Society of Professional Journalists ethics committee chair takes dim view of advocacy journalism at Columbus Dispatch and beyond
by Chad D. Baus
In the wake of a series of articles, entitled "Overrun by guns", written by Theodore Decker and published in The Columbus Dispatch in late May, I exposed the fact that the articles were bought and paid for by the anti-gun rights Joyce Foundation, and were in fact written with the goal of having a "major public policy impact" on gun violence in Ohio.
In that article, I noted that the Code of Ethics for the Society of Professional Journalists (SPJ) states that "Journalists should be free of obligation to any interest other than the public's right to know."
After my article "Journalists for hire, ethics be damned: Anti-gun Joyce Foundation grant funds media "studies" pushing gun control" was published, I was invited to discuss it on several media outlets across the country, including David Codrea's "War on Guns" radio program (since our interview Codrea discovered that another subsidized 'reporter' had presented a fraudulent accounting of gun 'costs' as "Breaking News" to San Jose Mercury News readers), as well as Tom Gresham's Gun Talk®.
During my June 12 interview on Gun Talk®, host Tom Gresham inquired if I had contacted the SPJ directly about what I had discovered concerning The Dispatch's advocacy journalism and money-laundering scheme (they failed to report where the money really came from, noting only that it was a grant from the John Jay College Center on Media, Crime and Justice). While I had not yet done so, Gresham's idea was an excellent one, and so a couple of weeks after my interview on Gun Talk®, I sent an inquiry to the SPJ.
My name is Chad Baus, and I am the Vice Chairman of Buckeye Firearms Association and a frequent writer at our website (BuckeyeFirearms.org) as well as, from time to time, other politically-oriented websites, guest op-eds in newspapers, etc.
I am writing to inquire if the SPJ has any position on the practice of journalists accepting grants from partisan or biased entities to write articles that are admittedly specifically intended to mold public policy.
For example, in 2010 the Joyce Foundation, which is the largest funding provider for anti-gun-rights entities in the country, awarded a grant to the John Jay College Center on Media, Crime and Justice, which then awarded the money to journalists to write articles on their issue - articles that they felt "promises to have a major public policy impact" on gun violence in Ohio. They even paid to have the journalists attend "skills workships" to help them learn how to write their articles. The speakers were, by and large, representatives of the anti-gun groups or administrations.
One of the journalists who accepted a grant was from The Columbus Dispatch here in Ohio, and the resulting series of articles was published in early June.
As you know, the Code of Ethics says journalists should:
— Avoid conflicts of interest, real or perceived.
— Remain free of associations and activities that may compromise integrity or damage credibility.
— Refuse gifts, favors, fees, free travel and special treatment, and shun secondary employment, political involvement, public office and service in community organizations if they compromise journalistic integrity.
The Code also says journalists are encouraged to "distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context."
So again, my question is, does the SPJ have any position or comment on this practice of accepting grants from partisan or biased entities to write articles that are admittedly specifically intended to mold public policy?
I'll appreciate and look forward to your thoughts!
Several days later, I received a response noting that the ethics committee would be preparing a response, but that it could take some time as they, like the leadership at Buckeye Firearms Association, are volunteers. While it did indeed take some time, I am confident that those who believe in having high standards and ethical behavior in the practice of journalism, and who were shocked at the level of duplicity exhibited by Theodore Decker and The Columbus Dispatch, will agree that it was worth the wait.
The following letter was sent to me on August 17 by Kevin Z. Smith, who chairs the SPJ's ethics committee. Smith is also the SPJ's Immediate Past President and currently sits on the SBJ Board of Directors. It is republished here with permission.
I'm sending you this lengthy email to hopefully address your concerns. You've been especially patient and I cannot guarantee I'll be available Friday to talk since I'm out of town on another matter and don't know my schedule.
You raise an interesting point and one that I've not personally addressed in 19 years on the ethics committee for SPJ, but it's worth an insightful deliberation.
Generally speaking, journalists are expected to avoid conflicts of interest or association with people, groups, organizations that can compromise the integrity of the news (i.e. taint it with biases) and prevent a full and honest look at all perspectives in pursuit of that truth.
