Objectivity and Ethics: Tips from Our Newsletter

Last Updated October 2022

The guidance below collects the thoughts, tips, and must-reads about journalism, ethics, and objectivity published in our weekly newsletter, Revisions. The information is presented in roughly chronological order, has been edited for clarity, and is updated where necessary.

Language & Word Choice

January 13, 2022
Do questions belong in headlines?

No. That’s surely an unpopular opinion, considering how many news outlets do use questions as headlines. But as someone who has been a reporter, digital editor, and social media manager, I’ve rarely encountered a good reason to use a question in a headline beyond intriguing readers enough to click through. If the answer to the question is truly, deeply important to your audience, you should definitely include it in the headline rather than require someone to spend more time clicking and potentially hitting a paywall. It’s also inappropriate for journalists to imply unknowns where there are none. (Think: “COVID-19 is worse than the flu. Here’s why,” instead of “Is COVID-19 worse than the flu?”) Since most folks see way more headlines and news clips in a day then they could ever follow up with, many more people will see your headline than read the story. Don’t let imaginations run wild about important info if you have the answers handy.

 

February 2, 2022
When issuing a correction, should news organizations avoid repeating the mistake?

Shout-out to my colleague, Resolve Philly Senior Collaborations Editor Gene Sonn, for mulling over this question. When newsrooms make mistakes in their reporting they typically issue corrections as an addendum, preface, or editor’s note to the reported piece where the mistake took place. Traditionally, many newsrooms’ corrections policies instruct editors to not repeat the mistake in the correction. For instance, if they reported an event happened on a Tuesday instead of a Monday, the correction might say, “An earlier edition of this report misstated the date of the event. The event took place on Monday.”

There are many reasons for this structure, perhaps most importantly that repeating a mistake means just that — repeating something false for others to read, even in the context of a correction. But it also creates a lack of transparency over what the newsroom got wrong.

Considering how “sticky” information can be, it’s a good general rule to avoid repeating false information in a news report even if it means eliding details of an initial mistake. Exceptions to that might include, however, particularly egregious cases that require additional transparency from the editorial staff beyond a brief factual error, or misidentifications, where false impressions made due to an error should be made explicit in order to clear a person’s name or reputation.

 

April 21, 2022

This tip comes courtesy of a tweet from writer Tara Murtha. She criticized a CNN headline which attributed the phrase “the steady rise in abortion restrictions across the US will worsen maternal health crisis” to “Black women fear.” As Murtha points out, this is not just a “fear” of Black women, it is the established medical consensus, and thus should be reported as fact, not as an emotional reaction by one group.

Attribution is a powerful thing. Attributing a statement to a long-trusted and long-established institution gifts that statement with a sheen of trust reflective of that institution. Attributing a statement to a group of people that, its implied, doesn’t have institutional expertise or has special interests paints that statement with uncertainty and a hue of personal or ideological bias. Using attribution this way is a tactic many journalists use to establish their “objectivity.” Rather than stating as fact something that has broad consensus but may be attacked by bad-faith actors or disinformants — such as on a topic like abortion — a journalist can protect their reputation by attributing the statement elsewhere.

The bottom line: journalists should strive to put two and two together for audiences by describing facts as such, not perpetuating bothsidesism and the notion of multiple truths on polarizing topics.

 

May 12, 2022

Reliable Sources editor Alex Koppelman topped the popular CNN newsletter with a plea for newsrooms to reflect the current threat to U.S. democracy accurately and completely. I recommend reading the whole thing, but the end struck me:

“People in newsrooms typically don’t have time amid the crush of news to think about the big picture of our coverage, to step back and look at all of it and the overall story it conveys to our audiences. But now, right now, we have to make that time. We have to think about the coverage decisions we make, the stories we cover and don’t and the ones we play big and the ones to which we give short shrift. This doesn’t mean being biased. It doesn’t mean rooting for one side. It doesn’t mean slanting our coverage. It means recognizing that doing anything else will slant our coverage.”

He’s essentially calling for our industry to undertake some content analysis. That’s something we have experience with at Reframe — the full-tilt academic kind, a kind we’re more than happy to talk to interested newsrooms about. But there are many easier, quicker ways your newsroom can examine your output and discover actionable insights. Here are two breezy exercises your outlet can try right now.

Metanarrative Brainstorm (Group)
Block off two or three hours. Put all your editors in a room (with snacks) and give them 5 minutes to answer the question, “What would an extraterrestrial being who just landed in town understand about my beat from the last nine (or six, etc.) months of stories?” Then have each editor answer that question for all the other beats. Finally, share and discuss the similarities and differences in answers and how accurate they feel to the environs being covered. Boom, you’ve analyzed the metanarratives of your newsroom output. Key in on the differences between the answers written by those working on a beat versus outsiders; that’s where you’ll find room for improvement.

