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Blurring the Line Between Reporting the Truth and Minimizing Harm

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Showing the Faces of Protesters in News Coverage

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facespicThe Black Lives Matter movement erupted across the world after George Floyd, a 46 year-old black man, was pronounced dead after a Minneapolis police officer kneeled on his neck for over eight minutes (Kanno-youngs, 2020). Massive protests were accompanied by harsh law enforcement and government responses and were widely covered by the news media. With government surveillance increasing among the protests, some criticized photojournalists and news organizations for publishing photos that show the faces of individual protestors (McBride, 2020). Why? Because in some states, you can be fired for protesting and in some cases you can be charged with a crime (Spata, 2020). There is also the chance that those unsympathetic to the protest can identify individual protesters and pursue courses of public shaming. There is no U.S. law that protects your privacy in public spaces, and Frank LoMonte, the director of Florida’s Brechner Center for Freedom and Information, said “if you are marching down the street or sunbathing in the park, you waive any expectation that what you’re doing is a private activity. That is doubly so when the activity is newsworthy” (Miller & Asbury, 2020).

Ethically speaking, should journalists run photographs that show individual protester’s faces, or should they forgo such images or alter them by blurring captured faces? NPR’s public editor, Kelly McBride, spoke to these concerns, arguing that “journalists’ job is to convey reality” often captured by such photographs. Furthermore, altering the images to protect protests is worrisome, since  “blurring images is a form of photo manipulation that makes them less true, and is generally an unacceptable practice for documentary photography,” (McBride, 2020). Keith Jenkins, the Senior Director of Visuals at NPR, explained that “photos and video are the most powerful tool in a storyteller’s toolkit,” and that “photos of protests are crucial for storytelling in the digital environment,” (McBride, 2020). Akili Ramsess, Executive Director of the National Press Photographers Association, commented that if people are protesting to express an idea, then “the press is out there to tell that story,” and that photographers “want the human connection” that vivid photographs can provide (Miller & Asbury, 2020). Ramses went on to say that “the whole purpose of demonstrations and civil disobedience is to put a human face on the issue and the best way to do that is to connect people to each other’s humanity” (Miller & Asbury, 2020). Danielle Kilgo, a professor at the Hubbard School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Minnesota, Twin Cities, said that “the general public’s opinions about protests and the social movements behind them are formed in large part by what they read or see in the media,” (Kilgo, 2020). Without seeing detailed images of protest, and perhaps the faces of protesters, some argue that protest coverage loses important meaning (Murabayashi, 2020). Brent Lewis, Business Photo Editor at the New York Times and co-founder of Diversity Photo, explained that people who “might not deal with the issue of race and policing, might find it difficult to connect otherwise” if detailed images didn’t accompany coverage of protesters (Murabayashi, 2020). Al Tompkins, senior faculty member at Poynter, talked about journalists’ unenviable position: “on the one hand, (protesters) want us there to document the story, except when it’s not convenient. Police want us there to document the story of their compassion, of their professionalism, except when it’s not convenient, except when they’re beating somebody. You can’t have it both ways” (Miller & Asbury, 2020).

But many protesters have pointed out the dangers of having their photo being published. In Florida, you can be fired for protesting (Spata, 2020). For instance, Florida is an “at-will state,” which means that employers can fire you for a range of reasons;  Cynthia Sass, an employment lawyer in Tampa, explains that “you can be fired for a good reason, for a bad reason, or no reason at all. When it comes to private employers and your First Amendment rights, they don’t apply” (Spata, 2020). In some cases, you can even be charged with a crime. In Page, Arizona, the U.S. Department of Justice alongside local police infiltrated a Facebook group that was discussing plans of rioting at the local courthouse (Swan, 2020). Four days after infiltrating the social media group, an arrest was made (Swan, 2020). The FBI also recently released a notice seeking information on individuals who incited violence at protests, citing photographs as one form of helpful information for their investigations (“Seeking Information on Individuals,” 2020). In using unedited pictures of protesting crowds, journalists may be making the government’s pursuit of those doing the protesting that much more effective. Tara Pixley, a professor of visual journalism at Loyola Marymount University and a co-founder and board member of Authority Collective said “why would we make it easier for police surveillance to identify people at protests” (Miller & Asbury, 2020)? The Society of Professional Journalists Code of Ethics, which is widely considered to be a guidebook for journalists to use, does say that journalists should “never distort the content of news photos” and that they should report the truth, but it also states that journalists should “balance the public’s need for information against potential harm or discomfort” (“SPJ Code of Ethics – Society of Professional Journalists,” 2014).

The controversy of publishing newsworthy images of protesters is a case where important journalistic guidelines are at odds with one another. What should be held over the other: photojournalistic integrity in conveying the world as it is, or the ethical consideration of those being photographed? What happens when telling newsworthy truths entails some risk or harm to those taking part in newsworthy events? How journalists navigate these conflicts will not only change how stories are written, but they might also affect some aspects of the public protests they seek to report.

Discussion Questions:

1. What values are in conflict in the case of publishing photographs of protesting crowds?

2. Should photographers/publications be barred from showing the faces of protestors in published work?

3. Would blurring the faces of individual protesters be a suitable solution to these worries? What trade-offs would accompany this solution?

4. Are there other ways that protestors can be protected in stories about acts of protest in a public setting? What drawbacks might accompany these solutions?

5. Should states enact laws that prohibit private employers from firing employees based on their protesting/demonstrating behaviors?

Further Information:

“Seeking Information on Individuals Inciting Violence During First Amendment-Protected Peaceful Demonstrations.” (2020, June 01). The Federal Bureau of Investigation. Available at: https://www.fbi.gov/news/pressrel/press-releases/seeking-information-on-individuals-inciting-violence-during-first-amendment-protected-peaceful-demonstrations

“SPJ Code of Ethics.” Society of Professional Journalists. Available at: https://www.spj.org/ethicscode.asp

Kanno-youngs, Z. (2020, June 19). “U.S. Watched George Floyd Protests in 15 Cities Using Aerial Surveillance.” The New York Times. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/06/19/us/politics/george-floyd-protests-surveillance.html

Kilgo, D. K. (2020, June 03). “How the Media Can Fix Its Protest Coverage.” Reasons to be Cheerful. Available at: https://reasonstobecheerful.world/how-the-media-can-fix-its-protest-coverage/

McBride, K. (2020, June 18). “Should Images Of Protesters Be Blurred To Protect Them From Retribution?” National Public Radio. Available at: https://www.npr.org/sections/publiceditor/2020/06/18/879223467/should-images-of-protesters-be-blurred-to-protect-them-from-retribution

Miller, E., & Asbury, N. (2020, June 04). “Photographers are being called on to stop showing protesters’ faces. Should they?” Poynter. Available at: https://www.poynter.org/ethics-trust/2020/should-journalists-show-protesters-faces/

Murabayashi, A. (2020, June 08). “No, Photojournalists Aren’t Advocating the Blurring of Faces at Protests.” PhotoShelter. Available at: https://blog.photoshelter.com/2020/06/no-photojournalists-arent-advocating-the-blurring-of-faces-at-protests/

Spata, C. (2020, June 11). “Can you be fired for protesting? In Florida, you can.” Tampa Bay Times. Available at: https://www.tampabay.com/news/2020/06/11/can-you-be-fired-for-protesting-in-florida-you-can/

Swan, B. W. (2020, June 12). “Feds comb Facebook to hunt down alleged rioters and looters.” Politico. Available at: https://www.politico.com/news/2020/06/12/facebook-riot-loot-justice-department-314567

Authors:

Claire Coburn & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
August 25, 2020

www.mediaengagement.org

Image: MrReebdoog / CC BY-NC-SA 2.0


This case study is supported by funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the Center for Media Engagement. They can be used in unmodified PDF form for classroom or educational settings. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Center for Media Engagement.

