Wednesday, August 22
PNC-News Statement on News Coverage
Due to PNC-News’ commitment to transparency, we are issuing the following statement regarding coverage of two separate news articles by two of our bureaus. The first statement is about PNC-Bay Area’s article on the protest at Pantheacon in 2011. The second statement is about PNC-DC’s article on a group’s withdrawal of funds from the Open Hearth Foundation.
PNC exists to provide reliable primary source reporting on issues that affect, and are of interest to, our religious communities. We strive to follow journalistic guidelines with the realization we will fall short or we are not yet able to fully follow some of those guidelines. Additionally, we have a duty to educate our communities about journalistic standards and practices so you may understand what is optimal, acceptable, and unacceptable. Please refer to the bottom of the statement for clarification on such terms as “conflict of interest” and “malice” and “objectivity.”
PNC-News and PNC Bureaus
PNC-News is the parent organization of the Pagan Newswire Collective. PNC bureaus are autonomous local organizations that agree to be under the PNC banner and follow our Principles of Unity. All PNC staff are volunteers with varying levels of journalism education and experience and varying involvement in outside local and national organizations.
Shortly before Pantheacon 2011, PNC-Bay Area was contacted by a group of individuals stating they were going to stage a protest at Pantheacon. They were unhappy with a ritual, hosted by CAYA Coven, that appeared to exclude transgender women. It is not unusual for groups to contact media ahead of time when they are staging a protest and ask for media coverage. It should, however, affect how the media covers the protest. PNC did not do this.
Instead of covering the protest as a pre-planned event, it was reported as a spontaneous reaction that happened organically as people were shocked by being turned away. This colored the public perception of the events that took place at Pantheacon 2011 and negatively impacted the conversation in our religious movement.
PNC-News was unaware of what happened regarding the coverage of this story until it was brought to our attention in Spring of 2012. At that time we started an investigation. The investigation was made more difficult by the following factors:
• All of the people who were in PNC-Bay Area are no longer there.
• There are no written records regarding this matter.
• The articles written by PNC-Bay Area during this time were deleted and could not be accessed even through cached versions.
• PNC-News was assisted by multiple parties involved, including the new members of PNC-Bay Area and the former bureau members. All were open and helpful.
Here are the results of that investigation:
• PNC-News did not find ill intent or malice on the part of PNC-Bay Area. (Acceptable)
• PNC-Bay Area was contacted by individuals before Pantheacon 2011 who indicated they would be staging a protest and wanted media coverage.
• The PNC-Bay Area reporter who was contacted felt she had a conflict of interest and could not cover the story in an unbiased way. She gave the story to another PNC-Bay Area reporter. (Optimal)
• It is unclear how much information about the protest (pre-planned vs spontaneous) was passed on to the second reporter. (Unacceptable)
PNC-Bay Area did not indicate the protest was planned in advance of Pantheacon. Also did not correct the false impression of a spontaneous protest after publication. (Unacceptable)
• It is unclear why the articles from PNC-Bay Area were deleted and kept from cache. (Unacceptable)
PNC-News would like to extend an apology to CAYA Coven, Yeshe Rabbit, Pantheacon, and our readers. This is what PNC-News has instituted in 2012:
• Examining methods to ensure all PNC bureau and PNC-News articles are archived.
• A PNC-News team was created to assist and advise bureaus on personnel, process, and content.
• PNC-News Executive Editor holds weekly meetings, online, to address questions.
• Educational materials are in creation and fundraising efforts are in discussion for additional education and workshop opportunities for our volunteers.
OHF/Firefly August 8, 2012
In late July and early August PNC-DC became aware of a brewing possible controversy regarding the local Pagan community center and library. At that time it was deemed a personal matter and was not judged newsworthy. This changed when the matter boiled over with public statements by a primary person involved and a group officially withdrawing donations to the Open Hearth Foundation, the organization responsible for the community center. An article was published on August 8th and the Open Hearth Foundation filed a complaint concerning the news coverage.
