A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

Ethics in Bief

By Quill

Paper apologizes for staging photo

A photo that accompanied a story on Page B1 in the July 31 edition of The Indianapolis Star misrepresented the truth, the newspaper reported in a note to readers published Aug. 7.

The newspaper said the photograph of a boy who was said to be getting a vaccination at the Marion County Health Department was staged. The nurse in the photograph did not give the boy a shot, as was depicted and written in the photo caption.

The boy was there for a different procedure and was asked to be photographed as if he were getting a vaccination, the paper said.

“Such distortion of the truth is a violation of our policy on ethics and of our commitment to readers to always be honest in our delivery of the news,” the newspaper wrote. “The Star apologizes for the misrepresentation and the bad judgment that led to it.”

Reporter asks for tips on competitor’s Web site

A high-profile Maryland murder case has brought about a new Internet ethics issue to contemplate: When does a reporter go too far in searching for sources on the Web?

The dispute involves Nelson Hernandez, a reporter for The Washington Post who has been covering the grisly Memorial Day weekend slaying of a Fairfax, Va., couple at a Maryland beachfront condominium. The case has drawn attention from news organizations in three states because the suspects, Erika and Benjamin Sifrit, live in Pennsylvania.

Hernandez posted a message on the Web bulletin board of a competing daily, The Free Lance-Star in Fredericksburg, Va., asking readers who knew the suspects or victims to call him with tips or sources “to build a complete picture.”

Free Lance-Star reporters saw the posting and objected to their paper’s site being used by a rival, Web Editor Chris Muldrow said.

“I think it is crossing a line,” he said.

Hernandez, who normally covers city government from The Post bureau in Annapolis, Md., defended his actions.

“Anything on the Internet is open,” he told Editor & Publisher, adding that he had not received any worthwhile tips via the posting. “It did not occur to me to be a breach of ethics.”

Muldrow said he decided not to remove Hernandez’s message but rather posted his own response criticizing The Post reporter’s efforts.

Two quit after councilman is hired

Two of the three full-time employees of The Northport (Ala.) Gazette resigned July 8, citing among their complaints the recent hiring of a Coker town councilman assigned to cover his own council meetings.

Associate Editor Carmen Sisson and editorial assistant Nicholas Bailey said they handed in formal letters of resignation to publishers Peyton and Barbara Bobo, The Tuscaloosa News reported.

Sisson said their offer to work out a two-week notice was refused.

Barbara Bobo, publisher and editor of The Northport Gazette and its parent paper, the West Alabama Gazette, said the addition of Place 2 Councilman David Allison to the news staff is a “fact of small-town life” where journalism and politics often mix.

Ed Mullins, chairman of the University of Alabama’s journalism department, said situations like the one with The Northport Gazette occur because small newspapers can have a hard time finding enough reporters to cover stories, which sometimes leads them to make hiring decisions that create a conflict of interest.

“This one is a no-brainer,” he said. “There is no way the readers of The Northport Gazette can get unbiased coverage of Coker Town Council meetings.”

Two editors leave papers after disputes

Although the election season has barely begun, at least two editors abruptly left their jobs, saying that publishers have succumbed to political candidates seeking favorable treatment.

The first departure occurred June 19 when the Brown Publishing Co., owner of the weekly Vandalia (Ohio) Drummer News, fired Editor Kevin O’Boyle, according to Editor & Publisher. The termination came nearly two months after Brown Publishing CEO and President Roy Brown lost a Republican congressional primary to former Dayton Mayor Mike Turner.

During Brown’s campaign, O’Boyle had spoken out against some of the campaign’s tactics, which O’Boyle said included forcing the Brown papers to run campaign press releases and sending campaign flyers to editors for distribution.

On June 21, Tom McDonald, editor of the 18,716-daily-circulation Pine Bluff (Ark.) Commercial, quit his job to protest the paper’s endorsement procedures in a local congressional race. McDonald said the paper’s parent company, Stephens Media Group of Las Vegas, improperly directed the paper to support former Rep. Jay Dickey, a Republican, in his campaign against incumbent Democrat Mike Ross.

“I understand that he who owns the newspaper can dictate the editorials … but I don’t think they necessarily had the ethical right to do it,” said McDonald, who had been editor of the Commercial for more than two years.

“I was also told to keep my disagreements in-house,” McDonald told Editor & Publisher.

Coverage of raped teens raises dilemma

Days after being abducted and raped, two Antelope Valley (Calif.) teens went on national television and told of being tied with duct tape and rope, of their drunken captor loading his gun and threatening their lives.

Tamara Brooks, 16, and Jackie Marris, 17, described how they later attacked him, one girl stabbing him in the neck and the other smashing his face with a whiskey bottle. They also spoke of watching their captor die in a shootout with sheriff’s deputies, The Los Angeles Times reported.

While critics chastised the girls’ parents for allowing the NBC “Today” show interview and being dazzled by a chance at celebrity rather than focusing on the recovery of their children, experts say the TV appearance points to a shift in how people view the victims of sexual assault. They say the stigma is not what it used to be, and the girls’ appearance marks a new attitude of empowerment, the sense that they have no cause for shame.

Nonetheless, the abduction and rape of the two girls proved a test of news media policies on identifying sexual assault victims, according to The Associated Press.

For news outlets, the case suddenly turned when Kern County Sheriff Carl Sparks revealed on CNN’s “Larry King Live” that the girls had been raped. Most news organizations make it a policy not to reveal the names of sexual-assault victims, with some exceptions, such as when the victim wants to be identified.

Shortly thereafter, the girls’ names and pictures disappeared from many mainstream media. But some outlets, such as CBS, MSNBC.com (but not the cable network MSNBC), and The Associated Press, continued to use the names.

Marcy McGinnis, CBS senior vice president of news coverage, made the decision to continue using the girls’ names and pictures. They already had been shown on the “CBS Evening News” and were on “The Early Show” on Aug. 2.

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