Word Cloud iSpy (Individual)
Gather the links of stories (or transcripts for audio or video folks) you’ve published from a chunk of time that’s representative of your recent output — depending on your metabolism that might be three, six, or even twelve months of work. Copy all of the body copy and headlines from those stories into one document. Upload it into a word cloud generator like classic.wordclouds.com and poke around. Look for names of sources, jargon or slogans voiced by specific groups, names of cities or neighborhoods. What words are the most frequent in your work? Which are the least? Are they what you expected? Why or why not? You may be able to spot a facet being under- or over-covered from this alone. Take a walk and ruminate on it — the time to process makes all the difference.

 

July 14, 2022

In July 2022, the Austin American-Statesman and KVUE chose to publish video footage it received from inside Robb Elementary the day of the Uvalde shooting. The video itself is heartbreaking, disturbing, and completely damning of the police response, and its release was not met without controversy.

So the publications chose to explain why they published the footage and how they came to their decision. This type of editorial transparency is good practice, because explaining complicated choices like these builds trust with audiences.

When should newsrooms show their work?
Ideally, as much as possible. But a good measure of whether your audience might require a breakdown of decision-making is whether that decision required serious deliberation within your newsroom. If it took significant time and resources to decide internally, there’s a good chance that decision could use some public illumination. Additionally, if you think an editorial decision might incur public controversy, proactively reporting out this process will go a long way.

How should newsrooms show their work?
The way you normally publish information! It can be as easy as publishing a letter from the editor, adding a brief explanatory segment to a broadcast, or amending a sidebar to a print piece. But it must be thorough and clear about who made decisions and why. This is as much about increasing media literacy as it is about accountability.

What are some examples of newsrooms showing their work?

 

September 15, 2022

Resolve Philly’s inaugural fellow, Madison Karas, spent the last year investigating how to introduce more transparency and trust into the interview process. The result is an incredible resource for reporters in the form of a tip sheet for before, after, and during interviews with private citizens.

Some of my favorite tips include:

  • Treat educating others on your process as a part of the job. Find ways to continually inform others how your newsgathering process or your newsroom works. Giving or excluding information about how your journalism works is an active choice. Consider what opportunities for training, style guides, how-to pages, and other forms of public-facing documentation would benefit community understanding of the newsgathering process.
  • Validate — don’t dismiss — interviewee’s concerns. If an interviewee expresses suspicions, hesitancies, or concerns about interacting with you or the media, acknowledge and have a conversation about those. People’s concerns about the media come from prior experiences. Talk about what those concerns are for your interviewee and how you can demonstrate trust.
  • Ensure quotes aren’t just verifiably accurate, but meaningfully accurate. Continually honor the “ethos” of what was shared in the interview throughout the editing and publishing processes; advocate for it when needed. Ask if the final story is representing an interview’s scope and intent, and have conversations about it between editors and reporters.

Check out Madison’s essay explaining the project, then download the tip sheet.

Must-Reads

Inside Felicia Sonmez’s Lawsuit Against the Washington Post
Clio Chang, New York Magazine
The story of Felicia Sonmez, a reporter at the Washington Post who was barred from covering sexual assault after publicly speaking about her own alleged sexual assault, is emblematic of too many newsroom conversations about “objectivity.” Clio Chang’s retelling of this conflict makes clear how the industry’s “view from nowhere” ideals are often twisted to reinforce a very particular perspective.

I Moved to a Remote Cabin to Write, and I Hate It
Blair Braverman, Outside
I was not expecting to come across a lovely pep talk for writers in the advice column for Outside magazine, a lifestyle publication for outdoorsy folks. But this week’s reply to a person living “the dream” of a Walden-like writer’s retreat is a balm.

It’s time for a new contract between journalists and public contributors
Alex Murray, Reuters Institute
Reporter Alex Murray, a broadcast journalist at the BBC, proposed a new standard for working with “public contributors,” or new subjects who aren’t public figures. He’s developed a list of 11 tenets to serve as a new social contract between journalists and their sources, from explaining publishing timelines to understanding informed consent. It’s a worthwhile read.

How a Philly-born brand of TV news harmed Black America.
Layla A. Jones, the Philadelphia Inquirer
As part of the Philadelphia Inquirer’s “A More Perfect Union” series, in which they examine “the roots of systemic racism in America through institutions founded in Philadelphia,” Layla A. Jones reports on the birth of Eyewitness and Action News. These brands may have began in Philly, but they spread their editorial sensibilities and aesthetics — and thus their racial stereotyping — to local stations across the U.S. Considering how many Americans still get the majority of their news via TV, we all should understand the history of this format and its negative impacts.

