Amantha Dickman, News Director: You’re listening to “KZUM News” on 89.3 KZUM Lincoln and KZUM HD.
[Fades in on the “KZUM News” program music, an original production of Jack Rodenburg. The music fades out.]
Amantha Dickman, News Director: Good afternoon, and welcome to today’s edition of “KZUM News,” an hour dedicated to learning more about what is going on in Lincoln and the surrounding areas. I am the News Director, and your host, Amantha Dickman.
For the last three months, I have been petitioning all of our listeners to take our ‘Perceptions of the News Survey,’ and I got an incredible response from our community. Many of our listeners took time out of their day to share their thoughts and questions about newsrooms with our staff. So, I wanna start this episode off by saying ‘thank you’ to everyone just one more time. You laid the groundwork for this series, and, now, we’re going to have an incredible month of discussions because of it.
And, today, we are going to be kicking off our ‘Media Literacy Series’ with an episode about the role of journalism in our communities and the ethical standards in newsrooms.
I have four guests joining me today in the studio. You can’t see them, but we’re gonna be going left to right so that they can have a chance to introduce themselves. So, Dave, why don’t you start us off? Tell us a little bit about yourself.
Dave Bundy, Editor at the Lincoln Journal Star: All right. Well, my name’s Dave Bundy. I’m the editor at the Lincoln Journal Star.
I’ve been the editor for almost 11 years. I worked at the [Lincoln] Journal Star as the news editor in charge of proofreading and copy editing for four years in the late 90s. I’ve been an editor at the Tribune in Bismarck, North Dakota, and the editorial director and publisher for a chain of newspapers in suburban St. Louis.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: Oh, really? Are you from the St. Louis area?
Dave Bundy, Editor at the Lincoln Journal Star: No. I grew up in Kansas City.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: Oh, all right.
Dave Bundy, Editor at the Lincoln Journal Star: But I’ve adopted the St. Louis Cardinals and a lot of the St. Louis. Culinary traditions.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: So, I’m gonna have to ask you about the culinary traditions later. I’m from Illinois originally, so I have many questions, but that’s a conversation later.
Dave Bundy, Editor at the Lincoln Journal Star: I’m sorry, I’ll defend it but uh….
Amantha Dickman, News Director: And then how long have you been in Lincoln?
Dave Bundy, Editor at the Lincoln Journal Star: So, I’ve been in Lincoln this last time, as editor, for almost 11 years.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: Oh, congratulations. That’s quite the landmark.
Dave Bundy, Editor at the Lincoln Journal Star: It’s a long time for an editor at the [Lincoln] Journal Star to stick around.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: Yeah.
And then we also have the double trouble from the Flatwater Free Press. We have Matt Wynn and Matthew Hansen. And, you guys… so Matthew Hansen, you are the editor?
Matthew Hansen, Editor of the Flatwater Free Press: Mm-hmm.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: Matt Wynn; you are the executive director?
Matt Wynn, Executive Director of the Flatwater Free Press: Yes, ma’am.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: And tell us a little bit about Flatwater Free Press for those who maybe don’t know as much about it.
Matt Wynn, Executive Director of the Flatwater Free Press: Yeah. We’re a non-profit newsroom. We started publishing in September 2021. Nebraska-based. Non-profit. We create stories and other content that we give away to media across the state at no charge. That’s what we feel like is our public mission. It’s our public good.
Yeah. We’ve been at this for 15 months now, so just getting our feet under us, but…
Amantha Dickman, News Director: Sure. And while Dave and the Lincoln Journal Star mostly cover Lincoln, you cover all of Nebraska, correct?
Matt Wynn, Executive Director of the Flatwater Free Press: Yeah, we do stories from around Nebraska.
I wouldn’t say we really cover anything. We do investigations and we do enterprise work, right? So, our whole mission is to try and do stuff that is not the news of the day. Not that block-and-tackle journalism; not the breaking news or anything like that.
If there’s a press conference, we’re really not going to go cover that. And we’re able to do that
because we’ve got media in Nebraska that still does and does it well.
But what we try to do is investigations. Things that take… records requests are a really long time to do; six to eight weeks. We had a package we’ve been doing over the past couple of months that took six to eight months to pull off. That’s our mission. That’s what we do.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: Absolutely. And then here on the far [right] end, we have Josh Whitney. He is a professor at SCC [Southeast Community College]. Why don’t you tell us a little bit about the classes you teach?
Josh Whitney, Professor of English and Journalism at Southeast Community College: Well, I teach English and journalism and I’ve done that for 18 and a half years actually. And I’ve taught all the journalism classes. We used to have journalism at Beatrice, and I kind of moved it up to Lincoln about seven or eight years ago.
And so that’s what I’ve been doing.
I teach Composition One, which I call the DMV of Higher Ed[ucation]. It doesn’t matter what your end goal is: everybody’s gotta go through Comp[osition] One.
And, before that, I was a reporter for the Nebraska City Paper for about a year and a half. Prior to that, I went to grad school. And prior to that was a jack of all trades: the Auburn newspapers.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: Well, I want to thank all four of you for coming down to our studios today and just… joining me for our first episode of the New Year. I know newsrooms are a time-sensitive place to be and I know that can get a little hectic around this time. So, I really appreciate you starting this conversation for us.
