In the months between the November 2020 vote and the January 6 Capitol insurrection, BuzzFeed News’ politics desk faced an ethical and practical quandary: To what extent should it cover the conspiracy theories about the election results?
When was it responsible — when was it necessary — to report on the misinformation President Trump and his supporters were spreading around the internet? And when would reporting on those falsehoods merely further amplify the misinformation?
Shortly after the insurrection, the newsroom reported on some of the contents of a conspiracy-laden forum called The Donald, but with caution, says politics editor Matt Berman. BuzzFeed News didn’t link to message boards or uncritically quote from posts. “The point was not to draw people to a message board like that,” says Berman. “We were covering the real conspiracy thinking and misinformation on there because it showed how people were using these message boards to organize, and how this is something in the lead up to January 6 a lot of people could have just seen for themselves online.”
In the wake of the insurrection, BuzzFeed News reported on how rioters had planned the attack online, and part of that reporting drew from message boards. In the following days, the newsroom also reported on how “Stop the Steal” groups flourished on Facebook.
This kind of calculation has taken on new ethical and editorial complexity since the election of Donald Trump, a man with a stunning capacity for spouting falsehoods, which exacerbated America’s already-existing penchant for conspiracy theories. Underregulated forums and social media networks have often allowed misinformation to spread unchecked.
BuzzFeed News avoids stories if the goal is simply debunking. “You don’t want to expose people who haven’t already seen the lie to the lie, just for the sake of exposing the lie,” Berman said. The decision was more straightforward when it came to reporting on lies from then-President Trump himself: “Everybody heard what Trump said when he was president [so] it often made sense to debunk what Trump may have been saying if it’s a lie.”
There is a growing recognition, both among journalists and consumers of news, that some journalistic conventions need to be reexamined. The traditional notion of neutrality is one of them. “To portray an asymmetric situation as a ‘both-sides’ situation is a form of distortion,” says NYU journalism professor and media critic Jay Rosen.
Even during the Biden presidency, where there are inklings of a return to normalcy, consensus around some ethical norms is shifting. What choices will journalists make with regards to covering misinformation and lies from politicians? In grappling with new, potentially invasive technologies? In covering crime and policing post-George Floyd? And how does a dangerous reporting climate factor into decision-making around ethics?
Moving Beyond “Both Sides” Reporting
Of course, Trump wasn’t the first politician to spew misinformation, and he won’t be the last. Republican U.S. Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia is a QAnon supporter and advocate of other bizarre and hateful conspiracy theories. Due to her position, the media can’t ignore her, so they must grapple with how to responsibly cover her.
Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri — who challenged the 2020 election results and insinuated Trump could emerge victorious — is also difficult to ignore. But The Washington Post’s decision to host the senator as he promoted his new book drew criticism that the format — a half-hour live-streamed interview — limited the reporter’s attempts to challenge Hawley’s false statements and equivocations. The interviewer pushed back on some of Hawley’s claims about potential election fraud in Pennsylvania, for instance, but moved on due to time constraints after a few follow-up questions. Hawley’s attempts to equate the Capitol Hill rioters and Black Lives Matter protesters went unchallenged.
The Cleveland Plain Dealer recently declared they would be taking a fairly radical approach going forward. Editor Chris Quinn stated the paper would ignore false statements from U.S. Senate candidate Josh Mandel that the paper believed were ploys for attention. Mandel has promoted the conspiracy theory that the 2020 election was stolen and advocated rescinding Ohio’s mask mandate earlier in the pandemic.
Publishing outright false claims by politicians only serves the politicians’ agenda, argues Quinn, and his newsroom would not be complicit. “They want to be debunked, they just want to be covered,” he says. “They loved every time we reported the election was stolen. They get what they want, they get their message out to the faithful … We don’t need to debunk that. It has been debunked. By giving it oxygen, it helps it flourish.”
We realized we were partly to blame for the misinformation that spreads because we kept giving our platforms over to things we knew were false and reckless and dangerous
The decision was part of a broader post-Trump reckoning within the media, says Quinn. “A lot of people in the media recognize that our long-established methods for reporting on politics, locally or nationally, have been weaponized, that politicians like Trump figured out how to use it to spread a message that is false because we cover these things,” he explains. “We realized we were partly to blame for the misinformation that spreads because we kept giving our platforms over to things we knew were false and reckless and dangerous.”
Quinn adds that, as the race develops, his staff will cover the over-arching themes of Mandel’s campaign while not reporting on every false or sensational statement. “This is new territory, so we will be learning as we go,” Quinn says.
So, in some cases it might make sense to deny the person a platform, while in others it may be ethically sound to host them or quote them while holding them accountable.
