Professor Dunham’s Ten Commandments for journalism ethics in a multimedia world

In the classroom at Tsinghua. (Photo by Zhang Sihan)

In the classroom at Tsinghua. (Photo by Zhang Sihan)

Journalism ethics are universal. But some ethical issues take on an added dimension on multimedia platforms.

After spending nearly two decades in digital journalism — writing an online column for BusinessWeek, creating two blogs and teaching multimedia journalism — I have boiled down my advice for my Tsinghua University Global Business Journalism students to ten commandments. Here they are:

•1. Thou shalt not steal

  • Don’t lift other people’s posts. Or quotations. Or photographs.
  • Intellectual property is intellectual property. If you don’t have the right to reproduce a photo or an article – even with attribution – don’t do it!
  • Make sure to properly attribute any quotation you pull from another source. Every single time!
  • If the original published source of your item turns out to be incorrect, you can be held liable for civil penalties in courts of law if you republish the falsehood.

•2. Thou shalt get it right.

  • 24/7 deadlines are no excuse to get it wrong.
  • Carefully attribute all facts you cannot confirm.
  • Just because somebody else published it on the Internet or sent it out by social media doesn’t make it true.
  • Just because somebody told you something doesn’t make it true. As the old journalism saying goes, even if your mother told you, check it out.
  • Better to wait a few minutes to confirm or disprove a post than to get it wrong, wrong, wrong.
  • As the Pew Research Journalism Project wrote: “Even in a world of expanding voices, accuracy is the foundation upon which everything else is built.”

•3. Thou shalt repent with speed and sincerity.

  • If you get something wrong, or link to another source who got it wrong, make sure you correct the mistake. Pronto. Your credibility is on the line.
  • Make sure to send corrections to your followers via social media. Falsehoods can go viral and it’s very hard to reel them back in.
  • If you made a mistake and others linked to your post, inform them of your mistake. Pronto.
  • Apologize.
  • Learn from your mistake.
  • Because of the instantaneous nature of digital communication, correcting errors is more important – and difficult — than ever.

•4. Thou shalt avoid gratuitous personal attacks.

  • Multimedia journalism provides you a basketful of communications options. Don’t use them to be childish, petulant or rude.
  • The same rules of fair play apply online as apply in traditional media.
  • Don’t mistake “snark” and “attitude” for wit and cleverness.

•5. Thou shalt be fair and balanced.

  • It’s not a partisan slogan. It’s our goal as journalists.
  • Fairness should never be sacrificed at the altar of an artificial deadline.
  • Efforts should be made to contact public figures referred to or criticized in multimedia reports.
  • Avoid sensationalism or distortion that is designed to win you “clicks” or “page views.”
  • A few tips from the Society of Professional Journalists:
  • “Make certain that headlines, news teases and promotional material, photos, video, audio, graphics, sound bites and quotations do not misrepresent. They should not oversimplify or highlight incidents out of context.”
  • “Never distort the content of news photos or video.”

•6. Thou shalt not use unnamed sources to attack others.

  • It’s a sure sign of a journalism amateur or poseur.
  • People have a right to know who your sources are, with rare exceptions.
  • People have a right to know your sources’ motives.
  • If someone is too cowardly to attach their name to an attack quote, it tells you something about the person.
  • As SPJ writes, “The public is entitled to as much information as possible on sources’ reliability.”

•7. Thou shalt live in a glass house.

  • Don’t do anything you would criticize someone else for doing.
  • Journalists are public figures. Hypocrisy is news, whether the hypocrite is a politician or a reporter.
  • From National Public Radio’s Ethics Handbook: •“We hold those who serve and influence the public to a high standard when we report about their actions. We must ask no less of ourselves.”

•8. Thou shalt never give false witness about who you are.

  • It is always unethical to pose as someone else to collect information for stories.
  • You should identify who you are and for whom you work.
  • You should never identify yourself simply as a “citizen,” a “constituent” or a “consumer.”

