The answer to the ethical question on the table was a simple one: Yes or no.
Should we publish the 35-page document, which in reality is just a collection of allegations with just enough makeup on it to make it appear to be a legitimate and scandalous intelligence report on Donald Trump?
Does Russia really have something it can use to compromise our next president? Reporters in various newsrooms have been attempting to verify the information for weeks and haven’t been able do so. The search for truth has come up empty.
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The almost unanimous reply to publishing it was no, with one exception: BuzzFeed, an internet media company devoted to providing the “most shareable breaking news and original reporting,” as well as entertainment.
Then the buzz grew louder and louder, not only from Trump himself, who called BuzzFeed a “failing pile of garbage” and CNN “fake news,” but from many in the news media, who rightly see it as giving our onslaught of critics one more chip on their side.
Ben Smith, the BuzzFeed editor, defends his decision to publish, even after his reporters couldn’t confirm the content. He cites the need for more transparency and his belief that his readers had the right to see it and they are smart enough to decide the veracity of it for themselves.
CNN, on the other side, reported that the document was out there but did not tell its audience what was specifically alleged.
I don’t know how Smith and his colleagues make ethical decisions. There is no single template used by everyone, but there are some basic questions that need to be asked and answered before reaching a final decision.
My former colleague at the Poynter Institute, Bob Steele, who has long been recognized as an ethics guru, has led many news organizations through ethical thickets.
Among the questions he always asked:
What do I know and what do I need to know? What is my journalistic purpose?
What are my ethical concerns, who are the stakeholders, what are the purposes of my action, are there any alternatives to maximize our responsibility to seek the truth as fully as possible and minimize harm? And, also, can I fully justify my decision?
I had the opportunity to ask those questions many times during my editing career, whether to run stories or pictures. It was rarely easy, and that question of justification, of being able to tell the first reader who called why we did it weighed heavily in my thinking.
We have traveled a long way from Gutenberg to Google, but I have faith that most news leaders haven’t simply ditched those questions and others like them as we seek to be first right or wrong; when we reduce important stories to 140 characters; when we write racy headlines that will automatically increase our clicks.
We don’t need to give our critics, especially with the newly elected president volunteering as the lead cheerleader, more self-inflicted mistakes such as this one to denigrate a free and vigorous and independent press.
Strong and accurate and verified stories about those in power will create a buzz. Let’s stick to that agenda.
Gregory Favre is the former executive editor of The Sacramento Bee and retired vice president of news for The McClatchy Co. He also was a Distinguished Fellow at the Poynter Institute. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.