As I started… as I stated a few minutes ago, we are kicking off our Media Literacy Series with a discussion about the role of journalism in our communities. And I wanted to start with this conversation because I keep hearing this same concept when I’m dealing with the public broadly. And that concept frames journalists as educators, which is really interesting to me. And I want to provide a specific example.
I had a gentleman who reached out [in] November while I was knee-deep in election coverage. And he asked me, “Why don’t journalists want to communicate more effectively?” And I wasn’t really sure what he meant by that at first. So, I asked him to clarify and he had a laundry list – I suppose is a good term – for all of the things that he thought journalists could do to improve our field.
For example, we talked briefly about how he thought we should grade politicians. Which, obviously, we can’t do that. We would have to create subjective guidelines by which to judge them and create standards for grading, and that would be inherently biased, but it really drove home this notion that the public sees us as educators, for me.
And, so, I wanted to discuss this external perception with you as a way to establish a baseline understanding of journalism for our listeners. So, I’m curious if you would also ascribe the role of educator to journalists, or if you think there is a better way to describe what our role is in our communities.
Matthew Hansen, Editor of the Flatwater Free Press: I can go first if that’s okay.
I don’t… education wouldn’t be the thing that I would go to. Although I see the point. I mean, to me, it’s information gathering and information dissemination.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: Right.
Matthew Hansen, Editor of the Flatwater Free Press: And sort of a way to make sense, for the public, to make sense of what is often a confusing world or, in this case, a city or state.
I mean, education. Teaching. And I don’t know if… I mean, I’m a little uncomfortable with that idea of, you know; it’s not as if we’re saying this is how you should feel a certain way about a thing or even how you should kind of deal with it on a more practical level. But yeah. I mean, at its basic level, it’s “Here is information from your space that you might want to know and we’ll try to give it to you in a way that makes sense.”
Amantha Dickman, News Director: Thank you, Matthew. You look like you have something to say there, Josh.
Josh Whitney, Professor of English and Journalism at Southeast Community College: No, I know. I think about journalism as being very educational in terms of, you know, the reason it exists is so that we can learn more and make better decisions to live better lives. Ideally. Whether that is about politicians, whether that’s about crime, whether that’s about water quality; whatever it is. It’s about, you know, learning.
So, I think of it as being educational in that way. Not necessarily that it’s like from a teacher’s perspective saying, “This is right, this is wrong.” It’s sort of, again, sort of, hopefully, neutrally presenting all the facts in an easily digestible way.
Dave Bundy, Editor at the Lincoln Journal Star: Yeah, I think we view it as, you know, we’re truth-tellers.
But what I’ve always aimed for, and I worked for an editor many years ago who put it in a little bit different way, but we want to be the candid friend; the kind of friend that can tell you, you know, your zippers down, you got broccoli stuck between your teeth. We wanna reflect the community and we want to have built a rapport so that we can say the tough stuff sometimes. But we can also celebrate all the great stuff.
And, for us at the Journal Star, we look at say the things that Matt and Matthew are doing at the Flatwater Free Press. We look at it, you know, partially with gratitude and partially with a little bit of envy. They write really cool stories that we are very fortunate to share with readers. But they don’t have to cover the airport authority. That’s not always… I mean… they do really important things in the community. But it’s the fun stuff all the time.
And, you know, nitrates aren’t fun stuff. But it’s important stuff. But… so, you know, I think that we do aim to educate. We aim to entertain. We aim to reflect, honestly, what’s going on in the community.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: So, it kind of sounds like, across the panel, we’re all on the page where we’re information brokers and, while what we do is educational, we are not educators. Is that an efficient summary?
Dave Bundy, Editor at the Lincoln Journal Star: Yeah. I mean. I think we put the information out there. What, whether people avail themselves of it, what they do with it? It’s up to them.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: So, now that we’ve got the role of journalism a little out of the way, I wanted to talk a little bit about newsroom ethics. I mean… we’ve got two editors here, an executive director, and an educator. So, I think between the four of you we can cover it.
But there are lots of ethics that people are not aware of when it comes to newsroom functioning. And one of those that we got a lot of questions about, is source choices. How do we choose sources? What happens when there’s a conflict of interest between sources? And I’m not gonna throw all the questions at you right now, obviously. So, we’ll just start out with what do you do when there’s a conflict of interest?
And, obviously, we understand what that means, but maybe we also talk a little bit about what is a conflict of interest.
Dave Bundy, Editor at the Lincoln Journal Star: Well, I mean… if it’s okay, maybe we’d step back for just a second and just talk a little bit more broadly about ethics, because….
Amantha Dickman, News Director: Sure.
Dave Bundy, Editor at the Lincoln Journal Star: You know, I think that we… everybody has some kind of internal ethics. Whether we do it consciously or we swore the vow of the society of professional journalists.
I think that there are some basic points. We’re out there to tell stories truthfully and accurately. We’re out there trying to minimize harm while we do our job. We’re trying to be independent in all that we do, and we’re trying to be transparent and accountable and once we’ve, you know, we’re all operating on some level from that framework, I think.
And then, you know, where we go from there, they’re just every single day. It’s a minefield; whether it’s conflicts of interest, whether it’s…
I look at what happened last night on Monday Night Football.