9. Thou shalt not pay sources for information.

  • Or interviews.
  • It’s unethical. It separates infotainment sites from journalism sites. Let TMZ.com get the paid-for celebrity scandal scoop. Better to keep your soul.

•10. Thou shalt not be paid off.

  • Don’t take money to post, publish or air something.
  • Don’t show favoritism toward sponsors, advertisers or donors.
  • Disclose any conflicts of interest you or your publication may have.
  • Transparency allows your audience to weigh your credibility.

As SPJ’s code of ethics declares,  “Professional integrity is the cornerstone of a journalist’s credibility.”

We owe it to the public. And ourselves.


Toxic White House water might have killed three U.S. presidents — Harrison, Polk and Taylor

Tippecanoe … and Taylor, too?

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As a history major, I’ve always struggled for an explanation for the surprisingly bad string of American presidents who served between 1840 and 1860.

This motley crew was politically inept. Think Millard Fillmore. James Buchanan. Franklin Pierce. Zachary Taylor.

The group also had a very high mortality rate. William Henry Harrison died one month after assuming office in March 1841. James Polk (he of Texas annexation and “Manifest Destiny”) died shortly after leaving office. And Zachary Taylor, the old (and I emphasize old) Mexican War hero died less than a year into his term, leaving Americans saddled with Fillmore, who later unsuccessfully sought to return to the presidency as the nominee of the aptly named Know Nothing Party.

He would have become president. Philadelphia's only vice president, George Mifflin Dallas, one of the subjects of my master's thesis.

He would have become president. Philadelphia’s only vice president, George Mifflin Dallas, one of the subjects of my master’s thesis.

I will claim some academic expertise in this period of history. My master’s thesis at the University of Pennsylvania was on the 1844 Philadelphia economic elite, which included Polk’s vice president, George Mifflin Dallas. The city of Dallas, Texas, is named after this Philadelphian who might — just might — have become the nation’s 12th president if Polk had died a few months earlier, while still in office.

With apologies to Alexis de Tocqueville, the stretch of dysfunctional democracy in America had many causes, including the implacable division between North and South over fundamental social issues, the rise of anti-immigrant sentiment and the triumph of extremism (and mediocrity) on Capitol Hill.

Sound familiar to your 2014 ears?

Historians have written lots about the political debacle in ante-bellum America. But they haven’t written as much about the health debacle in the White House. That’s why the story that appeared in the April 1 edition of the New York Times (it’s no April Fool’s joke) is so important.

The piece outlined speculation about the cause of William Henry Harrison’s death. Conventional wisdom has held (for 173 years) that old Tippecanoe, the oldest man to be sworn in as president until Ronald Reagan, died of pneumonia after catching cold while delivering the longest inaugural address in American history. (I think it may have equalled all four of Franklin D. Roosevelt’s speeches combined. He had nothing to fear but pneumonia itself.)

But it turns out that pneumonia may not have caused Harrison’s death. The Times article casts a credible finger of blame at the potentially toxic supply of drinking water consumed by American presidents during the time before indoor plumbing:

In those days the nation’s capital had no sewer system. Until 1850, some sewage simply flowed onto public grounds a short distance from the White House, where it stagnated and formed a marsh; the White House water supply was just seven blocks downstream of a depository for “night soil,” hauled there each day at government expense.

That field of human excrement would have been a breeding ground for two deadly bacteria, Salmonella typhi and S. paratyphi, the causes of typhoid and paratyphoid fever — also known as enteric fever, for their devastating effect on the gastrointestinal system.

According to the Times piece, Harrison’s eventual case of pneumonia is consistent with enteric fever and may just have been one of the manifestations of acute poisoning.

“As he lay dying, Harrison had a sinking pulse and cold, blue extremities, two classic manifestations of septic shock,” Jane McHugh and Philip A. Mackowiak wrote in the Times. “Given the character and course of his fatal illness, his untimely death is best explained by enteric fever.”

Harrison was the first of three U.S. presidents to die in office (or shortly after leaving office) within a span of only nine years. I’d say that’s reason for some serious “cold case” sleuthing.

