Media Ethics Initiative

Home » Case Studies

Category Archives: Case Studies

When Comedic Stereotypes Cease to Be Funny

CASE STUDY: The Controversy over Apu and The Simpsons

Case Study PDF| Additional Case Studies


istolethetv CC BY 2.0 2

istolethetv / CC BY 2.0 / modified

From characters such as Tonto in the 1950s show, The Lone Ranger, to Apu Nahasapeemapetilon from the highly acclaimed cartoon The Simpsons, racial and ethnic stereotypes remain an abiding concern throughout the media. Though strides toward equal representation and accurate racial depiction in movies and television are being made, racial stereotypes and jokes regarding race and racial stereotypes continue to run rampant across genres. This is especially true for comedy, a genre that thrives on pushing the boundaries of appropriateness, tasteful humor, and what is often called “political correctness.” An important part of this debate centers on whether these stereotypical portrayals made for the sake of getting a laugh are truly harmful or if they are simply making hot-topic issues seem less dauntingly serious.

Following the making of a documentary by comedian Hari Kondabolu entitled “The Problem with Apu,” The Simpsons has faced an onslaught of criticism about Apu, the Indian convenience store owner with a heavy accent. The show responded via a scene featuring a short interaction between characters Marge and Lisa in its 29th season; Lisa breaks the fourth wall and states to the camera, “Something that started decades ago and was applauded and inoffensive is now politically incorrect. What can you do?” Many concerned with the show’s portrayal of Indian-Americans seemed to perceive this response as dismissive. Matt Groening, the creator of The Simpsons, has largely written off the backlash saying, “I’m proud of what we do on the show. And I think it’s a time in our culture where people love to pretend they’re offended.” Others who have worked with the show do not share the same sentiment. The non-Indian voice actor behind the Apu character, Hank Azaria, indicated that “The idea that anyone, young or old, past or present, was bullied or teased based on the character of Apu, it just makes me really sad. It was certainly not my intention. I want to spread laughter and joy.”

Defenders of The Simpsons feel that comedy should be able to delve into controversial issues without repercussions. Danielle Gutierrez exhibited such a perspective on the controversy, writing in a blog post “While tastefulness is a virtue when approaching touchy topics, being overly vigilant can be just as questionable as insensitivity.” Comedy is intended to make audiences laugh. Tense or difficult issues can be perceived as more approachable through jokes. Additionally, there is the chance that stereotypical ethnic and racial depictions can be used in ways that ultimately challenge these negative stereotypes. For instance, the ABC sitcom Fresh Off the Boat attempts to give an accurate representation of Asian American life that does not end up by putting its characters into stereotyped boxes.

When does the use of potentially offensive stereotyped depictions of race and ethnicity go too far in artistic expressions or comedic employments? In Kondabolu’s documentary, actor Utkarsh Ambudkar argues that “The Simpsons stereotypes all races, the problem is we (South Asians) did not have any other representation.” Such racial depictions become harmful when they form a basis for audience opinion and perception of a minority group. A study of stereotypical portrayals of African Americans in television by Thomas E. Ford found that these portrayals have a priming effect: “Stereotypical television portrayals of African-Americans in a humorous context increase the likelihood that whites will perceive an African-American target person in a stereotypical manner.” This study implies that these stereotypical depictions can carry a harmful, social weight. How can we balance the use of stereotypical depictions of race and ethnicity in comedy without reinforcing social biases?

Discussion Questions:

  1. What values are in conflict in the controversy involving Apu and The Simpsons? Is there any way to have made the show with this character that would not create such a conflict?
  2. Did The Simpsons respond appropriately to this controversy? If not, what should they have done in light of these criticisms?
  3. What limits should guide artistic uses of racial and ethnic stereotypes? Do their uses in different genres matter, such as comedy or crime dramas?
  4. Does the intention of the artist, comedian, or film-maker matter in finding a representation such as Apu problematic?
  5. Are there ethical pitfalls in how an audience enjoys shows such as The Simpsons? Is it wrong to enjoy scenes with Apu, or even the entire show that contains this character?

Further Information:

Deb, Sopan. “‘The Simpsons’ Responds to Criticism about Apu with a Dismissal.” The New York Times, 9 Apr. 2018, Available: www.nytimes.com/2018/04/09/arts/ television/the-simpsons-responds-to-criticism-about-apu.html.

Ford, Thomas E. “Effects of Stereotypical Television Portrayals of African Americans on Person Perception.” Social Psychology Quarterly, vol. 60, no. 3, 1997, pp. 266-75.

