Media Ethics Initiative

Home » 2018 » November

Monthly Archives: November 2018

Covering Female Athletes

CASE STUDY: Sexualized Portrayals of Female Athletes in Sports Journalism

Case Study PDF | Additional Case Studies


Photo: Sports Illustrated

It is difficult to argue with the claim that female athletes receive less coverage than their male counterparts. In addition to considering how often female athletes are covered, journalists must also consider how they are portrayed when they are covered. Sports Illustrated, for example, is known for rarely portraying female athletes on its cover, but, on February 8th, 2010, Olympic skier Lyndsey Vonn was featured with the caption “America’s Best Woman Skier Ever.” Although this can be seen as a great moment for Vonn, and for female athletes in general, there were also those who took offense to the skier’s positioning in what some have called “a sexually provocative pose.”

The controversy surrounding the picture is two-fold. First, there is disagreement over whether the picture is or is not sexually suggestive. On the cover, Vonn is pictured on a mountain in a tuck position. As multiple commentators noted, male skier, A. J. Kitt, was featured on a 1992 Sports Illustrated cover in a similar pose. However, according to Nicole LaVoi, an expert on women in sports, the images of the two skiers differ in that Kitt is portrayed “in action,” looking forward down the hill, and wearing his helmet. Vonn, however, is clearly posed. She is obviously not moving down the hill. She is also facing the camera and is not wearing her helmet.

Those who find the picture to be offensive argue that it is just another of many examples of the journalistic tendency to portray female athletes as sex objects. Because women athletes receive less coverage, the instances where they are prominently featured are more significant. Portrayals that sexualize female athletes reinforce traditional gender norms and downplay female athletic ability. Photos like Vonn’s, they argue, may sell magazines, but they only work to increase interest in her body, not her athleticism.

Those who are not offended by the image either do not see any sexual connotations, or do not find the combination of sex and women’s sports to be problematic. Wendy Parker, a sports journalist, does not see anything provocative in the Sport Illustrated image, and she even points out that Vonn is fully clothed “from head to toe.” Then there are those who argue that it doesn’t matter even if it is a “sexy” picture. Sports Illustrated has a predominately male readership, so it may be a business-boosting ploy to promote reader interest in female competitive skiing. Additionally, female athletes have a right to celebrate their bodies without being told how to “behave.” As sports blogger Chris Chase asks, “Why can’t she be both the best skier in the world and really, really attractive too?”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Did Sports Illustrated do something ethically wrong in running the Vonn picture as they did? If they did, would it matter what their actual intentions behind running the photo were? If this cover actually increased interest in female competitive skiing, would that make an ethical difference?
  2. What reasons would you give to defend the decision to run the Vonn photo? 
  3. Is the selection of cover photos, such as the Vonn shot, an important activity of sports journalists? Or are these purely business decisions? Are there more ethical issues than simply covering sports once sports journalists become part of a business such as Sports Illustrated?
  4. How would you have handled the selection of the Vonn photo for the cover if you ran Sports Illustrated? What values would guide your decisions?

Further Information:

Austin Knoblauch, “Lindsey Vonn’s Sports Illustrated cover shot skis into controversy.” Available at:

Chris Chase, “Let the Lindsey Vonn Hype Begin: Vonn is Sports Illustrated Cover Girl.” Available at:

Mary Jo Kane, “Sex sells Sex, not Women’s Sports.” The Nation, August 15-22, 2011. Available at:

Wendy Parker, “A Truly Warped Way of seeing Women Athletes,” Available at:


Danee Pye, Ph.D., & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational use. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Don’t “Like” My Children

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of “Sharenting” on Social Media

Case Study PDF | Additional Case Studies


Photo: Jessica To’oto’o / Unsplash / Modified

Sharing life’s joys and documenting our lives online has become a social norm, but are we oversharing important details? This question becomes extremely urgent when it references parents and the posting of information about their children. “Sharenting” is the new word that has been coined to denote parents’ use of social media or blogs to share too many details about their children’s lives. More than half of mothers and one-third of fathers discuss parenting on their social media sites. Many children are posted on social media within the first day of their lives and about 92% of 2-year-olds have an online presence. Children, unlike a parent’s adult friends, have little ability to consent or object to their information being posted on social media. Even parents who want to control their children’s online presence face daunting challenges, since well-intentioned family and friends can independently share photos of someone else’s child.

