Ethics in Political Journalism

Ethics in Political Journalism

Dan Moulthrop
on Dec 11, 2012

Hey, news consumer! How do you think political journalists should behave? Is it ok to give sources quote approval? How much of what happens in a campaign is newsworthy? The Journalism Accelerator and Kent State University's Journalism and Mass Communication School are collaborating to provide Poynter with a set of best practices for political journalists. Our goal here is two days of focused conversation to gather input from savvy, engaged news consumers like you.

Participants (12) See All

What do you think?

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on 2017-10-21T12:10:26+00:00
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Recent Activity

Dan Moulthrop
on Dec 14, 2012
"Skip--First of all, we'd appreciate you using your full name. You are, after all, an elected..."
Dan Moulthrop
on Dec 14, 2012
"So, officially, this conversation is now closed, but unofficially, this can continue as long as..."
Dan Moulthrop
on Dec 14, 2012
"John--thanks for asking that question. The Journalism Accelerator is beginning today to comb..."
John Lynch
on Dec 13, 2012
"I agree completely. That's a good prescription but we recognize that it's hard to implement..."
Jim  Adriance
on Dec 13, 2012
"Good points John, how about instead of the journalist being the policy analyst they can interview..."
Nancy Reeves
on Dec 13, 2012
"I never have played well in boxes, or been liked being limited by artificial boundaries.  Just to..."
John Lynch
on Dec 13, 2012
"I agree with Jim's recommendation about campaign coverage. However can we trust, or even..."
Jill Miller Zimon
on Dec 13, 2012
"I do not see best practices in journalism as mutually excluding the he said, she said format from..."
John Lynch
on Dec 13, 2012
"Dan, I am curious about this aspect of the conversation. How exactly is this dialogue being..."
Nancy Reeves
on Dec 13, 2012
"When politicians make clear factual errors, I expect journalists to correct them.  To do..."
Dan Moulthrop
on Dec 13, 2012
"The focused part of this conversation ends midday today, so I wanted to provide one more..."
Skip Claypool
on Dec 12, 2012
"Sorry for the length I have been stewing and reading. Perceived bias?  Let's see Bush was..."
Nancy Reeves
on Dec 12, 2012
"Dan, I'm not sure that is a useful question in the current setting. Journalists used to have..."
Jim  Adriance
on Dec 12, 2012
"I wanted to add my two cents not about objectivity but about political coverage in general. My..."
Pete Moore
on Dec 12, 2012
"Yes, objectivity is overblown and a bridge too far.  Perhaps the question is what is the bias and..."
Dan Moulthrop
on Dec 12, 2012
"nancy, that's a very interesting example of a news org obviously misstepping and obviously not..."
Pete Moore
on Dec 12, 2012
"In the NYT case, the public editor seemed to be saying that the policy of monitoring reporters..."
Nancy Reeves
on Dec 12, 2012
"Interesting you raised this question.  I'll just add a specific example as a link, without..."
Jill Miller Zimon
on Dec 12, 2012
"No cheekiness intended but they should write like they talk - which is to say, they shouldn't put..."
Dick Pace
on Dec 12, 2012
"Peter, I fully accept that any thinking person should and does have opinion. My first concern is..."
Peter Comings
on Dec 12, 2012
"If it's even possible anymore, maybe we have to hold to the hypothetical existence of..."
Dick Pace
on Dec 12, 2012
"Should we ask/demand our media to hold themselves to this higher standard? Obviously, most will..."
Dan Moulthrop
on Dec 12, 2012
"I want to open up another thread here about actual and perceived bias in the media. This was a..."
Dan Moulthrop
on Dec 12, 2012
"Pete Moore raises an important point above that I'd like to elevate and broaden a bit. He points..."
Nancy Reeves
on Dec 12, 2012
"Kirk, I want to explore your dislike of trading access for prior restraint. Journalists have..."
John Lynch
on Dec 12, 2012
"Nancy, I think the ideas you present regarding storytelling and reporting are important. When..."
Daryl Rowland
on Dec 12, 2012
"I agree with Kirk that story approval or trading approval for access is by definition counter to..."
Pete Moore
on Dec 12, 2012
"There are two things on this issue I would like to highlight.  One is related to the quote..."
Nancy Reeves
on Dec 12, 2012
"Personally, I see storytelling as a way of making facts engaging to the reader.  (Storytelling..."
Jill Miller Zimon
on Dec 12, 2012
"1. I believe in transparency and everyone being able to access/learn the rules of engagement in a..."
Dan Moulthrop
on Dec 14, 2012 - 9:45 am

So, officially, this conversation is now closed, but unofficially, this can continue as long as we like. Thanks so much to everyone who participated!

