What to expect after submitting an ethics complaint about a journalist
February 9, 2024 5:47 AM   Subscribe

I wrote to a staff member listed as handling journalistic ethics for the organization. It's been more than a week, and I haven't heard anything. Should I expect a response? If I don't hear back, is there a next step I should take?

The complaint is about intense and undisclosed personal relationships between the journalist and people/organizations they report on. The media org is national, and so there are a number of editors in addition to the person I contacted. If I don't hear back, should I send my complaint to someone else on the masthead?
posted by anonymous to Media & Arts (4 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
If someone else comes in with journalism-specific expertise, ignore me and listen to them. But in the interim as someone who gets this kind of ethics complaint at another kind of institution: What you should likely expect is a brief, uninformative, "Thank you for letting us know; we've received your information and will review it" sort of response. I won't speak for how long that should take at a journalist organization, but in my own organization >1 week to get that response is pushing it but still within the window of a normal response time.

After that, you might hear from me again in days, weeks, months, or not at all, depending on the nature of your complaint, whether you are the person who would have evidence about it or are just tipping me off to something you know thirdhand, how the investigation goes, and what my organizational policy requires I tell you and when.

Regardless, I think it would be perfectly reasonable to send your information to another relevant person or couple of people at the institution with an "I sent this via the standard reporting mechanism on [DATE] and haven't received any confirmation that it was received, so I'm also sending it to you in case that reporting mechanism isn't working as it should" message, at this point.

What I would not do is send it with a huge blast radius to everyone you can think of. These sorts of investigations work best when the people running them can keep them confidential while gathering evidence, interviewing people, etc. If you email twenty people on the masthead the chances go way up that the person under investigation gets tipped off and has more of a chance to hide tracks if they're guilty of misconduct, and/or suffers reputational damage for something they are innocent of if they're not guilty of misconduct.

It's a fine line to walk between telling enough people to be sure your message got through, and not so many people that you compromise a fair, impartial, and confidential investigation. Contacting a couple of other editors to make sure your report gets through seems like a very reasonable thing to do without hopping too far over that line.
posted by Stacey at 7:43 AM on February 9 [12 favorites]

Is there some active code of ethics that you can point to for which this is a definite violation?
posted by Miko at 11:55 AM on February 9 [1 favorite]

Here's something to be aware of: In journalism these days, a lot of organizations value access over ethics. So it's entirely possible that, depending on the relationships this writer has and the nature of your allegations, nothing may actually happen. Or they may even dismiss it and actively scoff about you and treat you like a kook for asking. They also may know about it already. This might be just one data point in an ongoing investigation for them, or maybe it has already been disclosed and discussed internally.

I say this as someone who has worked in and around newsrooms for a long time and helped edit and research a book about whistleblowing. What happens next on their end may depend on things like the exact allegations, their potential to damage the outlet's credibility, the relationships that person has, their disclosure status, who you are, and the newsroom's policies.

So a lot of things are possible at this point. The staffer you contacted might be out of the office. They might have forwarded this to their editor or an ethics committee on staff, or a lawyer the organization has on retainer. They might not be able to forward it to an ethics committee on staff if that person is on the committee, so they might be trying to figure out what to do with the info. They might be double-checking the articles in question and whether their ethics policy has actually been violated if your allegations are true. They might be investigating your claims. They might be investigating you and your basis for claiming the knowledge you say you have of this situation. If they don't have an ethics policy, or don't have one that covers this situation, they might be trying to figure out whether to do anything at all. Or they might be discussing whether they want to formulate or update an ethics policy that they then might cite in changing their reporting, updating previous articles, or making a staffing change.

All of that may take a lot of time, and you may never hear back. They may be doing their due diligence, in short, which can take a bit, and you may never hear back from them directly. Or they might not care, might not be available, or might not have any bandwidth to do anything, in which case you'll also never hear back. From outside of the organization, it might be hard to know the difference between "taking forever" and "never happening." It's possible they won't send any reply during the time they're investigating if acknowledging your complaint is fraught with legal or reputational implications.

Next steps if you don't hear back would depend on what outcome you want. Do you want the journalism outlet to fire the person? Do you want them to put an editor's note or disclaimer on the person's articles about this topic? Do you want the person to be taken off that particular beat? Do you want the person to be canceled? Some of those things might take a while, even if they already are in progress at all. If you do care about the credibility of the organization, rather than just exercising your frustration over the writer's alleged hypocrisy or wrongdoing, you might want to stay patient and just follow up after a while. If you think that important, timely coverage is being done poorly or in a suspect manner because of this relationship, though, and that something urgently needs to be done to let the public know that their integrity is compromised, you might consider blowing the whistle to another organization.
posted by limeonaire at 12:53 PM on February 9 [4 favorites]

As someone who works in a medium-sized newsroom, my advice would be, yes follow up with the one person, then warn them that if you don't hear back, you'll contact another person at the org. But understand that this kind of thing would be internally reviewed, escalated, run past legal if necessary, schedule meetings, all that kind of stuff. Media outlets are pretty chaotic internally at the best of times and complaints like this may take a minute to find the proper channels.
posted by BlackLeotardFront at 3:10 PM on February 9 [4 favorites]

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