Mackowiak, a scholar-in-residence at the University of Maryland and author of “Diagnosing Giants: Solving the Medical Mysteries of Thirteen Patients Who Changed the World,” took up the challenge,  joined by San Antonio writer McHugh.

They made a strong case for tainted water as being the cause of Harrison’s death, and suggested that Polk and Taylor may have been its victims, too. They noted that the 11th and 12th presidents “developed severe gastroenteritis while living in the White House. Taylor died, while Polk recovered, only to be killed by what is thought to have been cholera a mere three months after leaving office.”

There’s further evidence to suspect that Mackowiak and McHugh are onto something. The president’s quarters on the second floor of the White House did not get running water until 1853 — Fillmore is given credit by some history books for this major technological advance. After Millard’s move, no president contracted gastroenteritis or died of natural causes. (We’ll leave the mysterious 1923 death of Warren Harding to another blog post.)

So we can’t blame the failure of Fillmore, Pierce and Buchanan on tainted water. Just tainted politics.


Communicating from China: My five lifelines to the world

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Facebook is my #1 communications tool.

One of the realities of living in China is that I must communicate differently with friends and family.

No more drinks at the National Press Club. Cell phone calls and individual emails are an inefficient way to communicate with a large number of people.

So how have my communications methods evolved? Here are my five most frequently used sources — dominated by social media.

1. Facebook.

It is my lifeline. It is how I share my life experiences and travelogue through words and images. It reaches a large audience instantaneously. And it is my primary method of chatting with friends in America and Europe. The only problem is that Facebook is blocked by the Chinese government, so it is necessary to climb the Great Firewall of China to use it. That occasionally means some unplanned days of Facebook blackout.

2. WeChat.

I had never heard of WeChat when I arrived in China. I knew that Weibo was the Chinese combination of Facebook and Twitter. But I quickly learned (taught by my students) that WeChat is far superior. Almost nobody uses email in China. WeChat is the preferred means of communicating. Its “moments” feature allows you to post updates and photos like Facebook. And group chats allow me to communicate instantaneously with everyone in my class — or with a group of friends heading to dinner. It’s great. And there’s nothing in the U.S. quite like it. Yet.

3. Twitter.

I hadn’t realized just how much drivel gets posted on Twitter until I left the United States. So many American political reporters post so many unimportant updates. So many politicians have nothing to say. So many words (140 characters at a time). So little value. When I came to China, I spent a month “unfollowing” people who offered little insight and added some of the best tweeters in China. Now, once again, Twitter has value to me. But it is no longer my number one social media source, like it was when I was a reporter in search of breaking news, 24/7.

4. Skype.

In the past week, I have Skyped with people in Africa, Iran, Pakistan, Malaysia, Thailand, Texas and France. It is the most cost-effective way for me to do my job as an academic. The quality is usually decent, though, as with everything in China, technology is hit or miss. But Skype allows me to see Pam regularly and to communicate with friends from America to Europe to Asia. I also spend less on long-distance calls today than I did as a college student at the University of Pennsylvania. Thank you, Skype.

5. Email.

My students don’t use email. My colleagues rarely use email. Email is a very “Y2K” thing. But I still use it. It’s the best way to send documents or memos. And it’s the best way to have lengthy exchanges. It’s the only “old-fashioned” way I communicate.

Funny thing: None of these five methods of communication had been invented when I started my career as a journalist. My, oh my, how technology has changed our world.


Viewing the American media through fresh eyes

For at least a decade, I was a 24/7 news addict.

Then I went to China and went cold turkey. Surprisingly, there were no withdrawal pains. Indeed, I actually enjoyed life more and had a lot more time for useful pursuits without the pain of my addiction to CNN, MSNBC, Fox and Twitter.

So what happens when I return from Tsinghua University for winter break?

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A short relapse.