Parents who discuss parenting on social media do so in order to feel less alone. Parents share photos of their children to keep their family and friends updated on their lives. Posting a photo is an easy way to share their children’s achievements and milestones with those who couldn’t be there. Another common use of social media is for seeking parenting advice. A study conducted by the C.S. Mott Children’s Hospital found that almost 70% of parents “said they use social media to get advice from other more experienced parents and 62% said it helped them worry less.” Commonly posted topics include how to get children to sleep (28%), nutrition and eating (26%), discipline (19%), daycare/preschool (17%) and behavior problems (13%) (“Parents on social media,” 2015). Parents feel they can relate to and benefit from other users that have experience with the issues they are currently facing with their child.

While parents love sharing their children’s joyous moments, some are concerned their posts may create privacy and safety risks. While it seems innocuous, the choice to share information about one’s children online courts several sorts of risk. Some of these risks relate to future embarrassment, perhaps caused by parents posting embarrassing photos of their children being toilet trained, in the bath, covered in food while eating, or on video singing and dancing to a popular song. More worrisome, bullies could also find these posts and target these children through cyberbullying. These embarrassing posts could surface again when these children are adults and affect their chances in getting a job or affect their reputations if they are running for high power positions. Parents may be putting their children in danger by helping identity thieves gather important information of their children like their birth date, full name, where they go to school, and what activities they are involved in.

An even darker worry connected to sharenting includes the new activity of “digital kidnapping,” when an online stranger takes children’s photos from their real parent’s posts and shares them as the stranger’s own children. A case of digital kidnapping occurred in Dallas where a mother found a New York man had been posting photos on Facebook of her daughter claiming that she was his daughter. She was unable to remove the photos because they are someone else’s posts, so she reached out to Facebook. “They’re telling me to report the pictures specifically, which I can’t do because he blocked me,” she said. “The only way I can report anything is by reporting his whole profile.” Copying and posting the pictures that others publically share isn’t technically illegal, however, and when she reported the profile to Facebook their response was that the profile met community standards.

In the brave new social media world animated by daily sharing, how far should proud parents go in attempting to hide their children from the digital light of day?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the ethical values and interests in conflict in the debate over “sharenting?”
  2. Is there a way to share information about your children and avoid the risks associated with sharenting?
  3. If many parents share such information about their children, does this lessen the ethical concerns with any given parent sharing such information about their children?
  4. How can social media companies act ethically when it comes to protecting the privacy of minors on their platforms?

Further Information:

Lucia, Andrea, “Child Digitally Kidnapped by Man Posing as Father.” CBS Dallas/Fort Worth, July 8, 2015. Available at:

Beeston, Ariane, “The pros and cons of ‘sharenting’: what parents need to consider when posting about their kids online.” Essential Kids, October 27, 2016. Available at:

Howard, Jacqueline, “The dos and don’ts of posting about your kid online.” CNN, October 21, 2016. Available at:

“Parents on social media: Likes and dislikes of sharenting.” National Poll on Children’s Health. Available at:

“Safe sharenting: Pediatricians encouraging privacy awareness for parents who ‘sharent.’” National Poll on Childrens’ Health. Available at:

“‘Sharenting’ trends: Do parents share too much about their kids on social media?” CS Mott Children’s Hospital | Michigan Medicine, March 16, 2015. Available at:“sharenting”-trends-do-parents-share-too-much-about-their


Kaitlyn Pena & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
November 28, 2018

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational use. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

How to Use Case Studies in Your Class

By Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.

