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The Media Ethics Initiative

Want to know more about the Media Ethics Initiative? Learn more about its activities and purposes in this short video produced by students in the Moody College of Communication!


The Ethics of Climate Change Communication

There are many important decisions to be made in how we communication about climate change. What is unhelpful with appealing to a scientific consensus as a way to persuade others to hold your views on climate change? How should we argue with others on this heated topic? Watch the video below to see how Dr. Jean Goodwin (North Carolina State University) addressed these pressing issues in her Media Ethics Initiative talk.


Dr. Scott Stroud on the Media Ethics Initiative

By Jennifer Furlong / Photo: Gabby Lanza

In the world of Advertising and Public Relations, ethics plays a huge role in all the decisions made. The Media Ethics Initiative started by Dr. Scott R. Stroud (Communication Studies) aims to highlight the choices, consequences, and values involved in our communicative activities. We sat down with Dr. Stroud to talk about the Media Ethics Initiative, ethics in advertising and even that controversial Pepsi ad.

The Media Ethics Initiative started by Dr. Scott Stroud (Communication Studies) aims to highlight the choices, consequences, and values involved in our communicative activities.

In your own words, what is the Media Ethics Initiative?

I started the Media Ethics Initiative a year ago as a way to promote and publicize the great research in the Moody College of Communication being done on various aspects of media, communication and the various choices we make that matter. Moody has some of the best research and work on campus on issues of communication, technology, media practices, and other colleges simply don’t know about this. So, those are my two concerns – to promote and publicize our cutting-edge research.

Interesting, so would you say that is what inspired you to start this?

My inspiration occurred when I was a fellow at the Center for Study of Democratic Politics at Princeton University in 2014 – 2015, and I saw the thriving intellectual culture there at Princeton. You could get a free lunch every day of the week if you were willing to sit through a world-famous academic giving a talk, so part of what I wanted to do when I came back here was to contribute more to this type of environment at Moody and UT.

Right now, the Media Ethics Initiative focuses largely on events that bring great scholars from outside and within Moody and puts them in front of our faculty and students. Eventually, we’re going to start holding conferences on themes of pressing importance. For instance, next year I’d like to plan a conference on appropriation and media. Is the borrowing of cultural artifacts, cultural practices and cultural symbols ethical or right or wrong? These kinds of things I think are interesting.

I see that MEI is touching on topics from green advertising to athletes taking a knee. Why do you think it is important to discuss such a large array of topics?

The challenge is when you start talking about communication or media, ethics (meaning some kind of account on what makes the right thing the right thing to do) becomes really diversified. Advertising is going to have a whole slew of decisions that are made there that you may not have in organizational communication, and there’s going to be some overlap. This is part of the challenge of the Media Ethics Initiative. How do we do justice to all the separate realms that we have great scholars working in, and how do we find common ground among these areas?

I know for me personally a hot topic that comes up when discussing ethics is privacy and the collection of personally identifiable information (PII). How do you think that’s being handled currently, and how do you think that could be improved from an ethical standpoint?

Part of the challenge with Media Ethics is to honor the complexity of these situations. For instance, with PII, a part of that story on whether your use is acceptable or not is going to come down to how that data was gained. For example, if I purchase something and I enter in my information to get a 10% discount, there’s a sense that I knew what I was getting involved in. So, some of these questions of information privacy will come down to what I have done to enable this collection, and some of this will purely involve a company’s ability to just scrape data on me that I had no idea I was giving. There’s a kind of spectrum of issues that needs to be fleshed out, and I think that’s part of the idea scholars can help us with. I don’t look at my work or other scholars’ work as settling issues. The goal is can we help people understand what is happening, how technology is getting us into these problems and maybe to see promising ways out of these situations.

So ethics is this kind of gray area?

Yes. One thing that’s important to understand is ethics is different from legality. There are things that are illegal and you can see an ethical reason why we’re glad the laws are that way.  In other cases, there are things that are perfectly legal to do, perhaps some of these data gathering practices, but if you think about it using some of our best ethical theories, we’d say there’s an ethical problem with that practice. This is the approach that I use in my mind to separate ethics from legality. Often times they’re not overlapping. Things can be legal, but not the right thing to do if you’re trying to be the most moral, ethical person possible.

