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"

Sports Illustrated comes to Calhoun County, Alabama, with lessons in football, race and media ethics

Speedy Canon on SII was a second grader at Jacksonville Elementary School in October 1972, so nobody talked to us 7-year-olds about the helmet-to-helmet hit that killed Jacksonville High’s Anthony “Speedy” Cannon on a Friday night at Wellborn High School. A decade later, as a Jacksonville High senior and sports editor of the weekly Jacksonville News, I didn’t get much traction for my piddling piece of anniversary journalism. Nobody wanted to talk to a teen sportwriter, and I didn’t know enough to try harder.

For years, back in the days when P.E. was a required class, I passed the memorial to Speedy in the gym and wondered what happened. Some said it was racism, against a school whose band played “Dixie.” Others said it was just a hard hit on a guy already hit too many times.

Now, 40 years later, Sports Illustrated’s Thomas Lake has told the story with “The Ghost of Speedy Cannon,” a terrific piece of journalism that does everything right online. In addition to the long story, we can read The Anniston Star’s stories, see Speedy’s stats, and look at photos from musty Ad Annos yearbooks.

And we can see the play that killed Speedy, where Wellborn’s No. 70 delivers the blow a few steps after Speedy was out of bounds.

It’s a masterful piece of reporting that raised multiple ethics questions for Lake, whose decisions are part of the story. Indeed, Lake:

1. Does not decide for us whether it’s murder or an accident, but he allows people on all sides of the question make their case. He provides his own conclusion, but does not try to force it on readers.

2. Did not name Wellborn’s No. 70, essentially saying that his life didn’t need to be burned by SI’s bright spotlight.

What strangers believed about Number 70 did not appear to be true. He showed no sign of being a racist. Nor did he seem consumed by guilt. He had played football for a while longer and then quit because he was tired of it and after a few false starts he had gotten a good job as a welder. He had a nice wife and a son and twin daughters and two grandchildren. He had cried over Cannon’s death and then moved on with his life. It was the only reasonable choice.

(The Star did not name the player, either, but noted that the play drew a 15-yard penalty.)

3. Did not name the Wellborn coach, now an 81-year-old man, saying that allegations that he told players to kill Speedy “him appear to be untrue.”

4. Spelled it “n—–” many times, even as he did not dodge the essence of the racism angle to the story.

As a Jacksonville High graduate born too late to understand what happened in 1972, I am grateful to Lake for telling what I didn’t know about my home.

As a journalism professor, I am grateful to Lake for doing such a terrific job.


The case of the cursing anchor: AJ Clemente, virtue ethics, and consistency

AJ Clemente

AJ Clemente, seconds into his first and only newscast in Bismark, N.D., where his nervousness led to uttering two words you can’t say on TV.

It’s easy to feel bad for AJ Clemente, the West Virginia University graduate who uttered two words you’re not allowed to say on broadcast television just as his first anchoring shift began on Sunday, April 20, on KFYR-TV in Bismarck, North Dakota.

The NBC affiliate quickly fired him, but cited “personnel issues” in saying little else. While it might have been technically legal under Federal Communications Commission rules, it was still shocking enough to managers who decided it was not worth trusting a newcomer. And even in a place that is Nielsen’s 151st Designated Market Area, the station can easily find another newcomer willing to work the Sunday night shift Bismark in hopes of climbing the TV news ladder.

Clemente says he made the mistake because he was frustrated while working to pronounce some words, and he didn’t have an earpiece or heads-up that the show was live. He called the gaffe “inexcusable,” and he says he didn’t know he said it until deep in the newscast and has not animosity toward the station.

He’s turned it into celebrity, from conversations on The Today Show to becoming the subject of a David Letterman Top 10 list that included other examples of potty-mouthed TV anchors. It’s always possible he can land another job.

As a former young broadcaster, I appreciate his pain and the inevitable on-air jitters.

Malcolm Street, my radio boss, reminded me that cussing off air meant you’re less likely to cuss on air.

Even more, I appreciate Malcolm Street, who hired me when I was 14 for an on-air job at WHMA AM-FM in Anniston, Ala. (He liked me, my voice was preternaturally low, and 14-year-olds work cheap.)

Before my first real shift, he sat me in his office and reminded me of a few things, closing with a life lesson: “Something unexpected will happen one day when your mic is live. If you don’t curse off the air, then you won’t curse on the air.” He taught Sunday School for more than six decades at Parker Memorial Baptist Church, so he easily quoted a Bible verse (Luke 6:45) to prove his point: “For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.”

And sure enough, my day to swear on the air came the Saturday morning when, with a live microphone ready to amplify my words over 100,000 watts from nearly between Atlanta and Birmingham, I touched a metal surface that sent a mighty shock through my finger. It really hurt, but a curseless yelp of pain was all the listeners heard. I was grateful then for Mr. Street’s advice, which I wish I still took today.

The ethics lesson here? Even if you’re not into New Testament scripture, it’s worth remembering that the best media practitioners live consistent lives whether they’re at work or not.

