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"

Steve Earle and ‘Mississippi, It’s Time:’ Why take the Lord’s name in vain when you don’t have to?

Steve Earle made a powerful statement with “Mississippi, It’s Time,” a raw and real song arguing that the Magnolia State should join Alabama and South Carolina in removing the Confederate flag. Its use of Dixie is masterful, co-opting a song now associated with racism and flipping it for an anti-racism anthem.

The Southern Poverty Law Center in Montgomery, Ala., will receive the proceeds from the song’s sales.

But the song has a sour note. The lyrics include this verse:

What the hell, Mississippi,
Mississippi, you’re out of your mind.
God damn, even Alabam’
South Carolina come across that line.

Even the music video's creators wouldn't break a commandment.

Even the music video’s creators wouldn’t break a commandment. Ultimately, the phrase “God damn” cuts into the effectiveness of song that churches and civic groups might have otherwise wanted to use.

The video, which stretches the lyrics across Mississippi scenes, blanches at using a phrase that most would say breaks the fourth of the 10 Commandments.

The ethical issue under discussion here isn’t taking the Lord’s name in vain, although for many people that’s enough of an issue. (Even the word “hell” at the start of the verse will be enough for some.) Only Utah ranks higher than Mississippi in church attendance, Gallup reported in early 2015.

Instead, the issue is crafting a song that won’t be as effective as it could be because of that line.

It seems logical that lots of churches and civic groups that might want to call attention to the song, as part of a campaign to remove a flag and maybe help raise money for the Southern Poverty Law Center.

And many simply probably won’t do it, because someone in the audience will be offended by the casual use of the phrase, which was little more than a convenient way to rhyme with “Alabam.” And most church and civic leaders will figure that song, regardless of its quality and message, simply isn’t worth having to put up with people complaining about that line.

A large number of Mississippi residents want that flag to come down. In an interview with Rolling Stone, Earle said the song “is about giving those Southerners a voice.” But he provided a voice without considering any other values that a Southerner might hold.

Many Mississippi residents lost that voice when trying to balance the competing values of making a statement against racism with being true to their own spiritual beliefs.

Those values shouldn’t compete with one another – but Earle’s tone-deaf lyrics forced the choice. And, as usual, God wins.

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76ers, Redskins and Wells Fargo: On the ethics of not calling things by names that others use

2015-06-13_DeadspinFrom Philadelphia comes news that the 76ers basketball team refuses to say “Wells Fargo” when referring to the arena where it plays.

Wells Fargo, which bought the bank that bought the bank that made the original deal in 1996, owns naming rights until the 29-year, $40 million deal ends in 2025.

But that money went to the arena owner, not the team. The bank is not a 76ers corporate sponsor, so the 76ers call it “The Wells Fargo Center” when referring to home.

A couple of media ethics thoughts:
1. What obligation do journalists have to help others peddle products — and, by extension, ideas?

Deadspin, known for going against the flow of traditional media ethics, takes the 76ers’ thinking to the logical conclusion:

If you’re not getting paid to do a brand’s work for it—say, by calling an arena by some dumb name—you shouldn’t do that work. We don’t really do official policies around here, and we’ll surely mess this up, but we’re probably going to try and follow the 76ers’ lead. So the next time you read us writing about something occurring at Tropicana Field, feel free to (politely) drop into the comments and remind us that we aren’t getting free juice boxes, and that it’s actually the Florida Suncoast Dome.

Sports teams and leagues race to the bank on the backs of free media, by selling ad space and naming rights, with much of the value derived by the fact that news organizations usually call places and things by the advertised name.

This happens with obvious things, such as naming rights to games, races and stadiums. But it also happens with stealth, such as at the 2015 Master’s when some media reported Tiger Woods “jamming on the driving range” while wearing headphones, not noting that Woods is a pitchman for the company.

This isn’t to say that news organizations should be in business with those who sell sell naming rights to the events and places that journalists cover. As Brent Musberger taught us, it’s tacky to name-check the sponsor when covering the action – especially just before the biggest play of the game.

So if the 76ers can decide not to name where it plays for something as simple as not getting paid, then journalist should have the right, too.

This notion should be moved out of the sandbox of sports journalism, too. Smart journalists should be aware of the power of words — and willing to dismiss the PR and ad words flung that them. Propagandists are most powerful when they decide the terms used to define their friends and enemies.

An example is the reminder that something isn’t necessarily “reform” simply because someone calls it that. See: tort reform, health care reform, etc. The better phrase may be “changes to civil law” or “changes to current health care,” which doesn’t roll off the keyboard as smoothly but also also doesn’t have journalists seeming to take sides. See also: Politicians who say “the American people want (or believe).” The next question from a reporter should be: “May we see the public opinion poll that tells you this?”

2. The 76ers are giving journalists another ethical justification for refusing to using team names that many people find offensive and degrading.

Media ethics research more than two decades old discusses the considerations of media organizations that refuse to call teams by nicknames that some readers find offensive or degrading to others. The debate has only heightened since then, after the NCAA forced some schools to change names and the NFL’s Washington franchise feels pressure to find a new name.

So if a sports team won’t call its home by its high-priced name for reasons of filthy lucre, then journalists have at least as much right to decide what they will call teams in the news space they control.

Thanks, 76ers, for making it easier for journalists to do what they already should be doing.


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Is there an ethical difference in reporting the ‘chemical-related’ deaths of Philip Seymour Hoffman and another person?

Had it not been Super Bowl Sunday, the world might have taken even more notice about the death of Philip Seymour Hoffman, found dead on Feb. 2 wit

h a needle in his arm and 70 bags of heroin in his apartment. A quick Google News search this morning showed more than 5,300 articles about him — but little suggesting that the story shouldn’t be covered because of the harm it could cause his family.

Contrast that with Jan. 30 death of Danielle Downey, a former LPGA player and

This Feb. 3 update led to a number of people unhappy that the news was covered.

This Feb. 3 update led to a number of readers unhappy that details of the crash were reported.

head of operations for Auburn University’s women’s golf team. Three days after her death, The Birmingham News / Alabama Media Group reported that alcohol was likely a factor in her death.  Other media

covered it, too.

Underneath Carol Robinson’s Feb. 3 story and in her Facebook feed, many people were critical of her decision to report that Downey had consumed multiple beers and would not give her car keys to friends.

Some examples of reader comments:





Others came to Carol’s defense, citing the fact that it’s public record. And one commenter tied reporting of Downey’s death to the reporting of Hoffman’s death:


Reporting on tragedy is a difficult job, and it’s easy to forget that every story can potentially cause harm. And it’s also easy for reporters who cover tragedy for a living to start thinking like surgeons, forgetting that their job is as much about bedside manner as it is about dealing with flesh. (Of course, doctors bury their mistakes; journalist print theirs for all to see.)

It goes against the fundamental practice of truth-telling to leave unanswered the question of how a person died, or of waiting until after the funeral to report unflattering news that the family is likely to know. This is even more true in the case of Downey, who was a public-enough figure that Auburn released a statement announcing her death.

There are no hard-and-fast rules for decisions about what to report and what to leave out, but the Aristotelian mean lies somewhere between ignoring anything that might cause harm and the notion of New York Sun editor Charles A. Dana, who wrote: “I have always felt that whatever Divine Providence permitted to occur I was not too proud to report.” Finding that mean requires journalists to balance the public’s right to know, the “publicness” of the death and the person who died, what to do about special cases such as suicide, and other factors that must be considered in the harshness of deadline.

And readers ought to consider their own ethics, too. People who complain about how media cover the death of someone they know simply because accurate-but-unflattering news is revealed should steer clear of coverage of the Hoffmans, Presleys, Paul Walkers, and others of the world.

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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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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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Do TV station owners have the ethical duty to not broadcast network programs they don’t think are ethical?

NBC's "The Playboy Club"

NBC's "The Playboy Club"

KSL-TV, the NBC affiliate in Salt Lake City, is owned by a corporation owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

But that doesn’t mean you’ll see all of NBC’s fare when you tune in. For years it has not shown Saturday Night Live — and this week it said it would not show The Playboy Club, which NBC calls a provocative series set in the early 1960s about Chicago’s famous Playboy Club that is “is the door to all your fantasies.” (See: Mad Men.)

KSL head Mark Willes (a former publisher of the Los Angeles Times) told the Deseret News (also controlled by the church) that broadcasting the show “would be helping to build a brand that stands for pornography. For us, that’s just untenable.”

The TV critic for The Salt Lake Tribune, a subsidiary of the MediaNews Group, says KSL is hypocritical. Scott D. Pierce wasn’t overwhelmed by the quality of the show’s pilot episode, but he said it’s just a crime drama in which women wear clothing that seems tame by today’s standards.

And he says KSL shows much worse stuff with each episode of Law and Order: SVU and other programs offered by NBC. If The Playboy Club went by another name, KSL would show it, he said.

His conclusion:

So if KSL, DMC [Deseret Media Companies] and their owners, the LDS Church, want to be consistent, there are two options.

First, give up the NBC affiliation and become an independent station. Which would be tough to pull off economically.

Second, sell the station.

Otherwise, they’re taking a stand on a title and ignoring program content altogether.

Questions for discussion:
* Is this an ethical issue? Why or why not?
* Is KSL being hypocritical, as some charge?
* How can a media outlet controlled by a religious organization find a balance between meeting its religious mission, making money, and attracting consumers?
* Historians remind us that, during the 1950s and 1960s, some TV stations in the South refused to show network programs that included blacks and pressured network news organizations about reports of civil rights unrest. Is that similar to KSL’s situation?
* Put yourself in the shoes of KSL’s Mark Willes and respond to the criticism from Scott D. Pierce. Is KSL being hypocritical?
* In this world of and, in which people with Internet access usually can find the content they seek, does it really matter what one affiliate does?
* Work through the “W’s and H” list and reach your own conclusion.

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Is it ethical for journalists to keep interviewing Charlie Sheen?

Jeff Jarvis of Buzzville asks whether it’s right for journalists to continue interviewing actor Charlie Sheen, calling him a mentally ill man who doesn’t need the attention:

What Sheen does may be news. What his network didn’t do is also news — when he abused women, they kept him on the air to keep the ratings he gets. What his network did do is news — they yanked him only after he issued a manic rant against his producer.

But is what Sheen says in his haze of insanity or drugs newsworthy? I don’t think so. I think it’s exploitation. They want him to act nutty. Ratings, man, ratings.

Some questions worthy of class discussion:

  • Think about this from the “Who wins, who loses?” question posed in Doing Ethics in Media’s “W’s and H” questions: What list of loyalties would you create in this case?
  • What obligation, if any, does a news organization have to “protect” a person from himself or herself? Do you see that as a “loyalty?”
  • If there is such an obligation, is there a difference between public and private figures? And what about celebrities vs. political figures?
  • Should news organizations band together to keep such people out of the public eye, or does that constitute a troubling First Amendment question? (Think about President Franklin Roosevelt, whose inability to walk was generally well-hidden from public view thanks to help from journalists.)
  • The Jarvis piece mentions how CBS has kept Sheen on the air, despite his colorfully troubled past of abusing women and substances. He’s just the latest case of entertainment companies (ranging from movie companies, music companies, and sports franchises) that continued to employ people clearly swept up in drug addictions and other anti-social activities. What obligations do entertainment companies have to society to keep such people out of the public eye?
  • NBA great Charles Barkley once said: “I’m not paid to be a role model. I’m paid to wreak havoc on the basketball court.” What obligation, if any, do people in the public eye have to be role models? How can parents control such things, given the difficulties in keeping mass media away from children and teens?
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A meta-analysis of “When entertainment trumps morality”

The AV Club asked its contributors and readers a question that’s worth asking yourself: What mass media and/or practitioners do you like despite your moral qualms?

Answers to “When entertainment trumps morality” boiled down to categories of:

  • fare produced by actors, musicians, and athletes with questionable ethics.
  • individual movies, shows, or songs with overtones of violence, racism, or misogyny.

This seems like an easy assignment for a media ethics class: Just make a list of those so-bad but so-good songs, movies, and people — and then defend yourself.

To make it more challenging, ask students to take a look at the reader comments below. In addition to their own lists (such as South Park, which no staffer mentioned ), readers offered a variety of ethical suggestions regarding what staffers (and fellow readers) wrote. Ask students to summarize the themes from the reader comments — and the levels of moral development in some of those readers.

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