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How Vigilant Should Cable News Be About Political Messages?

CASE STUDY: CNN’s Rejection of Trump’s Political Advertisements

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bidenad

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In October 2019, CNN declined to air two 30-second paid advertisements from President Donald Trump’s re-election campaign. The two advertisements, titled “Biden Corruption” and “Coup,” came in the aftermath of Nancy Pelosi, Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives, announcing the launch of a formal impeachment inquiry against Trump.

The inquiry was the result of revelations of a reported phone call President Donald Trump had with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky in July 2019 in which Trump insinuated the Ukranian government should investigate former Vice President Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden. Hunter Biden worked for a Ukranian energy company whose owner was being investigated by Ukranian prosecutor general Viktor Shokin (Vogel, 2019). In 2016, Shokin was ousted as prosecutor general in light of accusations of corruption (Kramer, 2016). Trump and his supporters argue that Biden used his power as vice president to protect his son’s employer and influence the dismissal of Shokin. The New York Times reports, however, that “no evidence has surfaced that the former vice president intentionally tried to help his son by pressing for the prosecutor’s dismissal” (Vogel, 2019).

It was revealed that days before Trump and Zelensky’s July 2019 phone call that Trump directed his chief of staff “to place a hold on about $400 million in military aid for Ukraine,” (Pryzbyla & Edelman, 2019), leading some to believe the president issued a quid pro quo in order to tarnish a political rival. The pro-Trump advertisements that CNN refused to air attack network journalists such as Don Lemon and Chris Cuomo, calling them “media lapdogs,” label the House impeachment inquiry as a “coup,” and accuse Joe Biden of promising $1 billion to the Ukraine if Shokin was ousted (Grynbaum, 2019). CNN rejected the advertisements on the grounds they “contained inaccuracies and unfairly attacked the network’s journalists” and stated one ad in particular made “assertions that have been proven demonstrably false” (Grynbaum & Hsu, 2019).

Despite partisan pushback, the network’s move is not an unusual one. Unlike broadcast channels such as NBC, CBS, and ABC, cable networks are not obliged to follow regulations from the Federal Communications Commission pertaining to political advertisements. Because cable networks do not broadcast over “public” airwaves (Tompkins, 2019), they have more power to choose what political advertisements they showcase. Alternatively, broadcast channels are required “to air ads that come from legally qualified political candidates, according to the FCC” (Vranica & Horwitz, 2019), even if they may be laden with what the channel might consider spin, inaccuracies, and fabrications.

CNN wasn’t the only network that decided not to air the two Trump advertisements. NBCUniversal made the decision to pull the “Biden Corruption” ad after it aired once on the company’s cable network channels MSNBC and Bravo (Vranica & Horwitz, 2019). The controversy over these advertisements leads many to ask the question: Should national cable news networks have the power to pick and choose the political advertisements their viewers are exposed to? For those who agree that news networks should have the capability to reject political ads, an argument could be that rejecting ads with false information protects voters from believing and spreading misinformation. Despite the rise of social media, television has remained the main source of election news for a majority of people in the United States. A Pew Research survey found that during the 2016 presidential election, 24% of respondents said they learned information about the presidential election through cable news, followed by 14% receiving information from social media and local television (Gottfired et al., 2019). CNN’s decision could be seen as a way to protect the public from an ad that entangles political persuasion and unconfirmed accusations.

Those opposing CNN’s decision boiled down to two points: partisanship and free speech. Trump has been known to denounce CNN on multiple occasions labeling them as the “fake news media,” and accusing them of partisan bias in favor of Democrats (Samuels, 2019). Tim Murtaugh, communications director for the Trump campaign, argued that the campaign’s “Biden corruption” ad was “entirely accurate and was reviewed by counsel” and that CNN was “protecting Joe Biden in their programming” (Grynbaum & Hsu, 2019). The notion that CNN’s rejection is a partisan ploy also connects to the fear of a suppression of political speech. Facebook’s decision to allow the “Biden Corruption” ad on its social media platform was based on a “fundamental belief in free expression, respect for the democratic process, and the belief that, in mature democracies with a free press, political speech is already arguably the most scrutinized speech there is” (Lima, 2019). Those supporting enabling access to this advertisement seem concerned that when political advertisements are censored and viewers are not equitably presented with arguments across multiple media platforms, democracy consequently suffers.

