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Green is the New Color of Money

CASE STUDY: Greenwashing and Advertising Ethics

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Present consumers are caring more and more about the environment. Among 25-34-year-old Americans, 75% rank the environment among their top concerns. Not only are consumers more prone to purchase from brands making a “positive social and environmental impact,” but 72% of Generation Z (ages 15-20) respondents to a Nielsen study are willing to pay a premium price on those products.

The corporate response to this cultural shift has been to churn out product lines or change company values to be more “green.” In order to educate consumers about green initiatives, companies started to heavily market their efforts and actions toward being more environmentally sustainable and friendly. Some companies have gone as far as overstating the positive environmental impact of their products or business practices. This practice misleads consumers into believing that a product is more environmentally friendly than it actually is and is called greenwashing.

The practice of greenwashing often involves companies using buzz words such as “biodegradable,” “natural,” and “organic” to convey the message of greenness, even if that wasn’t the case. When a company exaggerates these claims, it can even run into legal trouble as showing an intent to deceive/mislead consumers. In the 2012 California case of Ayana Hill v. Roll International Corporation and Fiji Water Company LLC, the water bottle company was taken to task for claims that their bottled water was “environmentally friendly and superior.” While the “greenness” of the bottle was not disputed, many felt that this gain was overshadowed by the unemphasized fact that the manufacturing, production, packing, and distribution of the product causes “as much, if not more, of an adverse environmental impact when compared to similar bottled waters,” rendering it less than “green.”

Proponents of the greening—or “greenwashing”—of products would point to the relative gains that controversial marketing strategies might encourage. Many would argue that harsh criticism against companies working toward greener initiatives and products will discourage strides being made in the corporate world toward more eco-sustainable business practices. Slight exaggeration in advertising may be needed to convey the notion of potential impact to the consumer. Supporters could point to the use of green words such as “natural,” “organic,” “eco-friendly,” as encouraging consumers to look for more environmentally friendly products, even if their product is only slightly greener than the non-green alternative. Audrey Holmes of Earth911 goes as far to say “the best way greenwashing is helping our society change over time is by making sustainability a normality” (Holmes, 2017). By arguably over-emphasizing the green-ness of a specific product, companies are at least bringing the environmental dimension of purchases to the foreground of a consumer’s purchasing decisions, and even altering the status-quo. Proponents argue that the shifting ethos to greener living is worth the cost of some hypocrisy. While some of these green products over-sell their environmental benefits, not all do—and such marketing will result in some of these better products being clearly identified and purchased by consumers.

Critics of greenwashing point to this intention of “going green” as a deceptive way to increase business profits rather than as a way of fulfilling any duty to the environment.  When the intention behind the product’s “green-ness” is to increase sales, businesses may be sacrificing the environmentally positive aspects of a product for the marketability or cost-efficiency of producing it. The more money businesses put into marketing their “green-ness,” the less money they put toward environmentally sustainable efforts.  In practice, this leads to businesses putting on a front of being eco-friendly while still practicing environmentally unsustainable practices such as polluting or lobbying against environmentally forward laws. This, in end, places the burden on the consumer to distinguish between authentic environmentally friendly companies and those just putting on a facade. David Mallen, associate director of the National Advertising Division of the Council of Better Business Bureaus, notes that “because green advertising is so ubiquitous now, there’s so much greater potential for confusion, misunderstanding, and uncertainty about what messages mean and how to substantiate them” (Dahl, 2010). The confounding messaging has left a vacuum in the consumer trust in the information they receive from companies. Greenpeace, one of the most prominent groups leading the charge against greenwashing, argues that “the average citizen is finding it more and more difficult to tell the difference between those companies genuinely dedicated to making a difference and those that are using a green curtain to conceal dark motives” (Moss & Scheer).

As more and more companies find that green sells, more products will be touted as helping the environment—or at least as not harming it as much as competing products. But how far can companies go in creatively selling their products without trashing their consumer’s autonomy?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What values are in conflict over the use of greenwashing in this case study?
  2. To what extent should companies be allowed to tout their green marketing efforts?
  3. What does it mean to deceive a company’s consumers? Are companies expected to forgo their exaggerated claims to guarantee transparency for the consumer?
  4. What sort of ethical principles could you create that would guide advertisers in balancing creativity, persuasive messaging, and respect for the consumer’s autonomy? Would these work in subtle cases of spin or exaggeration?