Picturing Justice for Kalief Browder

CASE STUDY: Documentary Film and the Ethics of Media Advocacy

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Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter and Kalief Browder / TIME: The Kalief Browder Story

In 2010, Kalief Browder, a Black teen from the Bronx, was arrested and accused of stealing a backpack. Over the next five years, Browder’s case languished in the Bronx court system, and he remained confined in Rikers Island, a prison notorious for not only its dire physical conditions but also the brutal violence among both prisoners and officers. An otherwise reserved and quiet teen, Browder’s literal fight to survive the corruption at Rikers – all while simply awaiting trial – resulted in solitary confinement for a sum of two of his three years in prison.

The Netflix/Spike documentary mini-series Time: The Kalief Browder Story (Carter, 2017) recounts the complexity of Browder’s tragic experience in the criminal justice system. The “docuseries,” produced by rap artist Jay-Z, includes violent security camera footage of Browder and other inmates at Rikers Island, and depicts the damaging effects of solitary confinement. The series features interviews with Browder, his mother Venida, his siblings, and his lawyer. Jay-Z and Governor Andrew Cuomo also add their own commentary on Browder’s experience in a broken system. The psychological damage of solitary confinement is clearly depicted, and Browder himself describes the isolation, paranoia, and fear associated with being “in the bing.” Media attention was intended to help bring attention to unjust instances of solitary confinement, but may also have contributed to the tragic outcome of Browder’s story. 

The System

After his arrest in 2010, Browder’s adoptive mother scraped together the $3,000 required for his bail, though because Browder was on probation for a previous offense – joyriding in a bakery truck – he could not be discharged. Browder was offered plea bargains which would have resulted in his immediate release, though he insisted on his innocence and refused to plead guilty to a crime that he did not commit. The prosecution on the case dragged its heels, and repeatedly deferred the trial, claiming it was “not ready.” Browder remained imprisoned, despite several court appearances which all resulted in ongoing delays.

Raw video footage in the docuseries includes officers beating Browder to the ground even while he was in handcuffs, fights among prisoners, and guards’ aggressive and provocative behaviour. While Browder was not a large man and was generally respectful, the need to defend himself in prison and his refusal to subscribe to what inmates and guards call “The Program” of extortion and corruption at Rikers resulted in repeated stints in solitary confinement. His frustration at the lack of a speedy trial, violence associated with the unwritten rules in prison, and isolation led him to attempt suicide six times while imprisoned. He had no history of mental challenges before his time at Rikers. Browder pleaded to speak with counselors while incarcerated, but his requests were ignored by officers.

The Results

In 2013, after continually professing his innocence for three years, Browder was released from Rikers. A judge dismissed all charges against him given that his case was dragged out in the court system without a trial. But by then, the damage had been done. Browder suffered significant emotional, psychological, social, and economic consequences associated with isolation, manipulation, and violence.

Browder’s plight garnered national attention, including that of Jay-Z. With the assistance of supporters and media, Browder made a public call for criminal justice reform in New York. He described to reporters (Gonnerman, 2016) the psychological trauma of spending years in a sparse cell, together with the starvation and brutality that he suffered at Rikers.

The Media

Media attention served to promote Browder’s message about a broken, corrupt, and violent criminal justice system. Browder spoke openly and honestly on camera with producers and Jay-Z in particular as the docuseries was filmed. He described his frustration and pain; Jay-Z professed his pride in Browder’s survival and advocacy. Browder appeared with his lawyer on The View (2014) and developed a relationship with Rosie O’Donnell; he even had O’Donnell’s personal cell phone number. He and his lawyer were also interviewed by Marc Lamont Hill on HuffPostLive (2013). Browder’s public advocacy for criminal justice reform was amplified by the media, and gained the attention of politicians and advocates.

However, Browder’s exposure in the media also caught the attention of Bronx residents who wrongly assumed that he had money given his recent media appearances (in which he appeared in professional clothing and new glasses) and attention from celebrities such as Jay-Z and Rosie O’Donnell. Browder was thus not enthusiastic about the public attention paid to him; far from becoming rich from his media appearances, he still lived at home in the Bronx with his mom and claimed that all he wanted was justice. During a 2014 confrontation in his Bronx neighborhood, Browder was shot point blank in the abdomen. This incident brought further contact with the police and a stint in the hospital, neither of which were helpful to Browder’s mental health.

