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“One Does Not Simply Create a Meme”

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Internet Memes

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Most people could never predict that they would become a viral internet sensation overnight. Canadian teenager Ghyslain Raza never thought about this possibility of digital fame until one day he found that a video he created of himself fighting imaginary enemies with a golf-ball retriever had been uploaded on Kazaa, a collective file-sharing network. According to BBC, classmates discovered this video on a school computer and shared it, reaching around 900 million views. It was labeled as the most viral video in 2006 (Tunison, 2017). The “Star Wars Kid” video continued to be shared, sometimes remixed and edited with funny music and visual effects. Ghyslain Raza had unintentionally become a meme.

There are many internet personalities who would relish in the digital limelight that Raza inadvertently stepped into, but he did not. The sudden popularity of his video caused a severe psychological effect on Raza. He immediately faced aggressive bullying at school. “In the common room, students climbed onto tabletops to insult me,” he shared in an interview with L’Actualite. “People made fun of my physical appearance and my weight. I was labeled the ‘Star Wars Kid’… [they] were telling me to commit suicide.” Raza eventually dropped out of school before spending time in a psychiatric institution for severe depression. His parents sued the classmates who uploaded the video without permission, which led to further bullying after some in the media claimed that the family was “greedy” (Zimmerman, 2013). Raza eventually overcame the negative repercussions of his unwanted celebrity. He went on to obtain a law degree from McGill University and has been a public supporter for victims of cyberbullying.

Raza’s experience with becoming a meme sparked debate over the ethical concerns of meme creation and sharing, especially when they use images or videos that depict identifiable individuals. Many memes originate from video or pictures being “repurposed” for the goals of the meme creator, including political commentary, satire, and “lulz.” Whitney Phillips and Ryan M. Milner, co-authors of The Ambivalent Internet, emphasize that memes are never “just” memes: “The problem is that the ‘just’ framing (just joking, just a meme on the internet, just a new kind of hazing ritual) posits what we describe… as a fetishized gaze, one that obscures everything but the joke itself” (Phillips & Milner, 2017). They argue that regardless of the medium, real people are almost always affected by a meme, whether directly (as in Raza’s case) or indirectly (in the case of a general racist meme).

However, it is the age of the Internet, and who knows how all the videos or images that we post or comment on will be taken by others. Screenshots and online archives simply continue the permanence and ability of others to comment on this content, often in ways we can’t anticipate. The consequences of being immortalized in a popular meme are difficult to predict, given the ever-evolving use of the meme. Sometimes, these unintended uses of images, videos, or other content seems to be a boon to the unsuspecting person depicted in the meme. Kyle Craven, better known as the subject of the “Bad Luck Brian” meme, has made “between $15,000 and $20,000 in [three years] between licensing deals and T-shirts” (Garsd, 2015). “Overly Attached Girlfriend,” a.k.a. Laina Morris, used her meme fame to launch her comedic acting career. Memes can even be considered a part of modern language, signaling a way of communicating among a technological in-group using digital discourse. Above all, memes strive to be clever, creative, and humorous in their appropriation of content and images that most likely where not intended to be comedic in that specific way.

As with many internet phenomena, meme creation often foregrounds a conflict between the freedom of expression of creative meme makes and the privacy concerns of those that may find themselves featured in the meme. How much control should we have over our images and videos, and at what cost to the creativity of the digital world?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What are the ethical issues with taking a picture or video and making it into a humorous meme?
  2. What concerns about consent are implicated in making image-based memes? Are these concerns with consent present in our other commentary or use of public images?
  3. Does the intention of the meme maker matter? Does it matter if they do not know (or care) about the subject depicted in the image or video content that the meme is based upon?
  4. What ethical guidelines would you propose for those creating image-based memes? How might these avoid harmful consequences or ethical transgressions—foreseen or unforeseen?

Further Information:

Garsd, Jasmine. “Internet Memes and ‘The Right To Be Forgotten.’” NPR, March 3, 2015. Available at:

Phillips, Whitney and Milner, Ryan. “The Harvard Case Shows a Meme Is Never ‘Just’ A Meme.” Motherboard, June 6, 2017. Available at:

Phillips, Whitney and Milner, Ryan. “The Complex Ethics of Online Memes.” The Ethics Centre, October 26, 2016. Available at:

Tunison, Mike. “The incredibly sad saga of Star Wars Kid.” The Daily Dot, August 6, 2017. Available at:

Weisblott, Marc. “‘Star Wars Kid’ goes on media blitz 10 years later.”, May 9, 2013. Available at:

Zimmerman, Neetzan. “‘Star Wars Kid’ Breaks Silence, Says Online Fame Made Him Suicidal.” Gawker, May 10, 2013. Available at:


Alex Purcell & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
January 14, 2018

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational 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.