Gutierrez, Danielle. “In Defense of ‘Family Guy.’” The Daily Californian, 22 Sept. 2016, Available: www.dailycal.org/2016/09/22/defense-family-guy/.

Ito, Robert. “You Love ‘The Simpsons’? Then Let’s Talk about Apu.” The New York Times, 10 Nov. 2017, Available: www.nytimes.com/2017/11/10/arts/television/ the-problem-with-apu-the-simpsons.html.

Lee, Christina. “Fresh Off the Boat shows Hollywood there’s life beyond yellow face.” The Guardian, 11 Oct. 2016, Available: http://www.theguardian.com/tv-and-radio/2016/oct/11/ fresh-off-the-boat-asian-american-stereotypes.

Victor, Daniel. “‘Simpsons’ Creator Says of Apu Criticism, ‘People Love to Pretend They’re Offended’.” The New York Times, 1 May 2018, Available: www.nytimes.com/ 2018/05/01/arts/television/matt-groening-simpsons-apu.html.

Author:

Sabrina Stoffels
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
July 5, 2018

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


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

Doxing and Digital Journalism

CASE STUDY: The HuffPost Story on Amy Mekelburg

Case Study PDF| Additional Case Studies


TwitterOn May 31, 2018, HuffPost reporter Luke O’Brien published a story revealing the identity of the person behind an infamous Twitter account with over 200,000 followers as 45-year-old Amy Mekelburg. The in-depth profile was part of HuffPost’s ongoing investigation into the most influential anonymous Twitter and Facebook users that, in the words of HuffPost reporter Nick Baumann, “spread hate.” The account, which O’Brien correctly linked to Mekelburg, is a powerful proponent of far-right political ideologies and was active in spreading what many deem as Islamophobic propaganda and factually untrue claims. Averaging around 25 tweets a day, the account quickly gained popularity on social media, it was endorsed by President Donald Trump and members of his administration, making it well-known in conservative circles. O’Brien’s story quickly became controversial due to its use of “doxing” (or “doxxing”), the tactic of revealing the identity and personal details of the person behind an anonymous online account or website. By connecting and publicizing the online actions and words associated with a specific named individual, online activists can coordinate with others and use doxing in a campaign to embarrass individuals, ruin reputations, harm political ambitions, or to get an individual’s employment terminated. The practice is increasingly used by members across the political spectrum, from the far left to the far right, and has become an everyday weapon in the battle of political ideologies. Some think of it as a tactic that leverages the critical power of free speech, whereas others see it as a vigilante approach to online justice given that its practitioners are often anonymous, or at least unaccountable for the harms of doxing individuals. The doxing of Mekelburg is important as it merges tactics of investigative journalism and online activism, and raises many ethical concerns.

The crowdsourced nature of social media has made it possible for everyday individuals to gain celebrity status or to become known as public figures through their online personas. The malleable nature of online identity means that individuals are able to remain anonymous or control which parts of their identity are viewable to others, often making it easier to share controversial opinions or ideas. As such individuals gain more social and political influence, some argue that the public has a right to know who they are. This is why HuffPost started investigations into influential anonymous social media accounts, such as that of Mekelburg, that were spreading what many judge as false information and hate speech. HuffPost reporter Nick Baumann explains that while the First Amendment gives individuals the right to spread hate speech and discredited ideas anonymously, “the identities of influential anonymous people are inherently newsworthy” and should be made know to those who wish to know them. Baumann and O’Brien argued that the story was not a case of doxing at all, since it presented newsworthy information to the public and answered concerns about the possibilities of Mekelburg’s account being an artificial bot or Russian troll. In this manner, they maintain that the story followed journalistic codes of ethics, including reaching out to Mekelburg’s family and her husband’s employer, World Wrestling Entertainment, who subsequently terminated his employment after news of the story broke. The journalists maintained that this was not the coordinated harassment of many doxing campaigns, but was instead the common journalistic practice of seeking comments and reactions from those affected by the story before its publication. O’Brien argued that giving sources and affected parties “a chance to respond to information” is “exactly how ethical journalism works” and defended the information included in his report as necessary to the story. Emma Grey Ellis points out that while doxing campaigns tend to be undertaken by anonymous individuals that cannot be criticized in return, cases such as this involve named reporters who “have bylines, and can therefore be held accountable” for the stories they write and the information they include. Because of this, she argued that reporters like O’Brien “include only personal information that is relevant to a story–facts the public has a compelling interest in knowing.” Many believe that the information in the story was necessary to create a profile of Amy Mekelburg and provided context for her often-bigoted posts. Others consider the story to be a case of justified doxing and as serving the public good. Many, like Marla Wilson, believe that doxing is “an effective way to make people think twice about being so bold with their racism” and that releasing the names of those behind racist online accounts creates a sense of accountability and encourages reflexivity by those who feel inclined to create them. Some argue that doxing forces those uttering unpopular opinions and beliefs to face the public and defend their ideologies rather than just placing them online.