In context of increased attention to anti-Black racism and police brutality, the media attention given to Browder’s extended incarceration and suffering at Rikers highlights a clear example of how the justice system mistreats and jeopardizes people of color. Media coverage—spurred on by this docuseries—was helpful in bringing attention to the brutal justice system, but Browder seems to have also paid a price beyond the consequences of his incarceration. Thus this docuseries raises ethical concerns. In producing the docuseries, presumably Jay-Z intended to help Browder and bring attention to injustices in the prison system, which disproportionately includes young Black men. However, it is unclear whether Jay-Z considered if the series could have been detrimental to Browder himself. In other words, the series could have been helpful to the cause yet detrimental to Browder.

Is it ethical to produce a series that is harmful to its subject but potentially helpful to many like him or her? As this documentary illustrates, documentary filmmakers might have a perspective that goes beyond simply explaining some aspect of the world; they may have a persuasive message to communicate. In this case, the creators seemed intent on conveying a message about the injustices of the criminal system, particularly in New York. Thus, this documentary is not objective or neutral reporting that simply conveys information, even though it states the facts about Browder’s case and uses actual footage of his incarceration. It is created to change minds and spur action and reform. The persuasive intent behind the message of the series is not bad, but new challenges arise when documentary filmmakers become advocates for a perspective or position. For instance, this approach could lead to questions about how subjects in the series (such as Browder and his mother) are edited in or out of the footage, and how their messages are tailored to suit the overall purpose of the series. Additionally, making a documentary for a specific persuasive purpose will also change what footage, interviews, and facts are included in the final narrative. The audience might not be privy to many details that may have contributed to the case but do not serve the message of the documentary and were thereby left out. In other words, the nature of documentaries that set out to advocate for causes such as criminal system reform and social justice raise important concerns about how filmmakers present their messages, shape their artworks, and how audiences make sense of the information provided. 

Discussion Questions: 

  1. After his release from Rikers, Kalief Browder’s activism gained the attention of advocates, but also that of neighborhood rivals who assumed that he had money. What are the benefits of media attention in this case? What are the drawbacks of media attention in this case?
  2. Who was more vulnerable in this case, Browder or the prison system? Why? Consider if Browder was aware of how this docuseries would affect both him and his cause. Do you think that he considered any detrimental consequences of his media exposure before consenting to participating in this series? Would they have mattered to him?
  3. Nichols (2001) urges documentary filmmakers to reflect upon the question, “How do we treat the people we film?” Is there evidence in the docuseries that Jay-Z considered how the docuseries would affect Browder? As producer, does Jay-Z seem to be concerned more with Browder, or the issue of systemic racism and brutality in the prison system?
  4. Browder was psychologically damaged by the brutality that he suffered at Rikers. After his release, significant media attention increased his paranoia. How did or could the media have demonstrated care for Browder and his family?
  5. After watching the series, describe Browder’s appearance and conduct after his release. Is there anything about how the media treated him or how he appeared that would imply that he “had money?”
  6. How did the media address inequities suffered by the Browder and the greater Black community in the criminal justice system? How could the media improve such coverage going forward? Consider if media products such as specific, detailed series such as this one or something more general such as reports, statistics, or government lobbying would best serve to address these inequities? 

Further Information:

Carter, S. (Executive Producer). (2017). TIME: The Kalief Browder Story. [Docuseries]. Roc Nation.