Interesting. I once had a conversation with an advertising professional on the topic of media ethics, and how you should act as an advertiser. One thing she mentioned was she believes advertisers should have to take an oath of ethics similar to the oath a doctor takes “to do no harm.” Is that something you would agree with, or even something you could see one day being implemented?

I don’t think it’s very practical for media ethics in general. Why? Because I don’t think there’s an agreement on a specific list of actions as the right thing to do. Every once in awhile you will get subfields agreeing on such a list of actions; for instance, advertisers may come together and say here’s what we think of this, these are the practices we are going to agree to follow, and we’re going to police ourselves and have some binding agreement on. That’s fine. I’m skeptical you’ll ever be able to come up with a code of ethics in general for media practitioners that you’ll always want to say that totally was right. The best I could hope for is to try to train people with habits of attention to moral situations.

When I get asked what the key to moral behavior and moral training is, it’s going to be imagination. It’s not a matter of finding the right piles of good and bad actions; the question is, do you have the imagination to see what the other party might have had a problem with in a moral situation? Or, why this advertisement in the past was so objectionable and how you can make a better one that suits your needs and needs of say, some minority group attending to that ad in the future, so they won’t object to it. This is what I’m kind of getting at with moral training – habits of attention and imagination.

So, it’s kind of just ds5ffunderstanding where you should fall on the line of right and wrong?

Yes, a lot of our situations that we count as moral or morally problematic are because of failures of imagination. “I just didn’t think of how this ad would be offensive to some group,” or “I didn’t think how someone would take this as manipulation.” Now there’s probably going to be cases where someone was trying to be evil and they should be called out on this, but often it’s just a failure of imagination or thinking about someone else besides yourself.

Do you think that could be the common issue with the Pepsi ad with Kendall Jenner and the recent Dove ad? Do you think it comes down to the lack of imagination?

I think a big part of it is. With the Pepsi ad, it seemed like they wanted to do something good and socially edifying, it’s just they didn’t accurately imagine the reaction of important stakeholders in the social battles being fought now and how they would react to such an ad. I think it’s a prime case of where someone tried to do the right thing, but it didn’t look like the right thing after the dust settled, at least gauged by its effects. How do you avoid this in the future? It’s got to be thinking more thoroughly through all the parties that you want to help and that would be a stakeholder in such a situation. The question is always going to be: have we trained ourselves in ways of thinking through these problems in general so that when a specific choice in advertising comes about, can we address its intricacies and effects fully?

With current generations extremely involved in the social-sphere, what positives and negatives do you see from an ethical standpoint?

Part of this question involves the technologies that enable people to take part in so many interactions. Now if you don’t like something you can tweet at American Airlines, you can tweet at United, or you can start a petition. Social media magnifies your ability to voice outrage or to find moral problems. Too often in the past, problematic practices would come to light through gatekeepers like The New York Times. Now, if you have enough of a Twitter following or if you can find the right storylines to contextualize your complaint, you can get more people attending to your grievance.

I think this is often a good thing, as a lot of bad practices and actions that maybe the media wasn’t paying attention to can come to light. On the other hand, you’ve got a notoriously long list in online activism of false positives, or allegedly immoral or harmful actions that were brought to light that turned out not to be true. This is part of the challenge facing the modern generation and their communicative choices. New media can be very quick, very decisive and very loud. These can enable both good things and bad things. The goal of media ethics is to help us maximize the former and minimize the latter qualities as much as possible.

They definitely are. So at the end of the day, if there was just one thing we could do to be just a little more ethical with our media use, what would that be?

I think the shortcut I would give many folks is to try to think if you were on the other side of this action, would you like it or not? Would you find it to be a reasonable action or not? It’s the failure of empathy that I think is often the issue in moral situations, so this is the simple test I would give people – try to think of the other side of your action, and maybe that will make you change it, make you explain that action better. It might change what you do or how you do it.