Some believe that the Mekelburg story included information that was not necessary, or that was counterproductive for improving political discourse. Conservative reporter Kevin Boyd points out that by including background information that revealed the identities of Mekelburg’s family members and their businesses, the story gave “the impression that they either knew about or [agreed] with her tweets” and indicted them as supporters of her account and her beliefs. Because of such implications, many consider the story to be nothing more than an attempt to shame Mekelburg for her views and hurt her family’s businesses, ones that Mekelburg “has never been linked to or involved with” according to her sister-in-law Alicia Guevara. Damon McCoy points out that one of the main reasons doxing is used is to “expose those with whom [people] disagree with,” a position held by those who suggest that the report done by O’Brien and HuffPost was motivated by bringing shame to those with divergent political viewpoints. Some may argue that the revealing the identities of those behind reprehensible or unpopular speech is actually counterproductive to serving the public interest. Tony McAleer, a former white supremacist who now runs a rehabilitation program for neo-Nazis, argues that doxing is not effective in ending hate speech and changing peoples’ viewpoints. “If isolation and shame is the driver for people joining [hate] groups, doxxing certainly isn’t the answer” argues McAleer. It actually “slows things down” in his efforts to rehabilitate those who subscribe to hateful ideologies given its employment of isolation and shame.

The ethics of doxing must be discussed more as its practice grows to include journalists and targets on all sides of the partisan spectrum. Emma Gray Ellis worries that “once you strip away the intentions… both sides are sharing the same swampy low ground” when doxing is used as an attempt to punish individuals for their political or personal beliefs. What are we to think about the uses of intentional or unintentional doxing by journalists working on contentious but important stories that might shed light on the political and social controversies of the day?

Discussion Questions: 

  1. Was the HuffPost story on Mekelburg a case of doxing? Why or why not?
  2. Was the story written and researched in the right way, regardless of whether we label it as a case of doxing?
  3. Can journalists “dox” individuals behind online accounts? When and why can they participate in this practice? What limits should constrain their revelation of online identities?
  4. How does the practice of doxing differ in the context of online journalism from that of activists seeking social justice? Does the role of journalist make any difference to the ethical limits of the act of doxing? How does investigative journalism differ from doxing, either by journalists or members of the public?

Further Information:

Baumann, N. (2018, June 05). “A HuffPost Reporter Was Bombarded With Threats. Twitter Suspended Him.”  HuffPost. Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/luke-obrien-doxed-threats-amymek_us_5b16bb9de4b0734a9937f2ca

Bowles, N. (2017, August 30). “How ‘Doxxing’ Became a Mainstream Tool in the Culture Wars.” New York Times. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/08/30/technology/doxxing-protests.html

Boyd, K. (2018, June 04). “The HuffPost Ruined An Entire Family For One Person’s Tweets.” The Federalist. Available at: https://thefederalist.com/2018/06/04/huffpost-ruined-entire-family-one-persons-tweets/

Ellis, E. G. (2017, August 17). “Don’t Let the Alt-Right Fool You: Journalism Isn’t Doxing.” Wired. Available at: https://www.wired.com/story/journalism-isnt-doxing-alt-right/

Ellis, E. G. (2017, August 18). Doxing Is a Perilous Form of Justice-Even When It’s Outing Nazis. Wired. Available at: https://www.wired.com/story/doxing-charlottesville/

McCoy, D. (2018, May 01). When Studying Doxing Gets You Doxed.” HuffPost. Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/opinion-mccoy-doxing-study_us_5ae75ec7e4b02baed1bd06cc

O’Brien, L. (2018, May 31). “Trump’s Loudest Anti-Muslim Twitter Troll is a Shady Vegan Wed to An Ex-WWE Exec.” HuffPost. Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost.com/entry/anti-muslim-twitter-troll-amy-mek-mekelburg_us_5b0d9e40e4b0802d69cf0264

Wilson, M. (2018, June 06). “An Online Agitator, a Social Media Exposé and the Fallout in Brooklyn.” New York Times. Available at: https://www.nytimes.com/2018/06/06/nyregion/amymek-mekelburg-huffpost-doxxing.html

Author:

Jason Head
Media Ethics Initiative
Center for Media Engagement
University of Texas at Austin
June 15, 2018

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom use. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative. This case was produced in conjunction with Media Ethics Magazine.