Many years ago, Joe Theismann, quarterback for the Washington team broke his leg. It was a horrific ugly injury. And the replay was shown ad nauseam. And anybody who’s broken a leg, had a sports injury, watched that and just cringed.
Last night, the player for the [Buffalo] Bills who went into cardiac arrest. They didn’t show that. They didn’t show that hit repeatedly.
I did not want… I didn’t see it. I came late. I haven’t seen it. I haven’t seen that player go down.
I think there was a… kind of an ethical change, an ethical decision that got made. And that clip isn’t circulating widely. And I think that the nature of, the immediacy of what we do now has forced us to really make fast, smart, ethical decisions.
I mean: when you blow it, you’ve blown it in front of everybody, just like that. And it’s out there. It… the immediacy of social media, of tv, radio, what we do in print, now digitally. It’s raised the stakes for all of us.
Matthew Hansen, Editor of the Flatwater Free Press: Even in the basics, like the question about sources or sourcing, right?
I mean, you start a story and, no matter what story it is, the first question as a reporter that you have to ask yourself is, “Who am I gonna talk to?” And that question isn’t in and of itself an ethical question. Or I would say most reporters don’t think of it as an ethical question. But when you just widen the lens for just a second and say, I mean… And we’ve had these conversations with reporters. Should… I mean…
Classically, if you go back and look at the World-Herald where I worked. Or certainly at the Journal Star where I also worked, weirdly. Not when Dave was ever there but I somehow missed the couple of years that he was gone.
But the… if you went back and you audited the number of white men quoted in stories tied to whatever, unless it was more of a traditionally female role or story in some way. That was a choice that journalism and journalists were making oftentimes, I think probably without ever really thinking about it. And that reflected the lack of diversity in newsrooms for sure.
But, when you’re… an ethical consideration when you’re setting out on a story, do you say “A certain number of people that we talk to on this story or in a given month or in a given year should be female? A certain percent of people should be people of color, et cetera, et cetera?”
And that’s every decision that we make in journalism. It can tie to a larger ethical consideration in that way.
Oftentimes, I don’t think, to Dave’s point, in the kind of push and pull of daily journalism life, we don’t often have time or think we don’t have time to have those larger discussions. But it’s a really interesting one that can get to a very basic level of how you practice journalism.
Dave Bundy, Editor at the Lincoln Journal Star: And I think you… I mean, first of all, Matthew, thanks for getting us back onto the actual question that we were supposed to start with.
Matthew Hansen, Editor of the Flatwater Free Press: No, that’s fine.
Dave Bundy, Editor at the Lincoln Journal Star: But, you know, I think back to the summer of 2020 and the George Floyd demonstrations.
We at the Journal Star, like many news outlets ran mugshots from the jail. And, at that point, we stepped back, and lots of people in the communities of color in Lincoln came to us and said, “You really need to do better. You need to think.”
And people pushed us to ask some really hard questions. And one of them was, you know, “Why do you run the mugshot feed from the jail?”
Well, it’s a public record they provided. And it was also one of the largest drivers of traffic on our site. And we had a publisher at the time that talked to me and said, “Can we make that traffic up some other way? You know, do we have to do this?” And, to her credit, we bit the bullet. We stopped doing it. The decision was made.
You know, it affected people who couldn’t afford an attorney to get ’em out fast enough. They were in there at the time that the feed came through it. It disproportionately affected people that had, you know, whether they were financially challenged or they didn’t have the connections in the legal community or whatever.
We stepped back.
And there is a responsibility that I think we all have now because of the fact that the internet makes things available forever, everywhere.
I probably get three or four contacts a week from people who say, “I committed a crime, I did my sentence, please take my story down.” You know, that’s a tough one. We don’t unpublish our news because it’s not transparent. We are not being accountable. But by the same token, I can understand people who have, you know, they want that fresh start. They want to be able to get away from their past once they’ve paid their debt to society through the legal system.
So, there are so many ethical things out there that you can goof up all the time. And, really, it’s the ongoing conversation that people have in the community that helps push us to make smarter decisions.
And, so, the survey that you started with and this ethical discussion is an important one that happens not just in a radio studio; but it happens with the sources that you guys talk to and choose for your stories, that the Flatwater free press [uses], it comes from the people who talk to us and tell us when we’ve blown it, it comes from the people that Josh is teaching and that next generation of folks that are coming into the media in whatever format they’re providing news.
So, it’s a complicated thing.
Matt Wynn, Executive Director of the Flatwater Free Press: It’s interesting. When I think about, you mentioned, the summer of 2020 and the George Floyd issue. My main takeaway from there is… remember the initial police report?
Remember the initial report from the police; and, usually, that gets published, no questions asked. It was wrong. It was wildly wrong.
And kind of in the same vein with the mugshots, a lot of the stuff that journalism, I think, has taken for granted for decades and decades and decades has had to be reexamined and rethought. And that’s one of them. We can’t even really… if the police give us a press release, that’s not even necessarily the most trustworthy thing in the world. Geez, what a game-changer that was for this industry.
That’s, I mean, that’s just… We talked a lot about and we’re going to talk about the ethics of our craft and what we bring to the table. But there’s ethics on the other side too.
The stuff that’s being… the kind of raw materials for journalism that are brought to us. I think that has to be, there’s a little more thought given to “how reliable is this” than there has been in the past too. There’s just layers and layers of ethics and checking and fact-checking, and “is this true? Is this trustworthy?” All that.
Josh Whitney, Professor of English and Journalism at Southeast Community College: I mean, that’s a great point.
Crime stories, by nature, are one-sided, right? You’ve only got information from the one side. Right? And we think about ethics. I mean, typically we don’t, yeah, absolutist ethics really doesn’t generally apply.
But, Dave, with your example, reminded me of working at the Auburn paper.
One of my many hats was to go and get the court docket from the courthouse. Right. And if it was in the pile, I formatted it, I printed it.
And, again, we got people saying, “Well, hey, I got that DUI. Can you please not print that because of whatever?”
And we’re like, “No, you know, it’s everybody.” I don’t care who you are, what your name is, whether you’re the banker’s son or whatever. You got busted, we print it.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: So, and just to really drive the nail home, before I was hired as news director for KZUM Radio, I was working as the archival journalist for Vox Media and HBO+ Max on their Beatrice Six documentary.
And, Dave, you laugh…
Dave Bundy, Editor at the Lincoln Journal Star: Yes. So you probably spent a lot of time talking to our licensing people about it.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: I did, actually. About your archives.
Dave Bundy, Editor at the Lincoln Journal Star: And we’re grateful for that. Thank you.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: And, yeah, there was a lot of discussion about the ethics surrounding crime reporting and particularly around the ethics of republishing photos and reusing content that had been run, you know, this was the 1970s when the crime happened. So, considering how ethics have changed since then.
And I think that’s a really wonderful conversation that you brought up, Dave.
[It] is, obviously, that ethics have changed. Even in the 18 years that you’ve been teaching, Josh. I imagine that the ethics you are teaching now are not exactly the same that you started out teaching.
Josh Whitney, Professor of English and Journalism at Southeast Community College: The world’s a much different place from 18 years ago. That’s for certain.
Dave Bundy, Editor at the Lincoln Journal Star: It’s not… it’s even… there’s a… We had the point driven home just a few weeks ago with the Mickey Joseph story.
The Journal Star has a policy that we generally do not name crime victims. We wrote all of our stories. The World-Herald has a different policy and they identified the domestic abuse victim. And we did not. And our stories mingle on websites, mingle on the Husker extra site. And we looked at each other and neither one of us were gonna blink. We’re not changing our policy and they weren’t gonna change their policy.
And I’m grateful that we were allowed each, despite the fact that we share more stories now than ever before. That nobody said to us, Journal Star, you have to change there.
It’s obviously gonna drive more traffic to have the name of the victim, to identify the victim. But nobody made us do that. And I was glad for that.
I think that falls into the minimize harm plank of the… and that may be the hardest part of the ethical discussion. Sometimes, at least, when you’re doing crime reporting, it’s this notion of minimizing harm.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: Well, we are already halfway through today’s hour, which is incredible. Time went very fast today, but we’re gonna take a very quick break and when we come back we’re gonna continue our discussion about newsroom ethics.
So please don’t change the dial, stick around and we’ll get back into it in just a moment.
[“KZUM News” transition music, an original piece composed by Jack Rodenburg, fades in and then out. KZUM Radio’s usual underwriting and public services announcements air at scheduled times throughout the hour.]
Amantha Dickman, News Director: All right. Welcome back to today’s episode of KZUM News.
We have four guests here today in the studio. And, if you missed the first half of the show, we were talking about the role that journalism plays in our communities. And then we sort of started to get into ethical conversations about how newsrooms function and what ethic decisions are and how ethics have really changed in the last decade. Two decades even.
And, so, we’ve got our four guests here in the studio. From left to right, we’ve got Dave Bundy from the Lincoln Journal Star. We’ve got Matt Wynn and Matthew Hansen from the Flatwater Free Press. And then we have Joshua Whitney here from Southeast Community College. He runs their entire journalism department, from what I’m told.
Josh Whitney, Professor of English and Journalism at Southeast Community College: You make it sound like much bigger than what it really is.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: Maybe a slight exaggeration.
But, before the break, we were discussing how ethics have changed. We talked a little bit about how ethical choices go into our sourcing. But, as Dave mentioned, there are several… well, and Matt and Matthew mentioned, there are several choices that we make every day that you don’t think of as being ethical decisions, but are ethical decisions.
Obviously one of the things that I wanted to talk about is a little bit about [since] we had a couple questions on this was, do ethical decisions change between for-profit and non-profit newsrooms?
We had a lot of questions about checkbook journalism; whether when you pay somebody to be a source, basically, or they pay you for information. It’s the exchange of money, basically, for information.
And I had never heard of a newsroom engaging in checkbook journalism. But why don’t we go around and just kind of talk about that?
Dave Bundy, Editor at the Lincoln Journal Star: Well, I would like to think that the standards of journalism are the same for a for-profit institution, like the Journal Star, and a nonprofit institution, like the Flatwater Free Press.
You know, we operate very independently. Now, if you look at our website, there are things marked on there as sponsored content. And those… that content may be associated with an advertising package that we’ve sold.
But we are pretty careful. And the ad department brings me print ads and will say, “Dave is this clear enough?” And sometimes I’ll say, “Yeah, that’s fine.” Sometimes I’ll say, “I think you need to putting ‘paid advertisement bigger and at the top.’” They’ve brought me political advertising and said, “Somebody wants to run this, is it okay?” And I’ve said, no. And they have said, “Okay. We thought that, but we thought we’d ask.”
In this last fall election, there was an ad campaign they brought to me. And it was… I just thought it was going to – even though it would’ve been marked ‘paid advertising’ – it still reflected poorly on us for accepting it. And it kind of reflected poorly on the people who were placing it, I thought.
But all my concern is our reputation and our ability to maintain trust.
Matt Wynn, Executive Director of the Flatwater Free Press: Yeah. I don’t… what was your word for payola there?
Amantha Dickman, News Director: Checkbook journalism.
Matthew Hansen, Editor of the Flatwater Free Press: Checkbook journalism.
Josh Whitney, Professor of English and Journalism at Southeast Community College: Checkbook journalism.
Matt Wynn, Executive Director of the Flatwater Free Press: Checkbook journalism? That is a horrifying concept to me. Absolutely not. What in the world is that?
I will say things get interesting with us because we are a nonprofit and we take donations from anybody. And, so, if someone gives us a donation and they have a story idea… and, luckily, we’ve been pretty, pretty easy to say, “Yeah, we don’t like this idea.” Right?
We’re not doing 10 stories a day so it’s easy to say no to things.
But I do, I think that’s something that is in the back of my mind as a potential ethical concern at some point. Our path through that is… we’ve been… I mean, we all talked about transparency. We have a whole ethical thing that we’ve; a journalistic code of ethics that we’ve published online, that anyone can look at, about the line between board members and content, the line between journalistic content and sponsorship or donations. And, basically, there is no relationship. They are completely… everything is independent.
It goes on down the line to talk about fabrication, right? Making stuff up, wearing disguises, misrepresenting who you are, all that stuff. It’s pretty in-depth. And I think the transparency… I mean this is how it all fits together, to me, is ethics is great. And then the transparency bit, being able to say, “Here are our ethics. Go look at them. Tell us what sucks.” I think that’s a good step to take on that stuff just to be wildly open and honest with everyone about how you work and why you do what you do.
Matthew Hansen, Editor of the Flatwater Free Press: I think the public perception, I mean. It’s interesting.
In some of our initial conversations about starting Flatwater Free Press, people would say, including people – honestly, not Dave – but people in for-profit media would talk about how it wasn’t possible to be truly independent if you were taking donations.
And my response to that, and as a person who spent a lot of time at Nebraska newspapers, was, I mean, the problem classically is obviously not donors. The problem classically is big advertisers.
And, sort of, the biggest to think of [is the] Miami Herald example that I know, right?
The biggest car dealer in Miami had a really strong view on [the] Israeli-Palestinian conflict, right? And was gonna pull his ads if X or Y or Z wasn’t done. I mean, that’s a thing that happened at the Miami Herald.
And, so, it’s – it’s – I don’t think our ethics are different. I think our problems are a little bit different, but they’re actually really related when you think about it. Right?
And it’s public perception that matters too. I mean, you want, and that’s Matt’s point about transparency. People are going to say, “You did X because of Y, right?”
I mean that. And that’s the public’s right, by the way. To say that. Even if we think it’s ludicrous for any number of reasons.
But, you know, being as transparent as possible about how we get our money and then publishing, to Matt’s point, our ethical framework and allowing people to say, “Well, you’re not living up to it in the following ways,” is kind of how we try to guard against it, I think. But I don’t actually think the ethical concerns are very much different.
Matt Wynn, Executive Director of the Flatwater Free Press: Not at all.
Matthew Hansen, Editor of the Flatwater Free Press: Or the ethics themselves.
Matt Wynn, Executive Director of the Flatwater Free Press: Not at all. I mean, I guess what’s different for me is, in my position, I’m dealing with those sponsorships.
When I was working in a newsroom, I was not. Someone who was paid far more money and had a far better office was dealing with those problems.
Dave Bundy, Editor at the Lincoln Journal Star: When we look at it for us at the Journal Star we have, you know, we have ethical standards. We have an employee handbook that requires that everybody has to sign off on that; the things that we can and cannot do.
And, in a way, I look at our transparency as, you know, you can tell who’s who gives us money. There’s a lot of Hy-Vee ads in the paper. And, so, you can guess where we get our money and you can look at our coverage and say, “They are or they aren’t being beholden to these advertisers.”
And the misfortune for us right now and the frustration, and I’m sure everybody here feels it on some level, is there is a desire for conspiracy theories. There’s an appetite.
And you can look at coverage. And, all the time people ask me questions like, “Why are the letters to the editor in balance? Why aren’t there the same number from Republicans and Democrats?”
And my answer has to be, I can only run what people write.
And it’s just so boring.
But people would rather have this conspiracy theory. And the same thing extends to is your news button paid for? No, it’s not. Does a corporate entity tell you what to write? No, they do not. We are independent. But how do you prove that to people? How do you show it?
Josh Whitney, Professor of English and Journalism at Southeast Community College: Like, I tell my classes; I think conspiracy theories persist because they’re better stories.