To learn more about the Media Ethics Initiative and to see scheduled speakers, visit the website and Facebook page.

Story originally posted here.

The Dark Side of Social Media

Did you miss the exciting Media Ethics Initiative panel discussion on the issues raised by our social media technologies and practices? Watch the video to see what the editor and contributors to the new book, The Dark Side of Social Media, have to say about pressing ethical issues online.


Panel Shines Light on the Dark Issues of Social Media

By Angela Whiteley / Photos: Kyla Canavan

AUSTIN, Texas- The Media Ethics Initiative hosted a speaker panel featuring professor Angeline Close on Monday, November 6, at the Belo Center for New Media. Close discussed her new book, “The Dark Side of Social Media,” which explores the misuses and consequences of online social platforms.

Angeline Close, professor at the University of Texas at Austin, explains how the use of social media has several unintended consequences (photo Angela Whiteley).

Close began the conversation by explaining that the use of social media has many unintended consequences, which she calls digital drama, defined as “the occurrence of and reactions to negative online consumer behavior.”

“Social media has transcended the way that we think,” said Close. “It’s tainted our perception of reality.”

Other members of the panel included Allye Doorey from The Richards Group, Jonathan Henson, a doctoral student in the Department of Communication Studies, and Scott R. Stroud, the founding director of the Media Ethics Initiative.

Henson and Stroud discussed revenge pornography as an example of the digital drama Close writes about in her book.

Revenge porn involves the exchange of sexually explicit images between two individuals in a relations

hip. The images are then uploaded to the internet often by one of the parties after the relationship has ended without consent. The result is an irreversible invasion of privacy and the publication of sensitive material.

“There are over 3,000 websites that host this activity,” Henson said. “They’re set up like social media sites, where they post these pictures and then ask for identifying characteristics.”

The issues surrounding revenge porn include its increasing frequency, as well as existing legislation established to address it. Stroud explained that these laws are insufficient and do not speak to the complete scope of the problem.

“Part of the challenge to law is keeping up with technology,” said Stroud. The circumstantial dimensions of consent and intent make this topic “a complex online phenomenon.”

A panel including professor Angeline Close, Allye Doorey from The Richards Group, doctoral student Jonathan Henson and Scott Stroud, director of the Media Ethics Initiative, discussed di

Stroud described how these elements vary on a case by case basis, which complicates the creation of law. Not every case of revenge porn is entirely nonconsensual and the uploader’s intent is not always to cause harm.

To combat the rise of revenge porn and other unintended consequences of digital drama, the panel advised the audience to build awareness by continuing the conversation regarding media ethics and responsible online behavior.

“As a communication major, I’m more aware of the downsides of social media than most people,” said Kyla Canavan, a third year public relations student who attended the event. “I feel like those of us with this awareness have a duty to teach others about the importance of maintaining an ethical online presence.”

Media Ethics Citizen Scholars Program

Media Ethics Citizen Scholars are part of the Intellectual Entrepreneurship Pre-Graduate School Internship program at the University of Texas at Austin. This internship is open to students in all UT colleges, schools, and departments. Students can earn 1, 2, or 3 credits (CMS 164M/264M/364M) by participating in the internship program. Citizen Scholars will help the Media Ethics Initiative promote reflection on media ethics at the cropped-14877540258_37b2855b94.jpgUniversity of Texas at Austin and beyond (

What activities do Media Ethics Citizen Scholars take part in?

  • Scholars attend at least three exciting events on campus discussing media ethics during the semester.
  • Scholars work with a graduate student or faculty mentor to design a project connected to issues in communication or media ethics. Examples might include: writing blog posts on pressing topics in media ethics, preparing a research paper, constructing case studies in an area of media ethics, doing original research, and more.

What do Media Ethics Citizen Scholars get from this program?

  • Scholars earn the title of “Media Ethics Citizen Scholars,” and will be recognized on the Media Ethics Initiative website.
  • Scholars will learn more about the ethical dilemmas and media ethics in an industry of interest.
  • Scholars may also be eligible for a Kuhn Intellectual Entrepreneurship Award. This award is designed to encourage first generation and economically disadvantaged undergraduate students to pursue their academic passions and to consider graduate study (funding may be used for: traveling to conferences, potential graduate school visits, research endeavors, supplies, books).
  • Scholars from Moody College of Communication and other participating colleges at UT are eligible for travel funds to attend an academic conference with their mentor.

Applications for the Media Ethics Citizen Scholars Program can be submitted at any time in the fall and up the fourth class session in the spring. Submit your internship application:

For more information on the Media Ethics Citizen Scholars Program, contact: Dr. Scott Stroud, Director of the Media Ethics Initiative

Share our Media Ethics Citizen Scholars Program Poster


The Ethics of Climate Communication

An Interview with Dr. Jean Goodwin

In less than a week, Dr. Jean Goodwin (North Carolina State University) will deliver a public lecture for the Media Ethics Initiative on the ethical issues in our communication and argument about climate change. Dr. Scott Stroud, MEI Director, sat down with Dr. Goodwin (virtually, of course, since we live the future at MEI) and found out more about her approach to rhetoric, communication, and ethics.JG pic

Stroud: Can you tell me a bit about your training and interests in communication? What got you into this line of work, and what are you interested in?

Goodwin: I was enjoying legal practice, but couldn’t figure out an institutional setting I was willing to put up with—staying with the bureaucracy at legal aid, working for a big firm, or hanging up my own shingle and spending half my time trying to squeeze money out of clients. I had had some courses in rhetoric as an undergrad, and had learned that rhetoric was creative, systematic, and argumentative. Cool! I was happy to find that there were actually PhD programs where you could study it.

Stroud: I see you’ve done some past work on classical rhetoric, including important figures such as Cicero. How did you get interested in that area? Why do you think classical rhetoric still matters to us today?

Goodwin: I fell into classical rhetoric partially by accident: when it was time for me to choose a dissertation topic, I had had at least one seminar a year on Cicero, so he was the rhetorician I knew the most much about! But this turned out to be a piece of good luck, since the highly agonistic politics of the Roman Republic provides useful perspectives on our own. Cicero had neither armies, high birth or exceptional wealth; to survive in political combat, he had only words. How did he make them work?

Stroud: What are some of your present research projects? What else are you involved in right now that may be of interest to those thinking about the intersection between ethics and communication?

Goodwin: There’s a fundamental question underlying all communication: Why does it work at all?  Why should we pay attention to others’ messages, much less credit them? After all, junk mail gets tossed into the bin by the door. I have been collaborating with other colleagues in argumentation studies to examine precisely this question, focusing on civic controversies–situations where we expect disagreement and distrust to be widespread. Our research suggests that speakers establish themselves as trustworthy by making and living up to ethical commitments. In this sense, communication can only be effective if it is ethical.

Stroud: Some of your recent work focuses on science communication. What are some of the pressing ethical issues that those studying science communication should think more about?

Goodwin: Scientists often voice concern about the poor state of science communication. But being scientists, what they think they need are social scientific studies that document the effectiveness of specific communication techniques. In my view, communicators who set out to meddle with others’ minds are likely to be perceived as manipulative, and their messages rejected. (In fact, this is an ancient lesson, going back to Plato’s Gorgias.) Instead, I believe that scientists should be thinking much more about their ethical responsibilities–what they need to do to earn the trust of their fellow citizens.

Stroud: Specifically, I see that you’re thinking more about the choices that scientists may make in public deliberation over climate change’s causes and possible solutions. What are some of those ethical choices in the communication over climate change?

Goodwin: Scientists tend to be very aware of disagreement within their own fields. But when communicating with broader publics, they sometimes become less tolerant of differing views. While is is entirely appropriate for scientists to use their rights as citizens and advocate strongly for the single, correct answer, there are other roles that they can usefully play in public deliberations. Selecting among roles–advocate, advisor, reporter, educator–is the key ethical choice a scientist can make in climate communication.

Find out more about Dr. Goodwin’s take on science communication and the ethics of the climate change debate at her talk on November 14, 2:00-3:30PM, BMC 5.208. More details here.

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