[PDF] Case studies are a common way of introducing or reinforcing themes in a range of classes, including those on communication and media. They also are an engaging way to build skills of respectful disagreement over important issues. They can serve as follow-ups to other materials on ethical theory or they can be used on their own to bring up overlooked ethical implications. They can be used in a course entirely focused on the ethics of media or communication, or they can be used to add a partial focus on ethics to a range of communication, journalism, or media courses. For instance, one may lecture on the ethics of trust in the news media, and then use a case study on sports blogging and trust. Alternatively, one might lecture on the various types of sports blogging and use a case study as a focus for discussion over the ethical issues concerning sports blogging. Either way, case studies are great ways to evoke discussion over difficult ethical issues.

What are case studies? Case studies are typically narrative accounts that involve characters (or parties) and at least one decision to be made that will significantly affect multiple parties. Typically, there are competing interests on each side of this decision—reasons for taking that action, and reasons against doing that action. If a case study is about forcibly revealing anonymous sources to safeguard national security, the interests are clearly oppositional: journalistic integrity (promises of confidentiality to one’s sources) and the interests of preserving our nation’s security (perhaps in times of war). The actions or decisions that serve as the focus of case studies are typically of two kinds: either they have already been made or they are yet to be made. The former type of cases will get students discussing the action a specified agent did in the case study, whereas the latter type ends with an unfinished situation—the students must then decide what an agent’s next move will be. Both types of case studies can be hypothetical or based on real occurrences.

How might one use case studies in their class? Some teachers use case studies to do two things. First, students can be tasked with identifying the ethical interests at conflict in the decision made or to be made in the case study at hand. What is the decision that is ethically problematic here? What reasons or interests do you immediately see for both sides of this controversy? Cultivating sensitivity to the various sides to an ethical issue develops the sort of charity and sympathy many see as vital features to an ethical decision-maker. And often, our first reaction is not our most justified or defendable reaction after we think about our reasons for a bit. Second, students can be asked to develop a position on the decision made or to be made—what should the agent do (or what should they have done)? More importantly, why is that the right action to take? This part goes deeper than merely noting interests on both sides of this controversy, as students are asked to argue for why one interest or value takes priority over another interest or value. Sometimes, there are creative solutions that can be envisioned to address all the concerns in the case study.

The fundamental point to the use of case studies in teaching ethics is to provoke discussion, questioning, and argument. They are not primarily used to solve problems, convey settled principles, prove certain theories, and so forth. Many instructors use them in the following way. Students are put into small groups and asked to read the case study. Each group talks over the case, directed by instructor prompts or the “discussion” questions listed at the end of many case studies. Following this, the instructor brings the entire class together and discusses what each group thought about each starting question. Students might then be encouraged to engage in reason-based discussion and debate about the case decisions in question. Disagreement, when it leads to the comparison and analysis of justifying reasons and values, is a welcome sign in using case studies to teach ethics. The instructor may conclude discussion with a summary of the interests and positions debated by students, but rarely is there one right answer (and set of reasons) that gains reasoned acceptance by all. Learning the process of critical ethical thinking and reasoned disagreement is one of the main ends of using case studies.

Lecture Over Revenge Porn

Photo: Gabby Lanza

Dr. Scott R. Stroud is the founding director of the Media Ethics Initiative. Dr. Stroud has training as a philosopher and as a communication scholar, and he researches a range of topics at the intersection of media and ethics. He is an associate professor of communication studies at the University of Texas at Austin. He is the author of the books John Dewey and the Artful Life (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2011) and Kant and the Promise of Rhetoric (Pennsylvania State University Press, 2014), as well as the co-author of A Practical Guide to Ethics: Living and Leading with Integrity (Westview, 2007). He has written extensively on many topics in communication and media ethics, rhetoric, and philosophy. His CV and his scholarly articles can be found at his page. You can contact Dr. Stroud and the Media Ethics Initiative here.

Meet the Research Scholars: Rachel Weisenthal

weisenthal headshotRachel Weisenthal is a senior at the University of Texas at Austin majoring in communication studies with a focus on the entertainment industry. With the ultimate goal of working in the music business, Rachel took any and every class available to her regarding the role of mass media and brand development on interpersonal communication and American culture. She spent the fall of 2017 participating in the UT in Los Angeles program, working full time for credit and taking industry-specific classes at night. Having always been fascinated by the role ethics plays in media, both digital and traditional, Rachel is excited to explore these issues through her work with the Media Ethics Initiative.