Entertaining Endorsements in Sports Journalism

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Product Sponsorship in Sports Media

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Although it is generally rare for journalists to accept endorsement deals, the realm of televised sports journalism appears to be an exception. Erin Andrews, a sideline reporter for the 2011 Rose Bowl and a spokeswoman for Reebok, caused a stir in the sports world and renewed concerns regarding journalists endorsing products for pay. During her coverage of the Rose Bowl, Andrews reported that the players from one team were performing poorly because the new Nike Zoom Alpha Talon cleats they were wearing were causing them to slip on the field. Her remarks remained uncontroversial until two weeks later, when Reebok announced that Andrews would be “the first female featured in Reebok’s ZigTech campaign,” endorsing a shoe in direct competition with the Nike cleat.

It is unclear whether Andrews had struck a deal with Reebok prior to her comments about the Nike shoe, but the comments led some to question her credibility. Kelly McBride, a journalism professor at the Poynter Institute states: “Journalists can review products. But they can’t take money from a company to endorse them. That totally ruins their credibility… If those reporters were getting paid to endorse mp3 players or cholesterol drugs, no one in the audience would trust their judgment, because their independence would be compromised.” On the other hand, ESPN, the news outlet Andrews works for, notes that it is unlikely that she would have many opportunities to discuss the shoes in her sideline reporting role. Even if she does, they argue that as long as she discloses her relationship with Reebok it should not be an issue.

While most would agree that journalistic endorsements can be problematic in certain contexts, it is not clear whether televised sports casting should be an exception. Todd Rosenstiel, director of Pew’s Project for Excellence in Journalism, says that disclosure is “the minimum standard,” but he compares sports reporting to political reporting. In the political context, journalists cannot accept money from parties or interest groups. Others, however, draw a line between hard journalism and the type of reporting Andrews engages in while covering sporting events, likening her more to an entertainer than a journalist.

In response to such concerns, ESPN instituted a new policy prohibiting reporters like Andrews from accepting endorsement deals. However, the policy is specific to reporters—not analysts. According to the policy, “… in assessing apparel, footwear and equipment, exceptions will be granted to players, coaches and administrators who are engaged as analysts and for whom such endorsements are part of the sports coverage/reporting landscape.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Did Andrews do anything wrong? Why or why not?
  1. Would it matter if she had signed the Reebok deal before making the comments about the Nike shoes?
  1. Should ESPN cover the controversy surrounding Andrews? Why might one say they shouldn’t? If they do cover it, what would be the ethically best way to do so?
  1. Do endorsements hurt the credibility of sports reporters and analysts? Is it harmful enough for organizations like ESPN to forbid?

Further Information:

The Big Lead, “Erin Andrews has Another Controversy: Sneakers.” Available at:

Katie Thomas, “Andrews faces Questions about a Deal with Reebok.” New York Times, January 29, 2011. Available at:

Allan Brettman, “ESPN revises Endorsement Policy; Erin Andrews allowed to keep Reebok Deal through 2011.” Available at:


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

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

Sacking Social Media in College Sports

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of College Athletes’ Use of Social Media

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“I don’t see how it could do any good for anybody.” Those were the words of Steve Spurrier, head football coach at the University of South Carolina, explaining his decision to ban his players from Twitter, a micro-blogging service that enables users to send short, public messages in real-time. Spurrier added: “A couple of guys put some sort of nasty stuff on there in the summer…so we said, ‘You don’t need to do that anymore. Let your girlfriend or pal down the street do all the tweeting or whatever it is.”

Spurrier’s decision was based in part on a June 2011 event involving a member of his team. A former player of Spurrier’s tweeted that Alshon Jeffery, a star wide receiver for the Gamecocks, was arrested after being involved in a bar fight. In fact, Jeffery was not involved in a fight or arrested at all. But Spurrier was forced to do damage control with the media.