First, Do No Harm?

CASE STUDY: Doctor-Patient Confidentiality and Protecting Third Parties

Case Study PDF | Additional Case Studies


As a client seeking help from a mental health professional, one expects to have the ability to be open and honest with our thoughts, feelings, and emotions. As a mental health professional, one strives to create an environment that is safe and inviting for all conversations. When disclosing physical symptoms with our medical doctors we typically do so without fear of those details being revealed to others because of the legal and ethical ideal of doctor-patient confidentiality. Should this feeling of security be any different when divulging personal details to a mental health professional?

In 2010, the case of Volk vs. DeMeerleer made this application of confidentiality guidelines more complex. A treating psychiatrist was held liable in a patient’s homicidal actions. One of the fundamental questions of the case was the obligations of mental health professionals to protect third parties from the violent acts of their patients. Jan DeMeerleer was a patient of the psychiatrist, Dr. Howard Ashby, on and off over the course of 9 years. DeMeerleer voiced thoughts of harm both to himself and to others intermittently throughout his sessions over this time period. On what would be his last visit with Dr. Ashby, DeMeerleer did not mentioned any thoughts of violence. But a few months following this final appointment, DeMeerleer murdered his ex-fiancé, Rebecca Schiering, one of her children, and then committed suicide. Following their deaths, Schiering’s mother sued Dr. Ashby for not “mitigating DeMeerleer’s dangerousness or warning the victims.”

The case against Dr. Ashby was motivated by the idea that he should have tried to reduce the chances of harm to third parties or should have warned any targeted third parties of the possible danger that they were in. As the American Medical Association put it, physicians face both an “ethical obligation to protect confidentiality with their patients and their legal responsibilities as a physician.” Dr. Ashby mentions in his notes from the final session with DeMeerleer the positive changes that he noticed in the patient. He observed the occasional suicidal thoughts that DeMeerleer experiences and noted that “at this point he’s not a real clinical problem, but that he’ll keep an eye out.” According to Baird Holm, “Volk is a somber reminder that mental health professionals should always be vigilant and, perhaps, err on the side of disclosing when a patient exhibits violent thoughts and behavior.” Should Dr. Ashby have blood on his hands if he didn’t truly see any potential danger during his last visit with DeMeerleer?

Those defending Dr. Ashby’s reluctance to share information about his patient place more importance on the norm of patient-doctor confidentiality. For doctors like Ashby, it is not uncommon to hear expressions of violent thoughts from people. Telling the difference between vague violent plans revealed in utterances and actionable threats is hard in practice. According to Troy Parks on the AMA Wire, the ruling against Dr. Ashby “requires a psychiatrist to do the impossible: predict imminent dangerousness in patients who have neither communicated recent threats, indicated intent to do harm, nor indicated a target for a potential threat.” Many believe that incorporating this possible risk when taking on new clients would have the potential to limit mental health professionals’ ability to treat patients. It may also make psychiatrists more reluctant to treat clients with difficult cases with a history of violence.

If doctors begin to report more threats observed in client communication, many would worry about the effect of this on other patients. Troy Parks poses the question of what happens “if patients no longer feel safe sharing personal—yet crucial—information with their physicians?” The American Psychological Association emphasized that patients need to feel comfortable talking about private and revealing information. They also mentioned that this should be a safe place for patients to talk about anything without fear of the information leaving the room. This in turn might affect the efficiency/effectiveness of mental health professionals. According to Jennifer Piel and Rejoice Opara, “The [AMA] Code strikes a balance in respecting confidentiality while providing an exception to allow disclosures of patient confidences under reasonable and narrow circumstances to protect identifiable third persons.” Yet the Ashby case throws this balance into question. How can doctors balance the need to create a level of confidence between the physician and the patient with the need to look out for the safety of others?

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What are the ethical values in conflict in the Ashby case? Why are these general values important?
  2. On what side would you err: toward preserving confidentiality in questionable cases, or toward warning others (and consequently violating patient confidence)?
  3. Are there creative ways to uphold both the value of confidentiality and the safety of third parties?

