Doing Ethics in Media

Companion to "Doing Ethics in Media: Theories and Practical Applications"

Doing Ethics in Media - Companion to "Doing Ethics in Media: Theories and Practical Applications"

When is it right to break a law for a greater good?

British regulators are starting an inquiry into Sky News, which acknowledged that it  hacked into email accounts in search of information about a canoeist who faked his own death and an alleged pedophile who later died in prison.

As The Independent newspaper reported on April 13:

John Ryley, head of Sky News, told the Leveson Inquiry into press standards that occasions where a journalist would break the law in pursuit of a story would be “very, very rare.”
“Journalism is at times a tough business,” he said. “And we need at times to shed light into wrongdoing. There may be an occasion. It would be very, very rare.”

Several times in Doing Ethics in Media, we discuss that sometimes there’s justification to break a law in order to do a greater good:
* In Chapter 4′s discussion of moral development, we note Kohlberg’s hierarchy that says highly developed people might be willing to break the rules.
* In Chapter 7′s discussion of truth, we note that most journalism ethics codes don’t outright forbid undercover operations (a form of lying) but provide guidelines related to when doing something that might be morally questionable would be appropriate as the best or only way to do that greater good.

Is this one of those cases where the news organization was justified in breaking the law?

The Levenson Inquiry may help decide that, although it’s more focused on legal issues than moral nuances. The Guardian newspaper says British laws against breaking into private communications do not mention “public good” as a defense.

Moreover, some circumstantial evidence may not work in Sky News’ favor, including the fact that:
* Sky News didn’t tell the truth the first time it was asked whether it had intercepted email. Chapter 13 notes that mass communicators should be transparent in their decision-making, both willing and able to defend themselves. (As the “How’s it going to look” question says,”…imagine what your friends and people you respect will think.” about your decision.)
* There are phone hacking issues surrounding News Corp., which owns a partial interest in Sky News. While no one here suggests that the phone hacking that occurred at News Corp. tabloids and the Sky News email hacking are related, some people might make that connection. Either way, the two different sets of questionable actions adds up to people who lump “media” into a single category.
* Sky News planned on turning over what it found to police. (Some might argue that police and journalists ought not to work together.)
* The managing editor who authorized the hacking isn’t with Sky News anymore. Cole says his retirement was planned and not connected to the investigation. But given that the company lied to the government when first asked about the hacking, credibility is already low.

Questions to ask:
* What do you think?
* In what circumstances can journalists break the law for a greater good?
* Should journalists be legally responsible for their actions when they break laws for a greater good?
* How important is accountability/transparency in such situations?
* Is this posting fair in mentioning the News Corp. connection to Sky News?

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What if the First Amendment and Second Amendment were treated the same?

A bill before the Alabama Legislature would make it easier for people to store hidden weapons in their vehicle. The bill would, among other things, “prohibit a public or private employer, property owner, or business from establishing a policy against transporting or possessing a firearm or ammunition if the person is in compliance with other laws.”

As The Tuscaloosa News reports, the head of the Business Council of Alabama says the bill is a “trampling of the constitutional rights of the business community.” A National Rifle Association lobbyist says laws that prohibit “lawful possession of a firearm” in a parking lot are unconstitutional.

Laws already allow governments and private organizations to restrict First Amendment rights in public and private places, under “time, place, and manner” rules.

Laws also make it clear that a person gives up First Amendment rights when going to work for an employer.  That includes employers whose livelihood depends upon the First Amendment, such as news organizations, ad/persuasion companies, and entertainment companies. (The world is filled with plenty of examples of journalists, PR and ad people, and entertainment folks being told not to talk to outside reporters, and occasionally being fired when they do.)

Some questions:

1. Is comparing the Alabama bill with First Amendment time, place, and manner restrictions a fair comparison? Why or why not?

2. What changes might occur if First Amendment rights had a lobby as powerful as Second Amendment proponents?

3. When it comes to giving up First Amendment rights when working for a media company, what do you think the legal standards should be? And what should the ethical standards be? Should media companies feel a bigger obligation to give First Amendment rights to their employees in the workplace? Why or why not?

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Some celebrity dietary supplement endorsers won’t talk to Consumer Reports

Consumer Reports is a rarity among magazines: It accepts no advertising and generally buys the products it tests. Its credibility tends to demand the respect of the companies it writes about.

Consider, then, the magazine’s March 2012 story about dietary supplements and the celebrities who endorse them. Noting that the Federal Trade Commission requires that endorsements “must reflect the celebrity’s honest experience or opinion,” it tried to track down some celebrity endorsers. Just two of six responded:

  • NFL quarterback Michael Vick: his PR guys said Vick takes MusclePharm every day.
  • Hockey hero Wayne Gretzky: his agent said Gretzky takes a MYO-T12 pill every day.
  • NFL running back Ray Rice: his PR guy said Rice wasn’t available.
  • Famous for no apparent reason Kim, Khloé and Kourtney Kardashian: their PR person said they weren’t available for an interview about a weight-loss supplement.
  • Jersey Shore’s Ronnie Ortiz-Magro: no response to Consumer Reports’ efforts to contact him about a weight-loss supplement.
  • Former coach/current Fox NFL analyst Jimmy Johnson: no response to Consumer Reports’ efforts to contact him about ExtenZE, a sexual-performance supplement for men.

Some questions for a classroom discussion:

  • How does this make the products and celebrities look in the eyes of readers?
  • Note that Consumer Reports wrote that “multiple efforts to reach”Ortiz-Magro and Johnson “were unsuccessful.” Why does the magazine use passive voice in these instances?
  • Does an endorser have a responsibility to respond to questions about whether they actually use the products they endorse?
  • Why do companies seek celebrities to endorse medical-focused products?
  • What products have you bought (or not bought) because of a celebrity’s endorsement?
  • Consumer Reports noted that dietary supplements can “come to market without proof they’re safe and effective,” because the FDA has few regulations. Should the government require that dietary supplements deliver proof of efficacy?
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Eric Deggans discusses the humanity of ‘Celebrity Wife Swap,’ reality television

Eric Deggans, TV/media critic for Tampa Bay Times, started the new year by asking questions about Celebrity Wife Swap, the ABC “reality show” in which famous people swap partners while the cameras roll.

In a Jan. 3 commentary for National Public Radio, he points out some practical and ethical concerns about the program.

The show, a British import, began with non-famous people doing the swapping. But eventually, the network turned to celebrities to keep viewers. (NBC did the same thing when The Apprentice became Celebrity Apprentice, a practice Deggans calls “juicing” a tired reality franchise.)

Lots of people whose celebrity has dimmed have turned to the shows. This edition of Wife Swap involves ex-big-movie-star Gary Busey, defrocked minister Ted Haggard, ex-big-rapper-star Flavor Flav, ex-big-rocker Dee Snider, ex-child-star Tracey Gold, and ex-singer/talk-show-host Carnie Wilson.

As Deggans wrote: “Too often, they [reality shows] feature the same people; performers who once had the limelight and are now willing to keep their face in the public eye by enduring these exercises in public humiliation.” This one is no different; for example, Busey’s been on Celebrity Fit, Celebrity Rehab, Celebrity Apprentice, and even something called Celebrity Paranormal Project. Flavor Flav’s work on an early reality show, The Surreal Life, led to several of his own.

That leads to a second concern: Most of these celebrities have already had real, not made-for-TV, exercises in public humiliation. Gold had a 2003 drunk-driving arrest. Flavor Flav has been jailed multiple times and dealt with substance-abuse issues. Haggard was forced to give up leadership of the conservative megachurch he founded amid claims of homosexuality and drug use. Busey has brain damage.

Deggan’s conclusion on NPR is worthy of class discussion: “The only question left is whether we lose a piece of our humanity while watching celebrities forced to expose their own.”

It might be worth quibbling with the idea that celebrities are “forced to expose” themselves. Sure, the paychecks are large, and so is the attention. But then there’s the final line of Robert Townsend’ 1987′s comedy Hollywood Shuffle, in which he plays an actor asked to trade his dignity and the dignity of his race in order to earn a starring role: “There’s always work at the post office.”

Some questions for discussion:

  • Is Deggans correct? Do we lose our own humanity when watching people expose their own?
  • What obligation, if any, do TV producers have to show quality role models?
  • What would you say to TV producers who say their service comes in providing poor role models, so people can see what not to do?
  • What would Kant say about Wife Swap other celebrity shows in the context of the second part of his Categorical Imperative: “Act in such a way that you treat humanity, whether in your own person or in the person of any other, never merely as a means to an end, but always at the same time as an end.”
  • Why do people watch such shows?
  • It’s called “reality” television, but just how real is it?

A note: Deggans wrote a section on diversity in Chapter 5,”Loyalty and Diversity,” in Doing Ethics in Media: Theories and Practical Applications. Follow him on Twitter.

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Don’t want to be called bad names? Then don’t go on entertainment shows, Mrs. Bachmann (or other politicians)

Yes, the Late Night with Jimmy Fallon house band should not have played Fishbone’s Lyin’ Ass Bitch when U.S. representative and GOP presidential candidate Michelle Bachmann came onto the set on November 21. Yes, NBC was right to apologize, even though Bachmann said it should have come from NBC’s president, not a vice president.

She called it a double standard, according to CNN:

“If a Don Imus or someone does something questionable, they’re thrown off the air,” Bachmann said in her interview with KLIF. “But when it’s done to a conservative, it’s just passed off and forgotten.”

She’s referring to CBS, which fired Imus after calling Rutgers women’s basketball players “nappy-headed hos.” (But “fired” media people don’t stay fired very long; Imus quickly went to work for Citadel Media, now owned by Cumulus Media Networks, whose stable includes conservatives such as Mark Levin and former GOP presidential candidate Mike Huckabee.)

For media ethicists, perhaps the bigger question is why politicians go on entertainment shows in the first place.

Politicians have been doing it since Richard Nixon said “Sock it to me” on Rowan & Martin’s Laugh In in 1968, in hopes of improving the image of an uptight man who wore wing tip shoes on the beach. Since then, many candidates go onto entertainment shows to loosen their image — or even to make political announcements, such as Arnold Schwarzenneger announcing on the Tonight Show that he’d run for California governor.

It’s true that reporters often seek to rough up a candidate — or at least pierce the carefully shined image of candidates and show the public who’s behind the PR curtain. Even as some candidates say they want to talk about issues in more than sound bites, another refused an extended interview because it would be taped.

By going on entertainment shows, politicians can stick to their PR persona even as they come off glib. They avoid questions from real journalists even as the audience sees questions asked by media people.

But there’s a trade-off. When Bachmann appeared on an NBC entertainment show, there was a problem. But when she appeared a week earlier on NBC’s Meet the Press, there was no problem.

Solution: When you choose to appear on grown-up shows, you don’t have to worry about entertainment slaps. When you choose to be on funny shows, the joke may be on you.

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New Chrome extension means never having to read what you don’t want to read

Silence of the Celebs

Silence of the Celebs, a new extension for Google’s Chrome Web browser, lets you “add any celebrity to the Celebrity Gag List.” Reviews have been mostly positive.

As the extension’s site notes, people who are “tired of Charlie Sheen” can block his name from Twitter, the New York Times, CNN, Huffington Post, Google News, Gawker, Mashable, and TMZ (although blocking Sheen or other bothersome celebrities seems to defeat the purpose of TMZ, doesn’t it?)

How is this an ethical issue? Two leap to mind:

1. Google notes that the application accesses a user’s browsing history, although the company says it does not collect any personal information. There may be a minor privacy issue involved.

2. The comments section is instructive: Users say they’re trying it to block Dominique Strauss-Khan, Apple, Sarah Palin, Michelle Bachmann. At this point, “Silence of the Celebs” becomes “Silence to Anything or Anyone I don’t Want to Hear About,” which can be a dangerous thing.

Researchers call that the “selective exposure theory,” which posits that people tend to steer toward information that reinforces what they already believe, and away from information that could cause cognitive dissonance. It’s one thing to avoid the silliness of Lady Gaga, but avoiding mention of politicians and policies you don’t like brings up larger concerns.

How can democracy be a real “marketplace of ideas” if you refuse to go down certain aisles–and make those aisles simply disappear as you “shop” for information on the Internet? Proponents of newspapers say democracy is threatened because, as people only seek information they want, they miss out on news and information they never knew they wanted. Sometimes, that may even involve Charlie Sheen, who came to Tuscaloosa, Ala., in the days after deadly April 27 tornadoes.

I’m reminded of a former student who proudly noted that he left the screening of a Michael Moore movie in another class because he didn’t want to hear Moore’s left-leaning propaganda. My response: How can you make an argument against something you’ve never fully heard? This doesn’t mean people must continuously subject themselves to every notion at every turn, but it seems short-sighted to turn an unliked person or idea into something that never crosses your online path.

If the definition of education is to be able to simultaneously hold two competing ideas in your head without an explosion, then “Silence of the Celebs” might lead to more explosions.

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Remember the PR backlash against news about News of the World’s ethics?

News Corp. said it will close News of the World in the wake of criminal probes into the paper

With news that News Corp.’s News of the World will fold in the wake of criminal investigation involving the paper’s considerable hacking into private phone voicemail accounts, a few thoughts worthy of an ethics class discussion:

  • Is it ever right to hack into a phone or computer system? There’s nothing new about this. (Compare what’s happening in England with what happened in Cincinnati.)
  • Notice that Fox News’ story didn’t include any discussion of News Corp.’s efforts to buy the majority of British Sky Broadcasting Group PLC that it didn’t own. (To its credit, The Wall Street Journal (another News Corp. property) did mention that British regulators are having second thoughts about the British Sky deal in the wake of News of the World scandal.) But neither story mentioned advertiser boycotts, although The News Corp.’s Times of London did.
  • Some note that the closing of the Sunday-only paper appears “cosmetic,” since News Corp. bought the domain name “TheSunOnSunday.co.uk” two days before the closure. While access to financial information about News of the World isn’t available, there has been no mention of whether the 3.7-million circulation paper’s closure will hurt News Corp.’s bottom line. Given that the company already has The Sun and The Times in the UK, the decision to close News of the World may well bring no financial pain — and perhaps some gain — to News Corp.
  • While several hundred people may lose their jobs, News Corp. continues to defend Rebekah Brooks, who was editor when the phone tapping began and is now head of News International. Some suggest that the person in charge of the company’s news operations ought to be out, too. Vanity Fair says it’s not fair that top-level executives won’t lose their jobs.
  • Does The New York Times deserve an apology? The Times reported on the wiretapping with a September 2010 magazine cover story, and News of The World managing editor (and now editor) Bill Akass’ response (after not talking to The Times during its reporting) was to claim shoddy journalism, saying that The Times wrote about it as a shot at News Corp.’s purchase of The Wall Street Journal and efforts to hone in on The Times’ traditional audiences. Arthur Brisband, then The Times’ public editor, said The Timeswas mostly fair.

Now, as it turns out, The Times’ reporting was deadly accurate, and Akass now comes across as either a PR hack or an incredibly out-of-touch journalist. What are the implications for public relations when facing criticism? Is attacking the messenger a reasonable course? Do you have an obligation to apologize when you’re wrong, especially to people/organizations whose credibility you attacked?

The Bottom Line: Is closing the paper a matter of doing the right thing but for the wrong reason? If so, does it matter when it’s a distinction between a person and a corporation? How does all of this play into questions of corporate, personal, and ethical values?

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Now that Blagojevich has been convicted, will entertainment shows steer clear of indicted celebrities and politicians?

Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich lasted four weeks in the Spring 2010 season of Celebrity Apprentice. He was fired four months before a federal jury found him guilty of lying.
Former Illinois Gov. Rod Blagojevich lasted four weeks in the Spring 2010 season of Celebrity Apprentice. He was fired four months before a federal jury found him guilty of lying.

Last week’s conviction of former Illinois Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich on 17 criminal counts reminds us of how TV found a way to turn a man facing federal corruption charges into an entertainer.

Blagojevich did not shy away from the spotlight after his December 2008 indictment on federal charges. And he received plenty of help from NBC and other media organizations who own the spotlights.

After the Illinois legislature voted to kick him out of office in January 2009 because of corruption, he found ways of staying in the media’s eye by appearing on The Late Show With David Letterman, on The Daily Show with Jon Stewart, and also took part in Rod Blagojevich Superstar, a Second City musical about him. Neither is exactly Meet the Press, but it’s common for politicians and others in trouble to avoid conventional journalists.

And then there’s the entertainment division of NBC, which wanted to put him on I’m a Celebrity… Get Me out of Here! during the summer of 2009. A judge wouldn’t let a man facing federal indictment leave the country, noting that Blagojevich should be preparing for his defense. (He would have earned $80,000 a week and made the trip to Costa Rica with contestant Geraldo Rivera, a Fox News employee, in a further blurring of journalism/entertainment lines.) Wife Patti Blagojevich took part instead, but was ousted after a few weeks and eating one tarantula.

Instead, NBC put him on the ninth installment of Celebrity Apprentice, where Donald Trump “fired” him after four weeks. (Blagojevich lasted one week longer than ex-pitcher Darryl Strawberry, who also knows about arrests and convictions.)

Blagojevich was fired on April 4, 2010. On Aug. 17, 2010, a jury convicted him on charges of lying; in June 2011, another jury found him guilty on most of the charges in which the original jury could not reach a verdict.

As U.S. News and World Report’s Susan Milligan wrote days after the verdict, “But there’s a line between being accessible and undermining the dignity of holding public office by appearing on so-called celebrity reality TV shows. There’s nothing to celebrate about breaking the law.”

In NBC’s defense, it didn’t have Blagojevich on an entertainment show after his first conviction. On the other hand, on multiple occasions it sought to entertain viewers by hiring a public servant who was impeached by his state’s senate and not allowed to hold another public office in that state.

Some questions for discussion:

  • Should NBC have hired an indicted/impeached politician to be on its entertainment programming?
  • What level of moral development (Kohlberg, etc.) would you say NBC opearated at when hiring Blagojevich?
  • Would you say that any sort of indictment/conviction should keep them out of mass media? Should there be a distinction between types of people — athletes vs. musicians vs. actors vs. politicians?
  • Is it useful to note that NBC did not continue to use Blagojevich after his first conviction?
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