As a general practice, bureaus often take an informal look at news articles that garner positive and negative attention. We wish to replicate good practices and look for ways to eliminate or diminish poor practices. We also look for ways to educate our community about normal journalistic practices to assist them with better media practices, which includes mainstream media. As PNC-News assisted with this article, we took part in the evaluation. This is what we found.
• In the weeks prior to publication of the OHF/Firefly article the bureau deemed the story not newsworthy. At that time, it appeared to be a personal matter between two board members and there were no public statements. (Optimal)
• On August 5th, a former board member and current donor issued a public statement alleging emotional abuse on the part of the acting OHF board Chair, calling for his resignation, and withdrawing financial support for the center from her and her Tradition. Community members began asking for PNC to cover the story. PNC-DC evaluated it as newsworthy and began steps to cover the story. (Optimal)
• PNC-DC Bureau Chief emailed PNC-DC staff and asked who could cover the story. A PNC-DC staff member without any conflict of interest offered to cover it, but the Bureau Chief felt a need to move quickly as events were reaching a boiling point in the community. The DC Bureau Chief had a conflict of interest with both parties as part of the Firefly tradition and a Trustee for the OHF. (Acceptable/Unacceptable) NOTE: Conflicts of interest can be unavoidable, but was not in this case.
• PNC-DC Bureau Chief contacted PNC-News Managing Editor about procedure for covering a sensitive story in which the reporter has a conflict of interest. Explained why this story was now newsworthy and why there was pressure to quickly cover the events. (Optimal)
• PNC-News Managing Editor had also received calls and emails requesting coverage of story. Managing Editor advised the following: 1. Must contact all involved parties for comment before publication, but give them an EOD deadline. (Normal practice) 2. Must write this as a hard news story, not an editorial. (Optimal) 3. Must hand rough draft over to PNC-News Executive Editor for review before publication (Optimal) 4. Must publish article exactly as Executive Editor sends it back to you. (Optimal) 5. Did not discuss attribution or disclosure statement (Unacceptable) 6. Contacted Executive Editor to say sensitive article was on the way, but did not disclose details so Editor would have a ‘cold read’ on article. (Acceptable/Unacceptable)
• DC Bureau Chief followed all instructions from Managing Editor (Optimal)
• DC Bureau Chief indicated the story was urgent, and so she rushed through when under normal circumstances there would have been a few hours' wait. Did not ask why story was urgent. (Acceptable/Unacceptable)
• PNC-News Executive Editor ran the story past a quick checklist of flags for libel. (Optimal)
• Executive Editor did not have reason to read the outgoing links on the story because they were not generated by or for PNC journalists. (Normal practice, Primary Sources)
• PNC-News Executive Editor reviewed article on Open Hearth foundation for grammar, quality, and clarity. The article read as a simple news piece about some of the financial and organizational challenges that happen in Pagan and other nonprofit organizations on a regular basis. Nothing in the article suggested malicious intent. There was one grammatical error, and some hyperbolic language in the middle that the Executive Editor advised be toned down. (Optimal)
• The article was presented to the Executive Editor as a group-written piece, and this was explained as the reason for no attribution. It is common practice not to give attribution on stories involving three or more journalists. This was not written by three or more journalists. Attribution should have been given. There was also no disclosure of conflict of interest statement at the bottom of the piece. (Unacceptable)
• The Executive Editor forgot to ask about, or review, the headline. (Unacceptable)
• Normal rule of thumb for headlines is – the more sensitive the story, the more boring the headline. The headline was judged a bit racy, but not dipping into sensationalism. (Acceptable)
• After readers requested attribution and questioned conflict of interest, attribution and conflict of interest were disclosed on the article and was highlighted in a subsequent post. (Optimal)
• Quotes were added to the article (Acceptable) but there was no notation of the addition. Any changes other than simple typo corrections need to be noted in the article and the notation needs to include what was changed, why it was changed, and when it was changed. (Unacceptable)
• On August 13th, a second article was published which included the full statement from OHF. This article was published by a PNC-DC staffer with no conflicts of interest. (Optimal)
As a result of this review the following actions are taking/have taken place:
• PNC-DC has scheduled a meeting to review bureau policies for such things as conflict of interest and internal communication processes.