Further Information:

American Psychological Association, “Protecting your privacy: Understanding confidentiality.” American Psychological Association. Available at: http://www.apa.org/helpcenter/confidentiality.aspx

Gene Johnson, “Killer’s psychiatrist can be sued by victim’s family, Washington Supreme Court says.” The Seattle Times, December 24, 2016. Available at: https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/court-says-killers-psychiatrist-can-be-sued-by-victims-family/

Troy Parks, “Court case threatens physician-patient confidentiality.” AMA Wire, October 14, 2015. Available at: https://wire.ama-assn.org/practice-management/court-case-threatens-physician-patient-confidentiality 

Troy Parks, “Patient-psychiatrist confidentiality hampered in liability ruling.” AMA Wire, January 4, 2017. Available at: https://wire.ama-assn.org/practice-management/patient-psychiatrist-confidentiality-hampered-liability-ruling

Jennifer L. Piel, JD, MD, and Rejoice Opara, MD, “Does Volk v DeMeerleer Conflict with the AMA Code of Medical Ethics on Breaching Patient Confidentiality to Protect Third Parties?” AMA Journal of Ethics, January 20, 2018. Available at: http://virtualmentor.ama-assn.org/2018/01/peer2-1801.html

Author:

Haley Turner
Media Ethics Initiative
University of Texas at Austin
April 27, 2018

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom use. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Finsta Fad

CASE STUDY: The Real Ethics of Fake Social Media Profiles

Case Study PDF | Additional Case Studies


Instagram is the largest social media platform for teenagers. Not only are teens posting images for their numerous followers on their primary Instagram account to see, they are now creating a more selective, secondary account they refer to as their “Finsta,” short for “fake Instagram” account. Their real account is used to post pictures of their “best-self” having various fun and exciting experiences, while their “Finsta” is often used to post pictures of their unfiltered—and perhaps more authentic—self. What ethical decisions come with the ability to have an Instagram account for a filtered self and a fake profile for a “real” self?

insta

Template: Jim Covais

Many teens use their Finsta account to post pictures that would not be posted on their “real” Instagram. Finsta posts might include pictures of teens’ goofy, emotional, or rebellious activities. Teens will typically create Finstas under a name that is not related to their own so that this profile or its posts will not be traced back to them; these accounts are often set to “private,” limiting them only to their approved followers.  Many adults might see this as a red flag that their teen is participating in scandalous and inappropriate behavior that they would not want their followers on their primary account to see. This is not always the case.

Instead of hiding harmful behavior, some Finstas seem to exist to escape the pressure to be perfect in the digital panopticon of the online world. Many Finsta owners see their second account as a way to post and like what they want without the judgment and criticism of friends, family, and co-workers. Teens see their Finstas as a release from crushing social media pressures to be popular and as a way to truly express themselves. The privacy of a Finsta creates a sense of freedom to show their silly and vulnerable self to their small group of friends they have approved to follow their Finsta.

Finstas hold the potential for harm, however. The idea that only their small circle of followers have access to these posts may encourage teens to post inappropriate, mean, and scandalous pictures or comments. This sense of privacy, however, can prove illusory. There is nothing to stop a follower—perhaps a friend or ex-friend in real life of the account holder—from taking a screenshot of a post and showing others this supposedly private content. In this way, comments and pictures can be shared far beyond the limited group of approved followers of one’s Finsta account. Beyond the negative comments of the Finsta account holder, such shared content could be used in courses of bullying against the account holder themselves. In the search for a safe way to separate different images of who they are for different audiences, Finsta owners may find out the hard way that what they post is still traceable and potentially very public.   In many ways, Finstas represent the Faustian bargain of the ability to create and remake our online selves—they can be a helpful outlet for teens and their processes of self-discovery, but they can quickly create real repercussions.

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What are the ethical issues with having both a “real” Instagram account and a Finsta?
  1. How might the use of Finstas create good consequences for teens? How might they go wrong?
  1. Do Finstas involve deception? If so, how do you balance this ethical concern against any good consequences they may enable?
  1. Are there ethical limits to how teens (or others) should use their Finstas? Or are the ethical limits mainly for their “public” and “real” account?

Further Information:

Joanne Orlando, “How Teens use Fake Instagram Accounts to Relieve the Pressure of Perfection.” Available at: http://theconversation.com/how-teens-use-fake-instagram-accounts-to-relieve-the-pressure-of-perfection-92105

Karena Tse, “Pro/Con: The Finsta Phenomenon.” April 10, 2017. Available at: https://www.chsglobe.com/29354/commentary/pro-con-the-Finsta-phenomenon/

Savannah Dube, “Finstas and Self-Idealizing in the Digital World.” October 3, 2016. Available at: https://www.theodysseyonline.com/Finstas-self-idealizing-digital-world

Author:

Morgan Malouf
Media Ethics Initiative
University of Texas at Austin
April 24, 2018

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom use. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Collateral Damage to the Truth

