Q&A with Sydney Smith of iMediaEthics

Sydney Smith is managing editor and reporter for iMediaEthics, a not-for-profit organization covering issues in the news media. Smith previously wrote for The Post and Courier in Charleston, South Carolina, and has worked as a public relations consultant. In this interview, conducted by email, Smith discusses her role at iMediaEthics and some of the ethical issues facing news organizations.

Q. Describe your job at iMediaEthics. What is your typical day like?

A. One of the things I love about working with iMediaEthics is that every day is completely different and can go in any direction. One day I’ll be researching a story about political reporting in Australia, the next day the fallout from the phone hacking scandal in England, and the next may be something going on with a tiny news site in the middle of nowhere.

We publish at least one story seven days a week, so every day I’m writing something. I typically start the day off reading and responding to email, scrolling through Twitter and reading a ton of Google alerts and various sites looking for stories or ideas. Depending on the day/week, I’m also researching or editing anyone else’s stories, writing our weekly newsletter, checking out tips or trying to chip away at older reports in the never-ending backlog of stories that need to be finished.

Q. How does iMediaEthics decide what to write about, and how do editing and headline writing work at the site?

A. We’re open to tips and cover media ethics around the world. That said, our publisher, Art Science Research Laboratory, which was co-founded by Stephen Jay Gould and Rhonda Roland Shearer, calls for featuring the quantifiable.

Cases involving fact checking, libel, fabrication, adherence to standards —those are clear-cut issues we are always up for.

We are particularly interested in covering issues that are gray areas that require judgment like whether to publish something, how to sensitively report on victims or how to best report on issues like suicide for the simple reason that it’s not always an easy call. It requires editorial debate, sensitivity and discussion.

In terms of editing: Alan Bisbort is our copy editor. For our day-to-day stories, unless it’s breaking, he edits before publication. In cases of breaking news, I’ll post something, and he’ll read it typically right after. Our editor-in-chief and publisher Rhonda also reads every story and sends feedback. I write an initial headline, but I’d say about a third of the time Rhonda will suggest a change and we’ll update.

All hands are on deck for our bigger news stories and special investigations. At the minimum, two editors will read and edit anything before publication, often several times, and work together on a headline.

Q. What are some of the pressing ethical issues you see in journalism today?

A. Fact checking is probably at the top: It’s so, so simple, but we see so many problems — like libel threats, fabrication, hoaxes or plagiarism — which could have been prevented or possibly caught with more (or any!) fact checking.

After fact checking, transparency comes to mind: transparency about everything — not just in saying who you are but also about the reporting process (where information came from, how it was checked, etc).

For a third, the need for sensitivity, which comes into play with invasion of privacy, graphic content, bad taste and a lot of other issues. Is that graphic photo necessary? OK, then why. Or if it’s really not, then don’t run it. Should you publish this private information just because you have it, or is it going too far? Is that turn of phrase something you’re going to regret later because it is more insensitive than clever?

Q. Writing about journalism ethics sounds like a great gig. What advice do you have for journalism students looking at jobs similar to yours?

A. It is! Really the same advice for any job — be ready for anything, read everything you can, doublecheck everything and then once more, find out where information is coming from, and ask questions.