Media Ethics Initiative Research Scholars earn credits and research experience by working with the Media Ethics Initiative to promote reflection on media ethics among students and faculty at the University of Texas at Austin. They gain valuable skills by assisting the organizing and promotion of Media Ethics Initiative events, as well as by researching and writing case studies in media ethics. Interested UT Austin students can sign up for a 1, 2, or 3 credit internship for the fall or spring semester. For more information on the Media Ethics Initiative Research Scholar program, visit here.


When Actors Become Characters

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Digital Real-Person Fan Fiction

Case Study PDF | Additional Case Studies

In the world of fan fiction, there is a thin line between creative works by fans who admire and take inspiration from their favorite celebrities and stories that might be harmful to that person’s identity and reputation. A popular subgenre within the fanfiction world is called “real-person fanfiction” or RPF. This subgenre of fanfiction occurs when fans write their favorite public figures—including actors, athletes, and musicians—into fictional stories. These realities are created, owned, and controlled by fans, leading to a wide array of creative and sometimes disturbing storylines. For instance, one story depicts an adulterous affairs between Joe Biden and Barack Obama, whereas another story is titled “Jesus and Hitler: A Romance.” The latter story is controversial precisely because of narrative events such as the following: “‘I’ve never been with a man, either, Jesus. I’m scared, just like you are, but we can’t let our fears rule us! I love you, Jesus. Do you love me?’ Hitler’s eyes had tears in them. Jesus smiles. ‘Yes, Hitler. I love you.’ They embraced. Again, they kissed passionately” (Angkras, 2010). Beyond the offense given to religious communities in this story, other real-person fanfiction narratives range from wholesome but mundane stories to hardcore explicit erotica. There are also hundreds of thousands of fanfictions tagged as “incest,” “rape/non-con[sensual],” ”domestic violence,” and ”underage sex,” a range of often-forbidden topics enabled by the freedom of expression and creativity afforded in the often-anonymous world of fanfiction writing.

Controversy over the ethics of fanfiction gets even more intense when its subjects are contemporary real individuals such as celebrities. Fans have used the abilities to create and quickly share content in digital form to write their favorite public figures into scenarios the fan may have fantasized about, but which may be taboo in real life and shocking to the actor or celebrity depicted. In most communities, sexual relationships between siblings is generally stigmatized; in the digital arena of fanfiction, amateur authors can safely “publish” narratives such as “Taken,” written by “Missbeizy,” which depicts a fictional sexual relationship between the actor Elijah Wood and his sister in its made-up story line. Siblings such as James and Oliver Phelps, the actors who played the Weasley twins in the Harry Potter series, as well as the actors Liam and Chris Hemsworth, have also been the protagonists in such lurid fan-written creations. While many RPF creations function as satire or as simply bad story-telling, other fan creations feature well-known actors or celebrities being brutally raped or in scenarios involving underage sexual encounters. All of these raise the question of how much control a real but public person has over his or her image in fictional creations.

Fans of fanfiction have debated such controversial extremes. Celebrities have taken to social media to air their personal opinions about fanfictions and real-person fanfiction narratives. For instance, Lynn Flewelling, author of The Nightrunner Series, has not been shy about her feelings: “That being said, here’s my opinion on people writing sexually oriented fanfiction about real people. It’s WRONG, CREEPY, VERY EXTREMELY ICKY, and should be ILLEGAL. Anyone still unclear on my feelings should read the previous sentence again.” Celebrities such as Daniel Radcliffe, James McAvoy, and Michael Fassbender have encountered their own fanfiction echoes and seem to be amused by them. On The Graham Norton Show, Hugh Jackman, James McAvoy, and Michael Fassbender were read the synopses of multiple fanfictions about themselves; Fassbender called them “amazing” and McAvoy joked after reading one about him having Fassbender’s baby, “IVF can do incredible things these days” (BBC, 2014).