As the 2020 presidential election increasingly dominates news media, more controversial advertisements are likely to be released to the public for mass consumption on radio, print, social media, and television. Some might perceive an advertisement as well-argued and appropriately passionate, whereas others might accuse the same message of containing spin, emotional manipulation, or downright falsehoods. Outlets like CNN will continue to be faced with a choice: should they allow any kind of political advertisements on their channel —and leave conclusions and judgments of their veracity to viewers— or should they reject advertisements they believe contain some amount of misinformation in an effort to shield viewers’ political opinions from what they judge as abuse? How much power should a cable network wield in influencing, directly or indirectly, their audience’s exposure to a candidate’s message?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the ethical implications of CNN rejecting to air Trump’s two advertisements on its network? What values are in conflict?
  2. How could CNN have alternatively handled the situation other than rejecting to air the advertisements?
  3. Facebook said its decision to keep Trump’s two advertisements on its platform was based on the “belief in free expression” and “respect for the democratic process.” In what ways, if any, did CNN’s decision corroborate or contradict these beliefs?
  4. How does partisanship play a role in this scenario? Does partisanship affect the ways audience members consume media?
  5. Should news outlets be in the habit of fact-checking advertisements before they accept them? What is workable or problematic about this proposal?

 Further Information:

Gottfried, J., Barthel, M., Shearer, E., and Mitchell, A. “The 2016 Presidential Campaign – a News Event That’s Hard to Miss.” Pew Research Center, February 4, 2016. Available at: https://www.journalism.org/2016/02/04/the-2016-presidential-campaign-a-news-event-thats-hard-to-miss/

Grynbaum, M. & Hsu, T. “CNN Rejects 2 Trump Campaign Ads, Citing Inaccuracies.” The New York Times, Oct. 3, 2019. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/10/03/business/media/cnn-trump-campaign-ad.html

Kramer, A. “Ukraine Ousts Viktor Shokin, Top Prosecutor, and Political Stability Hangs in the Balance.” The New York Times, March, 29, 2016. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2016/03/30/world/europe/political-stability-in-the-balance-as-ukraine-ousts-top-prosecutor.html

Lima, C. “How Trump is winning the fight on ‘baseless’ ads.” POLITICO, Oct. 11, 2019. Available at: https://www.politico.com/news/2019/10/11/trump-joe-biden-ad-social-media-misinformation-044267

Przybyla, H. & Edelman, A. “Nancy Pelosi announces formal impeachment inquiry of Trump.” NBC News, September 24, 2019. Available at: https://www.nbcnews.com/politics/trump-impeachment-inquiry/pelosi-announce-formal-impeachment-inquiry-trump-n1058251

Samuels, B. “Trump campaign threatens to sue CNN, citing Project Veritas videos.” The Hill, October 18, 2019. Available at: https://thehill.com/homenews/campaign/466473-trump-campaign-threatens-to-sue-cnn-citing-project-veritas-videos

Tompkins, A. “Do the networks have to give equal time? In a word, no.” Poynter, January 8, 2019. Available at: https://www.poynter.org/ethics-trust/2019/do-the-networks-have-to-give-equal-time-in-a-word-no/

Vogel, K. “Trump, Biden and Ukraine: Sorting Out the Accusations.” The New York Times, September 22, 2019. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/22/us/politics/biden-ukraine-trump.html

Vranica, S. & Horwitz, J. “NBCU Cable Networks Refuse to Air Trump Campaign Ad Aimed at Joe Biden.” The Wall Street Journal, Oct. 10, 2019. Available at: https://www.wsj.com/articles/nbcu-refuses-to-air-trump-campaign-ad-aimed-at-joe-biden-11570746377

Authors:

Allyson Waller & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
February 3, 2020


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 without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us at sstroud (at) austin.utexas.edu 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.

 

Greta Thunberg and Her Harsh Critics

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Criticizing Children in the Public Sphere

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  Screen capture: Twitter.com

Young people are increasingly active politically at a time when we are entering a new era of heated political discourse: one where not even children are immune to vitriolic verbal abuse (Natanson, 2019). At age 16, Greta Thunberg took the world by storm with her passionate words against climate change, accusing world politicians of complacency regarding the environment. In her Swedish hometown of Stockholm, Thunberg started “Fridays for Future,” a movement of students skipping school and demanding political action regarding climate change (Woodward 2019). Former President Barack Obama called her “one of our planet’s greatest advocates,” but the teenager has not been immune to attacks from conservative commentators, far-right politicians and “online haters” who also target her family (Weise 2019). In response to Thunberg’s blunt criticisms during a speech to the United Nations, President Donald Trump sarcastically tweeted that Thunberg is “a very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future” (Rupar, 2019). Meanwhile, a Fox News commentator called her a “mentally ill Swedish child” (Gabbatt 2019).

According to political discourse scholar Lawrence Prelli, “There used to be a constraint upon criticizing children, generally” (Natanson, 2019). Others argue that when teenagers like Thunberg come into the public eye, they sacrifice their privacy and, in a sense, their childhood. “If she wants to participate as an adult citizen, she should be criticized as one,” claims Robinson Meyer from The Atlantic. But it’s not just verbal criticism. In a tweet by Dinesh D’Souza, Thunberg is likened to a Nazi child, using a vintage Nazi image of a Nordic child and comparing it to a picture of Thunberg. And in response to Thunberg’s surprise appearance at an Iowa school, a teacher posted “don’t have my sniper rifle” on Facebook, a possibly threatening message that built upon fake internet memes supposedly showing Thunberg shooting a rifle (Opsahl 2019). Facebook posts originating in Brazil claim Thunberg’s mother is a satanic lesbian who teaches abortion classes; others assert that her father lives in Germany with his boyfriend and that Thunberg collaborates with members of the Islamic State (Weise 2019).