Further Information:

Capital Flows. “Greenwashing”: Deceptive Business Claims of “Eco-Friendliness.” Forbes. March 20, 2012. Available at https://www.forbes.com/sites/realspin/2012/03/20/greenwashing-deceptive-business-claims-of-eco-friendliness/

Clarke, Richard A., Stavins, Robert N., Greeno, J. Ladd, and Schot, Johan. “The Challenge of Going Green.” Harvard Business Review. July 1994. Available at https://hbr.org/1994/07/the-challenge-of-going-green

Dahl, R. “Green Washing.” Environmental Health Perspectives. June 1, 2010. Available at https://doi.org/10.1289/ehp.118-a246

Holmes, A. “Can Greenwashing Ever Be Good?” Earth911. August 9, 2017. Available at https://earth911.com/business-policy/greenwashing-good/

Mintel. “Green Marketing.” Mintel, April 2011. Available at http://academic.mintel.com/display/574850/

Moss, Doug and Scheer, Roddy. “How Can Consumers Find Out If a Corporation Is “Greenwashing” Environmentally Unsavory Practices?” Scientific American, Earth Talk. (n.d.) Available at https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/greenwashing/

Nielson. “Green Generation: Millennials Say Sustainability is a Shopping Priority.” Nielsen, November 5, 2015. Available at https://www.nielsen.com/us/en/insights/news/2015/green-generation-millennials-say-sustainability-is-a-shopping-priority.html

Authors:

Sharmeen Somani & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
April 30, 2019

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


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 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.

Race, Democracy, and Media

The Center for Media Engagement and Media Ethics Initiative Present:


The Spectacle of Lynching Redeployed:

On the Performance of Democratic Regard

Dr. Melvin Rogers

Associate Professor of Political Science
Brown University

April 9, 2019



D3vWpfuWkAUFd5v.jpg largeAmerica’s history is marked by a striking image—“black bodies swinging in the southern breeze.” Abel Meeropol—a Jewish American—first articulated this line in his 1937 published poem, “Bitter Fruit,” after viewing Lawrence Beitler’s horrific lynching photograph. Although Meeropol eventually put the words to music, it was jazz singer Billie Holiday’s haunting rendition of the song, now titled “Strange Fruit,” first recorded in 1939 that made it a classic. How does one practically and conceptually engage the simultaneous existence of a professed commitment to equality and liberty alongside the fact that white Americans visually digested those with whom they otherwise shared the polity? I engage this vexing issue by reflecting on the normative possibilities latent in Holiday’s performative rendition of Meeropol’s song.

Dr. Melvin Rogers is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Brown University. He is the author of The Undiscovered Dewey: Religion, Morality, and the Ethos of Democracy (Columbia University Press, 2008) and co-editor of African American Political Thought: A Collected History (University of Chicago Press, forthcoming). His articles have appeared in major academic journals as well as popular venues such as DissentThe AtlanticPublic Seminar, and Boston Review. Rogers serves as the co-editor of the New Histories of Philosophy series at Oxford University Press. Presently, he is at work on his second book, The Darkened Light of Faith: Race, Democracy, and Freedom in African American Political Thought.

The Media Ethics Initiative is part of the Center for Media Engagement at the University of Texas at Austin. Follow Media Ethics Initiative and Center for Media Engagement on Facebook for more information.


 

Limiting or Lifesaving?

CASE STUDY: Anti-Vax Censorship on Social Media

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Anti-vaccination advertisement from U.S. Newspaper, 1902

Freedom of speech is arguably the most valued right granted in the American constitution, but how should it be limited in speech that potentially affects the health of communities and individuals? This controversy has recently hit the world of social media in regard to the growing number of “anti-vax” groups, or communities of parents concerned about the supposed dangers of vaccinating their children. As the online presence of anti-vaccine messages continues to increase—and potentially threatens the health of children and communities—the calls for limiting the reach of such messages have grown louder.  Should communication asserting messages that seem to be wrong, unhelpful, or potentially harmful be censored or “deplatformed” by private social media companies?