CASE STUDY: Reporting Casualties in Drone Strikes

Case Study PDF | Additional Case Studies


In a report released in July 2016, the Obama administration revealed the number of enemy combatants and civilians killed via drone strikes since 2009 in counter-terrorism efforts. This report came after President Obama signed an executive order with the intention of making the once-secret drone program more transparent and protective of citizens through the routine disclosure of civilian deaths. According to CBS News, the release claimed that 2,300 enemy combatants were killed and anywhere from 64 to 116 civilian deaths occurred as collateral damage. Controversy quickly circled around the U.S. government’s attempt at transparency in drone use. There was disagreement about the accuracy of the numbers reported. Critics also questioned whether the administration’s decision to disclose this information so soon after significantly expanding the counter-terrorism drone program was an attempt to mislead the public into thinking that they were being fully informed about drone warfare and its costs. Naureen Shah, an affiliate of the human rights organization Amnesty International, said “We’re going to be asking really hard questions about these numbers. They’re incredibly low for the number of people killed who are civilians.”

Watchdog groups suggest the U.S. government’s estimates of civilian death are exponentially lower than the real death toll. The Long War Journal, a blog run by the non-profit media organization Public Multimedia Incorporated, reported the civilian death toll at 207 from operations in Pakistan and Yemen alone. This was the lowest count provided by a watchdog groups. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism placed the death toll closer to “a maximum of 801 civilian deaths,” with a possible range of “anywhere from 492 to about 1,100 civilians killed by drone strikes since 2002.” Additionally, the government report excludes the numbers of casualties from Iraq, Afghanistan and Syria, places where the U.S. has conducted thousands of drone operations. The Bureau of Investigative Journalism generated its numbers from both local and international journalists, field investigations, NGO investigators, court documents and leaked government files.

Speaking for the accuracy of the government report, some argue that government officials have access to information the public does not. The U.S. government asserts that they utilize refined methodologies in calculating post-strike numbers, and they have access to information that is generally unavailable to non-governmental organizations. This information influences both the motivations for carrying out a drone strike as well as the validity of the number of casualties reported from various sources. Many terrorists groups spread incorrect information about the U.S. as propaganda which can mislead watchdog groups’ statistics. The report from the Obama administration voices this worry, stating that “The U.S. Government may have reliable information that certain individuals are combatants, but are being counted as non-combatants by nongovernmental organizations.”

All of this poses a problem for news reporters who rely on the government to supply information necessary for their stories. A lack of clarity in how the government defines terms such as “civilian” or “enemy combatant” in their reports causes a discrepancy in the interpretation of the information journalists then relay to the public. According to this view, the public deserves the unspun data on the costs of certain policies, no matter how bracing it may be. Josh Ernest, a spokesperson for the White House, countered: “There are obviously limitations to transparency when it comes to matters as sensitive as this.” According to such a position, government officials have access to the most accurate and thorough information, and are best equipped to make sense of it and to wisely use it in protecting national interests. For instance, the government may be best positioned to evaluate how many innocent civilians are worth putting at risk for successful targeting of a combatant. Some ambiguity, or possibly opacity, in reporting causalities due to drone warfare would then seem to be the best way to protect national security. How are we to balance the needs of the press, the citizenry, and those conducting drone operations for national security in our journalistic information gathering and story writing?

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What are the values in conflict in the struggle over whether drone casualty figures are released?
  1. What are the concerns of the government, and what are the concerns of the press in reporting on drone casualties?
  1. Would there still be ethical worries if the government was obscuring or inflating only the combatant death estimates?
  1. Can you identify a creative way that the government can uphold some measure of transparency in its drone operations and still effectively pursue its military operations?

Further Information:

“Obama Administration Discloses Number of Civilian Deaths Caused by Drones.” CBS News, July 1, 2016. Available at: www.cbsnews.com/news/obama-administration-discloses-civilian-deaths-drones/

“White House Tally of Civilian Drone Deaths Raises ‘Hard Questions.’” CBS News, 5 July 2016, www.cbsnews.com/news/white-house-report-obama-administration-drones-civilian-casualties-raises-questions/

Director of National Intelligence. “Summary of Information regarding U.S. Counterterrorism Strikes outside Areas of Active Hostilities.” July 2016. Available at: https://www.dni.gov/files/documents/Newsroom/Press%20Releases/DNI+Release+on+CT+Strikes+Outside+Areas+of+Active+Hostilities.PDF

Jack Serle, “Obama Drone Casualty Numbers a Fraction of Those Recorded by the Bureau.” The Bureau of Investigative Journalism, July 1, 2016. Available at: www.thebureauinvestigates.com/stories/2016-07-01/obama-drone-casualty-numbers-a-fraction-of-those-recorded-by-the-bureau