Gannerman, J. (2014, September 29). “Before the law.” The New Yorker. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2014/10/06/before-the-law

Gonnerman, J. (2016, June 3). “Kalief Browder, in his own words.” The New Yorker Radio Hour. Retrieved from https://www.newyorker.com/news/news-desk/kalief-browder-in-his-own-words

Goldensohn, R. (2018, September 6). “With Rikers closure still years off, de Blasio backs away from young adult reforms.” Politico. Retrieved from https://www.politico.com/states/new-york/city-hall/story/2018/09/05/with-rikers-closure-still-years-off-de-blasio-backs-away-from-young-adult-reforms-594152

Hill, M. L. (2013, December 3). “Kalief Browder, NYC teen jailed for years with no conviction, says Rikers guards starved him.” HuffPostLive. Retrieved from https://youtu.be/yIlSqk_pfbA

Nichols, B. (2001). Introduction to Documentary. Bloomington & Indianapolis: Indiana University Press.

O’Donnell, R. (2014, November 7). Rosie.com. Retrieved from https://www.rosie.com/2014/11/page/6/

Author:

Sharon Lauricella, Ph.D.
Associate Professor and Program Director
Faculty of Social Science and Humanities
Ontario Tech University
www.sharonlauricella.com

August 17, 2020

Image: Shawn “Jay-Z” Carter and Kalief Browder / TIME: The Kalief Browder Story


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Center for Media Engagement and the case’s author. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational uses. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the case author through the Center for Media Engagement.

Campaign Promises and Vague Rhetoric

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Strategic Ambiguity over Medicare for All

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Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders has long supported a federal healthcare program for all Americans and, to this end, has proposed five “Medicare for All” (MFA) bills over the course of his tenure in Congress. During his 2020 Democratic primary campaign, Sanders frequently spoke about MFA, reminding voters that he “wrote the damn bill.” However, Sanders’ MFA bill lacked critical details, such as a strategy to pay for the multi-trillion-dollar plan.

Democratic candidate and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren also supported MFA. Warren was known as a candidate with a “plan for everything.” However, Warren struggled to commit to many specifics regarding MFA, at times aligning herself with Sanders’ MFA bill while simultaneously saying she “support[ed] a lot of plans,” including more moderate proposals (CBS News Twitter, September 13, 2019). “Right now, what we’ve got in MFA is a framework” said Warren at a September 2019 event (Kasparian, 2019).

Entering fall 2019, polls showed Warren periodically leading Sanders by ten points or more at times (realclearpolitics.com, October 8, 2019). However, Warren’s lack of details about MFA ran counter to her image as a candidate with detailed plans, which left her open to attack from opponents. For instance, former South Bend, Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg called out Senator Warren on her contradictory behavior by saying “Your signature, senator, is to have a plan for everything. Except [MFA]” (Kurtzleben, 2020). Even as Warren rose to the top of the polls, some criticized her for her unwillingness or inability to describe how to pay for MFA. Many progressives were concerned that Warren’s support of more-moderate proposals represented deeper ideological differences. Others saw Warren’s support for MFA as a deceitful ploy to gain support from progressives by using the name of a popular policy while planning to support a more moderate healthcare plan if elected (Kasparian, 2019).

In November 2019, Warren released a detailed MFA proposal. With the release of her MFA plan, Warren no longer appeared vague and noncommittal on MFA. Instead, her proposal’s specificity stood in contrast to Sanders’ more-ambiguous MFA bills. Specifically, Warren’s proposal included plans to raise the 20 trillion dollars that many argued was needed to pay for the program—something Sanders failed to address. Larry Levitt, the executive vice president for health policy at the Kaiser Family Foundation, called it “the most specific plan for Medicare for All that’s ever been proposed by a candidate” (Kaplan, 2019). Almost immediately, however, Democrats from across the political spectrum criticized Warren’s plan. Progressives saw the plan as “insufficiently radical” while many moderates felt that Warren’s plan, which called for sweeping changes to the tax and healthcare systems, was unlikely to pass Congress (Alter, 2020). The details also exposed Warren to new attacks from both the media and her political rivals, including eventual Democratic nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden, who criticized Warren’s plan by saying it would raise taxes on the middle class.