There are plenty of examples of questionable social media use by college athletes. Texas lineman Buck Burnette posted a derogatory Facebook message after Barack Obama’s 2008 election victory (“All the hunters gather up, we have a [slur] in the White House.”) and was swiftly dismissed from the team. Will Hill, a football player at Florida, posted a series of vulgar tweets about drugs, sex and his dislike of university-provided meals, then later claimed: “Somehow my thing has been hacked.” North Carolina defensive lineman Marven Austin posted pictures of a luxury vacation in Miami; within weeks, the NCAA announced an investigation into North Carolina players—including Austin—receiving illegal benefits from agents. And four female soccer players at San Diego state were penalized for posting alcohol-related pictures on their Facebook accounts.

Spurrier has not been the only college coach to restrict his players from using Twitter. The first to do so was Boise State football coach Chris Petersen, who has been followed by coaches at programs such as Kansas, Pitt, Mississippi State, and Villanova. Some schools and programs take more moderate approaches. For example, Arizona’s athletic department requires all athletes to set their accounts to private. Some schools, like Missouri, include a clause in their student-athlete handbook about honor and dignity in Internet postings. Other programs allow their athletes to use social media but monitor their accounts with software that alerts administrators when certain key words show up in posts. One such software, UDiligence, monitors Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube accounts for numerous colleges across the country. Founder Kevin Long says the software is meant to protect the students and “provide a teaching moment, a mentoring moment to the student.”

Still, college coaches can benefit from the use of Twitter. Many coaches use social media to skirt recruiting rules that limit the amount of times they can text a recruit: “It’s another vehicle to exchange information,” said Santa Clara men’s basketball coach Kerry Keating. “Recruiting is all about communication and it’s another good communication device.” And as Bill Reiter, Fox Sports columnist, says: “Twitter is nothing more than a modern means of talking.” It seems that some coaches feel their players are talking too much.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Should athletes have unrestricted freedom of speech on social media sites? Why or why not?
  2. What values or interests are at stake here for athletes, coaches, and universities? Which values should take precedence in cases of conflict? Why?
  3. If some coaches are found to be misusing Twitter, should universities ban all future tweets from all their coaches? Why is (or isn’t) this comparable to the restrictions debated on student athletes on social media?
  4. Do you agree with the “creative” solutions of UDiligence and similar measures? What would you do differently if you were an administrator at one such a university?
  5. What ethical duties should college athletes think about while they are using social media? Are these different from the ethical ways non-athletes should use social media? Would you be able to write (and justify) an “Athlete’s Code of Ethics” for Tweeting or using Facebook?

Further Information:

Corazza, R. (2010). “A screen play for athletics departments.” Retrieved September 12, 2011. Available at:

McCulloch, W. (2009). “College coaches are using Twitter to reach recruits.” San Francisco Chronicle. May 07, 2009. Available at:

Rovell, D. (2011). “Coaches ban of Twitter proves college sports isn’t about education.” Retrieved September 10, 2011. Available at:

Ruppenthal, A. (2010, May 13). “College coaches finding ways to monitor athletes’ social networking activity.” Columbia Missourian. Available at:

Travis, C. (2009). “Time for colleges to ban Facebook?” Available at:


Andrew W. Ishak, Ph.D., & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin

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

Defending Freedom of Tweets?

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Athletes and Controversial Tweets

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With the widespread use of social networking sites like Facebook and Twitter, the line between private speech and public speech has become increasingly blurred. Although most people are free to speak their minds online, public figures face unique challenges. Even if the First Amendment protects most Facebook posts and tweets, some feel that as public figures athletes have a responsibility to think before they speak—online. For example, Rashard Mendenhall, a running back for the Pittsburgh Steelers, came under attack for tweeting his thoughts about Americans celebrating the assassination of Osama Bin Laden.

After some Americans greeted news of the killing of Bin Laden with cheers, Mendenhall tweeted: “What kind of person celebrates death?” and “It’s amazing how people can HATE a man they have never even heard speak. We’ve only heard one side.” Public response was immediate. Mendenhall’s tweets resulted in a spike from 13,621 to 36,914 in his Twitter “followers” and a backlash from people who found his statement inappropriate or offensive. Many called for a “full and complete apology,” and the athletic company Champion dropped him as an endorser, stating that he would not be able to “appropriately represent Champion.” Champion further explained Mendenhall’s statements reflected values inconsistent with those of the brand, and “Champion is a strong supporter of the government’s efforts to fight terrorism and is very appreciative of the dedication and commitment of the U.S. Armed Forces.” Because of his relationship to the Steelers, the team’s president, Art Rooney, also issued a response, stating, “I have not spoken with Rashard so it is hard to explain or even comprehend what he meant with his recent Twitter comments. The entire Steelers’ organization is very proud of the job our military personnel have done and we can only hope this leads to our troops coming home soon.”