Fans also have been divided in their opinions of real-person fanfiction. Some argue that it is their right to creative expression and that this a way for them to put their admiration and love for these celebrities into words. They claim that it does no harm as long as it is respectful, described appropriately as “fiction,” and published on the right websites. A now-defunct Reddit user defended real-person fanfiction by stating that “celebrities do have a right to privacy, but most RPF writers aren’t engaging in behavior that the celebrity should find troubling. We don’t stalk them, we don’t approach them in real life and we don’t actually believe that our made-up stories are real” ([deleted], 2018). Other fans who oppose these creations also publicly worry about the potential harms that such stories might spawn: “I’m sure there are quality stories out there, but I think the fact fanfiction deals with real people and, from what I’ve seen around, can also feed delusions about these real people which creeps me out to some extent” (Andy, 2015).

Given that “real” art is often transgressive and offensive, and that it often uses or targets real people, the question becomes: How should we think about the ethics of fan-created expressive works that center on and feature real people who may not agree with such a usage? What are the limits to our thoughts and expressions involving celebrities and public figures? When does fan fiction become a real ethical problem?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the ethical concerns and problems with real-person fanfiction (RPF)?
  2. What ethical values are in conflict when fans create RPF works and celebrities attempt to control their public image?
  3. What are the ethical lines that RPF should not cross? Would these limits apply to professional artists who often base fictional stories on real-life events and figures?
  4. Some art is specifically designed to lampoon, criticize, or embarrass its real-life subjects. Might RPF serve this critical function? If so, how does this impact your judgments of the ethics of RPF works?

Further Information:

Andy. “Roundtable: Let’s Talk About Fanfiction” Seoulbeats, August 14, 2015,

Angkras. “Jesus and Hitler: A Romance.”, July 10, 2010,

Anonymous. “Ms. Brie.” Archive of Our Own, August 19, 2016,

BBC. “Michael Fassbender & James McAvoy’s fan art romance – The Graham Norton Show – BBC”. YouTube, May 2, 2014,

[deleted]. “RE: Is writing RPF fanfiction really a bad thing?”August 2018,

Flewelling, Lynn. “Lynn Speaks Re: Fanfiction.” December 11, 2004,

Missbeizy. “Taken.” Archive of Our Own, December 12, 2014,

SapphicAndSarcastic. “The Rape of Jensen.” Archive of Our Own, March 6, 2017,


Oluwasemilore Adeoluwa & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
November 26, 2018

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational use. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Filtering Out Cyberbullying

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Instagram’s Anti-Bullying Filters

Case Study PDF | Additional Case Studies



Of the many new ethical challenges raised by social media, one of the more worrisome is cyberbullying. A recent Pew survey found that 59% of American teens say they have experienced some type of cyberbullying online or on their cell phone. Bullying has been especially prominent on one of the most popular social media platforms, the image-intensive site Instagram. On October 9, 2018, Instagram announced that they would introduce a feature that utilizes machine learning techniques to detect bullying in images and captions posted on the platform. When detected, the images are reviewed by an Instagram employee to determine if they should be deleted. This new feature builds off a tool implemented last year that detects hurtful or offensive comments.

Instagram’s new tools are intended to prevent bullying among users of its platform, a response to criticisms that it has failed to prevent bullying—in a recent study, for instance, “Instagram was highlighted as having become the vehicle most used for mean comments” (The Annual Bullying Survey 2017). Taylor Lorenz claims that “Teenagers have always been cruel to one another. But Instagram provides a uniquely powerful set of tools to do so” (2018). The head of Instagram, Adam Mosseri, hopes to limit the ability for users to utilize this “powerful set of tools” in a negative manner. In a blog post announcing the release of the new anti-bullying measures, he commented that they will “help us protect our youngest community members since teens experience higher rates of bullying online than others” (Mosseri, 2018). Many observers are hopeful that features like these will reduce the amount of negative posts and comments and help the many young Instagram users that struggle with bullying on the Internet.