Snap judgements: how audiences who lack trust in news navigate information on digital platforms
The Reuters Institute released research on the six ways users make “snap judgements” about news content to determine whether information is trustworthy. Considering the deep distrust that still exists between journalists and many audiences, anyone working in news should memorize them and evaluate how their content does or does not signal reliability.

In journalism, ‘objective’ is a good word with a noble history. But let’s consider ‘distance from neutrality.’
Roy Peter Clark, Poynter
Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark released a chapter from his book that discusses journalistic objectivity and what he calls distances from neutrality. I think his classification of objective, neutral, engaged, advocacy, partisan, and propaganda is a useful measuring stick for journalists struggling to define their work in the post-”objectivity” era. (If we say we’re in that era enough times, we will be, right?)

Confirmation bias in journalism: What it is and strategies to avoid it
Carey Morewedge, Journalist’s Resource
All humans experience confirmation bias, in which we seek or trust more fully evidence that supports a belief we already have or question we’re asking. Behavioral scientist Carey Morewedge explains what that looks like in journalism and, most importantly, how to overcome it.

If you’re reporting on trauma, be sure to take care of yourself and check out the resources below.

I stopped reading the news. Is the problem me — or the product?
Amanda Ripley, Washington Post
Journalist Amanda Ripley spends a lot of time thinking about journalism. Her writing on conflict and how journalists should “complicate the narratives” challenge how traditional reporting has handled controversy. But even she’s been dispirited by the news of late. Her new opinion piece for the Washington Post addresses the plague of news avoidance and how journalists can and should turn it around.

Public Opinion at 100
Andre Forget, The Bulwark
One hundred years ago journalist Walter Lippmann published his classic work Public Opinion and sought to answer the question, “How can a truly self-governing society function under the conditions of ‘mass culture’?” A new essay from The Bulwark examines the impact of the book and what it means to the news industry now. It’s a must-read whether you’ve read the original or not — but if you haven’t, you can find a PDF here.

Semafor is the Problem
Laura Wagner, Defector
You may have heard about new news start-up Semafor, which recently raised $25 million in funding and is led by two unrelated men named Smith. Well, their site launched recently touting a brand new “Semaform” of journalism that will help audiences understand the news. But, as the Defector’s Laura Wagner examines, the not-so-new format is unlikely to be as transformative as it purports.

How The Athletic will be covering the World Cup – and navigating the moral issues
Alex Kay-Jelski, The Athletic
In an admirable show of editorial transparency, The Athletic published an explanation of how it plans to tackle its World Cup coverage considering the awful human rights abuses of the tournament’s host, Qatar. The essay makes for an interesting read about “sportwashing” and balancing ethics with audience expectations.

Thoughts & Thinkers

Enrique Acevedo: You know what else is not reaching most Spanish speakers? The Facebook papers. The original consortium did not include any Spanish-language platforms. If we're serious about tackling disinformation start by acknowledging most FB users live in non-English-speaking communities.

As revelatory as the Facebook Papers were, 60 Minutes’ Enrique Acevedo brings up a critical point. Acevedo is responding to reports that Mark Zuckerberg objected to providing voting information in Spanish on WhatsApp out of fear it would make Facebook appear “partisan.” The startling report also serves to ironically highlight just how English-centric the roll-out of this important reporting was.

Another good read on the topic: Mathew Ingram on the consortium’s media strategy.

It’s not underrepresented. It is systemically excluded. It is institutionally oppressed. Accountability starts with language.

Kudos to creative consultant Nora Rahimian for this important reminder. Accountability for injustice requires illuminating and describing causes of injustice. Describing only its effects (like underrepresentation) linguistically lets those doing the harm off the hook.

“Your personal experiences make up maybe 0.00000001% of what’s happened in the world but maybe 80% of how you think the world works.” — Morgan Housel Studying the past is a shortcut to expanding your experience.

I don’t know about you, but this quote from business writer Morgan Housel stopped me in my tracks. As Shane Parrish adds, studying others’ experiences opens up our minds, but it’s also a good reminder to occasionally humble ourselves and be more curious about what we don’t know.

Directly after George Floyd media orgs promised to do better. That was supposed to include not repeating everything police and public officials say as if it’s fact. Yet two years later you see reporter after reporter doing exactly what all these orgs said they would stop doing.