To his critics the athlete explained, “This controversial statement was something I said in response to the amount of joy I saw in the event of a murder. I don’t believe that this is an issue of politics or American pride; but one of religion, morality, and human ethics.” Nevertheless, he did issue an apology in a later tweet, stating “I apologize for the timing as such a sensitive matter, but it was not meant to do harm.” He also wrote, “I apologize to anyone I unintentionally harmed with anything that I said, or any hurtful interpretation that was made and put to my name.” Although Mendenhall argues that he was just trying to provoke conversation and “encourage anyone reading it to think,” reporter James Walker describes him as “the latest example of a player needing to use restraint before posting his thoughts on Twitter.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. What exactly, if anything, did Mendenhall do wrong?
  1. What values are in conflict here? Why might we want to defend Mendenhall’s right to tweet?
  1. Do sports figures have special obligations to the public concerning how they speak or talk about certain issues? Why? Would you apply these same standards to a prominent politician?
  1. If Mendenhall was an unemployed or unsigned football player, would your view of his obligations while speaking change? How? What if he was unendorsed (by companies such as Champion) and not affiliated with any team at the time of the tweets?
  1. Should sports journalists cover Mendenhall’s tweets and the subsequent controversy? Why or why not?

Further Information:

Gerry Dulac, “Champion drops Steelers Mendenhall as Endorser.” Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, May 7, 2011. Available at:

James Walker, “Players need to be more careful on Twitter.” Available at:

Mike Florio, “Mendenhall deletes his ‘truther’ tweet.” Available at:


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

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

The Wild West of Sports Journalism?

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Sports Blogging

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On August 4, 2010, the popular sports blog Deadspin reported that Brett Favre, a married NFL star known more recently for his constant public flirtation with retirement, made sexual advances on Jenn Sterger, a New York Jets employee and TV personality. In a post titled “‘Brett Favre Once Sent Me Cock Shots’: Not a Love Story,” Deadspin editor A.J. Daulerio printed claims from Sterger that Favre sent her pictures of his genitalia, presumably taken with his cell phone, and that he had also left flirtatious voicemails for her. Daulerio framed the information from Sterger as claims, not fact; Daulerio seemingly wanted more details before assigning full weight to the story. He quotes an email exchange that includes Sterger’s plea for confidentiality as well as his own desire to receive, and publish, evidence of Favre’s flirtation. As it turns out, Sterger would never provide the material in question nor would she give explicit permission to Daulerio to publish the story.

Daulerio called his initial post about Favre a “bat signal for whoever else had this kind of information to kind of step forward and talking to us.” His strategy worked, as Daulerio was soon contacted by “Mr. X,” an anonymous source who provided photos, text messages and voicemails in question. Daulerio met Mr. X in a New York hotel room and paid up to $12,000 in exchange for the materials.

On October 7, 2010, Deadspin published the photos, texts, and voicemails in a post titled “Brett Favre’s Cellphone Seduction of Jenn Sterger.” The story was intriguing to sports fans as well as the general public; a star athlete, a buxom model, salacious flirtation, and the potential for a suspension levied by the NFL for sexual harassment were more than enough to garner coverage by mainstream news outlets, including ESPN, the New York Post, and the “Today” show. The NFL’s investigation ended in Favre being fined $50,000 for his failure to cooperate in a forthcoming manner. Favre admitted to sending the voicemails, but denied transmission of the photos. As the NFL season shifted to playoff mode, the story moved to the back page of the public consciousness.

However, debates about journalistic ethics and sports blogging continued. Many seasoned journalists were quick to point out the chasm between newspaper journalism and the work of websites like Deadspin, or, as Editor-in-Chief Rob King puts it: “They’re just in a different business with a different mission serving an audience in a different way.”

One debate focused on “checkbook journalism,” or the concept of paying for stories. Daulerio says the Favre story is only the third time that Deadspin has paid for information. There is no particular fund for paying sources at Gawker Media, Deadspin’s parent company; instead, the money is borrowed from the site’s budget and must be repaid in traffic increases. Daulerio says his job is to decide whether it’s worth it: “In this case, I chose right…I don’t like to think of it as a business deal, but yes, it worked out very well for the site.” There is no question that this particular instance helped Deadspin’s traffic. As of February 2011, the Favre story on Deadspin has generated over 5 million hits, and Deadspin’s monthly readership has increased almost threefold since Daulerio took it over in 2008. Speaking for newspaper journalists, Washington Post columnist Mike Wise says “it’s just not what we do,” although he admits there has been temptation to pay sources for the ratings bump that comes along with exclusive stories.