As a teenager who is publically active in political movements for climate change, Thunberg is making strides in environmental action. But some might ask: are these gains worth the cost to her personal privacy and the well-being of her family? On the other hand, from the climate activist perspective, Thunberg has sparked a young generation’s climate action and mobilized millions of people to lead climate strikes in 150 countries. The September 20, 2019, Global Climate strike—organized and inspired by Thunberg—was the largest environmental protest in history. She was even nominated for the Nobel Peace Prize (Woodward et al. 2019).

In the face of intense public admiration and criticism from various quarters, Thunberg has apparently shrugged off the personal attacks and even clapped back at some, changing her Twitter bio to read “A very happy young girl looking forward to a bright and wonderful future.” This case raises questions about the role of youth in political activism as well as the limits of criticism from others. Is Thunberg too old to expect to be free of harsh criticism, or too young to quarrel with those currently in positions of power? Or should the supposed adults listen to this passionate but relatively inexperienced newcomer in the rough and tumble world of climate policy?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Is it a good thing that a teenager is taking such a prominent role in the complex politics of climate change?
  2. How free should adults be to speak critically of children in public? Does being a public figure change how a child should be treated?
  3. Should children be entitled to the same rights to free speech that adults have? Would you argue differently between the cases of a 16-year-old and a 10-year-old? Why?
  4. When hate speech or threats of violence are involved, should adults moderate or restrict children’s speech for their own protection?
  5. Should critics treat young activists like Thunberg differently than they might treat adult activists?

 Further Information:

Gabbatt, A. (2019, September 24). Fox News apologises to Greta Thunberg for pundit’s ‘disgraceful’ remark. Retrieved from https://www.theguardian.com/media/2019/sep/24/fox-news-greta-thunberg-michael-knowles

Natanson, H. (2019, September 24). Politicians and pundits used to refrain from publicly attacking kids. Not anymore. Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/2019/09/24/politicians-pundits-used-refrain-publicly-attacking-kids-not-anymore/

Novak, J. (2019, September 24). How 16-year-old Greta Thunberg’s rise could backfire on environmentalists. Retrieved from https://www.cnbc.com/2019/09/24/how-greta-thunbergs-rise-could-backfire-on-environmentalists.html

Opsahl, R. (2019, October 7). Iowa teacher on leave after ‘sniper rifle’ comment about Greta Thunberg visit. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/10/06/teacher-leave-sniper-rifle-comment-greta-thunberg/3893160002/

Rupar, A. (2019, September 24). Trump’s tweet about Greta Thunberg is one of his ugliest yet. Retrieved from https://www.vox.com/policy-and-politics/2019/9/24/20881541/trump-greta-thumberg-tweet-un

Weise, E. (2019, October 2). Online haters are targeting Greta Thunberg with conspiracy theories and fake photos. Retrieved from https://www.usatoday.com/story/news/nation/2019/10/02/climate-change-activist-greta-thunberg-targeted-online-trolls/3843196002/

Woodward, A. (2019, September 24). How 16-year-old Greta Thunberg became the face of climate-change activism. Retrieved from https://www.businessinsider.com/greta-thunberg-bio-climate-change-activist-2019-9

Authors:

Michaela Urban, Justin Pehoski, & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
January 30, 2020


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 without permission for classroom or educational uses. Please email us at sstroud (at) austin.utexas.edu 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.

 

Ethics and E-Cigarette Advertising

CASE STUDY: Are Companies like Juul Blowing Smoke?

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E-cigarettes are a growing fad, but they might present a host of potential health problems. In the wake of criticism from public health advocates, news networks including CNN, CBS, and Viacom completely removed advertising for e-cigarette companies like Juul. The ethicality of this move must be called into question when examining the relationship between public health measures and the media. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) announced that 2,172 cases of lung injury associated with e-cigarette product use have been reported from 49 states and 42 deaths have been documented from 24 states as of November 13, 2019 (CDC, 2019). These numbers prompted the Trump administration to threaten a ban on flavored e-cigs, news outlets to remove e-cigarette advertising, and Juul’s recent decision to stop all advertising in the United States.

On one hand, the removal of e-cigarette advertisements from networks could diminish potential vape related illnesses that have recently surfaced. Further, the disappearance of advertisements for e-cigarettes may decrease the number of users who pick one up for unintended reasons. Juul claims to provide their e-cigarette products as options for smokers working to quit. However, other audiences, especially young people, have picked up e-cigarettes as a new habit rather than as a way to give up an old one. Juul has been criticized for its use of bright colors and young models in its advertising, so preventing youths from identifying with the product could be fruitful in reducing nicotine use.