• PNC-News is discussing adopting the Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics and asking Bureaus to also adopt them.
• Educational materials are in creation and fundraising efforts are in discussion for additional education and workshop opportunities for our volunteers.
Libel and Malicious Intent
For a piece to be libelous in the United States, it must fit the following criteria: “The plaintiff must show evidence of four elements: that the defendant conveyed a defamatory message; that the material was published, meaning that it was conveyed to someone other than the plaintiff; that the plaintiff could be identified as the person referred to in the defamatory material; and that the plaintiff suffered some injury to his or her reputation as a result of the communication.”
In summation, it must be factually untrue and actively damage the reputation of the person written about. “Damage to reputation” requires more than just hurt pride - it requires loss of life, property, or relationship. Burden of proof for all this rests with the plaintiff. That person must demonstrate clearly that there is damage, and that the statement is untrue. As of 1964, as the volume of information available increased dramatically, actual malice also became a serious factor in whether or not a piece is libelous. If a journalist reported something untrue, it legally mattered whether or not the person meant to do it.
With the New York Times v. Sullivan case, if something is factually incorrect, but there is no malicious intent, it is not libel. For example, if a journalist writes that a certain Vice President was caught drowning puppies in the Mississippi River, and it turns out later that the Vice President was NOT drowning puppies, it is NOT libelous so long as the journalist really believes that to be true. If, however, the journalist released this two days before an election after he/she had openly endorsed an opposing candidate, it could be enough for the Vice President to make a case to be heard in court.
In one situation, the journalist had nothing to gain: it was the onerous duty of reporting the Vice President as a puppy drowner, something dog-loving Americans need to know. In the second situation, the journalist had something to gain - a preferred candidate who supported his views on Joe the Dog.
Conflict of Interest
Conflict of interest happens when a journalist has a personal stake in a news item that is reported on. As stated on the Radio Television Digital News Association best practices page about conflict of interest, “As most journalists live and work in the community they cover, some real and perceived conflicts of interest may be inevitable. Furthermore, some stories affect everyone--including journalists--and have the possibility to yield conflicts of interest that cannot be avoided.”
So, for example, if a husband is on the board of directors at a company that has just released a new military toy , the journalist wife should in most situations NOT do the interview for that story - especially if her husband happened to be the spokesperson for the company. In an ideal world, less direct connection to the source is better - but there are some good reasons why it doesn't always happen that way. For example, say the husband is just the programmer - and the spokesperson will only speak with the wife at the news source. In that situation, it's good form to disclose her affiliation. Say it's a breaking story, and every other reporter in her bureau is out with a violent flu except for her - should she recuse herself, or actually run the story? Even CNN, and yes, Jon Stewart, must run disclosures when they report or comment on news about their own network. Even the largest of large news organizations (or comedy taken as news organization) run into conflict of interest issues.
As observed by MediaShift about today's journalism, “The new journalism tends to be more personal. It prefers transparency to objectivity or self-effacing neutrality. Across journalism programs, there is a trend toward teaching a perspectival journalism that draws conclusions, and argues for interpretations. This challenges the previous dominance of objectivity as an ideal.”
Journalists are human beings. It's neurologically impossible to have no opinion about what one reports. A reporter sent in to interview Charles Manson is going to have an opinion unless said person has had a lobotomy.
Rather than true objectivity, we have to work with a scale. 100% objectivity almost never happens in journalism. Since most people will have an opinion about what they report on, rather than just tell them “be objective!” we tell them to be balanced. Get quotes from people on either side of the issue, so long as they provide them. Do not interject comment on those quotes. Keep concluding statements to a summation of the facts of the story.
Although comments are customarily turned off for statements, we welcome reader feedback as we strive to better serve our communities. We have, and will, made errors and we apologize to our readers. Know that we look on all articles and reader comments as opportunities to learn and grow.
Please email comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
PNC-News Editor In Chief, Jason Pitzl-Waters
PNC-News Managing Editor, Cara Schulz
PNC-News Executive Editor, Diana Rajchel
Posted by David Salisbury at Wednesday, August 22, 2012