 
Dan Moulthrop
on Dec 13, 2012 - 6:53 am

The focused part of this conversation ends midday today, so I wanted to provide one more substantive thread to chew on, and it's somewhat related to the notion perceived and perceived bias. What should journalists do about the misuse of facts, or the use of falsehoods? The Obama campaign's reliance on happening to have used the phrase "acts of terror" in reference to Benghazi is one example, the GOP referring to 750 million in cuts from Medicare as a scare tactic, even whethere's we're the same 750 mn they built their budget around is another. We could go on and on. Part of this is about whethejournalism should stick to the he said, she said format or instead should focus on more facts checking. 

what should journalists do?

 

Responses(4)

Nancy Reeves
on Dec 13, 2012

When politicians make clear factual errors, I expect journalists to correct them.  To do otherwise falls into the category I refer to as press release journalism, where a news outlet essentially just reprints whatever is in the press release from an entity, as if it were piece created by the media.  That is the height of laziness and irresponsibility, and turns the media into nothing more than free advertising for whoever sends out a press release.  (Not that I have any strong feelings about this...)

That said, I am not sure either of your examples falls into that category - although I find the second closer than the first.  Not being in the head of the writer who drafted the phrase "acts of terror," I don't know what thought went into choosing that ambiguous phrase.  A lot of what I do to pay the bills is writing, and when I use an ambiguous phrase (which I do frequently), it is typically because what I am trying to say is unclear and I am attempting to be accurate without being very specific.  That may well have been the case in crafting that phrase, and the possibility (or even likelihood) that Bhengazi attacks would be included if they were proven to be terrorist attacks - but the phrase would still be true if the attacks turned out instead to be a riot triggered by an offensive amateurish movie.

With the second example, there are two issues - the first is implying (and sometimes stating directly) that the Affordable Care Act will cut $750 billion in Medicare benefits.  The cuts in the Affordable Care Act are reductions in how much Medicare reimburses hospitals and private health insurance companies, not cuts in benefits to Medicare recipients.  That should be corrected by journalists whenever the assertion is made (or implied) that the plan cuts benefits.  The second (the one you point out) is omission of similar cuts included in the Ryan budget plan.  When Ryan attempted to distinguish himself from the Obama team by using the Medicare cuts, his own proposal should be reported.  It is less clear when Romney attempts to distinguish himself from Obama.  The proposed budget is Ryan's, not Romney's, and I was never sure which parts of the Ryan budget Romney supported.

Two examples that are more clear cut, from my perspective:  from the Obama team - the often repeated claim that the savings from ending the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan could be used to to start paying down our debts.  Since the wars were financed by borrowed money, ending them does not create money that can be used to pay down debts - budgeting those "savings" for domestic purposes will only continue to create more debt, not pay down existing debt, and that misuse of facts should be reported.  From the Romney camp - the allegation that Jeep is thinking of moving all production to China, referring to Jeeps's plans to produce Jeeps in China to sell in China (not move production there).

 
John Lynch
on Dec 13, 2012

Dan,

I am curious about this aspect of the conversation. How exactly is this dialogue being used by KSU, Journalism Accelerator, and Poynter? Assuming this conversation continues - and I hope it does! - how will future content factor into this study? Similarly what are the next steps, what's the civic outcome we are aiming for?

 
Dan Moulthrop
on Dec 14, 2012

John--thanks for asking that question. The Journalism Accelerator is beginning today to comb through this conversation and add it to input from others that they convened themselves to inform a white paper that KSU professor and Poynter Fellow Jan Leach will author for Poynter. Its distribution at that point is an open question, but one I hope Poynter will answer with an effective strategy. 

