whether implicit or explicit, is “spend your health care dollars with us.” Nashville Scene and Poynter’s Beaujon didn’t say whether the rest of the health section was filled with ads for hospitals and associated specialty practices but who else would advertise there?  

Those corporate bylines were better than sticking Tennessean staff names on press releases. At least they warned observant readers of this once great newspaper that the articles were puffery. If health news is so important, why doesn’t the Tennessean, or the Enquirer, still have a medical reporter? It’s one thing for a hospital or physician to pitch a story to a reporter and for the journalist to decide whether it’s newsworthy. I wonder if this is another model the Enquirer will adopt. 

And if chronic illnesses are increasing — obesity, Boomer health problems — and violent crime is decreasing, why not switch one of the omnipresent police/court reporters to health? That might save more lives than telling people another shooting was “near” Findlay Market. 

Hospital PR people must be salivating at the thought of their upbeat tales reaching readers without some bothersome, skeptical reporter intruding. I’ve written this before: brutal staff reductions and the uncritical rush to post stories online have created a freefire zone for PR people who know that anything catchy and local probably will find a place in the paper and/or on its website. Local TV is no better. There just aren’t enough reporters and editors to judge the content’s newsworthiness, accuracy, etc., before putting before readers or viewers. Balance and objectivity? However imperfect, they were better than ads pretending to be news. 

• A whispering, breathless NPR reporter says she climbed the mountains of Africa to see gorillas. After describing their imperiled survival, she assured us that human viruses were a threat to the great beasts’ existence. She and other eco-tourists were told to stay at least 20 feet away. Wouldn’t it be safer for remaining mountain gorillas if they stayed thousands of miles away? Which reminds me of the advice we had a couple years ago in Ecuador; protect the Galapagos Islands by staying away. Settlers and visitors are killing many of the rare animals and fragile environment. It can’t evolve fast enough. 



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