Exacerbating the problem is the lack of FDA approval of Juul products as a safer alternative to smoking, despite the company’s consistent advertising of its e-cigarette as a better solution to nicotine addiction. As CNBC reported, “the Food and Drug Administration threatened to fine Juul and criticized its marketing and promotional activities, saying its claims that Juul was a safer alternative to cigarettes violated regulations that require the agency to review smoking cessation devices” (Graham, 2019). On top of this, at least four lawsuits were filed against Juul that included allegations that Juul “deceptively marketed its product as safe and targeted underage and nonsmokers” (Chaykowski, 2018). Removing Juul advertisements entirely could prevent this unverified claim from feeding e-cigarette addiction.

On the other hand, the removal of e-cigarette advertisements from networks limits exposure to this alternative for anyone with a genuine interest in using the products to quit smoking. Though FDA approval is still pending, e-cigarettes may be a beneficial option for people attempting to ween off cigarettes and other addictive tobacco products. While eliminating advertisements may be beneficial for younger nonsmokers, it could prove detrimental for smokers looking for alternative avenues for smoking cessation.

It is unclear whether Juul and other e-cigarette companies will see a dramatic decrease in profit. Some sources say that it’s “too late” to secure the health of young nonsmokers as many will continue to market the product through word of mouth, despite loss of e-cigarette advertisements in the media. Dr. Robert Jackler, cofounder of Stanford Research into the Impact of Tobacco Advertising (SRITA), said “while Juul has halted its own [social media] posts, the viral peer-to-peer spread among teens the company initiated will live on indefinitely, or at least until the teen craze for Juul abates” (Chaykowski, 2018). One could argue that the removal of advertising may not even have a significant effect on the rate of e-cigarette use, especially among younger audiences.

The rise in e-cigarette use is comparable to the heavy usage of tobacco in the 1950s. What remains to be seen is if we will follow the same path that was taken to address the initial cigarette surge: “under federal law, tobacco companies have been barred from advertising on television and radio since 1971” (Yaffe-Bellany, 2019). For public health reasons, it may be necessary for some sort of media control to be implemented, but other factors, including the health of current smokers attempting to find alternatives and the fairness of designating what is considered unsafe, should be weighed in this time of uncertainty.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Whose health should take precedence, non-smokers who might fall victim to the e-cigarette trend or cigarette smokers looking to quit?
  2. Are media companies who run advertisements responsible for the effects of the products they are paid to advertise?
  3. What is the burden of proof when it comes to the potential harms and benefits of products and how they might be accounted for in ads?
  4. Is there a greater ethical responsibility when selling a product that might be attractive to minors?

 Further Information:

Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  “Outbreak of Lung Injury Associated with the Use of E-Cigarette, or Vaping, Products.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, November 14, 2019 Available at: https://www.cdc.gov/tobacco/basic_information/e-cigarettes/severe-lung-disease.html#what-we-know

Chaykowski, K., “The Disturbing Focus of Juul’s Early Marketing Campaigns.” Forbes Magazine. November 16, 2018. Available at: https://www.forbes.com/sites/kathleenchaykowski/2018/11/16/the-disturbing-focus-of-juuls-early-marketing-campaigns/

Graham, M., “Juul suspends broadcast, print and digital product advertising in the US.” CNBC, September 25, 2019. Available at: https://www.cnbc.com/2019/09/25/juul-suspends-broadcast-print-and-digital-product-ads-in-the-us.html

Yaffe-Bellany, D., “TV Networks Take Down Juul and Other E-Cigarette Ads.” The New York Times, September 18, 2019. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2019/09/18/business/juul-vaping-ads-cbs.html

Authors:

Page Trotter and Dakota Park-Ozee
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
January 20, 2020


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 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.

 

Fake News and Real Tensions

CASE STUDY: The Impacts of Misinformation in South Asia

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India and Pakistan are two nuclear powers locked in a decades-long border conflict with spurts of cross-national violence ranging from terrorist operations to full-blown war. In February 2019, a suicide bombing by a Pakistan-based terrorist organization killed 40 paramilitary police officers in Kashmir. Two weeks after the attack, India launched retaliatory action against what it claimed was a terrorist camp within the rival state’s borders. Pakistan then shot down an Indian fighter plane and captured the pilot in response. The pilot was later returned to India.

Throughout the rising tensions and violence reflected in this episode was a relatively new element of the contemporary Indo-Pakistani conflict: fake news. Both national governments, news media in both countries, and social media accounts operated by citizens and trolls alike engaged in widespread and unchecked dissemination of misinformation. The fake news included inflated body counts, mislabeled photographs from previous conflicts, and manufactured gore like an image of a “bucked filled with mutilated body parts, mislabeled as the remains of a dead Indian soldier” (Bagri, 2019).