 
Jill Miller Zimon
on Dec 13, 2012

I do not see best practices in journalism as mutually excluding the he said, she said format from a  focus on fact checking, or vice versa. It is a stringent discipline in practice, but that's what separates the wheat from the chaff in terms of what is published.  What should the balance be between those two practices? I would think that depends on many factors but again, not separate from an overarching concern that journalists will get it right and keep it (the he-said-she-said in particular) in context of the facts.

 
Expand This Thread
Jim  Adriance
on Dec 12, 2012 - 6:32 pm
I wanted to add my two cents not about objectivity but about political coverage in general. My main recommendation about political coverage of campaigns is to cover WAY less of the horse race and what each candidate said in their speech and cover WAY more about the implications of the policy differences between the candidates and answer the question "what is really going on here?" e.g. why is one candidate might be taking this/that position and saying XY or Z? I suppose it is just so much easier and economical to cover the horse race and candidate speeches. But why couldn't a political journalist talk more with people around a candidate's visit/speech? We know there are plenty of people with big stakes in the outcome that would love some of the limelight while the candidate is around getting all the attention.   

Responses(3)

John Lynch
on Dec 13, 2012

I agree with Jim's recommendation about campaign coverage. However can we trust, or even reasonably expect, political journalists to be sufficiently informed and competent to explain policy implications? That's probably an ideal all journalists aspire to but it is an awfully high standard. Maybe leave that analysis to policy experts at think tanks? On the one hand I do think that proposal has the benefit of specific subject matter expertise whereas political journalists are probably subject matter generalists. On the other hand, I don't think policy wonks are bound by same (aspirational) obligation to clearly explain things to the public. Plus there are institutions that masquerade as self-proclaimed "think tanks" when all they do is espouse a particular political party's agenda. It's a difficult problem to untangle.

To generalize this question: what is the difference between a political journalist and a policy expert who publishes her analysis? [Not a joke but feel free to contribute witty punchlines.] Is the latter a subset of the former? Are they different points on a single continuum?

 
Jim  Adriance
on Dec 13, 2012

Good points John, how about instead of the journalist being the policy analyst they can interview the policy analysts and other observers in the given states and localities they visit as they tag along behind the candidates. At the state level there are a variety of think tanks, university professors, opinion research firms, community college teachers of politics and economics, etc. i.e. plenty of people that journalists can interview (not to mention the policy person at the chamber of commerce, the union policy person, school board members, city council members, state/county/city agency heads, etc.). about what lines in the speech would mean locally and "what is really going on behind the scenes here".  I know all of this is easier said than done. I have a lot of respect for the pressures journalists are under. 

 
John Lynch
on Dec 13, 2012

I agree completely. That's a good prescription but we recognize that it's hard to implement completely all the time.

 
Expand This Thread
Dan Moulthrop
on Dec 12, 2012 - 2:52 pm

I want to open up another thread here about actual and perceived bias in the media. This was a big issue that I have communicated about offline with both Dick Pace and Jonathan Murray (one of whom is already in the conversation, the other has been invited), specifically with respect to the moderators of the presidential and vice presidential debates. 

I'm of the mind the objectivity is a useful fiction--sort of like the value of a dollar. We know the dollar is just a nicely made piece of linen, but we have all agreed to behave as if it's worth something so that we can engage in commerce. Similarly, objectivity doesn't really exist, but we like to imagine our news sources as striving for objectivity because it allows us to invest in them the idea that they are the first draft of history and a reliable source of information that helps us make up our minds about important issues. And, as an ideal, it's worth striving for, but transparency is perhaps a better standard in that it's actually attainable. But if every reporter were fully transparent about the issues on which they reported, I don't know that we'd have news products that would serve us particularly well.  (In the interest of full disclosure, I should note that my point of view is deeply informed by Lisa Shepherd, a former NPR Ombudsman.)

What should be done about the fact that journalists, being human, actually form and retain opinions about the stuff they cover?

 

Responses(6)

Peter Comings
on Dec 12, 2012

If it's even possible anymore, maybe we have to hold to the hypothetical existence of objectivity. (How did humanity ever believe it in the first place? or did we?) Or maybe that's too old-school.

