At the Society of Professional Journalists, we talk a lot about how your ethical standards should not change no matter the medium or type of story you are producing.
While covering COVID-19, the same is true: Ethics apply no matter the medium. What is legal is not always ethical.
But, while the standards should not change, this global pandemic does bring up some questions and situations that may be specific to the sorts of stories we are producing and sharing with our communities. This is the biggest story right now, for 2020 and maybe of our lifetime. We should be covering it as such.
We also should keep in mind that this story is how non-journalists may remember us. For many, they may not have ever had to rely heavily on information from their news organizations to help them make decisions about how to stay healthy and safe. Now they do. Some may be turning to your station or subscribing to your newsletter for the first time. Others have been tuning in for years.
Whatever their circumstance may be, they are watching, reading, listening and interacting like never before. This is your chance to show them why journalism matters. To do that you should be thinking carefully about the editorial decisions you are making and how you are explaining those decisions to your community.
I recently hosted a Twitter chat with SPJ, where I answered questions about journalism ethics during this pandemic. Answers to those questions and others SPJ has received are below. While I hope you find my thoughts and advice helpful, I also hope you and your newsrooms take time to consider how transparent you are being with your community about the decisions you are making related to story selection, coverage priorities, your mission and how they can communicate with you.
Q: Should coronavirus coverage be free and not behind a paywall?
A: This obviously is a business decision but I do think because people need accurate information about what is happening in their communities (their lives literally depend on it) right now, certain information should be provided for free. What kinds of information? Information about how to protect themselves from the virus, where to get food, what is open/closed, who is allowed to be outside their homes and when, what to do and where to go if you have symptoms, updates from local gov/agencies, etc. The next question is probably: how much of that coverage should be free? I think that is where news outlets do have more leeway. At the end of the day, the news is a business, so we cannot necessarily make it all free. I see it this way: If it could help protect the community or save someone’s life, it probably should be free. If it is something that is not a necessity (a good news story or photos of chalk art spreading positive messages) I think that is fine to put behind a paywall.
A: Journalists are constantly balancing the public’s right to know with the possible harm providing that information could cause. I think it is sometimes the hardest part of the job. Journalists should be reporting on the deaths/cases and I think it is also important to report on how people are responding (buying groceries, masks, etc.). But the reporting should be done in a way to not cause panic. How do you do this? Tell your community directly that you are not reporting on these figures to cause panic but instead to inform. Check headlines and social posts for language that may cause alarm. Tell your audience you are in this together. Provide helpful information that will help your audience make decisions to protect themselves and their families. Don’t tell a story just because it is alarming. Make sure there is a reason for coverage that will help the community. Think about what images are you using of people who have died? When disclosing the identity of someone who has died, if they are a private person (not public or government official) did you speak to their family and get permission? Why are you showing the faces of those in line to get government assistance? (Can’t you tell the story without identifying them?) The same goes for people in the hospital, in line to get testing, etc. Get permission first.
Q: Should you try to focus on more positive/non-coronavirus news to “balance things out?”
A: Unfortunately, right now, and in some other breaking news situations, a lot of what people should know for their well-being is not going to put a smile on their face. It is scary, unnerving and sad. We need to be honest about this to our users and explain that our goal is not to cause alarm, but instead to provide them with information to protect themselves, their family and friends. If you want to find a way to highlight “good news” stories during this time, I think that is totally fine and would probably be a welcomed break for your community. Now, I do think there is a difference between dedicating a section of your website, social posts or newscasts to “good news” stories and trying to put a positive spin on the facts. Creating a separate newsletter or section would be appropriate. What I would caution against is focusing too much on positive stats or angles. With the facts (the data, deaths, cases, etc.), we need to stick to the facts and let the experts (doctors, scientists, public health officials) provide context and perspective. If that perspective is not something that will brighten someone’s day, we cannot shy away from it. The facts are the facts and while they may be hard to hear or process right now, our job is to provide them to our communities.
Q: Is it ethical (and legal) to report a patient’s name?
A: Like other situations involving death or illness, I do not think the name of an individual patient should be disclosed unless you have permission from the family (or designated representative) or the information has been publicly shared. So, if someone has posted on their Instagram account that they have tested positive for COVID-19, that is fine to use, just make sure you say that they announced their diagnosis on Instagram. The same goes for other social media platforms, press releases, etc. Keep in mind that if someone has shared something on their Facebook profile with friends and family and you receive a screenshot from someone who saw it, but the post is not public, I would not immediately publish that information. I would reach out to the individual to ask permission to share it. I would also think about who this person is. If they are a private citizen (not a public figure) I would be less likely to share this information without their permission first. Ask yourself: Does their name matter to the story? Could I tell the story and have it have the same meaning by just describing who they are?
Q: Should images/videos of patients or the inside of hospitals be shown?
A: When reporting on stories about people inside hospitals I would always ask permission before showing images of patients. If you cannot get permission but feel the image is important for the community to see because it shows what is happening, try to make sure viewers cannot identify individual patients. You also will want to verify the authenticity of the images if you have received them from someone outside your newsroom. Also, please make sure you are using the correct video and images for the story. Do not use outdated images or images from another location to demonstrate what you are talking about. If you are talking about a hospital in your community, make sure the video is of that hospital and accurately depicts what is happening now or it is clear to the viewers that the video was from days or weeks earlier. The same goes for images attached to web articles and social posts. When talking about people picking up food or other needed resources, it’s important to treat them with respect. While it is fine to show how long a line for food may be (that can be an impactful image), try to protect the identity of those in the line. You will want to try to humanize these stories and should, but don’t walk up to people with a camera in their face and ask them to talk. Talk to them first, ask how they are and make sure they understand where the story will be if they agree to talk to you.
Q: Should President Trump’s press conferences be aired live, even if we know he is giving incorrect information?
A: The briefings do provide good information but also have had incorrect and confusing information in them. I like the idea of fact-checking them and then airing but then people are not getting information in real-time, which could be problematic for some people. (Remember part of our role is to provide the public with access to information). If you air it live, I think it is important to have someone correct any incorrect or misinformation that was stated during the briefing.
If you do delay or choose not to air briefings, perhaps you could live tweet or have someone share accurate portions/updates as they are happening. You could post these in a Facebook live or live blog post. You could also decide to air them on your website or somewhere else and not prominently promote the stream. I have heard of some news organizations airing the first few minutes and then pointing to a livestream on their website or social media.
Q: What guidelines should pubs use for sending journos on in-person assignments?
A: Safety is so important, not just for journalists but also who they’re coming in contact with. News outlets should follow all regulations in place in their areas. Right now, in San Diego, they say everyone should be wearing masks. That means journalists too. I think interviews should be done remotely, via Skype, Zoom, Facebook, etc. whenever possible. If that is not possible, social distancing should be practiced, mics should not be shared or at least wiped down each time. The same goes for vehicles. Sometimes you have to go outside, especially for video/images. In those cases, provide masks, gloves and a safe place to work that allows for protection. Most importantly, if anyone is uncomfortable there should be a discussion, and no one should be reprimanded for raising a concern. Of course, protocols may change by the time you read this. Stay informed on the latest recommendations/requirements.
A few words about building trust
My day job is as the assistant director of Trusting News. I wanted to join the project after my experience as National President of SPJ several years ago. While I was president, I spoke to a lot of non-journalists. A lot of times these conversations began with them complaining about “the media.” Most of the time the people reaching out were upset with something they saw journalists write, post or share. A lot of times, I would dread these conversations, because they often started out so similarly with accusations of bias and “fake news.”
Despite the dread, I continued to answer the calls and emails. I continued to respond to Twitter replies and Facebook messages. I continued to defend journalism to my Uber and Lyft drivers. And I am glad I did. Because what I learned is that while most people had a complaint about journalism or a story they read, that complaint was almost always based on a misassumption about how news works. Just like I do not know the ins and outs of how an electrician or a librarian does their job, non-journalists do not know how we do our jobs.
So, what do they do? They guess. When they guess, they often are not giving us the benefit of the doubt. They often assume the worst. And why wouldn’t they? We have not done a good enough job explaining to them how we choose stories, why we interview certain people and not others, how we fact-check, why we choose to not air video showing a teenager’s face, etc.
I hope as you continue to tirelessly cover this story and all others, you will take time to talk to your audience about the ethical decisions you are making. If we don’t tell our communities we are working to be ethical, fair and accurate, how will they know?
Most importantly, please take care of yourselves, your families, friends and your communities. This will pass and when it does my hope is that we can come out stronger as an industry. One that is more trusted.
Lynn Walsh is an Emmy award-winning journalist who has worked in investigative journalism at the national level and locally in California, Ohio, Texas and Florida. She is the assistant director of the Trusting News project and current Ethics Chair for the Society of Professional Journalists. Based in San Diego, Lynn is also an adjunct professor and freelance journalist.