This breach of association has been a menace to good, objective reporting for as long as I've been working in this profession – 33 years. Conflicts of interest are clearly the number one complaint I receive each year from our ethics hotline, many reported by journalists.
My first encounter came some months after graduating college. I was a sportswriter for a small community paper and the local bank was holding a golf tournament. I reported on event and named the overall winner, but the bank president called and complained that I identified the wrong top performer. That wasn't true. The overall winner with the lowest gross score (without a handicap) was John Doe. The bank president wanted it to be Jim Doe, who had an enormous handicap, when factored in, gave him a slight edge as low handicap score. Jim Doe was a close personal friend of the banker. I balked at running a retraction because I knew I was right, and after checking with the pro at the country club, had this confirmed. But, the editor and publisher obliged nevertheless because the bank was a big advertiser. In this case personal desires and corporate influence changed the truth.
From a personal standpoint I've seen this happen about every newspaper I've worked. Someone leans on the leaders at the paper and they give in to print a subjective story that never fully addresses other views or perspectives and gives a varnished version of what their sources or their influencers want.
In the case of foundations and organizations which offer grants and support for causes, I'd consider them to be in the same category as the bank president or the United Way coordinator - people who are trying to peddle a specific cause or view and using the media to achieve that purpose. Most journalists know this is wrong and our ethics code specifically addresses avoiding these relationships because they achieve nothing but subjective, one-side reporting of news.
What makes this increasing more difficult to regulate is the number of Internet reporting and blogging that is taking place, many by people who adhere not to principles of truth and objectivity, but to stating and defending one point of view. Many times these people take on the title journalist and that's another issue of debate for another time, but it can be confusing to the American public.
In America's press we have avoided for decades the advocacy press ideas that many other countries embrace. Yes, we've had Republican and Democratic newspapers for centuries, but rarely have the opinion pages leak out onto the front pages where straight news is politically or socially influenced. In the 20 years I worked in newsrooms, I never once knew of a reporter who intentionally altered the facts of a story or wrote in a editorial fashion as to support his or hers personal beliefs or that of the newspaper's editorial page. And, when there was pressure from on top to do so, it was always met with resistance from the staff.
It's hard for most people in America to believe that because cable TV and the need to force viewpoints rather than truth is becoming more common place. Today, there is a feeling that people want and seek news that agrees with their perspectives rather than fair and honest news that allows for people to read and develop views and respect differing views. Sad.
Now, that said, let me get specific. Some things I believe we might agree upon as being righteous causes which most Americans can get behind. Foundations which offer awards, grants and recognition for stories that depict the plight of children in our nation, poverty issues and social illnesses which most of us would like to see eliminated, are probably not going to get a lot of pushback from anyone. Who wants to argue that reporting on impoverished children in our nation, isn't worthy of stories and action? Having said that, I'd be naïve to think that all people think unfed, poorly clothed U.S. children are deserving of our attention and help. But, that fringe thinking isn't likely to gain a lot of traction with the public. Still, I think it needs to be recognized and should be in the reporter's mind.
Other issues, in your case, guns, is a different matter. This is a hotly debated topic and has divided many people at the polls and across families. Without doing the research to back this, I suspect there are as many pro-gun groups working in our nation as there are anti-gun organizations. I cannot identify any pro-poverty groups, to finish that point.
So, that said, it's my belief that an organization that offers incentives, grants and encourages subjective view points from mainstream journalists should be approached with extreme caution, by the journalists.
First, journalists have an obligation to detach their personal views from their stories. That is where objectivity comes in. Any journalist who tells you there is no such thing as objectivity is using a cop-out excuse for not working hard enough to remain committed to a truth that offers a variety of perspectives. If I am pro-gun then I have a duty to my audience to make sure that I still deliver a sound, balanced reporting of the events. The same if I'm anti-gun. As an editor, if a reporter comes to me and says he wants to apply for a grant from XYZ Foundation to write about issues relevant to that group, my first response is to ask him what his personal views are. Do they mirror the foundation's? If they do, then I think that indicates a problem from the beginning. Now, I have a decision to make. Either let a clearly subjective reporter get a grant to write stories that conform to his personal views and those of the foundation, or kill it. Or, if I think it's a worthy issue for my readers, then I would allow it under the condition that other reporters work on the story as well and we make it clear that the outcome might not look like a public relations piece for the foundation and that it will have accuracy and perspectives from all involved parties.
