We take for granted that our media is transparent. After all, the American Society of News Editors (“ASNE”) runs Sunshine Week to “educate the public about the importance of open government and the dangers of excessive and unnecessary secrecy.” From the ASNE website:
Launched in 2005 and partnered with the Reporters Committee in 2012, Sunshine Week is a national initiative to promote a dialogue about the importance of open government and freedom of information.
So it would be hypocritical, wouldn’t it, for a news outlet that participates in ASNE, Sunshine Week or both to not practice the very transparency they seek to explore in the public sector.
But what are the media best practices in transparency today? For online and print media? Are they the same, different, why or why not?
Many of us have expressed a strong sense that the Northeast Ohio Media Group’s (“NEOMG”) publishing, publicizing and subsequent take down of a newsworthy video related to the election happening in four days is wrong, or at a minimum, demands an explanation. I’ve stated that it’s a reasonable expectation. I still believe it is a reasonable expectation. And many other people and news outlets think so too.
So let’s take at least a cursory look at media ethics around the removal of online content.
The first touchstone to explore is ASNE itself, since we’re dealing with a matter that connects to the NEOMG editorial people. ASNE provides a list of links to the codes of ethics of more than 50 news outlets. None of the NEOMG-related entities are on the list: Advance Publications, NEOMG itself, cleveland.com, The Plain Dealer, Advance.net, Advance Digital, none of them. I did not look for all the Advance properties but I didn’t see the Times-Picuyane either.
Now, when I searched on, “advance publications code on removal of content” and “advance publications policy on removal of content” look what I found as the top result for both searches: http://www.advance.net/advancedigitalUserAgreementPP/ Too bad they don’t have something like that telling us about their practices.
I did find a very brief list of objectives and values on the Advance Local “about us” page (NEOMG is an Advance Local “brand”):
- Empower readers with serious journalism – rigorous, thorough, aggressive and fair – across all platforms.
- Provide advertisers with the engaged audiences, marketing tools and ROI they need to grow their businesses and expand their market share.
- Build a collaborative and performance-driven work culture that rewards innovation, initiative and results.
- Integrity in the content we produce.
- Innovation in the way we deliver content and communicate with our audiences.
- Commitment to community that crosses all of our brands and businesses
There is plenty even in those six lines that support the expectation for the video to either remain published or have its removal supported by a public statement as to why it’s been removed.
Another interesting note about the ASNE is that Debra Adams Simmons, who moved from the Plain Dealer to Advance Local this year, is on its board, and its bylaws do provide for the suspension of members. And so I wonder what the ASNE legal counsel’s take is on the video takedown.
2. The ASNE has a Statement of Principles which you can read here. Article I, Article IV and Article VI seem particularly relevant. In pertinent part:
ARTICLE I – Responsibility. The primary purpose of gathering and distributing news and opinion is to serve the general welfare by informing the people and enabling them to make judgments on the issues of the time. Newspapermen and women who abuse the power of their professional role for selfish motives or unworthy purposes are faithless to that public trust. The American press was made free not just to inform or just to serve as a forum for debate but also to bring an independent scrutiny to bear on the forces of power in the society, including the conduct of official power at all levels of government.
ARTICLE IV – Truth and Accuracy. Good faith with the reader is the foundation of good journalism. Every effort must be made to assure that the news content is accurate, free from bias and in context, and that all sides are presented fairly. Editorials, analytical articles and commentary should be held to the same standards of accuracy with respect to facts as news reports. Significant errors of fact, as well as errors of omission, should be corrected promptly and prominently.
ARTICLE VI – Fair Play. Journalists should respect the rights of people involved in the news, observe the common standards of decency and stand accountable to the public for the fairness and accuracy of their news reports. Persons publicly accused should be given the earliest opportunity to respond. Pledges of confidentiality to news sources must be honored at all costs, and therefore should not be given lightly. Unless there is clear and pressing need to maintain confidences, sources of information should be identified.
[Bold emphasis added by me]
And really, this wouldn’t be complete without including the final sentence of the document:
These principles are intended to preserve, protect and strengthen the bond of trust and respect between American journalists and the American people, a bond that is essential to sustain the grant of freedom entrusted to both by the nation’s founders.
[Yes I added that bold – it deserves it.]
It is impossible for me to read any of these assertions without seeing how they absolutely support the expectation that, at a minimum, the NEOMG editors should have placed an explanation for the video removal at the original URL for the article with which it appeared. For anyone who clicks on Henry Gomez’s tweet since the removal of the video, they’re liable to think they’ve been gaslighted. I don’t know if anyone’s ever pursued an IIED claim over being gaslighted, but it is a pretty infuriating experience if you’ve ever been through something like it.
There’s a great deal more information on this topic to be examined in future posts, but I’ll close this installment with how the ASNE just this past week signed on to a letter to President Obama that, “…identifies six key components integral to upholding the commitment he made on his first full day in office to be the most transparent administration in history.” You can see the letter here and the six points are:
Codification of the “presumption of openness” underlying FOIA
Codification of the “foreseeable harm” standard contained in a 2009 Attorney General’s memorandum, which says that information should be given out even when it could be withheld pursuant to a FOIA exemption, unless foreseeable harm would result from its disclosure
Creation of a public interest balancing test to allow greater disclosure of documents currently being withheld under Exemption 5
Creation of a sunset to allow for presumptive release of documents currently being withheld under Exemption 5
Strengthening the penalties for failure to meet the statutorily mandated 20-day deadline for responding to a FOIA request
Strengthening the Office of Government Information Services
This post started with the notion of news outlets’ perceived role in shedding sunshine on the government, and that role’s implications for a news outlet to illuminate its own behaviors with equal vigor. It’s closing with that as well.
*The Civic Commons, where I worked from 2011-2013, was funded by the Knight Foundation, though my work was supported by other revenues as well.