As laudable as these goals are, the introduction of Instagram’s anti-bullying measures has been meet with concern from many of its users. Some critics believe that these features are another instance of social networks limiting free speech on their sites for the purpose of making their platforms more desirable, thereby increasing the number of users and the site’s profit (Blakely & Balaish, 2017). Many believe that companies like Facebook, who owns Instagram, have too much power when it comes to deciding who gets to say what on social media. In discussing the new anti-bullying filters, Kalev Leetaru argues that Silicon Valley is transitioning from the “early days of embracing freedom of speech at all costs” to becoming “the party of moderation and mindful censorship” (2018).

Critics of Instagram’s latest moves are also concerned about the way these changes were planned and implemented. Instagram has not been fully transparent in revealing the techniques used to filter out negative images and comments:  “no detail is given beyond that ‘machine learning’ is being used, no reassuring statistics on how much training data was used or the algorithm’s accuracy rate when it entered service. Subsequent public statements are typically vague, claiming ‘successes’ or misleadingly worded statements that are not corrected when the media reports them wrong and rarely include any kind of accuracy statistics” (Leetaru, 2018). The lack of transparency, explicit standards, and accuracy data are a cause for concern. Due to this lack of transparency, many worry about implicit bias in the anti-bullying filters—or human moderators—that could eliminate posts which are not truly bullying in nature. However, Instagram argues that allowing external oversight into their filters and providing information on how they exactly work would allow for malicious users to “game” the system and avoid the anti-bullying controls.

Another worry centers on the issue of whether image content can be reliably identified as “bullying” in nature. For instance, some “split-screen” images compare a picture of a user to another photo in a negative fashion, but this isn’t always the function of comparative collages. What makes an image—whether individually or as part of a collage—an essential part of an act of cyberbullying? Would posting or tagging an unflattering picture or undesirable image constitute bullying behavior? What about a user who posts an image mocking a public figure, politician, or famous celebrity? In more general terms, what differentiates a course of bullying from harsh criticism?

Instagram’s new bullying filters could help to protect younger users from harmful attacks and hateful comments. However, these preventative measures come at a cost to the freedom of speech on the Internet and give more power and control of online content to large social media companies like Facebook. How much filtering do we need to purify our online ecosystems of cyberbullying?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Should social media websites be held responsible for the content that is posted on their platforms by individual users?
  2. How would you define cyberbullying? What features must a post have to count as cyberbullying? Can you think of another sort of non-bullying post that might have some or all of these features?
  3. What ethical values are in conflict in Instagram’s attempt to fight cyberbullying? How might you balance these values in dealing with cyberbullying?
  4. What are the drawbacks to having human moderators determine which comments and posts are harmful and which should be allowed to remain? What are the drawbacks to machines or programs doing most of this work?

Further Information:

“The Annual Bullying Survey 2017: What 10,000 People Told Us About Bullying.” Ditch the Label, July 2017. Available at:

Blakely, Jonathan, and Timor Balaish. “Is Instagram going too far to protect our feelings?” CBS News, August 14, 2017. Available at:

Leetaru, Kalev. “Why Instagram’s New Anti-Bullying Filter Is So Dangerous” CNN Business, October 11, 2018. Available at:

Lorenz, Taylor. “Teens Are Being Bullied ‘Constantly’ on Instagram” The Atlantic, October 10, 2018. Available at:

“A Majority of Teens Have Experienced Some Form of Cyberbullying.” Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (September 17, 2018). Available at:

Mosseri, Adam. “New Tools to Limit Bullying and Spread Kindness on Instagram.” October 9, 2018. Available at:

Wakefield, Jane. “Instagram tops cyber-bullying study” BBC News, July 19, 2017. Available at:

Yurieff, Kaya. “Instagram says it will now detect bullying in photos.” Forbes, October 9, 2018. Available at:


Colin Frick & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
November 20, 2018

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They are produced for educational use only. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

To Catfish or Not to Catfish?

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Online Deception

Case Study PDF | Additional Case Studies

Thanks to director, producer, and writer Nev Schulman, most of us know the dangers of “catfishing” because his popular MTV television show, Catfish, highlights how quickly online deception can go wrong. “Catfishing” has gained enough traction in popular usage to warrant its addition to our lexicon. One newly-added definition of “catfishingis “to deceive (someone) by creating a false personal profile online” (Merriam-Webster, 2018).