Many are worried about anti-vax messages and content because they seem to risk undoing the many gains of vaccination programs. With the recent surge of measles cases this year after declared nationally eliminated in 2000 (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018), the need for widespread vaccination is seemingly more evident than ever.  It is very possible for diseases we thought dead to society to return if vaccination rates decline, and with a strength we would not be equipped to handle without large scale immunity.  Anti-vax groups typically express messages about the supposed danger associated with immunization, and thus contribute to such risks by convincing many to refrain from vaccinating themselves or their children.  To make matters worse, those who choose not to get vaccinated are not only risking hurting themselves, but also those around them. Declining rates of vaccinations decrease what’s called “herd immunity,” an epidemiologic term that refers to the resistance a population, including those who cannot be vaccinated such as those with autoimmune diseases, has to the spread of a certain disease if enough people are protected against it (Young, 2018).

The need for herd immunity, as well as concerns about the lack of scientific support for anti-vax messages, has prompted many social media outlets to restrict anti-vax content. For instance, Pinterest, online hotspot for sharing creative inspiration, has removed search results for the key word “vaccine” because of the influx of anti-vax articles (Thompson, 2019), YouTube has pulled advertisements and recommended videos related to incorporating anti-vax into parenting (Sands, 2019), Amazon has removed anti-vax documentaries and ads from Prime Video (Spangler, 2019), and Facebook is working to place lower priority on anti-vax search results and removing related groups from those recommended to users (Cohen & Bonifield, 2019).  These actions appear justified to many, since the World Health Organization just labeled vaccine hesitancy as one of the top 10 health threats of 2019.  Many believe that censoring or “deplatforming” seems to be the safest option for protecting the public, as erasing the materials will prevent such messages from affecting individuals’ decision-making.

Some might worry that these efforts to suppress the posting and spread of anti-vax content go too far. Shouldn’t people have control of their decision making, a skeptic might ask?  This includes one’s decision to publish, view, and internalize anti-vax information. Social media is a crossroads for opinions on every subject—many of which seem incoherent and harmful to some segments of the population—so prohibiting one side of the vaccine debate might seem unproductive. There is also the concern about how to go about identifying “anti-vaxxer” content. YouTube describes anti-vax videos as content that violates the platform’s guidelines against “dangerous and harmful” content. Yet, the definition of dangerous and harmful can vary, and it is unclear that espousing an unscientific position is immediately dangerous. While some anti-vax materials may be exhibiting false scientific information, others may be simply expressing one’s point of view or skepticism.  Additionally, information may be published regarding a religion or ideology’s reasoning for avoiding immunization that could be educational for followers or outsiders, at least in terms of informing them of why certain groups don’t support vaccination efforts. Social media efforts to censor anti-vax content quickly begin to look like efforts to sort religious or political views out by their alleged consequences. This relates to an abiding concern about censoring or stopping speech that some find objectionable or harmful—who judges these facts, and what errors are they prone to make?  As Marko Mavrovic of the Prindle Post warns, “Once you no longer value free speech, it becomes much easier to justify eliminating speech that you simply disagree with or believe should not exist.” Beyond these worries are the concerns about unintended consequences: by removing or obscuring anti-vax content, social media might only provide anti-vaxxers with more “evidence” that powerful interests are trying to stop their messages about vaccines: “Demonetizing videos is likely to only affirm anti-vaxxer beliefs of being persecuted, making them more difficult to reach” (Sands, 2019).  This could diminish any hope of changing the minds of anti-vaxxers.  Additionally, the anti-vax censorship attempts thus far have been less fruitful than predicted, calling into question whether this movement is worth the effort.  In analyzing the effects of suppression efforts, CNN recently reported that “misinformation about vaccines continues to thrive on Facebook and Instagram weeks after the companies vowed to reduce its distribution on their platforms” (Darcy, 2019).

It seems to be the consensus of scientists and experts that vaccines help many more than they risk harming, and that ensuring only true information about their effectiveness helps to create a healthy society. But how do we proceed down the road of deplatforming, limiting, or banning a certain sort of content without censoring content that is more reasonable or nuanced, stymieing unpopular opinions that might turn out to be right or somewhat correct, or leading to further backlashes by those censored?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the central values in conflict over the decision to deplatform or suppress anti-vaccination content on social media?
  2. Is this primarily a legal or ethical controversy? Explain your reasoning.
  3. Do you agree with attempts to deplatform certain speakers and messages from popular social media outlets? If not, would you suggest other courses of action to combat anti-vaxxer content?
  4. How might social media platforms deal with speech that seems to threaten public health while still valuing free speech?

Further Information:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018, February 5). “Measles History.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Available at: www.cdc.gov/measles/about/history.html.

Cohen, E. and Bonifield, J. (2019, February 26). “Facebook to Get Tougher on Anti-Vaxers.” CNN, Cable News Network. Available at: www.cnn.com/2019/02/25/health/facebook-anti-vaccine-content/index.html.

Darcy, O. (2019, March 21). “Vaccine misinformation flourishes on Facebook and Instagram weeks after promised crackdown.” CNN. Available at: www.cnn.com/2019/03/21/tech/vaccine-misinformation-facebook-instagram/index.html.

Mavrovik, M. (2018, September 18). “The Dangers and Ethics of Social Media Censorship.” The Prindle Post. Available at: www.prindlepost.org/2018/09/the-dangers-and-ethics-of-social-media-censorship/.

Sands, M. (2019, February 25). “Is YouTube Right to Demonetize Anti-Vax Channels?” Forbes Magazine. Available at: www.forbes.com/sites/masonsands/2019/02/25/is-youtube-right-to-demonetize-anti-vax-channels/#22f30f0014ce.

Spangler, T. (2019, March 2). “Amazon Pulls Anti-Vaccination Documentaries from Prime Video after Congressman’s Inquiry to Jeff Bezos.” Variety. Available at: www.variety.com/2019/digital/news/amazon-pulls-anti-vaccination-documentaries-prime-video-1203153487/.

Thompson, H. (2019, March 8). “Pinterest’s Block on Anti-Vaccination Content.” The Prindle Post. Availabe at: www.prindlepost.org/2019/03/pinterest-block-anti-vaccination-content/.

World Health Organization. (2013, February 19). “Six Common Misconceptions about Immunization.” World Health Organization. Available at: www.who.int/vaccine_safety/initiative/detection/immunization_misconceptions/en/index2.html.

Young, Z. (2018, November 28). “How Anti-Vax Went Viral.” Politico. Available at: www.politico.eu/article/how-anti-vax-went-viral/.

Authors:

Page Trotter & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
April 9, 2019

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


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 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.

Halloween Hijinks and Internet Shaming

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Racially Insensitive Costumes

Case Study PDF| Additional Case Studies


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Stock Photo: Pixabay

Halloween is a holiday that many Americans wait for all year to bring out their creative costumes—funny, crude, or scary.  Inevitably, some of these costumes will be judged by others as insensitive. Recently, the issue made national headlines when fourteen staff members of Middleton Heights Elementary School were criticized for offensive Halloween costumes. Playing off of the controversies surrounding President Trump’s proposed border wall, a group of Middleton staff members held maracas and wore sombreros or ponchos marked with the phrase “Mexican,”, while another group had Trump’s MAGA slogan plastered across a makeshift border wall in reference to his border security plan. Both groups embodied these partisan and offensive labels into costumes they then wore to the elementary school. On October 31, 2018, photos of staff members in these costumes were published on the Middleton School District’s website, which then quickly spread across the nation.

The public, it seemed, was not amused by these Halloween frivolities. By November 3, the participants were placed on paid administrative leave while further investigation took place. Superintendent of the school district Josh Middleton stated that “This type of behavior has no place in education and certainly is not tolerated here at Middleton School District.’’ He admitted that this was “an unfortunate incident of very poor judgement,” but expressed that this is not representative of either the school district or the teachers. Within days, it was revealed that all of the involved staff, except for Principal Kim Atkinson, were reinstated and the investigation only discovered “love and commitment” of the staff members involved. Additionally, the staff involved in the incident released an apology. To clarify the purpose of the after-school event, the superintendent claimed that it was a team-building exercise with a focus on kindness and education regarding other cultures where staff members were divided and named after countries.

