Making time for ethics on St. Patrick’s Day in Chicago


As a neon green dye announcing St. Patrick’s Day coursed through the Chicago River on Saturday, a roomful of journalists sat in a university building imageoff the Magnificent Mile discussing how to apply journalistic ethics to their digital work.

The course leaders, Al Tompkins and Bob Steele, traveled from the Poynter Institute to Chicago - an architectural gem intersected by the Chicago River and known to many as Paris on the Prairie - to prompt journalists to consider their newsrooms’ ethical stances.

Many of the situations discussed divided the room.

Newspaper database under fire

The first involved a newspaper in the southeastern state of Tennessee. The Commercial Advocate used publicly available information to compile a database displaying the addresses of local people who carry concealed weapons. The database was published with no fanfare, but two weeks after going live it prompted the ire of gun owners in the state.

Steele and Tompkins asked: Is there a journalistic purpose for a newspaper website to publish such a database?

Both men asked the journalists in the room to consider journalists’ duty to minimize harm.

Steele noted that there was no contextual purpose for publishing the list. There were no stories running in the paper or on its site involving concealed weapons owners.

“If you just put the data out there you’re bound to find yourself in controversy… Reveal the journalistic purpose in the reporting. It seems to me we have to tell them why we do what we do,” Tompkins said.

“We’re not saying, ‘Don’t be aggressive.’ We’re not saying ‘Don’t report.’ We’re not saying ‘Don’t reveal.’ We’re just saying the stronger your decision making is the more you’re going to be able to answer questions.”

The course leaders cautioned that merely enabling better search on the web does not fulfill journalistic purpose. Journalists, they suggested, should contextualise information - not “just put it out there.”

An interesting perspective - but perhaps a rather conservative one. Making the database available for public use could enable the public to use it in the creation of investigations and projects. Remix culture is a big part of the Internet - and generating traffic. And, certainly, the database could be used as the foundation for investigative stories.

Commentary cops?

Moving forward, much debate arose about how to handle comments to articles. Should branded news websites around the world moderate comments? When and why? And if so, how?

Some in the room said no. If you start playing Big Brother, one audience member said, you’re going against the trend.

Others worried that legacy media products - TV broadcasts and paper editions - are held to a higher standard than online products. Allowing any and all comments online could harm the credibility of the legacy brand. If we water down the brand online, one audience member fretted, we’ll have nothing left to sell.

“I’m weary of the assertion that people view comments differently than they view stuff coming from the journalistic organization,” said panelist Norm Parrish of the Chicago Sun-Times. “I think having something with, say, the CNN label on it tends to carry to everything that’s on the site. Real world or not, circumstances or not, I think newspapers have to take advantage, spend the money if they’re going to take advantage of this technology. These kind of forums, they have to take advantage and monitor it and see that [defamatory] stuff doesn’t get there in the first place.”

Several newsgatherers in the room said they’d like to moderate comments around the clock, but have no funding to do so. Therefore, they rely on the community to moderate itself.

Graphic attention grabbers

Provocative comments often prompt more page views. So do wild photos, the subject of further disagreement. Should news sites publish sensational content - like photos of medical oddities like long ear hair or giant goiters - to increase traffic and thus satisfy advertisers?

Most journalists in the room agreed that in this instance, standards for online content and legacy media content sharply diverge.

One audience member noted that online, journalism has re-entered the heady days of the penny press. Everyone is competing for eyeballs, he said. So while it’s good to discuss these things, it’s going to take many years for this to shake out.

His comment for sure sums up the event, at which no strong conclusions were drawn. Rather, the trainers from Poynter used the four-hour Saturday session to provoke thought.

“We’re going to use our contrarian voice,” Tompkins said. “We have to be willing to push back on each other some. Be willing to push back on us ... That’s how we make better decisions.”

Tompkins and Steele were indeed successful in provoking endless discussion, much of which spilled out into the hallways of host Loyola University.

Behind the banter

The session seemed to reveal many still conservative views of American journalistic outlets publishing online. Editors aplenty desire to do business online - like edit commentary - the same way they do in print publications. They worry readers will interpret third-party comments as branded content. Publishing information for readers to remix seems not to be within the American definition of journalistic purpose. And publishing sections with sensational photos (which would easily go viral) to increase traffic prompts discomfort.

Indeed, it will be interesting to see how it all shakes out. Especially in Chicago, where the Sun-Times Media Group is selling property  and the Chicago Tribune is part of Tribune Company’s bankruptcy proceedings.

Journalists in this town clearly don’t need the excuse of St. Patrick’s Day proceedings to go for a pint.


Flickr image from user carboncopyrocks!