I mean, what story would you rather hear?
The F.B.I., the C.I.A., Castro, the mafia, and L.B.J. all got together to kill the president or some nut job shot him out of a third-story window. What’s the better story?
I think that’s one of the reasons why they endure.
One of the things I’d kinda like to get some feedback from the other panelists in terms of thinking about ethics relates to junkets. In terms of – and what the term for that is like, you’re not supposed to receive anything from the people who you were covering.
And that’s sort of, again, this is where classroom differs from practice. And, in the classroom, you don’t take anything, right?
You’re a small-town reporter. And you’re making a little bit more on minimum wage. You’re covering the optimists who have a speaker and they tell you, “Hey, there’s some pizza over there.” Right? You know? You know you’re gonna take the pizza because that’s one meal you don’t have to buy.
Or if you go to cover, say a rodeo, right? And they give you a press bag; should you take that?
As a small-town reporter, I did. Because I didn’t necessarily think that it was something that impacted how I covered or what I did. But, if you want to get real sharp about that, it wasn’t necessarily something that followed the line. Even though I didn’t think it was bad.
Dave Bundy, Editor at the Lincoln Journal Star: We got a dollar limit. Yeah, anything over $25? You’ve got it clear with a vice president. And nobody wants to go to a vice president and say, “I want a sandwich that’s $26. Can you help me out here?” Nobody wants to do that.
Matthew Hansen, Editor of the Flatwater Free Press: The only other one that I thought of as I was sitting here pondering the question, a different choice that we made than kind of the classic choice, would be [that] we said, when we were starting Flatwater Free Press, no opinion. No letters to the editor, no editorials, no guest columns. And, by the way, we, to your point earlier about costing traffic with the mugshots thing, we certainly gave up a certain segment of the potential readership who really comes to news for that stuff. But I think it wasn’t necessarily an ethical choice. But it was one… it was tied to the idea, like there is enough opinion in the world, right?
We have, with the internet, with the conspiracy-type theories we’re talking about, I think it was more of a decision that, in some way, ties to the idea, and maybe that ties to ethics. I don’t know.
Dave Bundy, Editor at the Lincoln Journal Star: I think some days, “I’m a hundred percent. I think you’ve made a great decision.”
But I do value the conversations that I get to have with readers when they submit letters and columns. I call every single letter; to confirm their letter, to go through some fact-checking, and some problematic language about civility and things like that. I value those conversations. I learn a lot from people. Yeah. There’s some painful ones too.
But I think – and I value the ability to give readers a platform. Which I think that helps, from an ethical standpoint, saying, “All right, here’s a page to the paper you can have your say on.”
So, I like that. It’s worth all the headaches.
Matt Wynn, Executive Director of the Flatwater Free Press: I’m really glad you do it.
Dave Bundy, Editor at the Lincoln Journal Star: Goodness. Thanks. Glad to help.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: And then, from the educational point of view, have you heard the term checkbook journalism?
I just, now I’m curious cause I wanna know if I’m just outdated.
Josh Whitney, Professor of English and Journalism at Southeast Community College: Yeah, I’ve heard it.
And you have tabloids that pay for stories. I mean, that’s been going on for how many decades, right?
Matthew Hansen, Editor of the Flatwater Free Press: Well, and certainly a thing in tv, right?
Yeah. At the highest levels of tv, journalism is a thing that is always kind of talked about as a thing that happens. How do you score this interview versus… you know. So.
But, yeah, I think on our level it’s just not a thing that we… you just don’t hear any talk about it because it’s a thing that doesn’t happen here.
Josh Whitney, Professor of English and Journalism at Southeast Community College: At least not with responsible journalism.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: Hopefully not in this room.
And, of course, Matt and Matthew; you’ve mentioned that you have an ethics landing page on your website. Dave, do you have one on the Lincoln Journal Star website?
Dave Bundy, Editor at the Lincoln Journal Star: No, no, no.
But I… Anybody who has any questions seems to be able to find my phone number and ask. So, I can talk ’em through it at any time they like.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: Sure. I know that is certainly something we’ve been working on. I mean, as you can tell, I’ve got it with me.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: We just don’t have it on our website quite yet. We’re in the process of renovating.
Dave Bundy, Editor at the Lincoln Journal Star: We do have a style book with… it’s for practical reasons. We’ve just never posted it.
And it contains some of the minutiae that, you know, how we do street addresses and things like that. But it also has that we don’t publish crime victims’ names. And it explains it and explains the way we identify suspects. It goes into a lot of the just kind of the nuts and bolts, ethical decisions, how we handle juveniles, things like that.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: Sure. A lot of those ethical questions that people might have questions about but don’t require lengthy explanations.
Dave Bundy, Editor at the Lincoln Journal Star: It’s documented. It’s just maybe not. We’re not quite as transparent as these guys, so kudos.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: And, then, one of the other ethical conversation or ethics conversations that we’ve had a lot of questions about on this survey is the discussion of legal ethics and the legal guidelines that journalists have to follow.
Obviously, the big ones are libel and defamation. We can’t say things that aren’t true. We can’t print things that aren’t true. But people are wondering how do we define what is libel or defamation and what we define as being true.