Scott Shane, “Drone Strike Statistics Answer Few Questions, and Raise Many.” The New York Times, July 3, 2016. Available at: www.nytimes.com/2016/07/04/world/middleeast/ drone-strike-statistics-answer-few-questions-and-raise-many.html

Authors:

Sabrina Stoffels & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
University of Texas at Austin
April 27, 2018

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom use. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Swipe Right to Expose

CASE STUDY: Journalism, Privacy, and Digital Information

Case Study PDF | Additional Case Studies


In a world where LGBTQ people still often lack full protection and equal rights, it can be a challenge for someone to be public about their sexuality. Some have taken to dating apps such as Grindr, Tinder, and Bumble, which allow for a more secure way for people to chat and potentially meetup outside of cyberspace. On such apps, one’s dating profile can often be seen by anyone who is also using the app, illustrating how these services blur the line between private and public information.

Nico Hines, a straight and married reporter for news site, The Daily Beast, decided to report on the usage of dating apps during the 2016 Rio Olympics in the Olympic Village. Relying upon the public and revealing nature of profiles—at least to potential dates—Hines made profiles on different dating apps and used them to interact with a number of athletes. Most of his interactions were through the Grindr app which is a dating app for gay men. This app works through geotagging so that people can match up with others who are geographically near them. Profiles include information such as height, ethnicity, and age which can often be used to identify a person even if a full name isn’t given. He eventually wrote up his experiences in the article “The Other Olympic Sport in Rio: Swiping.”

To preserve the anonymity of the individuals with whom he was interacting, Hines did not use specific athletes’ names in his story. He did reveal details about those seeking dates including their physical features, the sport they were competing in, and their home country.  Readers and critics found that it was relatively easy to identify which athletes he was talking about using the information he provided. Since many of these athletes were not openly identified as LGBTQ, critics argued that he was “potentially outing” many of the athletes by describing them in the course of his story. Amplifying this concern was the fact that in some of the home countries of men who were potentially outed, it was dangerous or illegal to be openly gay.

In his defense, some pointed out that Hines didn’t intend to out or harm specific vulnerable individuals in the course of his story about the social lives of Olympic Athletes. His published account didn’t include the names of any male athletes he interacted with on Grindr, and he only named some of the straight women who he found on the Tinder app. The Daily Beast’s Editor-in-chief, John Avalon, stated that Hines didn’t mean to focus mainly on the Grindr app but since he “had many more responses on Grindr than apps that cater mostly to straight people,” Hines decided to write about that app. When Hines interacted with the athletes on the various dating apps, he didn’t lie about who he was and, as Avalon noted, Hines “immediately admitted that he was a journalist whenever he was asked who he was.”

The controversy eventually consumed Hines’ published story. After the wave of criticism crested, The Daily Beast first removed names and descriptions of the athletes in the article. But by the end of the day, the news site had completely removed the article with Avalon replacing it with an editor’s note that concluded: “Our initial reaction was that the entire removal of the piece was not necessary. We were wrong. We’re sorry.” Regardless of the decisions reached by this news site, difficult questions remain about what kinds of stories—and methods—are ethically allowed in the brave new world of digital journalism.

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What are the ethical values or interests at stake in the debate over the story authored by Hines?
  2. Hines tried to preserve the anonymity of those he was writing about. How could he have done more for the subjects of his story, while still doing justice to the story he wanted to report on?
  3. There are strong reasons why journalists should ethically and legally be allowed to use publicly-available information in their stories. Is the information shared through dating apps public information?
  4. How does Hines’ use of dating profile information differ, if at all, from long-standing practices of investigative or undercover journalism?

Further Information:

Frank Pallotta & Rob McLean, “Daily Beast removes Olympics Grindr article after backlash.” CNN, August 12, 2016. Available at: http://money.cnn.com/2016/08/12/ media/daily-beast-olympics-article-removal/index.html

John Avalon, “A Note from the Editors.” The Daily Beast, August 11, 2016. Available at: https://www.thedailybeast.com/a-note-from-the-editors

Curtis M. Wong, “Straight Writer Blasted For ‘Outing’ Olympians In Daily Beast Piece.” Huffington Post, August 11, 2016. Available at: https://www.huffingtonpost. com/entry/daily-beast-grindr-article_us_57aca088e4b0db3be07d6581

Authors:

Bailey Sebastian & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
University of Texas at Austin
April 24, 2018

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom use. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

Biometrics, Data, and Privacy

CASE STUDY: Facing the Challenges of Next Generation Identification: Biometrics, Data, and Privacy