Warren’s poll numbers plummeted, and by the first of the year she found herself trailing Sanders by four points (realclearpolitics.com, January 1, 2020). Warren had received more criticism for her detailed MFA plan than Sanders received for his ambiguous plan. As criticism mounted and support slowed, Warren shifted her rhetoric by deemphasizing MFA (Ax, 2019). Shifting emphasis could not save her faltering campaign, however, and after a poor Super Tuesday performance, Warren withdrew from the race. Although a number of factors led to Warren’s poor performance, the attacks on her MFA plan played a significant role.

Both Warren and Sanders sought to appeal to progressives and touted similar visions of MFA, yet the trajectory of the two campaigns dramatically diverged. Early on, both Warren and Sanders made vague healthcare promises, yet Warren received more criticism for this ambiguity than Sanders. When Warren released her detailed MFA proposal, every part of her plan was torn apart. Sanders, on the other hand, publicly refused to release specific plans and received little pushback as he cited false numbers in the trillions (Luthra, 2020). While Warren was berated for MFA and subsequently slumped in the polls, Sanders, who centered his campaign around MFA, emerged from the fray to become the face of Democratic progressives. What happened?

Some, like Neera Tanden, president of the progressive think tank Center for American Progress, saw Warren as the victim of sexist expectations. “The fact that Warren paid a penalty for laying out the specifics of her MFA plan and that Senator Sanders has never paid such a penalty is a sign of the challenges women face at this moment in politics” said Tanden (Sarlin, 2020). Others contended that Warren should not have cast herself as the “plans for everything” candidate if she did not have a healthcare plan. Still others took issue with Warren’s deviations from Sanders’ vision, like her drawn-out implementation plan and an “employer contribution” funding strategy.

Is being specific in their promises a virtue for political candidates? On one hand, specific campaign promises provide voters with clear explanations of a candidate’s ideas. Voters can then hold candidates accountable for their campaign promises. Additionally, detailing policies demonstrates that candidates have thoughtfully considered the steps necessary to concretely implement their ideas. On the other hand, candidates are more likely to break their promises when committing to specifics, given the uncertain and compromise-filled world of governance. Furthermore, presenting policy details can expose a candidate to a host of new criticisms. By disclosing the specific details of her MFA plan, Warren opened herself up to more criticism by her opponents; Biden could not have attacked Warren’s plans to raise taxes had Warren remained ambiguous about how she would pay for her proposal.

Additionally, research indicates that ambiguity rarely repels, and can actually attract, voters (Tomz, 2009). When candidates are ambiguous, voters tend to believe what they want to believe about the candidates’ policies. As a result, voters often project their policy desires onto their favorite candidates. Conversely, fully fleshed out policies often fail to live up to voters’ high expectations. For example, Warren’s ambiguity permitted both her moderate and progressive supporters to project their policy preferences onto her. Sanders and Warren had always differed on particular policies, but once Warren revealed the specifics of her plan, the differences were made clear and neither moderates nor progressives were satisfied. Warren’s (eventually) more detailed rhetoric may have cost her votes and thus hurt her ability to implement her campaign promises. Broad promises and idealistic visions of the future may be more effective, even if they seem less honest because they are intentionally vague.

If vague promises are more effective in a campaign than specific plans, candidates may be encouraged to make bold promises that have little chance of being implemented. For example, MFA may not have the support of a majority of members of congress despite its political popularity (Sarlin, 2020). Given MFA’s unrealistic nature, perhaps neither Warren nor Sanders were justified in their bold promises regarding the policy. On one hand, Warren may have acted more ethically when she presented her plans to make her ambitious policy a reality, even if it hurt her chances of gaining a national platform from which to promote her ideas. On the other hand, given the significant challenge of sticking to detailed MFA policy promises, perhaps Sanders acted more ethically by remaining vague on MFA. Since he promised less, Sanders, if elected, would have possessed more flexibility when enacting policy. Still, it may have been unethical for Sanders to make MFA a central element of his campaign despite its dubious chances of implementation.

These challenges can only be approached after first establishing a shared understanding of the purpose of campaign promises. One view is that campaign rhetoric should express the values of the candidate. When asked about vague health care campaign promises, one political veteran who worked on the Affordable Care Act said, “For most of us, most of the time, policy details are proxies for other things: Does this person care about people like me? Does this person talk about values the way I talk about values” (Leonard, 2020)? Grand promises at least reveal what a candidate values and hopes for, even if attaining these goals after election might prove illusive.

Voters tend to focus more on values than they do policy details. Voters want to know whether candidates’ concerns align with their own. If issues function as proxies for particular views of the world, are detailed policy proposals needed at all during campaigning? When Sanders or Warren commit to MFA, are they promising to implement a certain policy, or are they communicating an important value: that they care about whether or not everyone has access to healthcare?  

Discussion Questions:

    1. Do campaign promises serve as policy commitments or as expressions of values?
    2. As the candidate with a “plan for everything,” should Warren have been held to a higher standard of specificity? Alternatively, should the bar for specificity be set based on where a candidate sits in the standings? Should the bar be equal for all candidates?
    3. Is it ethical for a candidate to attack an opponent’s specific plans with vague criticism? Similarly, must a candidate have detailed plans of their own if they wish to attack an opponent’s plans?
    4. Is it ethical for candidates to leverage ambiguity so as to allow voters to project their policy desires onto themselves?
    5. Is the media obligated to equally critique the campaign promises of all the candidates in a race? Can the media be held to such an expectation during a crowded race like the 2020 Democratic primary? How should the media divide limited airtime?

Further Information:

Alter, C. (2020, March 3) “What Went Wrong for Elizabeth Warren.” Time. Available at: https://time.com/5793943/what-went-wrong-for-elizabeth-warren/

Ax, J. (2019, December 18) “Seeking fresh momentum, Democrat Warren recalibrates ‘Medicare for All’ rhetoric.” Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-usa-election-warren/seeking-fresh-momentum-democrat-warren-recalibrates-medicare-for-all-rhetoric-idUSKBN1YM2KY

Kaplin, T., Goodnouch, A., & Sanger-Katz, M. (2019, November 1) “Elizabeth Warren Proposes $20.5 Trillion Health Care Plan.” Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/11/01/us/politics/elizabeth-warren-medicare-for-all.html

 Kasparian, A. (2019, November 29) “Elizabeth Warren’s vagueness on ‘Medicare for All’ isn’t fooling anyone.” The Hill. Available at: https://thehill.com/opinion/campaign/463577-elizabeth-warrens-vagueness-on-medicare-for-all-isnt-fooling-anyone

Kurtzleben, D (2020, March 6) “She Was Focused And Full Of Plans But Unable To Break Through.” NPR. Available at: https://www.npr.org/2020/03/06/812670609/she-was-focused-and-full-of-plans-but-unable-to-break-through

Leonard, Kimberly (2020, January 16) “When campaigning on health care vagueness is the smart political move.” Washington Examiner. Available at: https://www.washingtonexaminer.com/policy/healthcare/when-campaigning-on-healthcare-vagueness-is-the-smart-political-move

Luthra, S. (2020, February 25) “Bernie Sanders embraces new study that lowers ‘Medicare For All’ price tag, but skepticism abounds.” Politifact. Available at: https://www.politifact.com/factchecks/2020/feb/26/bernie-sanders/research-exaggerates-potential-savings/

Sarlin, B. (2020, March 5) “Why ‘Medicare for All’ Wrecked Elizabeth Warren but not Bernie Sanders.” NBC News. Available at: https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/2020-election/why-medicare-all-wrecked-elizabeth-warren-not-bernie-sanders-n1150691

Tomz, M., Houweling, V,. & Robert, P. (2009) “The Electoral Implications of Candidate Ambiguity.” American Political Science Review, 103 (1), 83-98.

Authors:

Jason Rucker & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Project on Ethics in Political Communication / Center for Media Engagement
George Washington University / University of Texas at Austin

August 12, 2020


This case study was produced by the Media Ethics Initiative and the Project on Ethics in Political Communication. It remains the intellectual property of these two organizations. It is supported by funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. This case can be used in unmodified PDF form for classroom or educational uses. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Center for Media Engagement.

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