Matthew Hansen, Editor of the Flatwater Free Press: I think people… I’m always surprised by and… not surprised. I always want to tell people in conversations, not really about libel, but just in regard to accuracy.
If people could only feel the amount of stress, time, and really just heartburn that goes into trying to get things right. It’s so embedded in the ethos of any good journalist that it’s just kind of, somewhat of an obsession. Right?
And I still have… I was a young reporter at the Journal Star. Messed up a couple [of] names in a story.
I actually think I called a vice chancellor, or it might have been a UNL administrator. I just watched a documentary about Fox News. I’m forgetting the guy’s name. He’s the guy, who’s passed away now, who’s the second to command there. And I transposed the name of the UNL administrator with the name of the guy who then ran Fox News. Obviously, they were not the same person.
That’s super… now that’s not libel, right? Because it was an accident and whatever. It was a last name but it sure was embarrassing. And the fact that I am still now thinking about it 20-some years later at this point is testament to this fact that, man, I don’t know very many journalists who are comfortable with knowingly getting, I mean, I don’t even know very many journalists who are comfortable with unknowingly getting things wrong. It’s just such a central part of the ethos of journalism.
I think that would surprise people how much your average reporter thinks about that. And the reporters that don’t think about that are generally bad reporters.
Matt Wynn, Executive Director of the Flatwater Free Press: And not long for this industry.
I mean, I bet we could go around and everyone could remember all of the corrections they’ve [made]. I did the make and model of the car once I made something up. It was an accident, right? It was a Toyota Corolla and I called it a Toyota Camry or, you know, a different cut. Anyway, got it wrong. And it was just wrong. And I had to write a correction. I had to fill out a form. I had to go do all this stuff.
I mean, facts are facts.
There’s other little things that we do to protect ourselves. Right?
“So and so said something;” well, that’s because they said it. I heard them say it. We know they said it. Now, is it true or not? I think they think it’s true. They said it according to this government data set. Yes, that’s true. That’s what the government data says. That’s reliable. And we’ve credited it as such. We’ve flagged it as such. That’s why that kind of crediting in a story, that’s why stories are written that way. This is how we know the thing. This is why it’s true. This is what we know to be true and this is what we’re telling you.
Dave Bundy, Editor at the Lincoln Journal Star: In the hierarchy of newsrooms, making a[n] error that requires a correction is a certain level. But an even more serious level for us, is not correcting.
Matt Wynn, Executive Director of the Flatwater Free Press: Yeah.
Dave Bundy, Editor at the Lincoln Journal Star: Or trying to hide a correction. Or trying to, you know. We want… I mean.
Because stories live on in the internet. If we’ve made a correction, we’ll fix it in the story and then we’ll append a note at the top that says, “This story has been changed to reflect this error that we made or this error which came from information provided to us,” or whatever we want to explain.
But getting it right is so important. And then admitting it when you didn’t is even a notch above that, I think.
Josh Whitney, Professor of English and Journalism at Southeast Community College: Yeah.
And, Matt, to your point, you talked about all the sourcing that, what I would call the transparency. Right?
And, so, yeah. I have like a week and a half long section in my comp one class, which is probably more rigorous. But, anyway, one of the many things that we do is take a look at two different stories. One of them has more than a dozen sources. The other one has absolutely none.
So, when I go through all the questions about, “oh, how many sources does this one have?”
Dave Bundy, Editor at the Lincoln Journal Star: It’s not a Journal Star story, right?
Josh Whitney, Professor of English and Journalism at Southeast Community College: No, no. It’s not.
And, [for] both stories, I don’t necessarily have on the top where it comes from [be]cause I’m trying to remove any sort of knee-jerk responses.
And I also ask, “Well, what about unattributed adjectives, right?” And, so, of course, the one is just a classic core, the worst example I could possibly find, right? But it’s about sort of training eyes to look for, “Where’s this come from? Who said this? Why do they and all those things that [unintelligible] get people past just sort of accepting whatever it is that they read and sort of thinking about, “Well, is it worth anything?”
Matthew Hansen, Editor of the Flatwater Free Press: One of the things that has changed, I think, tied to technology – and I am so glad it has changed – is the almost universal use, at this point, of recording devices during interviews.
Since we started, there have been three or four occasions already where a person came back and said, “I didn’t say that.” And we could play the tape. Obviously, we checked it first when they said that they didn’t say the thing. And, in a couple [of] cases, I just played it for him. Because, without that record, you’re opening up yourself to accusations. Again; social media. And, as a young reporter, I didn’t record interviews. And that’s a real mistake not to at this point in time because I think it’s just such an obvious way that people who don’t like you or something that you did can sort of raise questions of trust in the community about whether or not they said what you said they said.
Matt Wynn, Executive Director of the Flatwater Free Press: A thing that I think people don’t understand about this industry too is what libel is.
Any idiot can file a libel suit against you. And, if you’re wrong, they’ll win or they might win, right? Truth is an absolute defense. As long as you’re being honest and truthful, you’re cool. You can sleep at night. My God. What better incentive could there be to do this work the way it’s supposed to be done?
Amantha Dickman, News Director: And then we’ve had a really interesting discussion, especially in relation to transparency… Transparency with corrections. I can talk sometimes. Shocking for somebody who’s on the radio.