We all have to be prepared to do more analyzing of information we absorb if we want to move in a meaningful way to transparency as the information model. I believe it's worthwhile, by the way. But it creates a new ecosystem for news in addition to anything the shifting sands our business models create. Maybe having so many media outlets now leaves us no choice but to work in this new ecosystem.

To answer your question with a question, Dan, what if we did nothing about the fact that journalists are human. What if we just understood that?

 
Dick Pace
on Dec 12, 2012

Peter, I fully accept that any thinking person should and does have opinion. My first concern is that while we may accept this fact, many journalists feel that their perspective is unbiased, middle of the road and can I add "fair and balanced." I have my own strong opinions and want to hear opinions from other perspectives. I lose patience when reporters pretend to be unbiased while only presenting facts which align with their opinion.

 
Pete Moore
on Dec 12, 2012

Yes, objectivity is overblown and a bridge too far.  Perhaps the question is what is the bias and where does it come from?  Again, in the case of Rudoren at the NYT the original complaint from Philip Weiss was within the context of other aspects of Rudoren's previous reporting that suggested she came to Jerusalem with pre-existing biases directly relevant to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.  And while she did a good job trying to respond to critics and expressing remorse over the "ho-hum" comment, its hard not to see her bias as believing that Palestinians do not value life as much as we or Israelis do.  The sad thing is that such views about people in Africa and Asia have a history in American culture.       

 
Nancy Reeves
on Dec 12, 2012

Dan, I'm not sure that is a useful question in the current setting.

Journalists used to have similar training, radio stations and the three major networks were licensed by the FCC which required them to present controversial issues of public importance in a manner that was honest, equitable and balanced.  Major cities had one or two major newspapers, which were relied on by people across the political spectrum to fill in the gaps that couldn't be covered in a half hour or hour news broadcast.  To a large extent all of those factors reinforced the useful fiction of objectivity.Today subscription services, at least in the realm of television broadcasts - and increasingly in radio - have outpaced broadcasts over the public airwaves, the Fairness Doctrine has been eliminated, blog based sites like the Huffington Post and the Daily Kos are more frequently the primary source for news than the daily newspaper, and many of the people providing content for the newer media have little to no formal training in journalism.

An even bigger problem for objectivity is that people are increasingly seeking out echo chambers, and the newer media outlets are - by and large - providing them.

Aside from a few big events (like the debates), does it even make sense to talk about objectivity?

It seems to me a chicken and egg thing, and the question I think it might be more productive (although perhaps off topic for this discussion) to probe is how to we create a new generation of news consumers who demand journalism that provides coverage which is in depth, balanced, and presented in a manner that is objective or transparent about the biases of those reporting it - rather than coverage which superficially echos their own pre-existing beliefs?

 
Skip Claypool
on Dec 12, 2012

Sorry for the length I have been stewing and reading.

Perceived bias?  Let's see Bush was vilified for a hurricane and the failure of FEMA.  FEMA and the Obama administration was a dismal failure in Sandy and what do we hear?  Crickets....   Benghazi is a coverup that goes far beyond Watergate what is the coverage?  Silence....  A patroit in Pakistan is being tortured for helping us get Bin Laden, what do we hear ..... silence.  And then there is the whole rich v poor nonsense.  We have to penalize the rich to save the country.   Even though raising taxes will not fix anything, only cutting ridiculous spending and waste will resolve the issue.   The media seems completely in the tank for the liberals on that one.   As a side note, you do realize that the income I earn has nothing to do with what someone else can earn if they get off their dead, lazy butt.  Nothing.... Do I need to bring up the budget deficit and the huge implications....nothing meaningful or truthful from the media.  We are now discovering huge negative impacts that the Healthcare will create, what is the story in most of the media?  I just sat through an hour presentation on impacts...I wonder how we will survive, there was no media present.

I know most of you are young-uns, but I seem to remember Bush being crucified when gas prices approached 3.00 a gallon...what do we hear today when gas prices are over $3.00?   

Then there is the whole election campaign.  Completely false and biased coverage?  Can I mention again that the President, flew to a campaign stop while our guys were being murdered in Benghazi.   Does that seem irresponsible for the "commander and chief"  

Bias.... it is way beyond bias.   I have been personally impacted by a media that completely spins what I say in meetings to create a an interesting tail, which bears little resemblance to the truth.  