We had hoped, like Femi Redwood of WCBS Newsradio 880 and 1010 WINS, that the lessons of the past few years would stick. But it seems the journalistic need for access and decades of treating institutions as vessels of truth makes taking official statements for granted as fact a hard habit to break.

Journalism ethics rule proposal: The rule that you shouldn't report untruths is more important than the rule that you should protect off-the-record statements. If someone says trump is a dangerous maniac in private, it's not OK to uncritically report their public praise.

Journalist Adam Davidson’s tweet is in reference to leaked tapes from New York Times reporters Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin. The tapes included Representative Kevin McCarthy and Senator Mitch McConnell privately criticizing Trump and their colleagues in the aftermath of the January 6, 2021 attack on the Capitol. In public, however, they quickly fell back in line with supporting Trump and the rest of the GOP. In that light, Davidson’s proposal seems a more than reasonable addition to journalism ethics.

Ever notice that whenever someone's going to try to push things way too the right that they try to brand it as embracing "neutrality" or being "nonpartisan"? says media critic Parker Molloy in response to an interview with Politico's new owner, who has a "contrarian" "nonpartisan" plan for American media.

Media critic Parker Molloy raises a critical point about media owners who seek to “balance” their coverage, from recent CNN shakeups to this new plan for the already right-leaning Politico. Balance, neutrality, and nonpartisanship are often code for appeasing (and thus gaining the eyes and money of) right wing audiences who complain about any coverage that strays from their reality-bending views.

no need to talk about political dysfunction by making ahistorical remarks about "banana republics" or everyone's fave "third-world countries" when all these ~first-world countries~ are right there, right now

Journalist Stacy-Marie Ishmael is referring to the chaotic week had by the United Kingdom’s government in late October 2022, but her point stands for many political events. Using euphemisms like “banana republic” and “third-world countries” to label homegrown Western dysfunction perpetuates the exceptionalism that drives white supremacy and imperialism.

Reframing Headlines

May 12, 2022

“Israeli forces have shot dead Al Jazeera’s journalist Shireen Abu Akleh in the occupied West Bank, according to the Palestinian health ministry.

Abu Akleh, a longtime TV correspondent for Al Jazeera Arabic, was killed on Wednesday while covering Israeli army raids in the city of Jenin in the northern occupied West Bank.”

So begins Al Jazeera’s own story on Shireen Abu Akleh’s killing.

Al Jazeera Journalist Is Killed in West Bank

The New York Times headline above on Abu Akleh’s death uses journalism’s tried-and-true evasion tactic: passive voice. Rather than explain who killed her, the Times leaves it a mystery with “Is Killed.” One might argue that this is because the Times feels the circumstances around her death “were not immediately clear.” The Palestinian health ministry says it was Israeli forces while the Israeli military called for an investigation into whether she was killed “possibly by Palestinian armed gunfire.” Is this a “he said, she said” scenario? Only if the Times discounts the reporting and eyewitness statements from other Al Jazeera journalists who were there and quoted in their reporting.

American reporter killed by IDF, network says; Israel calls for inquiry

Given the same information, the Washington Post headline above uses attribution to avoid passive voice and highlight accountability. They state Abu Akleh was killed by Israeli forces and attribute that information to the journalists at Al Jazeera. Perhaps to provide some “balance” they cite Israel’s call for an inquiry, but this is clearly secondary to the key details.

For further reading on media coverage of Israel and Palestine, see an opinion published by the Post: How media coverage whitewashes Israeli state violence against Palestinians.

 

October 13, 2022

Shout-out to Democracy Docket’s Marc Elias for capturing the shift in headlines and copy from The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times below. Both stories refer to tweets Kanye West sent over the weekend which included the phrase, “when I wake up I’m going death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE.”

In the first edition of the WSJ headline (below, top left) it read “Purported Anti-Semitic Tweet.” The second version dropped the word “purported.” The first version of the Times story (below, bottom left) remarked the tweets were “widely criticized as antisemitic.” That deck copy was later revised to “made antisemitic remarks…that were widely criticized.”

These may appear to be small differences of just a word or two, but they carry a lot of meaning. The first versions of both the WSJ and Times copy distance the reporter from the claim that the tweets were antisemitic and instead attribute that accusation to a vague third party. But West’s comments were extremely and clearly antisemitic; there is no other way they could be interpreted in good faith. Thus it’s important that news outlets make the claim as a matter of fact, without attributing it to others’ opinions. That’s why the better, updated versions of both stories (above, top and bottom right) remove that hedging language of “purported” and “widely criticized as.”

Related reading: for an examination of where news organizations are succeeding and failing at calling racist things racist, see this deep dive from Nieman Lab.