One day of CNN was enough to cure me permanently. Here are a few thoughts on the disastrous state of U.S. cable news and the rays of hope for the rest of the U.S. media:

  • There is almost no news on cable news. CNN seemed to be mostly “reporting” on stories broken by other news outlets (“CNN has confirmed”) or filing “turn of the screw” reports on developing stories. MSNBC featured lots of opinions on the news from experts and hosts. Fox was, well, it was Fox. Within an hour, I was watching the BBC. I can’t reclaim all the hours I wasted watching American cable news during my years as a reporter, but I can avoid the temptation in the future.
  • American newspapers, even though they have declined, are still a valuable information source. I know it’s been fashionable in Washington, D.C., to diss the Washington Post and lament its deterioration. Well, I have some news for you. It’s still a heck of a good newspaper with a lot more exclusive news and analysis in one issue than you get in a day of cable news. I can’t vouch for the quality of the regional press, but the print versions of the New York Times and Wall Street Journal can compete with the best papers in the world.
  • Newspaper web sites have become schizophrenic. There are two kinds of news web sites: (1) the good and (2) the bad and the ugly. The NY Times and the WaPo give you serious, substantive information with some very good interactive features. Most sites, like my former employer’s site, are desperately seeking clicks through crime, crashes, celebrities, boobs, animals, weirdness and weather. The quality gap between the good and the bad U.S. news sites is growing rapidly. Many papers have adopted a two-tiered system with quality content hidden behind a paywall. That may be a good business model — it remains to be seen — but it is a highly questionable journalistic model. After a semester of teaching multimedia journalism, I believe even more strongly that modern journalism is about community-building. Hiding behind paywalls keeps the community out and prevents non-subscribers from learning the quality journalism you may offer.
  • TV news is alienating its core audience while failing to win new viewers. None of my students — zero — watch TV news. Granted, for the Chinese students, that means state-run TV. But it’s a problem that U.S. television has, too. The younger generation wants information on demand. Social media is their favorite medium. Where does that leave television? Or newspapers? Ask my students. In my multimedia journalism course, we are re-inventing the future of multiplatform, multimedia news. Other than global leaders such as the New York Times and the Financial Times, I don’t see enough of that.
  • With all of its flaws, the U.S. media remains among the freest (and most freewheeling) in the world. We can be thankful for that.
  • Back to vacation. With the TV turned off.


    What every tourist should know before visiting China

    A panoramic view of the Forbidden City.
    I plan to usher in the Year of the Horse by preparing the welcome wagon for visitors from abroad.
    As a new resident of Beijing, I look forward to sharing the magic of my adopted hometown. But I warn you that you should be prepared for a few shocks, cultural and otherwise. No, you’re not in Kansas anymore. Or Houston. Or Washington.
    Here is a brief primer for first-time visitors to China:
    Culture and customs
    •  Check your cultural assumptions with your luggage. Life is different here. Don’t view life in China through the prism of your American or European experiences.
    • Beijing is crowded and massive. Don’t be intimidated by the volume of traffic, the human gridlock or the seeming chaos on the streets and in the subways. You’ll get used to it.
    • Don’t be afraid to jostle people. There is no sense of personal space here. Don’t take it personally if somebody elbows you or pushes you.
    • There is no “walk right, pass left” etiquette here. People walk, bike or drive every which way. Cars DO NOT stop for pedestrians. Bikes DO NOT yield to pedestrians. In fact, nobody yields to anybody.
    • Be decisive. Indecisive people get run over by bikes or cars or other pedestrians.
    • Don’t get upset when people spit on the street at any time in any place. Spit happens in China.
    • Do not expect Western-style toilets. Get used to holes in the ground. Don’t complain about it. Get used to it.
    • If there is not a price listed on an item in a market, you are expected to bargain. At tourist-oriented markets (such as the Silk Market), the original prices might be ten times what is reasonable. Don’t be afraid to walk away. Even if you are interested in buying something. Negotiate aggressively. If you don’t want to negotiate, go to a regular store.

    Food and drink

    Be careful of street food, despite its enticing aroma.

    Be careful of street food, despite its enticing aroma.

