3 Journalists Who Had Trash Fire Weeks
Although working in news is generally best described as a “raging trash fire,” it seems this week has been extra gnarly in the world of journalism. From Katie Couric allegedly admitting to editing a passage to protect late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg to a Missouri reporter reportedly facing legal action from the state government over uncovering a dangerous security flaw in one of their web pages, here are three journalists who are having a terrible, horrible, no good, very bad week.
1. Katie Couric: Sparking debate over her RBG Colin Kaepernick edit
Despite her decade-spanning career as a respected anchorwoman, it seems former Today host Katie Couric is still evidently not immune to the pitfalls of sticky – and arguably ethically questionable -- journalistic situations. Earlier this week, the Daily Mail reported that in her upcoming memoir, Going There, Couric says she tried to keep her “personal politics” separate from her work, yet struggled to do so following a 2016 interview with late Supreme Court Justice, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, claiming she omitted certain quotes from the final article in order to “protect” the widely-revered figure.
While the interview touched on several topics, including then-presidential candidate Donald Trump and her former Supreme Court colleague, Justice Antonin Scalia, they also discussed Colin Kaepernick and the wave of athletes protesting by kneeling during the national anthem.
“I think it’s dumb and disrespectful," Ginsburg said in the published piece, which appeared on Yahoo! News. “I would have the same answer if you asked me about flag burning. I think it’s a terrible thing to do, but I wouldn’t lock a person up for doing it. I would point out how ridiculous it seems to me to do such an act.” While this, and other erm, pointed comments on the matter ultimately found their way into the finished article, the new book claims more scathing statements were left on the editing room floor, a seemingly conscious choice with RBG's reputation in mind.
Couric allegedly wrote that during the interview, Ginsburg dubbed these types of protests as exhibiting “contempt for a government that has made it possible for their parents and grandparents to live a decent life." Although she ultimately ended up omitting this quote from the article, she says the decision to do so was a “conundrum.”
In navigating the situation, Couric consulted two of her journalist peers, who had different opinions on the situation. Although New York Times columnist, David Brooks, reportedly advised her to nix the section, arguing that the Justice was “elderly and probably didn’t fully understand the question,” ex-ABC News president, David Weston allegedly disagreed.
“'She's on the Supreme Court,” he purportedly told Couric. “People should hear what she thinks."
Ultimately, it seems Couric split the difference, including parts of their conversation in the final article, while seemingly projecting onto Ginsburg, cutting the comments she found “unworthy of a crusader for equality." Yikes.
In the world of reporting, interviews are almost always edited for brevity and clarity – if they weren't, nearly all of your favorite 500-word articles would quickly skyrocket to rambling, redundant 5,000-word epics – with at least half of 4,500 additions being “uh” or “um.” While there are ethical structures in place for how reporters should make these types of edits, omitting parts of an interview with the intention of – to use Couric's words “protect” – the interviewee, even with the caveats of old age and perhaps a lack of understanding, is ethically dubious, a notion the Washington Post's Aaron Blake recently explained.
“The point is this is a journalist reportedly saying she made a decision about publishing something by citing personal affection for and a desire to protect a subject she was covering,” he wrote. “That’s not how it works. You publish what’s newsworthy and then let Ginsburg try to clean it up if she wants to.”
While Ginsburg ultimately did her damndest to “clean it up” after facing backlash, stating that she was “barely aware of the incident or its purpose" and that she “should have declined to respond,” per the LA Times, it seems Blake was not alone in his assertion, with several reporters sounding off on social media.
“This is toxic on a lot of levels,” the New York Times's Maggie Haberman tweeted alongside a link to the Daily Mail article.
“im confused why katie couric is telling us this information?” wrote CNN analyst and NYT reporter, Astead Wesley, adding that “it seems embarrassing???”
Now, why would several reporters find Couric's admission “embarrassing”? The answer can seemingly be found in a refresher of the toughest course in all of academics – Journalism 101. According to a resource from the City University of New York entitled “The Ethics of Quoting,” what is and is not deemed acceptable in terms of altering quotes is pretty straightforward. “When quoting, be sure to quote word for word, down to the punctuation,” reads the page, adding that “any omissions, additions, or modifications to the quote must be signaled to the reader with ellipses and square brackets.”
While as the site notes, “minor modifications are permissible," it's important that reporters “never present the quote in a manner that changes the author's original meaning."
“Especially if done with the purpose of distorting the author's intention and/or manufacturing support for an entirely different argument, intentionally changing the meaning of a quote is academically dishonest and risks severe penalty,” the passage continues.