Similarly, the intentions of the involved staff members of Middleton Heights were argued to be, at worst, misguided and good in nature. News of the staff members’ consequences and the negative response across the nation spurred the creation of an online petition in favor of the staff members called “Save our Middleton Staff, Teachers, and Principal.” Supporters also left comments on the petition, such as “Unfortunately, the photos were very controversial. However, we believe it’s been blown out of proportion,” and “I support our teachers 100% and know they did not do this as racial hatred! They are amazing individuals and I’m proud to have them teaching my children!” The petition and its supporters argued that the events should not obscure the ability of the involved staff members of Middleton Heights to be loving and supportive of students.

But is the image created by their costumes too much to overcome in regard to what some students might expect of an educator? Despite the intentions of the Middleton staff members, there is concern about their ability to educate and foster inclusive environments for minority students. The 2017 U.S. census reports that Middleton has a Latino population of 9.5 percent, and Idaho Ed Trends reports that the elementary school has a Hispanic demographic of 12.9 percent; these facts could worry those that say these costume antics will displease or exclude significant populations of students. A former public school teacher, Meredith St. Clair, said in a letter to the school board that “I feel that everyone does have a right to free speech and their own beliefs, politically and otherwise, but we cannot bring these into the classroom.” St. Clair argued that “If we’re doing this overtly, what are the covert, the underlying messages that are being sent to these children on a daily basis” (Katz & Moeller, 2018)? Other critics have taken to the internet to raise support, creating a petition called “No Racism in Middleton School District” that highlights a set of demands to approach racism—including “culturally relevant curriculum, policy change, review of hiring practices, and district wide training” (Mondragon, 2018).

The counter-petition involves individuals from across the U.S., and not simply from the school district or Idaho; likewise, its point is integrated into a national conversation over racial sensitivity.  Outrage over this seemingly small instance has grown national in scope. Those thinking more about how much controversy ill-chosen costumes bring up are asking the question: How much do the supposedly good intentions of the staff members wearing the offensive costumes matter?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What values are in conflict over the Halloween costumes at the center of this case?
  2. Are the costumes an instance of speech or expressive conduct? Why or why not?
  3. How should the school district react to those educators that were involved in this party? What principle are you basing this reaction on, and do you think it will be useful for the next instance of controversial Halloween costumes?
  4. Are there conditions under which such culturally insensitive costumes can be worn?

Further Information:

Foy, Nicole. “Frustrations Fly at Middleton School Board Meeting.” Idaho Press, 13 Nov. 2018, www.idahopress.com/news/local/frustrations-fly-at-middleton-school-board-meeting/article_2fdd6358-7ff7-5f07-be14-7411450ab370.html.

Foy, Nicole. “Middleton Costumes Expose Racial Fault Lines in Canyon County.” Idaho Press, 17 Nov. 2018, www.idahopress.com/news/local/middleton-costumes-expose-racial-fault-lines-in-canyon-county/article_82cdc0b5-16a8-596a-afe8-7f78e7fe1bb0.html.

Katz, Michael, and Katy Moeller. “Middleton Heights Staff Placed on Administrative Leave over Controversial Halloween Outfits.” Idahostatesman, Idaho Statesman, 3 Nov. 2018, www.idahostatesman.com/latest-news/article221074560.html.

Mondragon, Estefania. “Sign the Petition: No Racism in Middleton School District.” MoveOn Petitions, 2018, https://petitions.moveon.org/sign/no-racism-in-middleton.

O’Kane, Caitlin. “Thousands Sign Competing Petitions over Teachers Who Wore Border Wall Costumes.” CBS News, CBS Interactive, 6 Nov. 2018, www.cbsnews.com/news/thousands-sign-competing-petitions-over-idaho-teachers-who-wore-border-wall-costume/.

Authors:

Sophia Park & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
April 3, 2019

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


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 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.

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