Aristotle (see pages 367-371 of Doing Ethics in Media: Theories and Practical Applications) and others who preach virtue ethics would remind us that trying to compartmentalize our lifestyle habits may be dangerous, particularly in  communication jobs where likeablity and personality play a role. It’s always been true for broadcasters, and it’s now truer than ever for journalists whose credibility less from their organization and more from their personal brand. In this case, Clemente did not show arête, so his Bismark career sunk before achieving eudiamonia.

AJ Clemente’s first (and only) anchor shift on KRYR

(apologies to Mr. Street)

How responsible are journalists for catching liars Lance Armstrong, Manti Te’o and others?

Political cartoonist Chip Bok, a Pulitzer finalist, pulls together both recent strings of jock lies.

The world’s most famous cyclist, Lance Armstrong, lied and lied and lied, and even sued a news organization who called out his lies. (He may have even lied while backpedaling for Oprah.)

Notre Dame defensive player Manti Te’o, whether he meant to or not, lied about what turned to be an imaginary girlfriend.

The result is another round of hand-wringing about the “diminished role” of investigative journalism and media who, as National Public Radio wrote, “let its guard down.”

It should be “let their guard down,” because media are plural, dangit. But confusing media as a singular entity helps prove the point of this post, which reminds us that even as lots of journalists failed to catch the lies, eventually a journalist caught the lies.

It’s tough to be a journalist, because lots of people and organizations lie to you (and, by definition, to the public), stonewall with “no comment” or piecemeal answers, provide general “statements” on a topic instead of answering specific questions, or bend their answers so far in their own favor that the truth is broken by most ethical standards.

More than once I heard Randy Henderson, my late city editor at The Birmingham News, say to a caller complaining about a story: “We print lies every day, because people lie to us every day.” Journalists cannot look into the hearts of others. Journalists don’t have subpoena power but must be more exacting than prosecutors, because a prosecutor who loses a criminal case won’t face libel charges.

In the case of Te’o, I’m reminded of this scene from Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, in which principal Ed Rooney is right when he doesn’t believe that Sloan Peterson’s grandmother is dead. He calls out Mr. Peterson (that is to say, Ferris) on the phone:

Oh, sure. I’d be happy to release Sloane. You produce a corpse and I’ll release Sloane. I want to see this dead grandmother firsthand. … That’s right. Just roll her old bones all over here and I’ll dig up your daughter. It’s school policy.

A journalist wouldn’t do it that way, of course, and even Principal Rooney was snookered by Bueller, a high-quality liar.

I believe it’s tougher than ever for journalists to move beyond the carefully constructed PR façade of athletics, much less catch liars, in this age when top college athletic departments censor their own athletes, restrict journalists’ access, seek to dictate what can be reported, pressure journalists who oppose the PR line, and bypass media gatekeeping with information delivered to a public that may not distinguish the difference or want to kill the messengers who deliver bad news about their favorite teams. (Feel free to replace the references to athletics with “politicians,” “radio morning-show hosts,” “businesses,” or other liars as you wish.)

This does not excuse bad journalism, of course, and there’s plenty of that to go around. Many journalists don’t ask the right questions, don’t want the truth to impede on a good story, are too busy feeding the never-sated digital beast, or want to believe that people are basically good, or lots of other reasons.

The (sort-of) good news: In the cases of Lance and Te’o and others, remember that journalism eventually did its job:

  • Even as Armstrong lied and lied and sued and lied and intimidated and lied, some journalists continued to pursue the truth.
  • It wasn’t until after the Deadspin story that Notre Dame, which knew about the hoax possibility for weeks, hastily called its press conference and (began to) explain the situation. Meanwhile, Te’o admits that he “tailored” accounts of his story, even after Notre Dame says it had begun its investigation.
  • We can go on, with examples of Olympian-turned-felon Marion Jones and plenty of presidents (Nixon, Clinton, etc.), presidential candidates and many more famous people who invested years lying to journalists.

The world’s ability to lie outstrips journalism’s ability to call out the liars. And in this world of more-and-better liars and fewer journalists, it’s not getting easier.

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.

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.

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 “” 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?

Seconds after tornado, photographer makes an ethical choice

Birmingham News photographer Jeff Roberts took this photo of Faye Hyde comforting her granddaughter, Sierra Goldsmith, seconds after a tornado blew through Jefferson County on Wednesday, April 27, 2011.

Birmingham News photographer Jeff Roberts was in the path of one of the tornadoes that blew through Alabama on Wednesday, April 27.

In this video, he describes what he saw and how he decided to pick up a camera and start shooting instead of “becoming part of the story.” (Columnist John Archibald describes the family’s situation here, and more about Roberts’ photo and its quick fame here.)

Seconds after facing his own near-death experience, Roberts did ethics in journalism.

The result was this iconic photo – and something for media ethicists to discuss on the topics of:
* Becoming a part of the news: When should journalists put down their cameras (or pens, or laptops) and assist in a situation?
* Privacy: When are there “private moments” that photographers should avoid?

(Note: Author Chris Roberts is not related to photographer Jeff Roberts, but they worked together in the 1990s at The Birmingham News.)

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?

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?