According to Govindraj Ethiraj, journalist for the fact-checking site Boom, “the wave of misinformation after the Pulwama attack was driven by inflamed emotions, overanxious media on all sides, [and] the desire to use this as a political weapon” (Bagri, 2019). The influx of fake news was made worse because “unfortunately mainstream media organizations both in India and Pakistan have failed to play their roles responsibly,” said Ashok Swain of Uppsala University while describing the back and forth between state agencies and media organizations  (Thaker, 2019). Speaking to their role in the explosion of fake news, a Twitter spokesperson advised that “everyone has a role to play in ensuring misinformation doesn’t spread on the internet” (Phartiyal, 2019). Regardless of who is responsible for the misinformation, Pratic Sinha, co-founder of Alt News, argues, “during such a time, when people’s sensitivities are involved, people are more vulnerable and gullible” (Bagri, 2019).

However, this gullibility may be advantageous in preventing the two nations from going to war. Sadanand Dhume of the American Enterprise Institute explains that “the fact that both governments have effectively been able to create these information bubbles” where “everybody’s willing to believe their own version … means that both sides can declare victory to their people and go home” (Bagri, 2019). Of course, this is all taking place in a climate where misinformation has “led to mass beating and mob lynchings” among communities in South Asia (Phartiyal, 2019). It is then unsurprising that a spokesperson for the Central Reserve Police Force said fake news during such a situation “had the potential to create communal tension and lead to violence” (Bagri, 2019).

At the same time, the identification of fake news is a war in and of itself. Those fighting fake news in South Asia have even been described as “a line of defense for this fifth generation warfare” by Shahzad Ahmed of “Bytes for All,” a Pakistani digital rights group (Jorgic & Pal, 2019). But the best outcome of that war on the Indian subcontinent remains unclear. Despite the risks of misinformation, Dhume holds firm on the positive side effects of certain kinds of fake news. He says, “paradoxically, the over-zealous Indian media and cowed Pakistani media may help prevent escalation of conflict” because “Indian TV is happy to run giddy stories about ‘hundreds’ of terrorists killed” and “Pakistani journalists won’t question their army’s claim that nothing much was hit,” meaning that “everyone gets to save face, and in south Asia face matters—a lot” (Thaker, 2019). If fake news involves illusion, might there be some illusions that are helpful in South Asia’s dreams for peace—or do they all eventually lead India and Pakistan to wake up at war? 

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What are the challenges of defining “fake news?” What values are in conflict in this case?
  2. Is it ever ethically acceptable to spread misinformation? What if one spreads it unknowingly?
  3. Who is responsible for ensuring the information environment is as accurate as possible? To what lengths must they go to do this?
  4. What are the conflicts that may arise if social media or government attempts to control the spread of fake news on social media?

Further Information:

Drazen Jorgic and Alasdair Pal, “Facebook, Twitter sucking into India-Pakistan information war.” Reuters, April 2, 2019. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-india-pakistan-socialmedia/facebook-twitter-sucked-into-india-pakistan-information-war-idUSKCN1RE18N

Sankalp Phartiyal, “Social media fake news fans tension between India and Pakistan.” Reuters, February 28, 2019. Available at: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-india-kashmir-socialmedia/social-media-fake-news-fans-tension-between-india-and-pakistan-idUSKCN1QH1NY

Aria Thaker, “Indian media trumpeting about Pakistani fake news should look in the mirror first.” Quartz India, February 27, 2019. Available at: https://qz.com/india/1561178/media-in-india-and-pakistan-share-fake-news-amid-border-conflict/

Neha Thirani Bargi, “When India and Pakistan clashed, fake news won.” Los Angeles Times, March 15, 2019. Available at: https://www.latimes.com/world/la-fg-india-pakistan-fake-news-20190315-story.html

Authors:

Dakota Park-Ozee & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
October 15, 2019


This case is supported with funding from the South Asia Institute at the 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 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.

Reporting on Sexual Assault in India

CASE STUDY: The Ongoing Debate over Victim Anonymity

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Photo: Media Ethics Initiative

In 2012, a young woman was brutally gang-raped by a group of five men on a bus in New Delhi, India. She and her male companion, who had been knocked unconscious, were then thrown from the moving bus and found on the side of the road. The extreme violence of the assault turned the case into an overnight firestorm both within the country and in the international press. Despite this publicity—which only increased when she died of her injuries—and the guilty conviction of all five men, the Indian press did not publish her name. Instead, they predominately referred to her as “Nirbhaya,” meaning fearless one, or as the Delhi braveheart. Her name was omitted from press coverage not because people did not know who she was—“the train of media persons and politicians to her home made clear almost every person in the vicinity … knew where she lived and what her real name was”—but because to publish her name would be against the law (Bhatnagar, 2016).

Section 228-A of the Indian Penal Code essentially prohibits anyone from publishing the name of a sexual assault victim—unless it is done as part of the criminal investigation, or is authorized in writing by the victim or by their family should the victim be deceased, a minor, or of “unsound mind”—under penalty of up to two years in prison (IBNLive, 2013). The Delhi case highlights the world of potential tensions and contradictions in the law. In fact, Shashi Tharoor, the Union Minister of State of Human Resources, wanted to name an anti-rape law after the Delhi victim, but could not do so for fear of punishment under Section 228-A (IBNLive, 2013). While the law is, of course, meant to protect victims of assault from further trauma, the ethical intent is not matched by practical outcomes and potentially reifies notions of shame directed toward victims.