Accepting foundational grants to present one-sided views doesn't appear to me to be any different than having the bank president call up the publisher and ask for the truth to be altered to reflect his personal wishes.
A member of city council told me once that he liked reading my accounts of the council meetings because he thought I did a fair and accurate job or portraying what took place in the hours the night before. I told him that "fairness and accuracy is the least he should expect from me, but it should also the most you should expect." In short, I owe it to my sources to be fair and accurate, and I owe it to the public to not present anything more than the simple truth in a fair manner. To embellish or to purposefully alter the facts or to couch them in terms that adhere to my personal beliefs is wrong. Fairness and accuracy – expect it, nothing more, nothing less.
So, I believe the reporter has a duty to report the truth as it comes in representative forms from all parties involved. To report one side without giving the other side is unethical and unprofessional.
At the very least, the journalist and the company have an obligation to disclose the facts of the reporting. There should be an accompanying editor's note that says this story was made possible by a foundational grant that support the research and reporting of this issue. Then, the public can weigh the validity of the reporting and decide for themselves whether the story carries objectivity and fairness.
I wish there was a way in which all reporting and writing from journalists, advocates, bloggers was more centric and less one sided. I think we'd all gain enormous insight, get closer to the truth and gain more respect for one another's views. And, then, maybe social problems would be resolved.
I hope this dissertation helps.
I found Mr. Smith's thoughts on this to be refreshing and insightful. One can only hope that Mr. Decker and The Dispatch news editors will give it some thought.
In the SPJ Code of Ethics, journalists are told to "distinguish between advocacy and news reporting. Analysis and commentary should be labeled and not misrepresent fact or context."
The Dispatch articles, which were written specifically to earn a paycheck from a foundation known for its support for anti-gun rights efforts, make no such distinction. The Joyce-funded advocacy articles are reported as news, not editorial commentary, and the only clue to the fact that the articles were written with an agenda came in the form of a footnoted mention of the John Jay College grant (but, again, not the actual source of the funds). Of course when other news agencies, such as the Associated Press, pick up the articles and broadcast them to hundreds of news outlets across the country, no indication of the fact that the articles were bought and paid for was given at all.
The SBJ Code of Ethics says that journalists should "Test the accuracy of information from all sources and exercise care to avoid inadvertent error. Deliberate distortion is never permissible."
But does anyone believe that the Joyce Foundation is expecting to pay good money for an article that concludes, for example, that more guns equal less crime?
Journalists are also encouraged by the SBJ to "Examine their own cultural values and avoid imposing those values on others."
But does anyone believe that the Joyce Foundation sent the journalists to two major anti-gun seminars for any other reason than to infuse their values, and their writing, with the notion that guns are evil?
Despite the values espoused and promoted by the SPJ, the bottom line with too many of today's journalists clearly seems to be that, if you have the cash, reporters around the world are willing to write whatever kind of "news" you want them to, and ethics be damned.
With the millions and millions being spent on "advocacy and policy" efforts like this, it is easy for grassroots activists to feel as though there is no hope.
But as Buckeye Firearms Association Legislative Chair Ken Hanson recently pointed out in a response to an anti-gun rights (what else?) Cleveland Plain Dealer editorial, "unlike anti-gun groups and their shills, the pro-gun grassroots movement is all-volunteer. You will not see BFA getting large Joyce Foundation grants in order to pay their personnel a salary. Instead, you see us taking unpaid time away from our jobs, burning our own $4 per gallon gasoline, working for a cause we believe in. There is no force on Earth that can match that..."
Chad D. Baus is the Buckeye Firearms Association Vice Chairman.