    •  Don’t drink the water. Use bottled water, even for brushing your teeth.
    • Be smart when it comes to street food. Some of it is delicious, but some of it is cooked in oil that is, simply put, poisonous. Unless a Beijinger vouches for a vendor, think twice before trying it. I’m afraid I speak from experience (some bad “stinky tofu”).
    • Don’t be afraid to sample the rich variety of tasty regional cooking. Experiment beyond your comfort zone. Try things.
    • Don’t expect Chinese food to be the same as American Chinese food. It’s better. Most of all, it’s different.
    •  Your drinks may be warm or hot when served at restaurants. This includes water, milk and juices. Chinese meals maintain a balance. Cold drinks can throw a hot meal off-balance. If you want cold water (or beer) make sure to order it “bing.”

    Getting around

    • Fewer people speak English than you might expect. It’s not like traveling in Europe. Younger people are more likely to understand English than older people. Some younger people may want to practice their English on you. Enjoy that – unless they’re trying to sell you something.
    • Stay calm. If things go wrong, it won’t do any good to raise your voice. If people don’t understand you, it won’t help you to get agitated.
    • Go to the most popular tourist attractions during the week. Earlier is better for places like the Forbidden City, the Summer Palace and the National Museum. They can get very crowded by midday, particularly on weekends or holidays.
    • Use the subway. Because of surface traffic gridlock, the subway usually is the fastest way to get from Point A to Point B in Beijing. It is clean, efficient and cheap, in addition to being crowded. Relax and enjoy it.
    • If you are taking a taxi, make sure somebody writes down your destination in advance IN CHINESE. Do not assume that you will be able to communicate with a cab driver by trying to pronounce a location in Mandarin. You’re probably mispronouncing it, or worse, saying something embarrassing that you don’t mean to say.
    • Try to find a good street map in English (or at least in Pinyin).
    • Use Google Maps online to get an idea of where you’re going and a sense of how far it is from the nearest subway stop.
    • Make sure you have your passport with you when checking in to hotels or on plane or train journeys. Carry a photocopy of your passport ID page and your visa with you at all times.

    Technology

    • Get ready for slow, unreliable Internet and spotty WiFi. Do not expect that you will have working Internet 24/7. Internet and WiFi can stop working at any time.
    • If you want to use Facebook or Twitter or YouTube or other blocked sites, you will need to have working VPN service before you arrive in China. (Email me if you need information on VPNs.) You also will need a VPN to access the New York Times, Bloomberg and some other news site.
    • Bring an electrical converter or a couple of converters designed for use in China. (Not Hong Kong.)
    • Bring a multiple-USB recharger for your electronic devices such as cameras and smartphones. You will need an electrical converter for this, along with one for your laptop.
    • It may be very expensive to use your U.S. smartphone for calls and data. Check in advance before you leave the U.S. You can always disable the data and use it via WiFi. That’s what I do, which allows me to use email, social media and the Internet for free. I also use my U.S. cell phone for text messages with friends and family in the U.S. (at a cost of 50 cents per text sent and 5 cents per text received).

    What to pack

    • Dress in layers. Be ready for wind gusts.
    • Bring disposable 3M anti-pollution masks. They aren’t very expensive and they can make your life more enjoyable on dangerously polluted days. Don’t be self-conscious about using masks. It’s for your own health.
    • Bring toilet paper, napkins, tissues and hand sanitizer. You often will not find these products in public places.
    • Make sure you have plenty of prescription medicine and vitamins. It will be hard to find, if you need it, and it may be expensive and questionable in quality.
    • Make sure you bring extra medication to combat stomach ailments and flu-liked symptoms such as Pepto Bismol, cold medicine, DayQuil and NyQuil.
    • Check in with your credit card companies and banks before you leave to let them know you will be making purchases in China.

    Feel free to offer suggestions to make this guide more useful. I will update it with your ideas.

    Enjoy China!


    What’s in and what’s out in 2014

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    Moonrise over the ancient city wall, Xi’an.

    Just a few things have changed in my life this year.

    New job. New city. New country. New life.

    Teaching journalism in China. It’s almost as much of a challenge as practicing journalism in America.

    Here are some of the things that are “in” in my new life at Tsinghua University — and some of the old, familiar things I’ve left behind.