Others were concerned with how Daulerio handled the confidentiality of his sources. Sterger initially asked for her name to not be used because she was worried about the potential impact on her budding TV career. Daulerio asked Sterger to change her stance, and he took her non-response to his query to be an indication of her willingness to consent. In the end, he used her name because he felt she was part of the story and he wanted to break the news (he knew Sterger had shared the information with others). Daulerio says the rules of the journalist-source relationship do not apply in this case: “I don’t think this was a story that falls under any form of ‘journalism’ whatsoever. This is gossip. Nasty gossip.” Deadspin and like-minded sites have, by their own admission, blurred the lines between investigative journalism and the reporting of rumors. Wise says that doesn’t matter, stating simply: “You don’t screw over a source.” Daulerio admits that his confidentiality policy is inconsistent, given that he provided anonymity to Mr. X. Favre’s reputation was hurt by these allegations, but he continued to focus on football, playing for the Minnesota Vikings when these allegations surfaced. When asked for comment before a game against New York, he responded: “I’m not getting into that. I’ve got my hands full with the Jets.”

Discussion Questions:

  1. Did Deadspin and Daulerio do the right thing in running this story?
  2. Should Daulerio have named Sterger in the Deadspin story? Why or why not?
  3. What are the differences between traditional journalism and sports blogging? Are there different ethical guidelines that each should follow?
  4. Should journalists pay sources for information? Does it matter if the source is taking a risk by giving this information, or if the information is very important?
  5. If you were ESPN or a sports editor at a major newspaper, and Sterger came to you with this story, how might you deal with it? Would you run it as is? What else might you do, and why?

Further Information:

Daulerio, A. J. (2010). “‘Brett Favre once sent me cock shots’: Not a love story.”Retrieved August 28, 2011. Available at:

Daulerio, A. J. (2010). “Brett Favre’s cellphone seduction of Jenn Sterger.” Retrieved August 28, 2011. Available at:

Deggans, E. (2010). “Legacy of Brett Favre-Jennifer Sterger story could be the future of sports media ethics.” Retrieved August 31, 2011. Available at:

Hendrickson, B. (2010). “Daulerio: No regrets over ethical handling of Favre story.” Retrieved August 31, 2011. Available at:


Andrew W. Ishak, Ph.D., & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin

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

Just Do It?

CASE STUDY: Nike, Social Justice, and the Ethics of Branding

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ViktorCylo / CC BY 3.0 / Modified

In September of 2018, Nike unveiled their 30th anniversary “Just Do It” campaign, featuring prominent athletes such as Serena Williams, LeBron James, Lacey Baker, and Odell Beckham Jr. Also featured in the series is former San Francisco 49ers quarterback turned activist Colin Kaepernick, who has been a controversial figure since early August of 2016 when he protested racial injustice in America by sitting and later kneeling during the national anthem at the start of football games. Kaepernick’s Nike advertisement, which he posted to social media sites on September 3, 2018, displays a close-up image of his face with the words “Believe in something. Even if it means sacrificing everything” written across the image. Some have praised the advertisement as taking a stand in the nationwide debate over the state of minority rights while others have been concerned with Nike’s movement into the arena of political advocacy.

Gino Fisanotti, Nike’s vice president of brand marketing for North America, defended the company’s featuring of Kaepernick, who has not played in the NFL since the 2016 season when he refused a contract with the 49ers: “We believe Colin is one of the most inspirational athletes of this generation, who has leveraged the power of sport to help move the world forward.” Additionally, many high-profile athletes and celebrities have voiced their support for Nike and Kaepernick, including LeBron James and Serena Williams, both outspoken figures about social justice in their own right. “He’s done a lot for the African American community, and its cost him a lot. It’s sad,” Williams said of Kaepernick. “Having a huge company back him,” she continued, “could be a controversial reason for this company, but they’re not afraid. I feel like that was a really powerful statement to a lot of other companies.”

