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"

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.

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?

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.

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?

An ethical PR response to research?

There’s a saying among lawyers: “When you have the law on your side, pound the law. When you have the facts on your side, pound the facts. When you have neither, pound the table.”

With that in mind, consider the late 2010 study that said people who watch TV news were were more likely to be misinformed than others about basic facts related to issues highlighted in the midterm elections. While lots of news organizations were dinged, Fox News viewers were lower than others.

The New York Times, in reporting about the findings, dutifully asked Fox News for comment about the research report.* The response from Michael Clemente, the network’s senior vice president of news editorial:

The latest Princeton Review ranked the University of Maryland among the top schools for having ‘Students Who Study The Least’ and being the ‘Best Party School’ – given these fine academic distinctions, we’ll regard the study with the same level of veracity it was ‘researched’ with.

A question for PR students: Is that an ethical response to a question? (You don’t have to be a Maryland student to answer.)

* Fox did respond more fully in an opinion piece claiming that the Maryland questions had a partisan bias. MediaMatters criticized the response. It’s worth noting that neither of the two mentioned that the researchers found similar problems for folks who watched the more liberal MSNBC.

Can you still be a watchdog when working for client?

Oct. 7, 2010

James Rainey of the Los Angeles Times ran a column on Wednesday about the route consumer watchdogs have taken in the past few years. Names that consumers trusted to protect them, such as David Horowitz and Alan Mendelson, have left their former positions and joined the public relations side of business.

Horowitz lost his official job hosting a television show to test advertisements and companies about their products in the 90s. But he still tried to hold onto his title and persona of a watchdog, keeping things like a website under the same catchy name of his former television show and continuing to use a catch phrase people associated with him and his show — ‘Stay aware and informed. Fight back and don’t let anyone rip you off.’

After Horowitz’s show ended, Rainey said Horowitz began promoting causes to the public only when a monetary profit was offered. Horowitz also recently began writing a monthly column in Costco’s consumer magazine. The column offers general advice and Horowitz also accepts questions from Costco shoppers about problems they are having with products or corporations. Rainey also reports that Horowitz has begun his own consultation firm, charging consumers a price for over-the-phone consultations and for investigations. Continue reading