The victim’s father eventually came forward and revealed her name to the foreign press because he and his wife “want[ed] the world to know her real name” because she “didn’t do anything wrong;” they hoped “revealing her name will give courage to other women who have survived these attacks” (Bhatnagar, 2016). However, because he did not give written authorization through the channels specified by the law, her identity was still artificially hidden, even while her name and face covered the internet. Thus, her mother reiterated that they wanted the victim’s name to be known stating, “whoever has suffered should not hide their name … everyone should know her as Jyoti Singh” (Bhatnagar, 2016).

The same penal code section also prohibits journalists from revealing any other potentially identifying information about victims of sexual assault. For example, the Times of India reported on an alleged assault of a young woman near Hauz Khas Village and revealed “the name of the neighborhood where the victim lives as well as what she does for a living and the area in which she works” (Khullar, 2017). Again, the protection of such personal information intends to keep victims from breaches of privacy and further violence. Yet, some say hiding the victims keeps police from being accountable when they fail to protect women. Swati Maliwal, chairperson of the Delhi Commission for Women, used a victim’s name in an attempt to shame the police. Maliwal echoed the Singhs saying, “why shud [sic] rape victim hide her identity? Shouldn’t rapists be hiding? Is it the shame of a victim that she was subjected to cruelty?” (Bhatnagar, 2016).

Still, there are those who argue that even if the victim, under Indian law, has waived their right to anonymity, reporters should still use their judgment to decide whether naming the victim is appropriate. Bob Steele, a journalism professor at DePauw University, argues that reporters should consider the resources available to victims and the counseling, guidance or other professional help they have received. Steele explains if he does not have this information “you won’t find their names in [my] column” (Khullar, 2017). Journalists in India are still struggling to find a way to balance interests in promoting public safety, holding authorities accountable, and protecting victim privacy.

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What values or interests are in conflict in this case?
  2. Does the practice of protecting the anonymity of sexual assault victims save them from shame or perpetuate it?
  3. Under what conditions, if any, should journalists publish the names of victims? What do they need to know to make that decision?
  4. Is the law prohibiting the press from naming victims a justified restriction of press freedom?
  5. Which of these considerations, if any, should be extended to the naming of alleged perpetrators of sexual assault? What might be different in these cases?

Further Information:

IBNLive, “What the law says on a rape victim’s identity.” News 18, January 2, 2013. Available at: https://www.news18.com/news/india/what-the-law-says-on-a-rape-victims-identity-529485.html

Amanat Khullar, “The Indian media needs to rethink how it reports rape.” Herald, February 23, 2017. Available at: https://herald.dawn.com/news/1153682

Gaurav Vivek Bhatnagar, “Disclosing the identity of rape victim remains a grey area in the justice system.” The Wire, July 28, 2016. Available at: https://thewire.in/law/identity-of-rape-victims

Authors:

Dakota Park-Ozee & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
November 4, 2019


This case is supported with funding from the South Asia Institute at the 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 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.

Can a Film be Too Moving?

CASE STUDY: Bollywood and Propaganda in India’s Elections

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Screencapture: Twitter

In January 2019, a film trailer premiered that became one of the biggest controversies of the election season in India. PM Narendra Modi, a biopic of the sitting prime minister, was slated to premiere on April 5, just days before the six-week voting period began. Given India’s regulations banning the ruling party from using mass media to bolster their campaign, opposition party members and other critics quickly began to cry foul. At the same time, the ruling party, the BJP, made clear they had no hand in the filmmaking process. The film producers further distanced the party from the movie, saying that the work is in no way affiliated with the BJP; only personal funds were used for production and no political operatives were part of the creative process.

Some still worried about the film’s ability to influence public opinion. Film critic Shubhra Gupta said the “movie will be a large-screen version of what Modi has been doing on TV … as if he needed any more” visibility (Malhotra, 2019). Part of the problem, as discussed by the director of the Mumbai Film Festival, is that India is “a movie-mad country, a star-worshipping nation,” meaning the biopic could garner enough attention to alter election results (Mundy, 2019). The sway could be especially strong “in less-educated parts of the country” where “the perception is that they can’t show it in a movie unless it’s true” (Ponniah, 2019).

To that end, there have been claims that the film diverges from historical fact and exaggerates Modi’s heroism and political ability. Nilanjan Mukhopadhyay, a Modi biographer, said the film’s depiction is “distorted to project an image that’s far away from the truth” (Malhotra, 2019). There is a particular focus on a scene involving the 2002 Gujarat riots, in which the fictional Modi responds with greater speed and sympathy than the real man did. Another scene—entirely made up according to many—shows Modi dodging gunfire from security forces. Former chief election commissioner N. Gopalaswami said the factual diversions were not an issue for the commission: “nobody can put a restriction on human imagination” (Malhotra, 2019). Modi’s BJP party also came forward saying “independent artists, influenced by the lifestyle of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, created the film” but the party itself was “in no way involved in it” (Suri, 2019).