    OUT: Texas on the Potomac
    IN: Yankee on Tiananmen Square

    OUT: Hikes on the National Mall
    IN: Hikes on the Great Wall

    OUT: Bike helmets
    IN: Anti-pollution masks

    OUT: Turn signals
    IN: Chaos on the road

    OUT: The second most congested commute in America
    IN: The second most congested commute in the world

    OUT: Considering something three days old as new
    IN: Considering something three centuries old as new

    OUT: Finnish saunas
    IN: Chinese massages

    OUT: American Chinese food
    IN: Real Chinese food

    OUT: DC Metro
    IN: A subway system with trains every two minutes, polite employees and escalators that actually work

    OUT: Dysfunctional democracy
    IN: Democracy?

    OUT: Taking your shoes off at airports
    IN: VPNs to access Facebook, Twitter, YouTube and WordPress

    OUT: Rush Limbaugh’s rants against Barack Obama
    IN: Chinese media rants against Japanese Prime Minister Abe

    OUT: The New York Times
    IN: People’s Daily

    OUT: The Abraham Lincoln statue at the Lincoln Memorial
    IN: The terracotta warriors of Xi’an

    OUT: Delicious Chesapeake crab cakes
    IN: Delicious Chinese dumplings

    OUT: Lobster rolls from food trucks
    IN: Stinky tofu from street vendors

    OUT: Scrapple
    IN: Chicken feet, fish lips and duck brains

    OUT: The Washington Redskins
    IN: Mao’s little red book

    OUT: Obscenely expensive Internet service
    IN: Unreliable Internet, spotty WiFi and the Great Firewall of China

    OUT: Obamacare
    IN: Truly socialized medicine

    OUT: Soccer moms
    IN: Ping pong dads

    OUT: 24/7 deadlines
    IN: Monthlong breaks between semesters (We call them “district work periods”)

    OUT: Suits and ties
    IN: Casual Friday every day

    The dress code is a lot more casual -- even for a China Radio International appearance.

    The dress code is a lot more casual — even for a China Radio International appearance.


    Texas political winners and losers of 2013

    The Texas political landscape has been transformed in 2013.

    No, the state hasn’t gone from red to blue. But it’s gone from old to new.

    Here are some of the politicians who have benefited — or suffered — from the transition:

    Winners

    Ted Cruz (Texas Tribune photo)

    Ted Cruz (Texas Tribune photo)

    Ted Cruz
    Began the year as a U.S. Senate newcomer. Ended the year as the leader of the national Tea Party movement.

    John Cornyn
    Began the year as an establishment Republican nervous about a 2014 Tea Party primary challenge. Ended the year with most leading conservative groups either on his side or on the sidelines.

    Wendy Davis
    Began the year as a junior member of a minority party in the Texas Senate. Ended the year as a national figure and a ballyhooed Democratic candidate for governor.

    Greg Abbott
    Began the year waiting for Rick Perry to decide what to do. Ended the year as a virtually unopposed Republican candidate for governor.

    Joaquin Castro
    Began the year as a House newcomer in the minority party. Ended the year as one of his party’s rising stars on Capitol Hill and a guest on Meet the Press. Oh, he got married, too.

    Losers

    Rick Perry
    Began the year as a presidential longshot. Ended the year as a president longshot — and a lame duck governor.

    David Dewhurst
    Began the year as the most powerful person in the Texas Senate. Ended the year fighting for his political life in a re-election battle against stalwart conservatives.

    Rick Perry’s UT Regents
    Began the year trying to topple the university’s president and football coach. Ended the year an educational embarrassment and a political liability for the Texas Republican Party.

    Louie Gohmert
    Began the year as an off-the-wall right-wing congressman who talked about terror babies and presidential birth certificates. Ended the year looking downright boring compared to Steve Stockman.

    Domingo Garcia
    Began the year itching to end Fort Worth congressman Marc Veasey’s tenure after a single term. Ended the year on the sidelines as Veasey appears to be cruising to re-election.


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