And let me make one last point which may highlight a point on bias....it is interesting that one of the first topics that is discussed on a topic of ethics in the media is misquoting.   Hello, misquoting is expected, by politicians and anyone having anything to do with the media.  Where are the real ethics issues, like a media that refuses to do any indepth, or medium depth, or even a shallow depth story that is accurate?   There is a complete breakdown in the media..  I see no one  pursueing fact based journalism... I will point to the real story behind government waste.  It is very easy to discover government waste if a "journalist" would make the least effort.  I could show you millions upon millions of dollars of government waste.   Come to a NOACA meeting some time.   Sit in a comissioner meeting and look at the complete nonsense that are Federal mandates and grants.  So you know I am balanced in my view, I will point to the republican side of the aisle.    Ask about the real story behind an Attorney General that pushed to have a law passed to outlaw internet cafes.  Ask yourself the question, why would the focus be on these little businesses, when the big dogs are making billions?  There is a back story that would curl your hair.   No one has the energy or "ethics" do try and find the real story.  Journalist today have their agenda and every story is a way to build a case in support of that agenda.

In todays world we havef th Daily Kos or Moveon.org and MSNBC... Ethics...and Journalism are not two words that should not be used in the same sentence talking about these guys.

Do I sound a bit cynical and/or frustrated?   Perhaps it is because the fantasy that I used to believe in that honesty, morality, and honor were ideals that rose above petty ideology.  I believed that all a journalist cared about facts and truth setting aside their own bias.  I have discovered NOT so.  Too bad ... can we bring Cronkite back?   Let's have a real conversation about ethics and not this soft and feely nonsense about misquoting or quote approval.  That is not about ethics so much as it is about taking good notes.  Which seem to be a lost art. 

 
Dan Moulthrop
on Dec 14, 2012

Skip--First of all, we'd appreciate you using your full name. You are, after all, an elected official, and transparency is a guiding principle of our work here.

That said, I was holding off to see if anyone else would respond to you. You seem to point to only examples of one kind of bias--left leaning. I've seen plenty of media outlets that blamed Obama for gas prices, though I don't believe presidents of either stripe can actually do anything about what we pay at the pump (which is, actually, relatively low in my estimation.) 

The right leaning counterpoints for MSNBC and Daily KOS are out there. In the middle, I still believe there's an effort towards neutral journalism, and the point of this conversation is to help those practitioners do a better job. You have a lot to complain about, but do you have any solutions to offer? I happen to think quote approval, fact checking and misquoting are hugely important. If you don't think so, fine, but I'd love to hear some proposed solutions to deal with the complaints you raise. 

 
Expand This Thread
Dan Moulthrop
on Dec 12, 2012 - 2:42 pm

Pete Moore raises an important point above that I'd like to elevate and broaden a bit. He points to the social media practices of journalists who, in making an earnest effort to engage with their audiences, are often overly glib and whose tweets and posts may lack the kind of context that would allow readers to better understand the situation. The very compelling example raised is of the new NYT Jerusalem bureau chief, but we've seen this a lot with political reporters. Dave Catanese, for example, had a very unfortunate twitter meltdown after playing devil's advocate with the Todd Akin "legitimate rape" fiasco.

As NYT Public editor Margarter Sullivan points out, shutting down reporters on social media isn't really an option, and, as consumers of news, we do really want to know what reporters actually think about the stuff they cover (and many people obviously want to engage with them), so, if you'll pardon an overly broad question, how should political correspondents behave on social media? 

 

Responses(4)

Jill Miller Zimon
on Dec 12, 2012

No cheekiness intended but they should write like they talk - which is to say, they shouldn't put out into social media anything that they otherwise wouldn't put their name on or stand by. In terms of whether they use personal standards versus professional standards, it's easy to see the danger of a journalist not making it clear, even just in their Twitter profile, for example, as to whether they're using that social media tool for themselves or their outlet. Again - transparency would seem to be the best policy for them. And, to be fair, their employers should have guidelines and those guidelines should be clear and communicated to the political correspondents.

 
Nancy Reeves
on Dec 12, 2012

Interesting you raised this question.  I'll just add a specific example as a link, without comment, to see where it takes the discussion.