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"

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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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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Facebook, public relations firm caught trying to (anonymously) slam Google

The Daily Beast’s Dan Lyons and USA Today called out Facebook and its (now-former) public relations agency, Burson-Marsteller, for trying to hide its hand while asking reporters to look into negative reports about Google’s efforts at social media.

When one blogger asked who was Burson-Marsteller’s client, the PR firm wouldn’t say.

The PRSA Code of Ethics calls this is a no-no: “Reveal the sponsors for causes and interests represented.”

The PR firm said in a brief statement that the incident wasn’t usual operating procedure, noting that  “we need to adhere to strict standards of transparency about clients.” You won’t see the word “apologize” in the statement. It did not fire the people involved (both former journalists) and said it would remind its workers that transparency is key.

The Daily Beast says either Facebook or the PR firm is lying about who decided not to tell reporters that Facebook had hired the company.

The Chartered Institute of Public Relations said such activities are, increasingly rare, noting that taking on a competitor “worked best when done through ‘open dialogue’.”

Slate’s Jack Schaffer says people should not make too big a deal out of what happened, but not because it was a tiny breach of ethics:

In a perfect world, PR firms should always identify their client whenever whispering or speaking loudly, so five demerits and three days of timeout for Burson-Marsteller. But reporters are not innocent, naïve, delicate flowers. Every reporter approached by PR firms knows that the primary focus of PR firms is to push lies. If PR people were being paid to push the truth, they’d be called reporters.

And PC Magazine’s John Dvorak, who has been writing about technology for decades, says this is nothing new. He predicts that we can expect more of this as PR firms and companies try to pitch bloggers who may not be as sophisticated about such things.

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Is it ethical to fool AP, news media to make a greater point?

A group opposed to what it calls “corporate tax cheats” and “unfair public service cuts” issued a fake press release under General Electric’s name, claiming GE the company would donate $3.2 billion to add jobs and aid the U.S. economy.

It then issued its own press release, praising GE’s actions.

The AP acknowledged its mistake, killing the story in less than an hour and later saying reporters didn’t do enough to verify the release before writing about it. (Notice that the AP story doesn’t mention US Uncut, probably figuring that the group didn’t deserve any more attention.)

It’s not the first time fake press releases have dogged media; Reuters was among that fell prey to a fake in October 2009. Poynter’s Romenesko points out other examples.

The Wall Street Journal’s Marketwatch noted that GE’s stock price fell after the bogus press release, saying “there probably are several lawyers already looking into it, either on behalf of the company or its shareholders,” and that federal regulators look dimly upon such shenanigans involving publicly traded companies.

The impetus comes from a New York Times story claiming that GE paid no federal taxes in 2009. The company denies the claim; the truth lies somewhere within a complicated tax code, GE’s efforts to keep taxes as low as possible, and the company’s lobbyists who work to have tax code written in their favor.

What are the ethical implications? Consider:
♦ Is it ethical do lie in order to do what you think is a greater good? (If you buy this teleological argument, what do you think John Stuart Mill might say?)
♦ If it’s OK to lie, should you use a third-party (such as a news organization) to advance your lie to a bigger audience?
♦ If you were the company’s PR head, how might you respond (if at all) to the hoax? Is it possible to make the public feel sympathetic for General Electric?
♦ At what level of moral development is US Cut operating? They might argue that they are operating at a high level, claiming it’s OK to break societal norms to draw attention to a bigger. Do you agree?
♦ Is this an ethical issue for the Associated Press and other media who fell for the gag? Why or why not?

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Advertising ethics principles enter the digital age

The University of Missouri’s Institute for Advertising Ethics, in conjunction with the American Advertising Federation, has released its new Principles and Practices for Advertising Ethics. The eight principles are followed by commentary that link to the latest in law governing advertising, as well as principles of truth from journalism that guide the code.

The statement moves the industry’s discussion of ethics into this millennium, with mentions of personal privacy and transparency that are now more important than ever. Advertising “has changed more in the past five years than since the introduction of television in the 1950’s,” wrote Wally Snyder, the former AAF president who led the committee that crafted the code.

As Ad Age notes, the document includes “seemingly uncontroversial points” but leaves some questions. Among them is the last principle, which says advertisers and agencies should “discuss privately potential ethical concerns,” and members of the team that created the ads should “be given permission to express internally their ethical concerns.”

But the Ad Age story also noted that the new code doesn’t say what to do when those private concerns and internal concerns are not adequately addressed. Do practitioners then have the moral duty to take their concerns public–at the possible expense of their jobs and embarrassment to advertisers and ad agencies?

Snyder responded that principle “really goes to creating an environment within the agency or company where these things can be discussed. It has to come from the top down.”

The release of the principles comes at an interesting time for ethics codes that do not explicitly address the dilemmas caused by online communication. The Society of Professional Journalists’ cover story in its March/April Quill is a point-counterpoint debate on this question: Should the SPJ update the code of ethics?

The eight Principles and Practices for Advertising Ethics are:
1. Advertising, public relations, marketing communications, news, and editorial all share a common objective of truth and high ethical standards in serving the public.
2. Advertising, public relations, and all marketing communications professionals have an obligation to exercise the highest personal ethics in the creation and dissemination of commercial information to consumers.
3. Advertisers should clearly distinguish advertising, public relations and corporate communications from news and editorial content and entertainment, both online and offline.
4. Advertisers should clearly disclose all material conditions, such as payment or receipt of a free product, affecting endorsements in social and traditional channels, as well as the identity of endorsers, all in the interest of full disclosure and transparency.
5. Advertisers should treat consumers fairly based on the nature of the audience to whom the ads are directed and the nature of the product or service advertised.
6. Advertisers should never compromise consumers’ personal privacy in marketing communications, and their choices as to whether to participate in providing their information should be transparent and easily made.
7. Advertisers should follow federal, state and local advertising laws, and cooperate with industry self-regulatory programs for the resolution of advertising practices.
8. Advertisers and their agencies, and online and offline media, should discuss privately potential ethical concerns, and members of the team creating ads should be given permission to express internally their ethical concerns.

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No media ethics in discussion of what’s legal in advertising

Advertising Age reminds its readers of “Nine Things You Can’t Do in Advertising if You Want to Stay on the Right Side of the Law,” which turns into a reminder that there’s a legal distinction between puffery and a false claim. (Summary: Lie and the government will smack you down. BS all you want.)

The AdAge piece provides multiple examples of ads that meet (and fail to meet) requirements of the National Advertising Division of the Better Business Bureau, and notes that failure to follow the division’s rulings “can result in government action.”

Nowhere in the article do you find the word “ethics,”  which suggests to us that  just because something like puffery is legal doesn’t mean it’s necessarily ethical.

Questions:

  • How does this topic tie into the questions “Why not follow the rules?” (from Chapter 2) and “What’s it worth?” (from Chapters 7 and 9).
  • Chapter 7 of Doing Ethics in Media looks at puffery under the context of the correspondence theory of truth ( p. 209). Why? What theory of truth can best handle the idea of puffery as an ethical form of influence?
  • If you were in charge of regulating advertising, would you add tighter restrictions on puffery, loosen restrictions, or keep it about the same? Why?
  • If you believe that puffery is fine for advertising, then should it be fine for other forms of communication, such as journalism? Why or why not?
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