But we’ve been talking about transparency in relation to corrections and one of the other things that kind of goes along with it, that I’d like to discuss, [is] the ethics of content warnings.
These are some things that really have come to light as being useful for both tagging systems and for the health, both mind and body, of our readers. So what are our standards for content warnings for all of us?
Dave Bundy, Editor at the Lincoln Journal Star: Well, we don’t use many of them because I’m a prude. I mean, to be honest, my job has always been to be the newsroom party pooper. And, you know, there’s a band in town that has a name that has a profanity in it and I allowed us to use it once a year. And that was it. And the rest of the time we would do asterisks. So, we are very sensitive and generally don’t get ourselves into a situation that would require a warning.
I also know that [as] soon as I say that, I’ll go to work tomorrow and we’ll have to put a warning up on something. Because, especially, with the more that you do video and live things, that’s where you… and that’s something we didn’t have to worry about 20 years ago. Well, we thought long and hard and we put out one newspaper a day and that was it.
Now that we are in the business, along with lots of other folks, doing live audio, live video. With photojournalism, we’ve had [a] longstanding policy: we’re not gonna show a dead body in a picture. There are some absolutes for us. But we’ll run into something that I’ve never seen before and we’ll have to make a decision.
Matthew Hansen, Editor of the Flatwater Free Press: And are you asking about like sexual assault, domestic violence, like the idea that you’re… and this is obviously a quickly changing part of the ethical kind of framework around journalism. And it’s such a tough one for journalism because part of the point of journalism is to show the kind of reality of a situation back to the public in all its horror, if it’s horrible. But you also want to protect the people who would be affected by that in ways that you can never necessarily grasp, as the person who is writing that story.
So, we haven’t really talked… I mean, I don’t think we’ve had an example yet that could have potentially used that. But it’s a really interesting one that we’ll probably have to ponder more. And how’s this, by the way? You mentioned the dead body thing. How’s this for a traditional like kind of journalism ethic? That makes no sense when you think about it now.
I think for a large, long stretch of history, and this might actually still be true at a lot of publications, you wouldn’t show a dead body if it was an American body. If it happened inside, certainly inside your coverage area or inside your… but you’d show a foreign body that had been killed in a faraway war. So, that one never made sense to me.
Matt Wynn, Executive Director of the Flatwater Free Press: I always get – that one bothers me with the… back in the day we would show the bodies of people coming back from Vietnam. Or at least the caskets, right? And that actually had an impact on why people were against the war.
And we’ve decided as an industry, “Eh, geez. I don’t know if that’s necessarily the right decision.”
Dave Bundy, Editor at the Lincoln Journal Star: Well. Many years ago, I was a copy editor in Decatur, Illinois. We had a bunch of shootings and a teenager was fatally killed and the family actually approached us and said, “Would you run a photo of our child in his casket?” Because they wanted to make that point. And we thought long and hard and we did run it and we caught a lot of flack. And we told people this was the family’s wishes, as well as we thought it made a point that we couldn’t make with words alone.
Matthew Hansen, Editor of the Flatwater Free Press: Yeah. And that, I mean, this goes right to your question, right?
Because you’re seeing these ethics bash into each other. This ethic, to be honest, with kind of the brutality of a situation versus the ethic to protect the public from kind of the worst scene or hearing the worst things that you could possibly see in here. It’s a really interesting one. And I don’t think there’s any easy answers.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: Agreed. I think this is a developing conversation and, maybe, we’ll have to check back in a couple [of] years to see where the ethics have landed on that one.
Somehow, we are at the end of our hour already, which means we need to be wrapping it up. However, if you are just tuning in, you can head to the KZUM News archives to check out today’s show. We discussed the role of journalism in our communities and, then, also ethics that go along with working in a newsroom and ethics that journalists follow in their day-to-day lives. So you can go check that out, give it a listen.
And of course, next week we are coming back with a second episode to our media literacy series and we’ll be talking about misinformation, disinformation, and malinformation so you can check in Saturday at 11:00 a.m. next week to learn a little more.
Otherwise, thank you for coming in today. We appreciate it, Dave, Matt, Matthew, and Josh.
Matt Wynn, Executive Director of the Flatwater Free Press: Thanks for having us.
Dave Bundy, Editor at the Lincoln Journal Star: Thanks. Thank you.
Amantha Dickman, News Director: We are fast approaching the end of the hour, so here are your reminders for today:
The KZUM newsroom is always open to hearing about any questions, concerns, suggestions, or even any story ideas that you want to share with us. All you have to do is give us a call at (402) 474 – 5086, extension line six. If you give us a call and we aren’t available, don’t forget to leave a voicemail. Or, if you aren’t much of a phone person, you can also find our social media handles and more newsroom information at kzum.org under that ‘About’ tab.
Speaking of our website, if you happen to miss a show, you can always head to the “KZUM News” tab where we archive all of our shows and include a transcript with links to that day’s content.
And, lastly, I just want to give a shout-out to Jack Rodenburg of the Rodenburg music experience. He put together all of the amazing original music that our news program uses. So, once again, thank you, Jack.
That wraps up our reminders for now. As you head out into the world, I hope you have a lovely day. Thank you for listening and we hope you’ll join us next time.
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