2. ESPN's Adam Schefter: Allegedly committed a major ethical faux pas with the Washington Football Team
Couric wasn't the only reporter debatably – or well not so debatably in this case -- veering into ethically dubious territory. According to a series of emails unearthed from 2011, it appears that Adam Schefter, one of ESPN's most prominent football reporters, allegedly asked Bruce Allen, then general manager of the Washington Football Team, to approve a story prior to publication, a major no-no by the standards of widely-accepted reporting ethics.
"Please let me know if you see anything that should be added, changed, tweaked," the reporter allegedly wrote in an email to Allen, one of many included in a court filing by the Washington Football Team's current owner, Dan Snyder, according to the LA Times. "Thanks, Mr. Editor, for that and the trust." Ahh yes, because nothing says EIC qualifications like … running a football team?
While to those not versed in journalism, this may seem like NBD, in the world of reporting this type of blunder is a pretty BFD, largely deemed unethical by most newsrooms, who have specific policies on the scope in which writers can clarify information with their sources post-interview.
For example, although E.W. Scripps doesn't permit reporters to send entire passages, their code of ethics states that interviewees can see quotes "the for purposes of accuracy and fairness,” according to Thomas Kent's 2020 piece for the Poynter Institute entitled “Should journalists let sources look over stories before publication?"
Other outlets, like The Denver Post and BuzzFeed take different approaches, the article noted. The former only permits source approval “when a senior editor approves sharing passages from stories in the interest of accuracy.” The latter, however, is much more lax, their code of ethics stating that “sending a note to the subject that includes allegations or a description of what will be published is a reporting tool that also acts as a safeguard for the reporter.”
Despite these newsroom-to-newsroom ethical discrepancies, overall, seeking the stamp of approval on unpublished works is generally inadvisable for ethical reasons.
“Other than a quick call for an essential accuracy check, letting sources review content in any more detail is fraught with potential danger,” Kent explained. “Our right to quote material from sources as we heard it, in the fashion we want, is a precious one.”
3. Josh Renaud of The Saint Louis Post-Dispatch: Seriously PO-ed the state Governor by … clicking “view source” on a website?
However not every recent dumpster fire stems from a purported ethical discrepancy – this week, a Missouri journalist may face a Governor-instigated legal battle for committing the absolutely unforgivable crime of … hitting CTRL + U on a government website?
Yep. It all started earlier this week when The Saint Louis Post-Dispatch published a – to use Cracked's favorite adjective, eyebrow-arching – article revealing that the Social Security Numbers of several Missouri teachers, social workers, and administrators were technically available to the public, hidden in the HTML source code of a webpage run by the state's Department of Education.
While as the article – penned by reporter Josh Renaud – noted, it was “unclear” how long these SSNs had been on display for the world – or, well, anyone who knows how source code works – to see, the outlet says they gave the department a heads up surrounding the article on Tuesday, allowing them some time to fix the page before their report went live.
“We have worked with our data team and the Office of Administration Information Technology Services Division to get that search tool pulled down immediately, so we can dig in to the situation and learn more about what has happened,” Mallory McGowin, a spokesperson for the Missouri department of education explained, according to the Post-Dispatch.
Yet even with this fix, it seems Missouri Governor, Mike Parson was apparently livid about this highly alarming report – no, not with the fact that roughly 100,000 Missourian's had their private, personal information hidden in plain sight, but rather, that Renaud dared to do the unthinkable, clicking “view source” on a public website, a maneuver that takes all of two clicks on any non-ancient computer, as Motherboard noted. Unbeknownst to pretty much all of us, hitting those two buttons is apparently a crime (?) so dastardly, the lawmaker seemingly felt compelled to order a last-minute press conference on Thursday, where he discussed how Renaud should be prosecuted, per The Missouri Independent.
“The state does not take this matter lightly,” Parson said, dubbing Renaud a “hacker” and noting that he not only alerted the Cole County Prosecutor to the matter, but also asked the Missouri State Highway Patrol to investigate, for some inexplicable reason. “This administration is standing up against any and all perpetrators who attempt to steal personal information and harm Missourians," he continued, seemingly forgetting several details of the story above.
However Parson wasn't alone in blaming the paper for the site's flaw. Rather than, ya know, actually reflecting on their mistakes like any #girlboss would do in this situation, the state's Department of Education also pointed fingers at the Post-Dispatch for uncovering the vulnerability, with Margie Vandeven, Education Commissioner, sending a note to teachers alleging that “an individual took the records of at least three educators, unencrypted the source code from the webpage, and viewed the social security number (SSN) of those specific educators.”
Yikes. But hey, if hitting two buttons on your laptop makes someone a hacker, then get me a pair of teeny Matrix sunglasses call me Kevin Mitnick.
Disclosure: Cracked was owned by E.W. Scripps, the company mentioned in this article, until 2019. Cracked is currently owned by Literally Media.
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