Ultimately, on April 5, the movie was not released. The Election Commission blocked the release of the film until voting closed in May 2019, worrying it may tilt the balance of the election and insisting any movie that has “the potential to disturb the level playing field during the elections, should not be displayed” (Suri, 2019). In large part, the decision was based on “several scenes depicting a major opposition party as corrupt and showing them in a poor light” (A.A.K., 2019). However, the commission has not blocked all political films this election season, such as one centered on a Modi-ordered strike on Pakistani militants in 2016 and another movie interrogating the death of a prime minister during the former reign of an opposition party. The seemingly selective blocking of films potentially weakens the Election Commission’s argument and worries those interested in keeping film out of the arena of political advertising.

Some Bollywood directors, such as Vivek Agnihotri, argue Indian society “is now able to handle political themes in films” and that these do not amount to propaganda but an expansion of artistic expression beyond simply “making love stories and mindless comedies” (Mundy, 2019). This perspective argues that Indian citizens should be trusted to think for themselves and that artists ought not be limited by potential mistakes among viewing audiences. Ingesting a piece of media does not determine voting behavior, such critics might argue. What’s more, with a voting period that lasts over a month in India, arguments that a single film will change election outcomes become less persuasive. Regardless of these defenses of the freedom of artists in heated political times, there are still many unanswered questions in the world’s largest democracy over the relationship of speech, film art, and politics.

 Discussion Questions: 

  1. What, if any, ethical obligation does Bollywood have to make sure the film is historically accurate in its depictions of Prime Minister Modi? Would you apply these restrictions to art and artists in general?
  2. Does the ban on overtly political films create a fairer electoral playing field or simply benefit those who have already have prominent public personas?
  3. Is it ethical—in the name of electoral fairness—to curb Bollywood’s political and artistic speech?
  4. Do governments have the duty to protect their citizens from potential misinformation during elections or is it the duty of citizens to judge fact and fiction for themselves? What costs are acceptable to bear to freedom and expression in pursuit of these goals?

 Further Information:

A.A.K. “The release of ‘PM Narendra Modi’ has been delayed until after the election.” The Economist, April 29. 2019. Available at: https://www.economist.com/prospero/2019/04/29/the-release-of-pm-narendra-modi-has-been-delayed-until-after-the-election

Ashish Malhotra, “India’s Narendra Modi, battling for reelection, gets a questionable Bollywood boost.” Los Angeles Times, April 5, 2019. Available at: https://www.latimes.com/world/la-fg-india-bollywood-election-2019-story.html

Simon Mundy, “Narendra Modi courts Bollywood in appeal to voters.” Financial Times, April 29, 2019. Available at: https://www.ft.com/content/7df1ae4e-6778-11e9-9adc-98bf1d35a056

Kevin Ponniah, “The Bollywood factor in India’s election.” BBC, March 31, 2019. Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/world-asia-india-47743376

Manveena Suri, “Modi Bollywood biopic banned during Indian election.” CNN, April 10, 2019. Available at: https://www.cnn.com/2019/04/10/asia/modi-biopic-india-election-intl/index.html

Authors:

Dakota Park-Ozee
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
October 15, 2019


This case is supported with funding from the South Asia Institute at the 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 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.

Reality TV and Real Ethics

CASE STUDY: Love Island and the Ethics of Relationships

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For those who don’t tune into reality TV, a compelling new series has been attracting attention and provoking debate about the ethics of televised relationships. The hit series, Love Island, focuses on a group of attractive, young singles who are flown to an isolated villa in Mallorca to find love. In just a matter of weeks, contestants will seek a significant other among their cohort. If that wasn’t challenging enough, the contestants must compete to stay in the game. If they successfully get through the series without being dumped or voted off, contestants are scrutinized by the audience who votes for their favorite couple at the end of the show (Martin, 2019). Some might find this show to be a recipe for disaster while others might find this to be nothing but a net gain for everyone involved—for both contestants and for viewers.

 

Many would argue that this show is ripe with demonstrable benefits for those who are daring enough to compete. Who wouldn’t enjoy a free holiday at a booze-filled villa in the Mediterranean surrounded by beautiful singles? It is basically a month-long slumber party for adults with a chance to win a £50,000 prize. More than that, many contestants reap the long-term benefits of massive social media followings that allow them to make a living off of sponsoring brands. As noted writer Jenny Éclair of The Independent affirms, “This could potentially be your magic golden Willy Wonka ticket to Lamborghini land” (Eclair, 2019). Without question, being a Love Island contestant is a sure-fire way to get your day in the spotlight and benefit financially to boot.