Other observers see Nike’s move from the commercial to the political as potentially concerning. Michael Serazio worries that this is just another sophisticated trick from a corporate powerhouse: “Getting us to think we’re making a statement by buying Nike is the long con advertising has played, and it has played it well.” Increasingly, brands are giving in to a recent demand for politicization, forcing consumers to question the political participation of various corporations. Some argue that Nike is using a popular movement to increase its own sales, and taking advantage of the prestige and celebrity status of its minority athletes while doing so. Another worry is that it distracts attention from how Nike products are made, often by workers in difficult working conditions in developing countries. As Serazio puts it, the new campaign risks diverting our focus from “the marginalized who make stuff rather than the posturing it affords those privileged enough to own it.”

The advertisement campaign is a risky move for Nike, who might garner heightened attention to its products and brand, but who also runs the risk of alienating part of its consumer base by becoming too politicized. Swaths of the football-watching public, and public at large, are divided by the anthem protests carried on by Kaepernick and others. By featuring the originator of this series of protests, many fans might view Nike as standing with black athletes and their concerns. Yet others may view the advertisement as an attempt to profit off of a protest that strikes at the heart of patriotic values that some hold dear. Some owners of Nike products even illustrated their disgust with the campaign by burning their shoes, and then subsequently posting the flaming images on social media. So far, however, Nike has not sacrificed anything due to the gamble that this advertising campaign represents: Nike stock is up 5% since the advertisement hit the public, representing $6 billion increase in Nike’s market value.

Nike’s campaign was meant to garner attention and make a statement on its 30th anniversary. It succeeded at accomplishing these goals. But many are still wondering: was Nike primarily interested in taking a courageous stand on an important political issue of our time, or were they simply using Kaepernick as a clever ploy to sell more shoes?

Discussion Questions:

  1. Should a company like Nike get involved in matters of political controversy and social justice?
  2. Is Nike misusing Kaepernick and the NFL protests in its recent campaign? If you judge this to be the case, what other ways could Nike do if they wanted to bring attention to these issues and protests?
  3. Do you think that these advertisements will hurt Nike’s brand or bottom line? Do you think this is an important ethical consideration for Nike?
  4. Should companies take stands on controversial debates orbiting around justice and the public good in their advertisement campaigns? Why or why not?
  5. Nike clearly has the ability—and right—to take a stand on this issue. What should the virtuous consumer do in reacting to Nike’s campaign? What about if they disagree with Nike’s stance?

Further Information:

Anderson, Mae. “Good for business? Nike gets political with Kaepernick ad.” September 4, 2018. Available at:

Belvedere, Matthew J. “Sorkin: Nike’s Kaepernick ad decision was based on ‘attracting big name athletes’ who side with his cause.” September 7, 2018. Available at:

Boren, Cindy. “As Trump tweets, Colin Kaepernick shares new Nike ad that reportedly will air during NFL opener.” Washington Post. September 5, 2018. Available at:

Reints, Renae. “Colin Kaepernick Pushes Nike’s Market Value Up $6 Billion, to an All-Time High.” Fortune. September 23, 2018. Available at:

Rovell, Darren. “Colin Kaepernick part of Nike’s 30th anniversary of ‘Just Do It’ campaign.” ESPN. September 3, 2018. Available at:

Serazio, Michael. “Nike isn’t trying to be ‘woke.’ It’s trying to sell shoes.” Washington Post. September 5, 2018. Available at:


Holland J. Smith & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
September 24, 2018

Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom or educational 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.

Does the Photo Fit the News?

CASE STUDY: The Ethics of Powerful Images in the Immigration Debate

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Sharon Lauricella, Ph.D., University of Ontario Institute of Technology


Photo: John Moore / Modified

In June 2018, discourse around immigration to the U.S. came to a peak when award-winning Getty Images photographer John Moore captured an image of a distraught, crying, two-year-old Honduran child beside her mother and a U.S. border agent. The image of the toddler, with her shoelaces removed and mouth agape in a wail, came to represent Trump’s “zero tolerance” policy toward undocumented immigrants; thousands of children, parents, and family members were separated at the U.S. border as a form of punishment for attempting to cross illegally.

The photo galvanized the public to contact both Republican and Democratic representatives with their objections, and also inspired people to donate to legal defense services for refugees. The emotional photograph had such a significant public impact that shortly after its publication, Trump issued an unusual retreat and ended the hardline policy of separating families.



Just over a week after the photo was taken, and subsequent to its viral spread, Time magazine’s cover of June 21, 2018 featured a photo illustration of the child, without her mother or the border agent, opposite an image of a menacing Trump staring down at her. The caption read, “Welcome to America.”

