WaPo, E.I. and Ethics

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By Casey Bukro

Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists

The news lately has been full of accounts of journalists or media companies accused of acting unethically or taking liberties with the work of others.

Here’s how that shapes up.

The Washington Post publisher, Will Lewis, is accused of offering an NPR media reporter an interview if the reporter would avoid mentioning that Lewis was linked to a phone hacking scandal while working in Britain for Rupert Murdoch’s tabloids. 

Lewis also is accused of pressuring the Post’s executive editor to ignore any story that would make the publisher look bad, such as the phone hacking story. She published the story, then resigned, throwing the Post’s newsroom into chaos.

Fuel to the flames

Adding fuel to the flames, another former British journalist linked to questionable reporting practices, Robert Winnett, was hired to be the Post’s next editor. Winnett made a name for himself through undercover investigations and so-called “checkbook journalism,” paying people for information.

Both Lewis and Winnett were engaged in a kind of journalism popular in the United Kingdom, but generally shunned in the United States. Now they are leading The Washington Post, most famous for the Watergate exposures that led to President Richard Nixon resigning in 1974. The Post’s news staff published a report describing their grievances with Lewis.

American standards

Now that Lewis and Winnett are practicing journalism in the United States, they would be expected to conform to American standards, which are expressed in the Society of Professional Journalists code of ethics.

That code begins with this preamble:


Members of the Society of Professional Journalists believe that public enlightenment is the forerunner of justice and the foundation of democracy. Ethical journalism strives to ensure the free exchange of information that is accurate, fair and thorough. An ethical journalist acts with integrity.

You can read the rest of the code here, and decide for yourself if Lewis and Winnett are acting with integrity, which the code says is basic to ethical journalism.

Artificial intelligence

In a sign of the times, with the advent of new technology, artificial intelligence now is used to generate stories. This phenomenon is so new, it is not even recognized in the SPJ code of ethics, or how it can be unethical.

For example, a German celebrity tabloid published an A.I.-generated exclusive “interview” with a champion German racing car driver who was severely injured in a skiing accident in 2013. It contained fabricated quotes presented as real news.

Legal precedent

See how that turned out here for details. The case now is an early legal precedent signaling that such uses of artificial intelligence is unethical and deceptive.

Here’s another artificial intelligence quagmire in the publishing business that is now coming to light as the technology matures.

Creators of ChatGPT and other popular A.I. platforms used published works to “train” the new technologies, like feeding information to a growing child.

A new front

The New York Times sued OpenAI and Microsoft for copyright infringement, which is another way to get in trouble ethically. The suit is seen as a new front on the increasingly intense legal battle over unauthorized use of published work.

“Defendants seek to free-ride on The Times’s massive investment in its journalism,” the complaint said, accusing OpenAI and Microsoft of “using The Times’s content without payment to create products that substitute for the Times and steal audiences away from it.”

The Times is among a small number of news outlets that have built successful business models from online journalism, while other newspapers and magazines have been crippled by the loss of readers to the internet.

Billions in damages

The defendants, said The Times, should be held responsible for “billions of dollars in statutory and actual damages” related to the “unlawful copying and use of The Times’s uniquely valuable works.” It also asks the companies to destroy any chatbot models and training data that use copyrighted material from the Times.

A.I. firms depend on journalism, and some publishers have signed lucrative licensing agreements allowing A.I. firms to use their reports. “Accurate, well-written news is one of the most valuable sources” for their chatbots, which “need timely news and facts to get consumers to trust them,” writes Jessica Lessin in The Atlantic. But it’s making a deal with the devil as A.I. firms build products that reduce the need for consumers to click links to the original publishers.

This is one of those moments of technological growing pains, raising concerns about the boundaries of using intellectual property. We’ve seen it before with the advent of broadcast radio, television and digital file-sharing programs.

Time and the courts typically sort it out eventually.

In this ethicscape, a traveler must avoid making blatant bunders, avoiding the appearance of making blunders, and avoiding blunders that did not exist a short time ago, but now must be taken into account.


The Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists was founded in 2001 by the Chicago Headline Club (Chicago professional chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists) and Loyola University Chicago Center for Ethics and Social Justice. It partnered with the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University in 2013. It is a free service.

Professional journalists are invited to contact the Ethics AdviceLine for Journalists for guidance on ethics. Call 866-DILEMMA or ethicsadvicelineforjournalists.org.

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