The press had to weigh these options in real time when Trump was still president and hosting coronavirus briefings, during which he often shared false information about the pandemic ravaging the country. The old dictum ‘What the president says is news’ had to be reassessed — in some cases the ethically and editorially prudent approach might be not to repeat what the president says, especially when he is spreading misinformation about a public health hazard.
The pitfalls of both-sidesism are being probed anew in coverage of issues like legislation to restrict voting in states like Georgia and Texas. Even the way the legislation is described poses ethical dilemmas: Should they be “voter suppression laws,” as Democrats describe them, or “election integrity laws,” as Republicans describe them?
BuzzFeed News has opted for the term “voting restrictions,” as has The Washington Post. The New York Times tends to refer to them as “voting laws.” In an explainer piece on the Georgia bill, however, the paper stated in the lead paragraph that the bill serves to create “restrictions and complications.”
BuzzFeed News’s Berman says his desk does not “have hard lines on what terms we use when,” but prioritizes clarity and precision when making linguistic choices. “When we can, we want to show readers specifically what a bill or law is doing, so instead of just saying ‘this bill is suppressing votes,’ showing how exactly a bill is suppressing votes, while still being clear about what the actual endpoint is,” he explains.
“As someone guiding coverage, I want to be sure we’re being honest,” Berman adds. “Part of that honesty is not equating things that shouldn’t be equated.”
In the Era of Data, “Do No Harm”
We are more traceable than ever before — wherever we take our smartphones, our movements are logged by location data companies. That poses a fairly new ethical quandary for journalists, who find themselves with opportunities to use this information in reporting.
The problem was tackled head-on by New York Times opinion writers Charlie Warzel, who has since moved to his own newsletter at Substack, and Stuart A. Thompson, who revealed that a source had shared location data tracing thousands of people to the Capitol at the time of the Jan. 6 insurrection. Warzel and Thompson penned the piece as a criticism of surveillance, explicitly stating that such data should not have been collected. They also explored the unreliability of such data, noting that it was impossible to verify whether the precise location depicted was correct.
“I believe very strongly that this information should not be collected,” Warzel said when he spoke to the Nieman Foundation about his story in February. “I guess you could make a case that it should be collected, but the way in which it is collected is just horribly broken.” Part of what’s broken is that the extent of the data collected is not always explicitly disclosed, and the technology has historically been opaque (Apple recently unveiled a policy requiring apps to ask explicit permission to share data from users with third parties — though that data will still be gathered).
So, should journalists be using this data at all?
Cyrus Farivar, an investigative tech reporter at NBC News and author of “Habeas Data: Privacy vs. the Rise of Surveillance Tech,” says reporting on data in this manner could be “revelatory and tangible,” since it shines a light on the extent of surveillance and data collection performed by our electronic devices. “My cell phone and everyone else’s cell phone is a tracking device,” says Farivar. “Most people don’t think of their phones in that way, but that is what they are, and I think most of us, most of the time are generally comfortable with that.”
Yet consumers don’t always consider how personal some of that data is, nor the possibility of someone else seeing it. A trove of smartphone geolocation data leaked to the Times in 2019 revealed a map of locations tracing the intimate details of users’ lives, revealing “hundreds of pings in mosques and churches, abortion clinics, queer spaces and other sensitive areas.”
The smartphone data from the insurrection ups the ante for journalists — smartphone users were tracked as they engaged in potentially illegal activity.
Farivar is no stranger to handling such sensitive data. Back in 2015, while at Ars Tehnica, he obtained, through a records request, data on every license plate scanned by license plate readers operated by the Oakland Police Department. He could see where the owners of those license plates went day-to-day; he could pretty accurately ascertain where they lived and worked. Farivar and colleagues decided not to publish the database, instead reporting on the data without specifics that could identify individuals, though Farivar did publish the data related to his own car.
The data could have too easily been abused, Farivar says of that decision: “We’re trying to, like they say in medicine, first do no harm. We’re trying not to expose people unnecessarily.”
Shoshana Wodinsky, a data reporter for Gizmodo, argues that sometimes journalists have to work within existing systems to improve them. For data reporters, that can mean working with data perhaps shared with third parties in an unethical manner. “We need to show people what [the data] looks like because otherwise it’s never going to be regulated,” Wodinsky says. “If you don’t want something to exist, you have to bring it to the public consciousness.”
In her own reporting, Wodinsky often works with data harvested from apps. She tends to sidestep the ethical quagmire of using another person’s data by using her own. She took this approach in reporting how the app GoodRx shares prescription information with third parties. “It helps me avoid that weird ethical conundrum of, do people know what data they’re giving up?” she says.