When Moore took the photo, it was unknown whether the mother, Sandra Sanchez, and her daughter, Yanela, would be separated during the immigration process. Subsequent to the publication of the original photo, it was discovered that the child and her mother were detained without being separated. Carlos Ruiz, the border patrol agent whose legs are in the original photo, told CBS news that upon Sanchez’s illegal crossing, he detained her and her daughter for a formal search, which took “less than two minutes.” Ruiz reported that as soon as the brief search was completed, Sanchez picked up her daughter, who immediately stopped crying.

The Trump administration harshly criticized Time, accusing it of running “fake news” given that the child in the photo illustration and her mother were not separated at the time that the photograph was taken, nor were they separated afterward. Former Speaker of the House Newt Gingrich called for Time to apologize to Trump, and Press Secretary Sarah Sanders tweeted that Democrats and the media were guilty of exploiting the little girl to “push their agenda” to revise Trump’s hardline approach to immigration. Trump also weighed in, tweeting that the Democrats have no intentions of resolving this “decades old problem,” and that “we can pass great legislation [on immigration] after the Red Wave,” referring to the then upcoming elections in November 2018. Other news media outlets argued that printing the photo was a blunder on the part of Time, and that the intended effect of the image “oversold” the problem of families detained and separated at the border.

Time issued a correction which made clear that the child was not taken away from her mother by border agents. However, Time defended its decision to run the cover’s photo illustration, indicating that the image of the distraught child is representative of the thousands of immigrant children separated from their parents and of whom there are not any photographs. Time’s editor-in-chief, Edward Felsenthal, issued a statement arguing that the photo captured the terror of what was indeed happening at the border and in detainee centers:

The June 12 photograph of the 2-year-old Honduran girl became the most visible symbol of the ongoing immigration debate in America for a reason: Under the policy enforced by the administration, prior to its reversal this week, those who crossed the border illegally were criminally prosecuted, which in turn resulted in the separation of children and parents. Our cover and our reporting capture the stakes of this moment.

Felsenthal and those supporting publication of the cover argue that the image of the toddler on its cover was representative of immigration-related political discourse, and that the photo illustration conveyed contemporary treatment of undocumented immigrants. Alongside government-issued photographs of children in cage-like pens in detainee centers, the photo on the cover of Time served as a poignant representation of the difficulties experienced by undocumented immigrants.

Moore is an experienced photojournalist and had covered immigration issues previously. He expressed that he captured a raw and honest image that did much to publicize the terror experienced by many undocumented immigrants. He said he believes that his job as a photojournalist is to inform and report what is happening, and that when he took the photo, he feared that the child and her mother would be separated in the detainment process. Moore also argues that in his work, “it is important to humanize an issue that is often reported in statistics.” He issued no objections to the use of his photograph as it appeared on the Time cover.

Discussion Questions:

  1. Moore’s photo served to educate and galvanize the public in relation to immigration issues. Does the fact that the toddler was not separated from her mother matter, given that thousands of other children were?
  2. Viewers of the Time cover could assume that the toddler was separated from her mother while being detained at the U.S. border. Given that this was not the case, should Time have run the cover with the photo illustration featuring this child?
  3. What ethical values serve as the basis for photojournalism? What interests are often in conflict in photojournalism?
  4. What values are in conflict in the use of Moore’s photo? How might you best balance the conflicting interests if you were an editor?

Further Information:

Kirby, J. (2018, June 22). “Time’s crying girl photo controversy, explained.” Vox. Retrieved from

Blake, A. (2018, June 22). “Time magazine’s major mistake on the crying-girl cover.” The Washington Post. Retrieved from

CBS News. (2018, June 22). “Crying girl in iconic image was never separated from mother, ICE says.”

Dwyer, C. (2018, June 22). “Crying toddler on widely shared Time cover was not separated from mother.” NPR. Retrieved from

Holson, L. M. & Garcia, S. E. (2018, June 22). “She became a face of family separation at the border. But she’s still with her mother.” The New York Times. Retrieved from

Time Staff. (21 June 2018). “The story behind Time’s Trump ‘Welcome to America’ cover.” Time. Retrieved from:

Schmidt, S. & Phillips, K. (2018, June 22). “The crying Honduran girl on the cover of Time was not separated from her mother.” The Washington Post. Retrieved from

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