Case Study PDF | Additional Case Studies


In 2011, the FBI signed a contract with the military developer Lockheed Martin to launch a pilot program called “Next Generation Identification” (NGI). This program was designed to utilize biometric data to assist the investigations of local and federal law enforcement agencies as part of anti-terrorism, anti-fraud, and national security programs. By late 2014, the program’s facial recognition sector became fully operational and was used regularly by the FBI and other law enforcement agencies to aid in the identification of persons of interest in open investigations. This program compares visuals from surveillance cameras or other imaging devices with the world’s largest database of photographs to find similarities in facial details and provide identification. When the program was first introduced, the FBI used biometric data from known and convicted criminals to compile the database. However, the database has since been expanded through a program run by the FBI’s Criminal Justice Information Services (CJIS) called FACE (facial analysis, comparison, and evaluation), and now includes driver license photos from individuals that have been issued a photo ID from participating states.

Objections to the inclusion of driver license photos of law abiding citizens have been raised by many organizations, including the Government Accountability Office, the Electronic Frontier Foundation (EFF), and the Electronic Privacy Information Center. This controversy primarily stems from the perceived lack of disclosure by the FBI over the specifics of the NGI and FACE programs, or the ability for citizens to agree to, or opt-out of, the use of their images. Senior Staff Attorney for the EFF, Jennifer Lynch, raised concerns about the implications of such technology, as well as its legal validity. She notes that “data that’s being collected for one purpose is being used for a very different purpose.” Lynch argues that due to facial recognition technologies, “Americans cannot easily take precautions against the covert, remote, and mass capture of their images,” especially if they are not made aware that such capture and retention is taking place in the first place. These organizations argue that this goes against federal law (The Privacy Act of 1974) that states that images of faces are protected personal information and alters “the traditional presumption of innocence in criminal cases by placing more of a burden on the defendant to show he is not who the system identifies him to be.”

Those who are not worried about the NGI program or the inclusion of law-abiding citizens’ photographs in the database say that biometric data, including a person’s face, is no different than collecting a person’s fingerprints, and that this information is crucial for national security. Such information has gained a renewed importance in light of recent terror attacks, both domestically and abroad. Stephen Morris, the assistant director of the CJIS, states that “new high-tech tools like facial recognition are in the best interests of national security” and argues that it aids law enforcement officials in identifying and capturing terrorists and other criminals. The FBI also “maintains that it searches only against criminal databases” and that requests can be made to include other outside databases, such as various state and federal databases (including state driver license photo databases, and the Department of Defense passport photo database) if and when the FBI deems it necessary for a specific criminal investigation. This highlights the fact that facial recognition technology cannot be considered independently of the databases it uses in its search for more information about imaged persons of interest. Against those that call for more human oversight across database requests integral to facial recognition technology, Morris argues that those who think that “collecting biometrics is an invasion of folks’ privacy” should instead be concerned with how to best “identify…the right person.” How will our society face the conflicting interests at stake in the collection and use of biometric data in maintaining public safety and national security?

Discussion Questions: 

  1. What are the ethical values or interests at stake in the debate over using photo databases in the NGI program?
  2. Do you believe the government can use databases not intended for biometric identification purposes? If so, what limits would you place on these uses?
  3. As facial recognition technology gets more advanced, what sort of ethical limitations should we place on its use by government or private entities?
  4. What would the ethical challenges be to using extremely advanced facial recognition technology in situations not concerning national security—such as online image searches?

Further Information:

Rebecca Boyle, “Anti-Fraud Facial Recognition System revokes the Wrong Person’s License.” Popular Science, July 18, 2011. Available at: www.popsci.com/gadgets/article/ 2011-07/anti-fraud-facial-recognition-system-generates-false-positives-revoking-wrong-persons-license

Eric Markowitz, “The FBI Now has the Largest Biometric Database in the World. Will it lead to more Surveillance?” International Business Times, April 23, 2016. Available at: www.ibtimes.com/fbi-now-has-largest-biometric-database-world-will-it-lead-more-surveillance-2345062

Sam Thielman, “FBI using Vast Public Photo Data and Iffy Facial Recognition Tech to find Criminals.” The Guardian, June 15, 2016. Available at: www.theguardian.com/us-news/2016/jun/15/fbi-facial-recognition-software-photo-database-privacy

Authors:

Jason Head & Scott R. Stroud, Ph.D.
Media Ethics Initiative
University of Texas at Austin
April 17, 2018

www.mediaethicsinitiative.org


Cases produced by the Media Ethics Initiative remain the intellectual property of the Media Ethics Initiative and the University of Texas at Austin. They can be used in unmodified PDF form without permission for classroom use. For use in publications such as textbooks, readers, and other works, please contact the Media Ethics Initiative.

%d bloggers like this: