Top 10 Lessons Learned From Media Mess-ups & Controversies of 2013:

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Check out iMediaEthics' Top 10 media ethics lessons of the year. (Credit: Flickr, "sneakypeteiii," screenshot)

Below, read iMediaEthics’ list of the year’s biggest media mess-ups and controversies.


10. Blogging 101: Don’t Make Fun of your Readers?

Jeff Gauger, the executive editor of a newspaper in Greensboro, North Carolina, learned the hard way this year that readers don’t like it when you make fun of them for being hicks.

Gauger blogged in July satirically about readers bickering over a New York Times editorial calling North Carolina’s government a “demolition derby, tearing down years of progress in public education, tax policy, racial equality in the courtroom and access to the ballot.”

Gauger’s fictional couple discussing the editorial were often distracted by eating grits and talking with friends Bubba and Mack at a local diner. Gauger, a transplant to North Carolina, offended his readers, who thought he was a “condescending and ignorant newcomer.” Gauger apologized and said he’d stay away from satire for a bit.


9. Don’t crash politician’s uncle’s memorial

The UK Mail got into a back-and-forth with UK Labour leader Ed Miliband over its coverage of his father this fall. While the Mail defended its publication of claims that Miliband’s father “hated Britain,” the Mail did admit it went too far when a reporter went to Miliband’s uncle’s private memorial service.  The reporter wanted to get interviews about the Mail-Miliband fight.

The Mail ended up suspending two reporters and issuing an apology over the memorial crashing.


8. Fact Check before Posting, & Explain why you’re Unpublishing!

In the fall there was a dust-up over at Scientific American.  Blogger Dr. Danielle N. Lee wrote for her Scientific American blog about a Biology Online editor asking her to write for free for the site. When she declined, the editor called her an “urban whore,” twisting the name of her blog, “Urban Scientist.”

But that wasn’t the end of it. Lee’s blogpost was then unpublished from Scientific American, which gave a variety of excuses over the following days for why her post was removed.  Biology Online ended up firing the editor in question and Scientific American re-published Lee’s blogpost, ultimately saying it was temporarily taken down because the site wanted to fact check her claims.
7. Teach Interns Plagiarism isn’t OK! Attribution is Important!

After an iMediaEthics report and inquiry, Utah newspaper The Deseret News discovered a summer intern used sloppy attribution in 40 of his 76 stories for the paper’s website.  That ratio of problematic posts is astonishing enough, but even more troubling, the intern told us he didn’t know proper aggregation and attribution standards. Obviously, there was a lack of training and supervision for interns publishing to the newspaper’s website.


6. Controversy results when Advertorial Crosses the Line

The Atlantic started this year with an advertising versus news scandal: it published an advertorial paid for by the Church of Scientology but many readers were duped because it resembled a news article.

The article, “David Miscavige Leads Scientology to Milestone Year,” had a comments section and was in the same style as a regular news article. But most of the comments were positive toward Scientology. The “article” did come with a little yellow flag noting it was “Sponsor Content.”

The Atlantic apologized for the advertorial and unpublished it.


5. Know that 40 years of a journalist violating a source’s privacy goes too far

Columbia Journalism Review, the venerable journalism watchdog, was on the receiving end of a libel and invasion of privacy lawsuit over its 2012 report by former Columbia Graduate School of Journalism professor Bruce Porter.

Porter’s story for CJR recounted how back in 1967 he broke a promise of anonymity for his teenage source Marcy. Porter used Marcy’s name and hometown in a front-page story for Newsweek, “Gentle Marcy, a Shattering Tale.”

Porter then repeated that violation multiple times over 40 years, including writing about Marcy again for CJR in 2012. By using her married name, her parents’ names and where she live, the CJR story upped the ante even further than the initial privacy breach in Newsweek.  After iMediEthics’ exclusive investigation into Porter’s handling of her as a source, Marcy filed a lawsuit against CJR, Porter, filmmaker/collaborator Daniel Loewenthal this year.
4. Fact check already! Stop taking the bait and falling for satire

Oh boy. Were there enough satire stories to trick the media this year, or what?

Some of our favorite this year include China’s Xinhua falling for Andy Borowitz’s satire story claiming Amazon’s Jeff Bezos accidentally bought the Washington Post  and various international outlets duped by Arkansas satire site RockCitytimes’ story claiming a food writer Kevin Shalin fell into a coma after eating too many Red Lobster biscuits.

It seemed like every week there was another joke gone wrong, from numerous outlets being tricked by Daily Currant satire stories to a UK satire story claiming Mike Tyson had a sex change.


3. Why do breaking news if it’s wrong?

Numerous errors and controversies were made in reporting on the Boston Marathon bombings this spring.

The New York Daily News  Photoshopped gore out of a photo from the bombings. The Daily News defended its photo doctoring as sensitivity. “The rest of the media should have been as sensitive as the Daily News,” it stated.

The New York Post was slammed for suggesting with its caption that two, who turned out to be, innocent men carrying bags were the bombers. Its April 18 front page headline was “BAG MEN: Feds seek these two pictured at Boston Marathon.”  That same day, the police released images of the Tsarnaev brothers as the suspects.

The Post defended its photo saying the FBI gave the Post the photos. But, the FBI told iMediaEthics that “the only official photos that the FBI released to the public” were of the Tsarnaevs. The image and headline are currently the subject of a libel lawsuit.

The Cape Cod Times and department store Macy’s apologized in April after the newspaper insensitively paired a previously scheduled Macy’s ad for a pressure cooker with a story on the bomb used in Boston.

In July, Rolling Stone put accused bomber Dzhokhar Tsarnaev on its cover.

For more errors, check out our stories More Mess-ups in Boston Marathon Explosions Reporting: No Arrest Made Wednesday and Tsarnaevs didn’t rob 7-Eleven, Zooy Deschanel NOT a suspect, More Errors in Boston Marathon Bombings Coverage. and 4 Media Missteps in Reporting on Boston Marathon Explosions: Photoshop & Errors.


2. Check your sources or be sorry like 60 Minnutes.

Last month, CBS News’ 60 Minutes admitted to being duped by a source and not fully checking its facts for a program on the Sept. 11, 2011 attack in Benghazi, Libya.

Correspondent Lara Logan apologized for the “mistake” and the program aired a meek correction.

CBS News later took disciplinary action, putting both Logan and her producer Max McClellan on a “leave of absence.’

1. Troubled Sources Can Lead to Problematic Reporting

Shadowy anonymous sources, libel charges, checkbook journalism, and falling for satires…reporting about Toronto’s mayor Rob Ford made its way into the news a whole lot this year whether it be Gawker’s attempt to crowd source to buy a video of him smoking crack cocaine or the Toronto Star‘s reporting on claims he abuses alcohol based on anonymous sources. There was also Star reporter Daniel Dale’s decision to sue the mayor for libel, and then drop that suit after two  apologies. Every time we turned around Ford was getting involved in media kerfuffles. (Charlie Sheen even got in the game).

A sampling of Ford stories that made it to iMediaEthics:

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Top 10 Lessons Learned From Media Mess-ups & Controversies of 2013

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