But Wodinsky’s position is clear on the ethics of how data is harvested from consumers without their knowledge or informed consent. “The way that it happens now, it’s unethical, it’s sneaky,” she says. “Even though I indirectly benefit from the way that this data collection happens, I have enough distance where I can say if it was scrapped entirely, I think the world would be better off.”
Naming Police Violence For What It Is
On the night George Floyd was killed, the Minneapolis police department released a statement that Floyd had died after a “medical incident” during a “police interaction.” At the city’s biggest daily, the Star Tribune, crime reporter Libor Jany received a tip that there was more to the story. He didn’t run with the department’s version of events, choosing instead to keep reporting it out.
“We thank our lucky stars for him, that we were not one of those outlets that reported George Floyd had died of a medical incident,” says Abby Simons, the paper’s public safety editor. “That was a really important lesson for us: To not automatically take the police’s word for it.”
The Star Tribune has also deepened its coverage of the victims of police shootings, taking care to document their lives, not just their deaths. After the death of George Floyd, the paper did a quick turn-around profile and then published a deeper profile that took months to report.
It’s become increasingly important to convey to our readers that these people are more than just how their lives ended, more than just a hashtag
“It’s become increasingly important to convey to our readers that these people are more than just how their lives ended, more than just a hashtag,” says Simons. “They had families, friends, hopes and dreams. George Floyd was so much more than a man who died a horrific death on video. As our reporter Maya Rao’s longform piece on Floyd showed, he was a complex and loving person who was loved in turn and moved to Minneapolis to create a new life. As these incidents continue to unfold, we find it important to continue this kind of journalism: For Daunte Wright, for Winston Smith, for Leneal Frazier.”
Even before Floyd’s death, this shift had been percolating at the paper, which had already scrapped the use of police jargon to describe instances of police violence, instead choosing more explicit language. “It’s important to be as direct as possible when we can verify what happened,” says Simons. “If an officer shot and killed someone, we say just that, instead of the police-preferred term of ‘officer-involved shooting.’”
The goal: To be more transparent to readers about what the paper does and does not know.
This looking inward is part of a nationwide trend, with newsrooms reassessing the language used to describe police killings and the reliance on police sources. George Floyd’s murder also prompted a reassessment of newsrooms’ approach to crime coverage more broadly, with some calls to abolish the traditional crime beat, which can reinforce racism and classism. Research shows media coverage disproportionately depicts Black people as criminals and white people as victims.
In January of this year, The Boston Globe launched its Fresh Start program, which allows subjects to petition the paper to remove their names from stories about past crimes or mistakes. The Cleveland Plain Dealer pioneered a similar initiative in 2018.
Simon says the Star Tribune is currently discussing whether to institute a similar policy, in addition to reconsidering its mugshot policy. For now, the paper still publishes mugshots. “This is a changing world, and newspapers have to adapt with it,” says Simons.
Another notable change has recently taken place in the Star Tribune newsroom — growing threats to the safety of reporters in the field have changed the way they operate.
Star Tribune reporters have been shot by rubber bullets from police and assaulted by protesters, according to Simons. Reporters going into tense or dangerous situations are outfitted with protective gear like bulletproof vests. Additionally, reporters are more cautious when it comes to identifying themselves as press in the field.
“We had these great big badges made during the first Floyd protest, specifically so that reporters wouldn’t get hit with rubber bullets and so they could easily identify themselves if they’re ordered to the ground,” recalls Simons. “But at the same time, you have to walk a fine line between making yourself a target to the people on the ground.”
The Star Tribune reporters’ experiences are not isolated. Members of the press are facing a surge in verbal and physical threats, leading some in the profession to suggest a reconsideration of certain long-held standards.
Kelly McBride of the Craig Newmark Center for Ethics and Leadership wrote a piece for Poynter outlining how such threats have created new ethical guidelines for covering events such as protests, and how journalists should balance the need to document with the need to stay safe in a potentially hostile environment. “Like 99% of the time, you should tell people you’re a journalist,” McBride says. “I think the one exception is when your personal safety is at risk.”
It is perfectly acceptable, then, McBride argues, to be in a crowd and not outright declare yourself to be a journalist by prominently displaying credentials. The calculation changes when you’re interviewing someone with the plan to quote them in your story. “If you start asking somebody questions, you really do need to tell them who you are and what you’re doing so they can make an informed decision about whether to participate,” says McBride.
“What reporters do is they really read the room, and most of them keep [their credentials] tucked in unless they need to pull them out,” says Simon. “That’s a new era for us, for reporters to have to be wary of identifying themselves for who they are and what they’re doing.”