Why would anyone engage in such digital deception? The person doing the catfishing—the catfish, in other words—may lie for a number of reasons, but in most cases this deception comes from a desire to create and sustain a relationship (usually romantic) with someone they believe would reject them were they to act in a fully transparent manner. A catfish often feels motivated by and overwhelmed with feelings of uncertainty, loneliness and dejection. By creating a persona that is far from their own, they feel more confident to connect with others online; some even develop lasting relationships with their “catfishee.” Online identities are easily fabricated because there is no fact-checker peering over our shoulders to make sure we present ourselves as accurately as possible. Sharon Coen of the University of Salford says that catfishing “offers an opportunity for people to try on different identities, and interact with others on the basis of that identity.” She emphasizes that younger people often experience this need for experimentation with their identities, including catfishing “to express parts of one’s identity which are not acceptable according to social norms.” This could include a fear of publicizing their sexuality, race, physical appearance, health issues, or other such factors open to social pressures. For these reasons, many people like Nev Schulman empathize with the acts of the catfisher. Beyond this, he even claims that there is some benefit to the catfishee—they are flattered and take part in a meaningful relationship that, while not real in some respects, is a rewarding fantasy in other ways. In his book, Schulman says that “addicted, emotionally dependent, and in too deep, the catfished hopefuls end up turning a blind eye… the catfish makes them feel special… they make them feel loved” (Schulman, 2014).

Many still believe the ethical problem with catfishing is clear. It’s a deceptive presentation of self in relationships that are supposed to be very close and trusting. Even though many catfishers do not intend to act maliciously with their lies, some utilize this deception to gain monetary favors and gifts from the deceived catfishee.  Furthermore, the catfishee is robbed of time and effort they have invested in a relationship with someone who isn’t who they said they were. As shown on Catfish, the catfishees express a number of emotions when they discover the true identity of their online relational partner: some display feelings of anger and betrayal, others feel worthless for not being told the truth, and some feel more insecurity as a result of this deception. The deception hurts, but the illusion could be comforting if it’s maintained.  Things that could be verified or falsified with a quick Google search are ignored. “Finding out that the thing that makes you happy and distracts you from all your problems isn’t real is not what people want” Schulman says, “so they choose not to” (Horn, 2014).

Catfishing is only becoming easier—and more worrisome–with the increasing popularity of social media and online dating apps like Tinder and Bumble. Some may even consider sprinkling white lies across your dating profile a form of catfishing. This further complicates the line on what constitutes catfishing and what is just image management in a complex online environment.  How much truth should there be in our relationships and identities in the digital realm?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What is the ethical problem with catfishing? What values are in conflict in this case study?
  2. Does it matter if the catfish does not hope for an “offline” relationship, or if the relationship was composed of only online interactions?
  3. Assuming that the act of catfishing was not connected to a plan of defrauding the catfishee of money or goods, is the act of catfishing morally worrisome? Why or why not?
  4. How much of your real identity do you owe to people online? What principles should guide us in our interactions with others who may not fully know who we are?
  5. Why is transparency of identity ethically good in online interactions? Can you see times when hiding one’s identity online—or changing it—is an ethically good thing?

Further Information:

Coen, Sharon. “Not all online catfish are bad, but strong communities can net the ones that are.” The Conversation, September 28, 2015. Available at:

Horn, Leslie. “The Psychology of Catfishing, From Its First Public Victim.” Gizmodo, September 2, 2014. Available at:

Martin, Denise. “Here’s How MTV’s Catfish Actually Works.” Vulture, May 21, 2014. Available at:

Ossad, Jordana. “’Catfish’ Detective Nev Schluman’s Top Digital Dating Tips: Less Emojis, More Face Time.” MTV, June 26, 2014. Available at:

Puppyteeth, Jaik. “Is it OK to Be a Casual Catfish?” Vice, February 5, 2017. Available at:

Schulman, Nev. In Real Life: Love, Lies & Identity in the Digital Age. New York: Grand Central Publishing, 2014.


Alex Purcell & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
November 5, 2018

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational use. Please email us and let us know if you found them useful! For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

%d bloggers like this: