Poynter’s McBride: Keeping a foot on each ethical platform


Today’s journalist stands stretched on two platforms:  The old ethical way of thinking and the new.

Kelly McBride’s Friday morning session addressed how to balance the two.


“Some people who look like journalists and act like journalists have absolutely no core journalistic values.” -McBride

McBride pointed out several occasions in which ethical errors can occur, including breaking news, vulnerable sources, time pressure, unethical competition, financial circumstances, user-generated content, and unreliable staff.

Kelly McBride gives some ethical tips.
Kelly McBride gives some ethical tips. (Photos: Emily Schreiber)

Sometimes, staff members frankly “do not give a damn” about the ethical repercussions surrounding their story.

“Some people who look like journalists and act like journalists have absolutely no core journalistic values,” the media ethicist said.  “They value entertainment, they value sensationalism, they value making things go viral, but they don’t necessarily value truth or informing a community or helping people carry out their democratic duties.

“Really, it’s going to be up to the audience to start to figure out which information providers are looking out for their democratic interests and which aren’t and which information helps them execute their democratic obligations and which merely is entertaining or distracting.”


“We have to react to the fact that the audience doesn’t believe it anymore.” -McBride

With today’s overabundance of information (which resources like Today in Tabs remind us of), audiences are skeptical of the news delivered to them.  McBride cited the example of Chicago Tribune photographer Chris Sweda’s photo of Chicago’s Willis Tower and Trump Tower simultaneously being struck by lightning. Unfounded suspicion that the photo was manipulated led to significant backlash from readers.

The example proved that everything must be explained, otherwise readers assume the worst.

“We have to react to the fact that the audience doesn’t believe it anymore,” McBride said.


Comments on online articles, once unused and unexplored, are now being utilized and were a hot topic at the session.

McBride mentioned the Canadian Broadcast Corporation (CBC) as having a strong model for utilizing comments.  Commenting is open for articles for a short period of time, then closed to avoid getting off topic or uncontrollable commenters.  The comments received help gauge audience interest, lending a hand in deciding what content to create next.

Writers are also encouraged to join the conversation, as long as they remain civil and do not escalate negative situations.

“The idea of community is a new one which is a good one,” said Sharon Stringer, a member of the Lock Haven University faculty who attended the session. “I like it because it’s important to get an idea of where the community is and how they think and the idea that we are now more reflective of what’s going on in the community because the community can have so much input.”


kelly mcbride 3
McBride speaks with attendees after the session.

McBride outlined a process that newsrooms can use to handle individual ethical dilemmas.

  • First, identify principles
  • Next, decide the journalistic purpose
  • Staff discussions, with questions asked by all
  • Determine options
  • Select and execute

According to McBride, figuring out an identity is vital.

“You want to say here’s who we are, here’s who we serve, here’s how we serve them and in doing that it creates an identity and a tone for your work that allows the audience to lay down a  foundation of a relationship because they’re like, ‘oh this is who you are,’” McBride.

“If you think about a personal relationship, it’s very hard to have a relationship with somebody you have no idea what they’re all about or what’s important to them.”

Kelly McBride can be reached at kmcbride@poynter.org or by her Twitter handle, @KellyMcB.


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