Fans of the hit series also contend that Love Island invites open discussion about what it means to be in a healthy relationship. As audiences get to know the contestants, they can begin to relate to them and see commonalities in their relationships. By watching the dramas on the show, audiences can self-reflect and explore questions about relationships that may not have occurred to them outside this medium. In fact, in a recent blog post, famed actress Lena Dunham shared her experience of indulging in the show. In doing so, she explored important questions about the complexities of romantic relationships. Like many of the contestants on the show, she found herself asking, “Can you love again after the hurt? What does partnership mean? And what does it mean to know someone if you don’t know yourself?” (Dunham, 2019). Raising such questions are valuable for coming to a better understanding of ourselves in our relationships.

Importantly, this show is an effective way to promote a national dialogue about relationships.  RAZZ Magazine writer, Charlotte Foster, explains that viewers can “point at the screen while saying ‘they should not treat another human being like this’” when they see psychological abuse” (RAZZ, 2018). By recognizing abuse, we’re in a better position to address it where it exists off-screen. Just as Lena Dunham was able to see the shortcomings of her relationships portrayed in the show, so too will millions of other Love Island viewers.

Even so, many would argue that Love Island may not be the most legitimate foundation for cultivating real-life healthy relationships. The show presents unhealthy examples of relationships and so cannot inform audiences about what is necessary to develop healthy ones. Since most viewers live such radically different lives from participants on the show, it is unlikely that they could come away from watching it with applicable lessons for their lives. As a case in point, the contestants are all incredibly fit, tan, and beautiful socialites in their twenties. The relationships that are represented are heteronormative and masculine-centric ones. Moreover, as Luanna de Abreu Coelho from RAZZ Magazine points out, “contestants are chosen and rejected by other islanders based almost entirely on appearance” (RAZZ, 2018). Of course, healthy relationships are not primarily motivated by physical attraction.

Another reason that many have found this show problematic is due to its unhealthy effects on the show’s contestants. The show achieves its supreme drama by effectively cutting them off from the outside world. The extreme isolation and the competitive nature of that social dynamic creates a unique and unnatural social environment. The show’s provocation of contestants under the watchful eye of cameras has recently led to serious public concerns about the contestants’ mental health. Following the suicides of two ex-contestants of Love Island, the English Parliament began an inquiry into the “production companies’ duty of care to participants, [asking] whether enough support is offered both during and after filming, and whether there is a need for further regulatory oversight in this area” (“Committee Announces,” 2019). After finishing their two-month stint in Mallorca, Love Island contestants come back to the real world as celebrities. However, that celebrity status quickly fades when the next stirring season of Love Island comes out. Contestants go from relative obscurity to fame and back again within a year. This instability would certainly be taxing on anyone’s mental health.

Love Island has captured the attention of millions of viewers in recent years. The show could spark much-needed discussion about relationships. At the same time, it is questionable whether this or any reality TV show can serve as a pedagogical tool for guiding viewers to cultivate healthy relationships.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Are creators of reality TV shows morally responsible for the psychological effects on their on-screen participants? Why or why not?
  2. What are the ethical problems with reality TV? What values are in conflict in this case study?
  3. Do the possible benefits of sparking a conversation about healthy relationships outweigh its possible harms for contestants? Explain your reasoning.
  4. What principles would you suggest to someone who wanted to make an ethical reality TV series about relationships?

 Further Information:

“Bafta TV Awards: Britain’s Got Talent, Love Island and Blue Planet II win.” BBC News, May 2018, Available at: https://www.bbc.com/news/entertainment-arts-44102374

“Committee Announces Inquiry into Reality TV.” UK Parliament Website, May 2019, Available at: www.parliament.uk/business/committees/committees-a-z/commons-select/digital-culture-media-and-sport-committee/news/reality-tv-inquiry-launch-17-19/

Dunham, Lena, “Lena Dunham on Love Island: ‘I’m Asking the Same Question They Do – Can You Love after Hurt?'” The Guardian, July 2019, Available at: www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2019/jul/27/lena-dunham-love-island-can-you-love-after-hurt

Forrester, Charlotte, and Coelho, Luanna de Abreu. “It’s Debatable: The Ethics of Love Island.” RAZZ, July 2018, Available at: https://razzmag.com/2018/07/11/its-debatable-the-ethics-of-love-island/

Eclair, Jenny. “If You’re Thinking of Applying for Love Island, the Reality TV Suicide Rate Should Make You Think Again.” Independent, March 2019, Available at: https://www.independent.co.uk/voices/love-island-mike-thalassitis-sophie-gradon-suicide-reality-tv-a8838491.html

Martin, Laura. “When Is the Love Island 2019 Final Tonight? Start Time, How Long the Final Episode Is and Prize Money Explained.” INEWS, July 2019, Available at: https://inews.co.uk/culture/television/love-island-2019-final-prize-when-date-how-many-episodes-634661

Authors:

Nicholas Aufiero & Alicia Armijo
The UT Ethics Project/Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
December 5, 2019


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 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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